My favorite part of Day 3 on Hadrian’s Wall was the wind.
That might seem a little strange, considering the wind was wild and since we were walking east to west, it was blowing strongly against us and made the walking 10 times more difficult than it should have been. All of this and yet- the wind was powerful, and dramatic. And considering that the bulk of our walk was on vast and open moorland, isolated and remote, our only company an ancient and crumbling wall… well, the wind felt like it was supposed to be part of the scene.
There were a couple times that I just laughed. I was standing up on a hilltop, my arms outstretched, leaning forward but propped up by that powerful wind, and laughing was about the only thing that I could do. I laughed out loud- thrilled and a little crazed- my voice grabbed up by that wind and carried swiftly away. Could Heather- just 10 paces ahead- hear me? Could the newborn lamb hear me? I could barely hear myself.
The wind knocked us around, sometimes throwing me several steps off the course of the path. It pushed my stick around, my hair flew in all directions.
It was great.
When we set off in the morning, I assumed that we’d have a somewhat easy day- only 15 miles, from Grindon into Gilsland. It was 8 miles less than the day before and yet, we didn’t arrive at our destination until nearly 7pm. Our start was slow and we lingered over ruins and forts and milecastles and turrets, but still, I blame the wind. I didn’t account for that wind.
There was no sun, either, but there was also no rain, and that was key. And like the wind, I thought the gray and cloudy skies added to the drama of the day. Because for nearly the entire stretch of our walk, we were just alongside the Wall. It stretched and curved, up and down a series of endless dips and crests.
We were in some wild country, indeed. Shortly after setting off we passed through Sewingshields Crags, the land of King Arthur and his knights. Next came Housesteads, the most preserved and intact fort on the Wall (there is a visitor’s center and a fee to enter the “grounds” of Housesteads; Heather and I lingered in the shop and read a few plaques but decided not to spend the money or take more time from our day. If you’re walking a short day I think the fort is well worth the visit, and there’s a nice selection of postcards and ice cream, as well as a small museum, inside the shop).
Further along, after we passed a couple of very newborn baby lambs (what a fun part of walking in the springtime!), we came upon Sycamore Gap. This is a rather famous spot, as there’s a large and imposing tree that appeared in the film Robin Hood. I’d read this in my guidebook before setting off that morning (and I just have to quote what the book has to say about the tree and Kevin Costner: “where, despite the distinct disadvantage of being a tree, it still managed to appear less wooden than its co-star”).
We made it to the hill just above Sycamore Gap, and as we’re descending, Heather said- “Here’s your tree!”
Confession time. Here’s something that happens to me when I walk: I get really into the actual walking part- the journey, the movement- and I just sort of glide through wherever I am and sometimes miss out on the details. And I wasn’t even gliding at this part of the day (there were too many hills for that), but I think that as I walk a long trek, I sort of begin to simplify things around me. I see things, but I don’t always fully process what I’m seeing. I just sort of take everything in, and the ground is the ground, a tree is a tree, a flower is a flower.
This happened a lot on the Camino; at the end of the day, people would say to me, “Did you see the plaque that marked the crossing between Spain and France? Did you see that castle over there? Did you see the ‘Santiago’ sign, just before entering the city? Did you see the first glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean?” These were big things that I just sort of missed, and I’m sure that I did, in fact, see them all, but they didn’t really register.
This happened at Sycamore Gap. We were clearly at the Robin Hood tree; it was this huge and solitary tree, and there were dozens of people all around this part of the route (because it’s the most scenic part of Hadrian’s Wall, many tourists and locals come here for a day-trip). When we got to the bottom of the hill we stood around awhile at the base of the tree, so Heather could take a photo. I started ahead of her, having had enough of the tree and the crowds, and it wasn’t until later in the day that I sort of said, “Oh, I must have missed the Robin Hood tree.” (not realizing that the tree at Sycamore Gap WAS the Robin Hood tree).
Heather, quite understandably, looked at me as though I was a little mad. (Maybe I am. Does this sort of thing happen to anyone else??). She’d even said- “That’s your tree!” and it all just went over my head.
Oh well. I actually sort of like that when I walk or hike, I can get into a zone where I can block things out and just focus on the essential. In any case, we had a good laugh about it over a late lunch, where we’d stopped at a pub called Twice Brewed Inn in the little hamlet of Once Brewed.
The rest of the day’s walk was full of more up and down, more wall, more sheep and lambs.
Our destination- Slack House Organic Farm- took a bit longer to get to than we expected, and we were a little unsure what the dinner situation would be like when we arrived (I realized, too late, that I was supposed to have called ahead to reserve dinner). But when we arrived, everything worked out: we were the only people staying there that night, so Diane- one of the owners- set us up in the large 3-bed ‘family room’. She whipped us up a hearty vegetable stew with pasta (there must have been a dozen different vegetables in the stew, and it was warm and so delicious). I’d definitely advise reserving dinner ahead (Heather and I were prepared to eat whatever scraps we had in our packs), but Diane was gracious and kind, and took care to make sure that we were well fed.
That night I got my best sleep of the entire journey. Between the hills, the wind, the miles and the satisfying stew, I slept deeply. Good thing, too, because we had another 20 mile day ahead!