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The day dawned blue and bright. We got up and got ready, and I put my shoes on and went to visit the composting facilities. I didn’t get far: there was something in my shoe.
I went back to the picnic table by which we’d camped to investigate. I shrieked and flung the shoe away to Colin’s bemusement. I explained: some massive beetley thing had crawled in there overnight. I saw the beetley thing, black and shiny, scurry off on landing, and Colin couldn’t see anything else untoward in my shoe, yet I was still reticent about putting the shoe back on. Nevertheless, nature called.
All the campers seemed to leave in the order that they had arrived, so we were second to arrive and second to leave. We set off eastwards up the hill onroad, offroad, onroad, offroad, passing Pike Hill Signal Tower. The wall wiggles ever so slightly here to incorporate the tower, which predates Hadrian’s Wall, originally made of turf, by 30 years or so. You’d expect the views from here to be excellent, and they were: you could see marauding Caledonians from miles away.
Not long after that, the guide book  says ‘look east and you can see the bumps of Whin Sill’ (p.123). Whoop-de-do, we thought, looking at the bumps of Whin Sill. They were reminiscent of sawtooth factory roofs with one side of each bump steeper than the other.
We found another honesty box, where a lady was about to restock it. She said she’d leave us to it; if there was nothing on the shelves, she said we could have a ratch in the bag she’d brought. I said I hadn’t heard anyone say ratch in ages. She wondered if it was a Cumbrian word, but I thought I must’ve heard it in the north east. Much later in the day, it occurred to me that it could’ve been a lass from Carlisle I’d heard say it. I’m still not sure. Anyway, we bought some of her crisps.
A little later, there was an ‘alternative permissive path for those who prefer not to walk through [a] field’ (p.126 of the guide book). We did not prefer to not walk through the field. We’d walked through plenty of fields up till now. You wouldn’t know that we were following the line of the turf wall, but the ground did seem ‘unusually undulating’ (p.126).
Childishness is not new
At Birdoswald, the site of a fort, we stamped our passports and looked for the willy that the Romans carved into the wall. Alas, the instructions in the guide book weren’t clear, and Colin was in too much of a hurry to satisfy my childish whims because we’d barely got started at this point – only an hour’s walking or so. Disappointedly, I walked on towards Willowford, the site of more wall, with a bridge and turrets.
We’d spent some time debating whether to attempt the original route round Gilsland or the diversion instigated because of a broken bridge over a stream. The guide book says ‘It’s not too difficult for more nimble walkers to jump across the stream (or simply ford it)’ (p.129). The diversion goes through the village. We did want to go to the village because there was a café that also sold groceries, and two pubs. The original route was deemed too much of a palaver because we’d have to go back on ourselves, and we didn’t want wet feet if we could help it.
Alas, we were too early for both of the pubs, so we settled on a cuppa and stuff at the House of Meg. Meg is ‘a character from‘s [novel] Waverley, which was set around here’, according to the guide book (p.131).
There’s also a poem on the wall inside about her.
While we sipped our beverages and argued over discussed which bit of road we should be following next, a spooky-looking customer kept her beady eyes on us. It wouldn’t surprise me if I found out she’d been a teacher at my old school.
Feeling a lot better after the interlude, we set off ’round somebody’s vegetable garden’ (p.130).
Before leaving Gilsland, we crossed the border, leaving Cumbria behind us and entering Northumberland.
The path took us between Longbyre and Greenhead and across a trainline – quite possibly the one we’d eventually travelled on from Newcastle to Carlisle – and on to the ruins of Thirlwell Castle, which they used stones from Hadrian’s Wall to build.
We’ve seen loads of bits of wall and fort and turret today. Carvoran apparently has one of the tallest remains, ‘up to 13 courses high’ (p.134); I counted eleven.
The terrain was getting more and more hilly and steep, but there were some lovely views. Then we got to Walltown Crags.
The guide book says ‘the terrain on the crags is undulating but overall trend is generally flat’. I strongly disagreed with the author on this point: the terrain was far too steep to be called ‘undulating’. I’d say ‘difficult’, ‘steep’, ‘lots of up and lots of down’; that sort of thing.
Coming off the crags involved a lot of down marked with successive single arrows of down-ness.
We reached Great Chesters Fort (Aesica) after that. I was glad to take a break there. We hunted out a Roman altar but couldn’t find the dedication in the stone wall.
We went to sit down on a stone block, but some sheep had other ideas. One stared at me for a bit, then bobbed its head a few times. I don’t speak Sheepish, so without any other idea of what to do, I bobbed my head back a few times and hoped it wasn’t some sort of sign of ruminantal aggression. It seemed it wasn’t, and the sheep and its companion bobbed off.
At Great Chesters, you can go south to find the civilisation that is Haltwhistle, but we did no such thing. We ploughed onwards towards Milecastle 42 and the start of the terror.
Cawfield Crags loomed up ahead. These crags are steep hills with a cliff on the northern side. We went up the first crag, which was steep, then down the other side, where it suddenly dropped away vertically (the foreground in the photo below). I assume vertically: I was going nowhere near that edge to see. The way down was off to the right. But from that spot near the edge, we could see the next crag.
The path led down to a ladder stile over a dry stone wall and up some double-steep steps to the top, which is bleak and bare. If you zoom in, you might see people on the steps. Look how tiny they are.
