Fastpacking Hadrian’s Wall | An Adventure On Northern England’s Ancient Border
In an increasingly divided United Kingdom, Nick Savage sets out on the old line between north and south
When I’m 39 miles into the run a shadowy malefactor slides sticking pins into the right knee of my voodoo doll effigy. As I arrive at the first crags of the Whin Sill, east of the Roman remains of Housesteads Fort in Northumberland, my IT band powers down and loses all strength, my foot splays out to the right, useless, and my cadence drops from trundling jog to hobbling crawl.
Seething in frustration at the pain and lack of progress, I shed my backpack and prop myself up against the ancient stonemasonry of Hadrian’s Wall, tabulating the distance to public transport: both the eight miles back east to Chollerford and the twelve miles west to Gilsland feel unbearably far. I look out at the long ribbon of Wall unfurling over rolling bands of dolerite, the best part of the trail which I will miss in failure, and think of Coleridge: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Indeed. I have hit a wall both literally and figuratively.
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
I rise at 5.30am the day before in a narcoleptic fugue state and attempt to skulk out of the house without waking my wife or three-month-old daughter. As a long-time long-distance hiker and decent runner, I’ve been keen to experience what it’s like to package the two sports together. I want to take a stab at fastpacking. Hadrian’s Wall has been on my to-do list for some while, and, with a potential independence referendum in the offing, it seemed like a fitting time to run the frontier between England and Scotland.
Roman legionaries were trained to route march thirty kilometres in five hours, shuttling a hefty 50kg of equipment to arrive at battle. I want to see if I can keep up a similar pace with ultralight gear, food and water weighing in at just under 10kg. I’d have liked to get the weight down even lighter, but with negative temperatures forecast during the evenings, I’m packing extra warm clothes and a sleeping bag liner to remain safe. I’m planning to run the downhills, jog the flats and hike the uphills from Newcastle to Carlisle – a 75 mile distance.
After brushing my teeth, I pull back the bathroom door to reveal my wife dealing with a minor baby emergency and, like a hardboiled Roman centurion, quietly scream into my hand.
A train ride later and I’m standing on the northern quayside of the Tyne river in Newcastle – where Hadrian visited and ordered the construction of his wall in AD 122, which runs 75 miles from coast to coast to Bowness-upon-Solway. Built in a decade with a width ranging from six to fifteen feet, three large stone bridges, 16 forts, 80 milecastles (small forts) and 160 turrets, it’s an incredible testament to the resourcefulness and know-how of the Roman army, and often misunderstood.
“The Wall would have been one of the most cosmopolitan places in Britannia”
The idea of the wall serving as a military defence to repel the Caledonian hordes may be a slight misperception – many scholars hold that it was largely built as a prestige to honour the emperor’s legacy; as a means of occupying legionaries already deployed in Britannia; as a preventative measure of native kings communicating with each other and hatching plots; and to safeguard livestock from border-crossing cattle reivers. With the ranks of the Roman Army comprised more of Belgians, German, Gauls and even north Africans, the Wall would have been one of the most cosmopolitan places in Britannia.
Under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan the Roman Empire was extended deep into Persia and was mired in long ugly wars in provinces such as Dacia (modern day Romania). Though an undoubtedly glorious reign, Hadrian saw the empire stretched to breaking point. His reaction as Emperor was to pull back, strengthen the borders and consolidate power. The border wall was in many ways a monument to this.
At 10.30am I take off at an easy lope on the paved cycleway heading east out of Newcastle, running past shipping yards and underneath muscular overpasses, with a brilliant blue sky illuminating the scenery. A few miles in, I pass a tercel (male) kestrel perching on the top of a budding alder, its plumage rendered in technicolour by the bright sun, and wonder what it augurs. The Wall has me in a superstitious frame of mind. I run through riverside walks and along motorways, through suburban parks and rugby pitches.
With almost every long-distance trail I’ve taken on there have been sections where I wished I could press fast-forward. For me, one of the most attractive facets of fastpacking is that you don’t have to submit to dreary stretches. Instead, you can gear up and motor through. Though there are moments that I love, such as listening to the video game bleeps of lapwings performing aerial gyrations over tilled fields, I keep a decent pace throughout the beginning of the first day, running through the mundane stretches, with the central part of the walk squarely in my crosshairs.
At Heddon-on-the-Wall I am about a half marathon in and feeling okay. I take a minute to nose around the first remaining section of Wall I’ve encountered so far, then water up and refuel in the Shell garage. The next section has me running along the B6518, which follows a two-millennium-old Roman military road. I begin to follow deep outer ditches called fossa, dug by unskilled Roman legionaries and slaves. The tough stony earth of Northumberland would have made it hard going.
