I had two main worries about the Hadrian’s Wall Trip.
Worry #1: Rain.
And Worry #2 was that I was fitting too many miles into too short of a time frame. Was 5 days going to feel too rushed? Would some of the days be too long to be enjoyable?
The border agent at Heathrow certainly thought so.
“Why are you here?” was her first question.
I explained my walking trip, and how I had loved my experience on the West Highland Way so much that I immediately started looking into Hadrian’s Wall.
“When are you starting your walk?” was her next question.
“Uh,” I hesitated for just a moment. “Tomorrow morning.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “So you’re catching a train today? From Kings Cross?”
I nodded, and she continued. “What about jet lag?”
I no longer felt as though she was assessing my intentions for being in the country, but rather critiquing my travel plans.
“I might be a little tired?” I offered, unsure of what else to say.
She then went on to ask when I was leaving, and how long I had to walk. Finally, she stamped my passport and as she handed it back to me, offered a quick smile (though her eyes betrayed her doubt). “Good luck,” she said.
Honestly, I didn’t think it was luck that I needed (other than some luck with the weather forecast). It was more determination, and persistence, and stamina. No, I didn’t need luck to do this walk in 5 days. I just needed to believe that I could do it.
I say all of this because Day 2 was a big one. On these long walks, I don’t normally plan a 23-mile/35km day at the very start of my journey, but for this particular trip, I didn’t have much of a choice. Our really long day was going to have be either our second or third day of walking, and I knew that the elevation and hills were going to be tougher on Day 3.
So Day 2 was our big day. My guess is that we set out around 8:30, following a cooked breakfast in the kitchen of our bunkhouse. Because most of the places where we stayed offered breakfast, we were a bit tied into whatever time all the guests agreed upon. This is one area where I’m still very much in the Camino mode- when the sun comes up, that’s when I want to be walking. On my very biggest Camino days, it was pretty easy to be up and walking by 6:00am (this is in the summertime, and just as the sun was rising). But along Hadrian’s Wall, the earliest I ever saw breakfast offered was 7:30, and I think 8:00 is an even more typical hour.
And I don’t want to skip out on the breakfasts! Houghton North Farm offered a great spread. It was mostly simple stuff: toast and cereal and juice and fruit. But our hostess stood at the griddle and cooked us up fried egg sandwiches with thick slices of bacon and oh man, was that a good sandwich. It was the perfect thing to fill my belly and give me energy to start my day, and almost enough to make up for the fact that there was no coffee. (This was alarming. There was a dusty coffee pot in the corner and when no one was making a move to brew some beans, I asked if I could make a pot. The answer I got was: “You don’t want to drink the coffee I have here. Seriously.”). I made myself a cup of black tea instead, and it was enough to keep away the caffeine headaches but I would probably say that the lack of coffee was the biggest drawback to our stay at Houghton North Farm.
The resident dogs gave us a warm and friendly send off and then we were back on the road, our long day of walking had begun.
For the first couple of hours I walked separately from Heather. I kept stopping to take photos and then finally waved her on ahead, and I was content to spend a little time walking alone. It was a different experience- a long trek with a friend- and already I was missing my solo time. And I got it back that morning, as I moved through the soft and quiet countryside. Despite the sunshine, the air was cool and chilly, and I pulled out my buff to wear around my neck for added warmth. As I walked through farmland, I passed groups of sheep who seemed utterly unconcerned about my presence.
Heather and I rejoined at a pub called The Robin Hood, where I finally got my cup of coffee. When we set off again we walked separately for awhile, and this seemed to be the rhythm for the day: walk apart, rejoin, walk together, take a break, walk apart, etc.
In fact, the entire day- despite its length- had a nice rhythm. Our breaks were spaced nicely: we found a beautiful spot in a little cut out on a hillside, where we stopped for some snacks. Later we hit a tea shop for some scones and pastries. And in between was a gorgeous day of walking. I had energy, for nearly the entire walk. In fact, I felt like I was coming alive after our snack break on the hillside, despite having just walked 12 miles. I never felt stronger! Maybe it was the return to that particular way of life: of spending all day in the fresh air, moving your body and eating well. The wind and the sun against my skin made me feel alive, and I felt mostly strong as I moved through all the miles of the day.