My fear of climbing up that crag was edged aside only by my fear of getting down to the bottom of this crag. I was glad I wasn’t by myself and that I was with Colin. He’s helped me up steep cliff ‘steps’ and behind waterfalls before.
Once over the ladder stile, I looked up, all the way up. Wooh, bad idea. All the fear chemicals whooshed round my body and came out as sweaty palms, which isn’t good when you’re clinging to your walking poles for dear life.
The steps aren’t steps as we know them in the civilised world. They’re roughly oblongular lumps of stone somehow welded into the hillside. They’re uneven in size, and are subject to erosion by feet and weather. I let Colin go first, took a huge breath to calm my nerves that didn’t calm my nerves, and planted one pole in the soil at the edge of the first step and followed it with my opposite foot. I put my other pole at the edge of the next step and followed it with my other leg. I took a deep breath, and moved the first pole to the next step.
I could only look as far up as the next step with the occasional glance a few steps higher up to check the direction I needed to go in. I had to make sure I was leaning slightly forwards at all times to counter the weight of my backpack. I couldn’t start thinking about what would happen if I stood a little too erect.
I couldn’t think about how far up I was, how slow I was going, whether there was anyone behind me that I was holding up, whether there was anyone at the top wanting to come down. If anyone wanted to get past me in either direction, they’d have to go round me: no way could I move.
The urge to look up overcame me at last, and I glanced up. Yeah, I wouldn’t be doing that again, no matter how curious I got.
My tiny glances to check the direction of the steps eventually told me I was getting to the top. Colin was there waiting for me, cheering me on. Despite the terror of being up so high with a gusty wind and no wall to provide protection from being blown off the cliff, I had to rest. Colin seemed to be expecting some sort of conversation, but I couldn’t speak because I needed to breathe the exertion and the fear away.
The views were spectacular.
Going downhill can be worse than going uphill in terms of scariness, but going down the other side of this crag wasn’t as steep as the up. I was thankful we weren’t going down those steep, steep hills. I don’t know how I would’ve made it.
The next crag loomed. It was a repeat of the previous crag, except for one thing: at some point, there was a stone that was far too big for me to use as a step, even with my poles to lean on.
I didn’t know what to do.
I stood there, leaning forwards slightly, staring at this huge cuboid of stone, clinging on to my poles, breath and heart racing, sweat pouring. I was either going to have to stay there forever or eventually lose my balance and fall backwards.
I allowed myself an upwards glance. No sign of Colin.
I called out to him in such a small voice that I couldn’t believe he would hear me. But he appeared from behind a rock.
‘Climb up,’ he said. ‘Use your hands.’
But I couldn’t: I’d drop my poles.
‘Give me your poles,’ he said.
I reached up to pass him my poles, and he took them. I don’t know what he did after that because my focus was back on my lithic nemesis. I grasped it and pulled myself up onto it, but I couldn’t bring myself to stand up, even though the next steps were of a more manageable size. I was too afraid of standing up too straight and falling backwards. I continued climbing on all fours like an ibex on a dam wall.
I heard voices at the top. There were people there wanting to come down. I really hoped they could wait.
‘Give her a minute,’ a man said. I didn’t catch the rest through my relief that they could wait.
I kept going, one limb at at time, until the ground levelled out. You might think I was relieved to get to the top, but it was the whole standing up again thing. I only stood up when I was away from the edge, my head down, my body leaning as far forwards as it would go. I saw four pairs of boots, legs and shorts, and four tops, one may have been red.
‘Thanks, fellows,’ I said. It was all I could muster. I hope they realised how much I appreciated their patience.
When I’d caught my breath, we set off again. At some point, the wall reappeared with the usual turrets every third of a Roman mile, although this might have been the ‘well-made wall [that] resembles Hadrian’s Wall and uses Roman stones’ (p.142) for all I know. I was too busy being terrified to particularly notice. What I do know is that some idiot draped a wall over the hills up ahead, and we have to follow it.
There was no let-up in the terrifying and the climbing with useless poles and the descending; eventually, the fear overcame the fun, and I wanted it to be over. I wanted to crouch down on my honkers and sob quietly to myself, but that wouldn’t get me off these crags. I kept plodding and climbing and plodding and climbing. It was neverending – until after we’d gone down another crag, where, in the gap, there was a heavenly signpost pointing to our campsite. Oh, the relief and the joy that this day was nearly over!
But I knew from the guide book that when we’d climbed back up that hill to rejoin the path, we’d almost immediately climb up to the highest point of the wall, a mere 345 metres (1,132 feet) above sea level. But for now, it was over.
But only after we’d reached the campsite. To get there, we had to descend a steep slope of loose stones – scree, you might say – that turned into a grassy slope, just as steep. Sheep stared at us.
Eventually, it was over: we reached the campsite and put the tent up. There was a male shower block and a female shower block. I can’t speak for the male one, but they’d paid attention to detail in the female block, even down to a vase of flowers on the window sill.
Showered and refreshed, we headed to the pub, the Twice Brewed Inn. We didn’t have a reservation, so we had to go outside. The pub is absolutely humongous, inside and out, and it was absolutely heaving. I’ve never seen a hostelry so busy on a Monday night.
After being fed and watered, we headed back to the campsite, the anxiety about climbing back up to the point we left the path and the horrors of more crags to come never far from the front of my mind.
- (2020). Hadrian’s Wall Path, 6th edition. Trailblazer Publications: Surrey, UK