Hadrian's Wall ChallengeA friend suggested that we sign up for this challenge in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society as we see the effects of this horrid disease first hand, and we had been embarking on a few training walks over the past few months in preparation as she hadn‘t done any long distance walking for years. As you know, I am always up for a long walk in a different area and as seeing Hadrian’s Wall was on my bucket list (yes I have a pretty strange bucket list!) I was eagerly submitted my entry.

As this challenge was a ‘mere’ 23 miles, I felt confident in my abilities to complete it, especially as I had completed the Dovedale Dipper the week before… nothing is guaranteed however! A few days before the event, we found out it was actually 26 miles…ok a full marathon then…

We were staying at the youth hostel at Once Brewed, and once we checked in on Friday evening we went for a stroll to find the wall. We found it at Steel Rigg- where the wall climbs steeply to the top before hugging the ridge. As we scrambled up and then back down the rough track, we had some idea what was in store for the following day.

First sight of the Wall

First sight of the Wall

After a trip to the chippy at Haltwhistle, we tried to get an early night as alarms were set for 5:45am, but unfortunately every time someone ran hot water the pipes running along the ceiling in our room gave off a horrific squealing noise.

Breakfast was a snatched coffee and instant porridge before driving bleary eyed along the ruler straight Roman road to Lanercost Priory, where we were to be taken to the start at Brocolitia. Patches of mist were stretched out across the fields and it looked like being a glorious day.

Lanercost Priory

Lanercost Priory

As we were disgorged at the start, we posed for an obligatory photo with Roman Legionaries before a briefing, where they broke the news that there was a cut off point at the third checkpoint at 19 miles- those not reaching this by 5:30pm would be disqualified from the event and taken back to the finish. This was the first time we had heard that there was a time limit and my friend was concerned she may not make it, especially as it was now 8am and we had been due to start at 7am, but we decided to just try our best and see how things went.

When in Rome...

When in Rome…

We were also quite amused by the fact that the printed maps we were given were for a 20 mile route and we were told that the first 6 miles had been missed off due to a printing error… and the checkpoints weren’t actually where they were marked on the map!

We set off into bright sunshine, following a line of people along a path next to the road. The wall wasn’t visible yet, just the large ditch known as the vellum, and the stone remains of mile castles.

Heading for the hills

Heading for the hills

I was dying for a wee, but this is bleak country and we could see the border country beyond the wall, over vast swathes of moorland with the dark green patches of the Wark Forest appearing on the horizon. Eventually I was able to find a handy little copse to hide behind, before the path climbed away from the road and onto the great ‘sills’ which formed part of the route of Hadrian’s wall.

We follow the wall for miles over the crags

We follow the wall for miles over the crags

This was tough; a roller coaster of steep and rocky ascents and descents, with the wall dipping and rising over crag after crag into the distance.

Sweeping views

Sweeping views

It was easy to see why the Roman builders had chosen to built here- it was impregnable and we could see for miles. It was also very warm and my friend had to stop a few times to fix hotspots on her feet. We passed Sycamore Gap, a u-shaped dip in the path with its large tree that was immortalised in the film ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’, where we had our photograph taken.

 

Steep ascents

Steep ascents

... and descents

… and descents

Shortly after this, we reached the bit we had walked the night before, and were rather amused to see that they had deemed it sufficiently steep to place a marshal to offer assistance. We didn’t need help, but a chap just in front of us, who must have been well into his 70s, was obviously struggling; we watched him pick his way down very slowly and our hearts were in our mouths when he stumbled a couple of times. He looked absolutely exhausted and we heard him say it was much more challenging than he thought. Every so often we wondered aloud how he was managing and both secretly felt he would be forced to withdraw.

We had a brief stop at the first checkpoint at 8.5 miles, where cereal bars and jelly beans were on offer. I had been drinking quite a lot as it was so warm, and was glad I had decided to take an extra bottle of water that morning.

Milecastle

Milecastle

According to the map the lunch stop had been moved, and was at 13 miles, so we set off again over the crags, climbing and descending, fully expecting a much shorter stretch to the next checkpoint. The landscape was still wild, barren and remote and I tried to imagine what life must have been like for the Roman soldiers manning these walls, especially those used to a gentler Mediterranean climate.

