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After a night spent worrying about the terror to come that was foreboded by yesterday’s terror interspersed with coming up with crazy ways to avoid a repeat of such terror, I awoke unrefreshed and unraring to go for today’s walk, another long distance of a million miles or so with lots of ups and downs.
We packed up and set off up the awfully steep slope back up to the path on Winshields Crags. As going uphill seems less bad than going downhill, it wasn’t as bad this morning as it had been last night. Sheep stared at us.
We eventually reached the signpost that had seemed so heavenly yesterday, and turned to the east. The path went up to the highest point on the walk at 345 metres, with a trig point for surveyors and their
troglodytes trilobites theodolites (it usually takes me at least two attempts to get that word right). My spirits returned after what had seemed like a reasonably easy start compared to what I’d been imagining overnight. I almost wondered what all the fuss had been about.
Downhill all the way?
The views from the top of the trig point were spectacular, despite the clouds rolling in from the east, where we were heading. The forecast made no promises it would get any better. Nevertheless, we were now halfway along the wall according to an information board, and it was all downhill from here … relatively speaking.
There’s a point on the walk called Steel Rigg, named after the car park of that name. It seemed weird till we got there that it would be named after a car park, but there’s really nothing else there, except Once Brewed, which is too far south to use as a real label, and is where we’d stayed overnight. I don’t know why the car park is called Steel Rigg, but there was a handy toilet there.
Uphill and downhill, actually
The terrain of Winshields Crags was much like the terrain of Cawfield Crags: up double-steep steps and down the other side, except that the downhill sections also had steep steps. I disliked the downhill steep steps more than I did the uphill steep steps, and I’ll tell you for why: because even when I focused on only the steps immediately in front of me, I could still see all the way down to the bottom in my peripheral vision. It is much easier to imagine falling down what you can see than falling down what you can’t.
In a change to the leaning forwards on the uphills so as not to fall backwards, I was careful to lean backwards on the downhills because I know how easy it is to fall forwards even on flat ground.
As with the uphills, I made Mr Pandammonium go first on the downhills. Because I could see so far ahead on the downhill steep steps, I could see what he did. I saw at one point that he sat down and shuffled down like a toddler on the stairs. If he did it, then it must be a good idea and I should do it, too. Alas, I couldn’t tell where exactly he’d done it, so I just sat down somewhere in the vicinity of that spot and shuffled down like a toddler on the stairs until I felt I could maybe stand up if I used my poles as leverage.
Sometimes, I’d get a bit of momentum going, meaning I could keep going for longer without the terror settling in too far. I’d tell Mr Pandammonium to keep going if he was waiting for me. There was one downhill, where I was charging along quite merrily, but he’d stopped in the way.
‘Keep going,’ I said.
He steadfastly refused to move.
I caught up to him and peered over his shoulder to over the edge he was contemplating.
Yeah, ok. I conceded that he was right to stop: it was steepy-steep, and could not be barged down willy-nilly. I apologised and let him go in his own time. It was a mighty tricky bit, with smaller stones and narrower stones and taller stones, and it curved precariously, which didn’t seem to help. The bottom-shuffling did, though. It was a relief to get to the bottom of that one.
As we approached Crag Lough to the north of the wall, far down below the top of the crags, we went down yet another crag. I bottom-shuffled for some of it, but I had to stand up when the stones were too shallow for that. I put my right foot down on a stone that sloped downwards – it looked the best stone out of a bad choice because it was flat. Ooh, big mistake – I slipped and fell, dropping my precious pole!
I was going to ricochet down the rest of the stones, taking out Mr Pandammonium with me. We’d end up in a broken heap at the bottom until the next walkers came along and raised the alarm.
But I was leaning back towards where I was coming from, I fell backwards and slightly to the side so that I landed on a step I’d just come down. I was more startled than anything else. I didn’t even hurt my backside because my backpack took the brunt. Nothing inside was damaged because I have soft things at the bottom in my dry bag. And my pole landed not six inches below the hand that had dropped it. I was ok. Shaken, but ok.
The rest of the descent, thankfully not far, went without hitch, and I got to the bottom. The guide book labels these steep steps ‘Cat Stairs’ (p.148); maybe only cats can get up and down them without falling.
There were a few walkers clustered round a solitary tree in the gap between the crag I’d just fallen down and the next crag to climb (see first extra). The tree defied the wind that must surely howl between the crags during storms.
‘Look, it’s the sycamore tree from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,’ said Mr Pandammonium .
Tree? Film? ‘I slipped!’
After some consolation and checking I was ok, I paid some attention to the tree. Apparently, Kevin Costner, who played Robin Hood in the aforementioned film, the soundtrack of which stayed at number one in the UK for a record sixteen weeks, climbs all over the wall in the film. You’re not allowed to climb on the wall now, so either the film was made before UNESCO got all up in arms about the state of the wall or he had special permission. Or he flouted the rules – surely not!
Once I’d recovered from the falling and the famousness of the tree, we climbed up the next crag on the opposite side of the wall so that there was nothing to stop you falling straight into Crag Lough, now directly below to the north, and an awful long way down. No way was I going anywhere near that edge.
Once past the lough, the wall reappears, but it’s not the original wall: it was rebuilt by an archaeologist called John Clayton in the nineteenth century (p.149 of the guide book ). He didn’t build it in the same way as the Romans built it, so it looks different, although I was too busy being afraid of being blown off the tops and falling down the slopes to notice.
At one point, we descended a crag to be faced with a cliff face. There was only one obvious way to go, and that was round it. The ascent didn’t seem particularly difficult, and the wall seemed quite far away. People were walking the opposite way nearer the wall on a different path to ours. We were puzzled. How did we miss the path? We rejoined it, and carried on.