I was also energized because the Wall made its first real appearance! This would have been a beautiful walk in its own right, but knowing that the Wall was going to be sprouting up periodically throughout our days (not so much the first or last day, but the three days in the middle) made the trek extra thrilling. I kept pulling out my guidebook and looking for traces of the wall: “Those with eagle eyes may be able to make out the platform outline of Milecastle 13,” I read to myself, on the morning of Day 2. I searched and I searched but couldn’t find anything- only realizing later that there really hadn’t been much need, because there were much better and more distinct milecastle remains to come. (A milecastle is basically a mini-castle to house troops, and these were spaced 1000 paces apart (a Roman mile) for the length of the wall. By the end of the walk I could come upon a pile of ruins, and before reading the marker would exclaim: “Milecastle!” or “Turrett!”).
I was enthusiastic, yes, but it was also a long day of walking, and I was slowing down a bit by the end. For the last few hours of the walk Heather was up ahead of me, and usually I could spot her in the distance, her bright pink jacket an easy target to pick out on the route. But then, suddenly, she disappeared, and I assumed that she had powered on ahead.
I was trying to walk at a fast clip myself, because the place we were staying in that night- Old Repeater Station- was pretty much in the middle of nowhere and the owner would be serving us dinner. We’d called that morning before setting off, and when he asked what time we thought we might arrive, I hesitated. “Hmm, maybe 6:00?”
It was 6:30 by the time I made it to our lodging, and it wasn’t without a small mishap. My guidebook shows a shortcut to the B&B, one that cuts off some potentially dangerous road walking. I overshot my mark- where I was supposed to cut down through a field- and had to backtrack a bit. I couldn’t actually find a path or anything that looked like a marked shortcut, but I made my way down the hill well enough, cutting a diagonal line towards the only building in sight. I did have to slosh through a swampy area- causing both of my feet to sink completely into wet, cold mud- but luckily I was at the end of the day and wouldn’t have to spend much time walking in wet socks.
The door of the B&B was ajar and after knocking and waiting around for a minute, I pushed through.
“Hello?” I called out.
I couldn’t hear a thing. I wandered around the first floor, through a sitting room and into a kitchen area and then a dining room. The place was cozy- there was a small room with a woodstove and big leather couches and shelves filled with books. I kept looking around but there was no one in sight- no proprietor, and no Heather, either.
Finally I heard a door open somewhere above me and a man walked down the stairs. It was Les, the owner of the place, and after introductions I asked if anyone else had arrived.
“No,” he replied. “You’re the first one here.”
Heather, somehow, had gotten off track. I wasn’t too worried- she’s an experienced hiker with a good sense about distance, and I knew that even if she had gotten turned around, she’d be able to find her way here eventually. Les was a little more concerned, but I tried to wave it off. He showed me up to our room and it was perfect: two small beds with cozy comforters, a tray filled with coffee and tea and hot chocolate and biscuits, and the most beautiful bathroom with tiled floor and bottles of water and fluffy white towels.
“You can see the route from the window in here,” Les told me, and I peered out, looking into the now gray light of the evening. I squinted, and then smiled. Up on the ridge, walking at a fast pace, was someone wearing a pink jacket. It was Heather.
I went ahead and took a shower, figuring it would be perfect timing and that Heather would be here and could clean up as soon as I was finished. But when I came out of the bathroom the room was empty, and it was quiet downstairs.
I peered out the window again and saw two figures approaching on the road, and recognized the girls that Heather and I had met the night before. We’d been at Houghton North Farm together, and had learned that the girls would also be walking the really long day and staying at Old Repeater Station. I went downstairs to greet them, but also to ask if they’d seen Heather.
“No, we haven’t,” one of them said, looking a bit worried. “But there’s about an hour of light left to walk in, hopefully she’ll find her way here?”
I went outside then, unsure of what else to do, and after a few minutes saw a figure in a pink jacket coming down the hill. I was relieved, and Heather was laughing as she came up to me. She’d climbed over a stile not meant to be on the route, and had veered off track. Eventually she righted herself and it had been her I’d seen on the ridge, before I took my shower. Like me, she’d overshot the “shortcut”, but had a considerably harder time coming down the hill than I did (“There were locked gates,” she said, “and barbed wire!”).
We feasted that night, on fish pie with mashed potato, and salad with avocado and prawns, and a loaf of fresh bread, then tea and cookies up in our room. With a full belly and tired feet, curled up under my blanket, I was content. I was in a large stone house in the middle of an empty field, on a vast and open landscape. The sky was dark and the wind howled and the remains of a 2,000 year old wall sat just above me on a long ridge, stretching on for miles and miles ahead. I couldn’t wait to follow it.
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