Lifestyle Travel

Hiking Hadrian’s wall: re-treading my childhood

As a Roman-obsessed seven-year-old, moving to a rural Northumbrian village with Hadrian’s Wall on my doorstep was the most exciting event of my life. My dreams were haunted by images of barbarians flooding over the hill behind our house. School trips took advantage of the historic surroundings, with visits to Housesteads and Vindolanda every single year.  My siblings and I even made a contingency plan for a potential apocalypse involving Romans, zombies, orcs, you name it…  

Of course, family walks along the wall were obligatory. On every outing, I would look forward to the next biscuit break when we would huddle behind a rock for shelter from the wind, which was bracing in summer; bitter in winter. In hindsight, spending our weekends walking along obscure parts of Hadrian’s Wall was probably the perfect way for my parents to forget the state of the world; after all, it was 2009  and they were dealing professionally with the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.  

Over a decade on, I was once again walking the wall, though experiencing a sentiment of escapism more than the craving for a Hobnob. Now living 300 miles away, I decided to hike the length of Hadrian’s Wall to raise money for charity and indulge my nostalgic streak.  I pondered going at it alone, but my mind was overwhelmed by apocalyptic scenarios reminiscent of those fabricated by my seven-year-old self. When considering my available walking companions, I realised that the options were limited.  My Dad is renowned for not uttering a word on family walks, preferring to position himself about 100m ahead of the group, while my siblings were at school and my friends at university.

And so I enlisted my mother. To her horror, I told her we would be walking 84 miles over four days. I showed her luxurious-looking B&B websites, scenic pictures, and photos of us as children climbing on the stone wall.  The final act of persuasion was to liken our expedition to a Game of Thrones-esque journey to the Wall in the North (though sadly without Kit Harrington).  Eventually, she agreed, though only on the condition that we walk from Carlisle to Newcastle (59 miles), rather than coast to coast.  

I put my Duke of Edinburgh award skills to use, plotting out a line along the ‘Hadrian’s Wall Trail’, and calculated the distance we would walk each day, which I would later regret as overly ambitious in our estimated walking speed.  The other stage of preparation involved shopping for provisions and suitable clothing.  While my Mum tried on her fifth pair of walking boots, I browsed the emergency shelters display, imaging what kind of crisis we could experience on this expedition.  Heavy snowfall, broken bones, and being chased by cows all crossed my mind.  Fortunately, I was pulled away from such thoughts by my Mum announcing that she was buying us matching walking trousers. 

Coming off the train in Carlisle was like stepping into a fridge (yes, I am a pathetic southerner).  On that foggy October morning, we began our walk.  Well, actually, we got a taxi a bit out of town and then began our walk.  We took our first break after only half an hour, the bustle of Carlisle still in earshot.  After this moment of weakness, we powered on and reached our accommodation in good time.  Our spirits were high as we tucked into our pub dinner, and with nothing to talk about having spent hours together, we enjoyed eavesdropping on some local gossip.  

The next day, we set off bright and early, seeing as I had planned a walking day of seven hours. The morning mist and clear blue sky made for a peaceful setting to embark on the next leg.  This stretch of the path was impressive, as a recognisable wall structure instead of a pile of stones.  As we passed the ‘Robin Hood Tree’, I was overcome with nostalgia, recalling the scene from the film, meshed with my own memory of running down that path. Later, coming over the crest of a hill, the sound of an unruly crowd came into earshot. My Mum and I looked at one another, unsure whether this was the apocalypse I had prepared for all those years ago. To our relief, it was a group of Newcastle schoolboys, not Picts.  

Towards the end of the day, we had to come away from the trail to get to our next B&B. I had not considered this very carefully in my plan, which meant we had to hurry along an interminable road to get to the next village before dark.  It is safe to say that my walking companion did not speak to me for the rest of the evening.  There was, however, no need to talk once we began our meal, which was the most divine chicken pie. Though this hike was a while ago, I still recall the feeling of sinking deeper and deeper into the pub bench, before slinking to bed and succumbing to my food coma.  

Our final day was the most nostalgic of all, as we walked through our old local area. Passing my sister’s primary school, catching sight of a pub I remember eating spectacular sticky toffee pudding at, and crossing a bridge over the Tyne where our dog had swum many a time all brought back memories. Once again, my route planning was exposed as unsatisfactory when we realised that walking through the Newcastle suburbs might not make for the most scenic afternoon.  Having found the only café (and antique shop) for miles, we called a taxi as a reward for our exertion.  Despite having planned a night out with some friends, I passed out in bed around nine pm. 

While my deteriorating walking boots did not come home with me, I did return with a newfound appreciation for Northumberland, nature and nostalgia.

Cover image: Jemima Storey