Who’s laughing now?
Remember when I whoop-de-dooed Whin Sill when the guide book pointed out we could see it in the distance? Well, the terror was all across Whin Sill. So there you go: foreboding in the guide book.
Same old same old
The terrain all the way to Housesteads was more of the same. We stamped our passports there and had a break, but didn’t stop to look around: we still had a long way to go. For us, it’s about the walking, not the history.
A bit more steep up and down, but without the steps, after Housesteads turned into less steep up and down.
At Sewing Shields Turret 35A, we bumped into a couple of walkers we’d met back at the first campsite, the ones we’d seen on their way to Brea Tarn the second night. We caught up with each other, and they took our photo. We left them taking photos of other walkers coming the other way.
Eventually, the up-and-down gave way to more even terrain, although with some shallow hills. There were a lot of ruins of mile castles and turrets to be seen, all barely poking up above the ground.
The weather decided to put the rain in terrain. It was patchy at first, so we’d put our waterproof tops on, then take them off, but then we left them on because the rain got pretty heavy by the time we reached the Temple of Mithras.
I was very glad we’d got past all the terror before the rain hit, and I felt bad for the walkers who we’d encountered on the way who yet had to make the climbs and the descent on the by-now wet and slippery rocks.
Nice cow incident
The whole walk so far has been populated by cows and sheep; the only thing more ubiquitous than the sheep is their poo. They leave it everywhere: on the lowest points of the path and on the highest points of the path. Cows and their poo are slightly less everywhere, but it’s surprising how high up cows can climb.
Just before we reached Walwick, we had to cross yet another cow field. Some of these cows were on the path. If they’d have been sheep, I’d have been wary but confident that they’d move out of the way. But cows are big and less scary than sheep. And we all remember the terrifying cow incident.
Mr Pandammonium was walking ahead of me, and the cows were moving out of his way. When I walked passed the displaced cows, one of them turned to look at me. Really look at me.
‘Nice cow,’ I said. ‘Nice cow.’
This cow was not a nice cow. This cow started running at me, and I had no handy post to hide behind this time. I panicked and stood stock still like a pandammonium in front of a charging cow, and called out in my pathetic voice for Mr Pandammonium.
He turned, saw what was happening, and tried to scare the cow away.
I looked back at the cow, which was still coming at me.
Mr Pandammonium waved his poles in the air. ‘Raar!’
The cow looked at him.
The cow thought better of chasing me; it backed down. My hero had saved me again.
I noticed I’d backed into long grasses and weeds – no nettles, thankfully. I didn’t quite run through the cow field after that, but I certainly didn’t linger, and I tried not to make eye contact with any more cows, while keeping an eye on them just in case.
By the time we got to Chesters at Chollerford to get our passports stamped, we were dripping wet. The passport stamp was supposed to be round the back of the building, but actually, we’d missed it: it was at the road entrance at the front. Luckily, a lady came out and invited us in: we could get our passports stamped inside. The ladies there were lovely, not even minding that we were dripping all over the floor.
I got my passport out only to find that the plastic bag it was in had a tiny hole somewhere: my passport was sodden in one corner. The lovely ladies bustled to find some blue roll to dry it as much as possible, after which I stamped it, then they produced a freezer bag from somewhere and put the passport inside, squeezing out all excess air.
On leaving, a couple of walkers were looking for the stamp. I called across to them through the downpour that had been with us for miles to go inside. I think they got the message.
Pitching the tent
The rain had rained and rained so much that we couldn’t get any wetter, although it was starting to ease off a tad when we reached the campsite at Chollerford. It would be nice to put the tent up, say, under some trees that would provide some shelter from the rain, perhaps. There were already a couple of tents under some trees, so we pitched ours a little way from them.
The occupants of each tent were friends; one had hurt his leg, so they’d had to cut short their walk yesterday, ending up in the Old Repeater Station.
The rain had pretty much stopped by the time we’d pitched the tent and showered. We went to the hotel across the road, where they had a bar and hot food. It was near enough to wear our flip-flops to, so we didn’t have to put our wet walking shoes back on.
A long time ago, when Mr Pandammonium was doing one of these walks alone, he complained that his feet got cold while wearing his flip-flops. I had the perfect solution: toe socks. I wear these, of course, with my barefoot running shoes because ordinary socks wouldn’t work. (The whole socks-and-sandals debate doesn’t count with camping, because fashion is very low on the list of priorities.) So we kept our feet warm and dry with our toe-sock-and-flip-flop combo.
In the bar, a woman was talking to two other women who’d been doing the walk. After it was established that we were also doing it and the first woman had gone, the four of us swapped notes. It turned out they were like us: one brave one and one scaredy-cat.
We’d both been scared of the steps, but it turned out there are easier ways up most of the crags, not just that one we accidentally took the easier way up. I was shocked. Why hadn’t I known this? Would I have taken the easy ways if I’d known about them? Would I have felt like a fraud? The answer to the last one is ‘yes’: it’s how I felt about accidentally doing that.
Their scaredy-cat said to me, ‘Imagine if it had been just us two!’
‘We’d have been clinging on, not able to go up or down.’
‘Call Mountain Rescue!’
‘I can’t: I can’t leave go – you call Mountain Rescue!’
I needed that laughter – it was the best way to relieve the tension that had built up.
When we were replete, we headed back to camp, where a mist had drawn across the lower part of the campsite. It looks beautiful, apart from the line of three tents under the trees mostly hidden by the mist.
It’s going to be a damp, chilly night.