Over twenty miles in, I reach a roundabout with a big honey-hued, slate-roofed building named The Errington Coffee House, and avail myself of its water supply, builder’s tea and cake. While I wait for the refreshments, I yoga stretch to open up my legs and hips, possibly drawing a few glances.
Pigeon pose provides such blissful release that I could go to sleep in it. When the Victoria sponge cake arrives it’s one of the best I’ve ever had. I extol its virtues to the proprietor and she calls me “Mr Gorgeous”. I’m immensely flattered. Old nags like me don’t often receive such compliments. Blushing, I hit the road running.
“I awake to a cascade of ice crystals, the air in front of my face hoary and shimmering”
It doesn’t last long. My legs are getting incredibly weighty and weary as I head beyond Plane Trees to Chollerford and Chesters Fort. My definition of what is uphill and downhill is becoming flexible if not downright dishonest. My pace slows from 12 minutes per mile to around 18.
A few miles west of Chesters Fort I strike my first camp. A low temp of -3°C is forecast for the early morning and an easterly breeze is blowing up the western ridge of Hexham Gap. I choose a site on the leeside of a gorse bush and pitch the tarp low in the hope of shedding more wind, then lie down and attempt to recover.
I awake to a cascade of ice crystals, the air in front of my face hoary and shimmering. The tarp’s fabric has netted condensation from my body heat and frozen in the cold. There is a deep dull pain in my hip.
The day before I had averaged around 15 minutes per mile and around 4.5 miles per hour over 30 miles. One’s gait shifts from walking quickly to running slowly at 4.4 mph creating the torque effect of bounce, which in turn creates lactic acid, which can lead to muscle loss and soreness. Carrying a 10kg load has compounded this effect, and my body is as lactic as a Babybel factory. Perhaps because I wasn’t able to recover properly in the cold temperatures, or perhaps because I’d overshot my first day, I feel utterly broken. I decide to hike the morning.
“Hadrian’s Wall zips over the top of the ridge at implausible trajectories, pitches and descents”
420 million years ago, two tectonic plates slammed into each other, the harder crust of the one pushing up over the other. These were Scotland and England respectively. What ensued was the formation of two of Great Britain’s most stunning landscapes: the Lake District and the Whin Sill. In many ways, the border of Scotland and England was prefigured by its geology.
Hadrian’s Wall zips over the top of the ridge at implausible trajectories, pitches and descents. Next to it, I try to figure out what to do. I had promised my wife that I wouldn’t return home injured or sick, and while I had already felt like a bit of a truant husband and father, now I feel like a schmuck. I decide to keep limping west at glacial pace to Gilsland, wild camping in the evening, then catching a bus to Carlisle in the morning.
I pass Housesteads. As one of the largest forts on the wall at 2.2 hectares, it would have garrisoned over 10,000 legionaries. Now, curious families stroll amongst timeworn stone in bright sunlight, poking around the famous remains of a Roman bathhouse. I shuffle through a little grove of Caledonian pine. It’s one of the few sections where you can walk on top of the Wall, its sides swathed in hunter green peat moss.
On the next ridge a cord of viridescent brown liquidates across grey stonework. I look closer. It’s a common lizard, sunning itself on the Wall. I am awestruck by its resilience. How did it survive the negative temperatures of the night before? I take it as a good omen.
And it is. By the time I reach Sycamore Gap, the pin has come out of the voodoo doll and the curse has lifted. I’m back in stride and powered up once more; right in time for one of the most striking sights on the trail. Notable for being the most photographed tree in the country, it sits in a dramatic dip in the wall between Crag Lough and Milecastle 39 (you may recognise it from the beginning of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
The rest of the day is immensely beautiful. I choose not to run. Both the gods and my body are telling me to pump the brakes. I trek past dozens of turrets and milecastles, breathtaking ancient Roman quarries, various bridges and forts, including Birdoswald, which has been rebuilt to scale. By dusk I find myself five miles beyond Gilsland (where I had planned to catch a bus the next morning) in the town of Banks. I’ve covered enough ground to dismiss the strange malediction on my knee – in fact I’ve walked twenty-three miles – just five shy of what I’d intended. Twenty-three miles that comprise some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve walked in England.
“The rest of the day is immensely beautiful. I choose not to run”
I rise at 6.30am on Saturday morning and quickly dispatch the final fifteen miles into Carlisle, wandering through quaint villages and verdant farmland past a commuter airport and into the city’s exurbs and suburbs, following the broad River Eden.
While my aspirations to fastpack the entire distance have ended in ignominious defeat, I’ve still managed to cover 75 miles in just over two days, and I’m knackered. But before it’s over I run one final kilometre: through Carlisle to catch a train. I’m hellbent on getting home before my daughter’s bedtime to read her The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
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