Bleak, remote and wild country

Bleak, remote and wild country

After a drop down to Cawfields Quarry the wall disappeared and we followed the line of it through several large fields. At this stage we were expecting the lunch stop to appear at any time so it was rather perturbing to see instead a line of walkers stretching over another series of crags for what seemed miles into the distance.

Cawfields Quarry

Cawfields Quarry

This was another tough stretch, and we were feeling pretty tired and ready for a break. We climbed to the top of hills, fully expecting to see signs of the lunch stop beyond each one, but every time our hopes were dashed. It really felt as though we should have reached it by now and we started to worry about making the cut off point at check point 3. This was the lowest point for both of us, and we were seriously doubting our ability to complete the trek.

Looking back over the crags

Looking back over the crags

We weren’t sure whether to stop and take a much needed break or try to push on, as we were both running low on water, so entered a game of ‘let’s just get to the top of this hill, see if we can see anything’. A group caught us up, who said that they had been told the lunch stop was at 14 miles, and shortly after this the path quickly descended into trees, where we met a lady with a dog who appeared to be supporting someone on the walk and she told us we were nearly there.

She was lying. Half an hour later we finally stumbled in; sweaty, thirsty and running on empty. Although we felt we were up against it time wise, I knew we needed to sit down, rest up, get some carbs down us and have a coffee.

Unfortunately one of the helpers at the checkpoint was one of those PT types who was obviously doing his best to motivate people. I heard him go up to groups of walkers, clapping his hands in their faces, yelling ’Fuel and go! Fuel and go! Don’t sit down- you’re not going to get anywhere sitting there! Keep moving!’

I’m afraid to say that this is one of those times when I said what I felt, and my friend told me that my muttered ’f*** off’ wasn’t as quiet as I thought, which might have been the reason why he never approached us!

We stumbled off in an attempt to beat the cut off, and found, to our relief, that the going became much easier.

The wall is still close to original height here

The wall is still close to original height here

We passed through fields and shallow dales, enjoying a charming scene where an elderly couple were raking hay whilst their free range chickens pecked around their feet- it felt like returning to a piece of old England that has now been lost. We passed remnants of the wall, close to their original height and width in places. A lady passed us, trying to make the checkpoint cut off as the friend she was walking with had been struggling with an injured foot before dropping out at the lunch point.

Thirlwall Castle

Thirlwall Castle

After a steep climb uphill on a gravel track, we saw the lady with the dog again, who told us we were nearly at the third checkpoint. We were surprised as it hadn’t felt that far since lunch, but she was right this time- we reached the checkpoint with ¾ of an hour to spare. Looking at the map later, we reckoned that lunch had actually been at 16 miles so we had a shorter distance than we thought to checkpoint three.

It was such a relief to have the pressure removed from us, and we decided not to linger too long, being eager to reach the end. The route stayed easy, following fields and roads, interspaced with small stretches of wall and the remains of mile castles. After crossing through a small wood, we had to wait whilst a herd of cows were driven across our path, aided by an over enthusiastic collie who was unfortunately kicked and ran off, limping and yelping.

The Lakeland fells

The Lakeland fells

The views were less wild here, although we could see the jagged outline of the Lakeland fells in the distance as we were now in Cumbria. After leaving the National Trail, we had a short road walk to the finish at Lanercost Priory, where we were given our medals and coffee. My friend noticed that the old guy we had been worried about was already sitting there with a medal round his neck, so had obviously passed us and finished before us!

Dinner was provided by the Twice Brewed Inn, where we chatted to an American girl and her brother who were touring the UK and seemed to be quite impressed by our challenge.

We too turned tourist on Sunday, recovering with a gentle stroll round Housesteads fort and the charming town of Hexham before calling in on the Angel of the North for photos.

Latrines at Housesteads

Latrines at Housesteads

Underfloor heating system- these Romans were really ahead of their time!

Underfloor heating system- these Romans were really ahead of their time!

A ghost??

A ghost??

Despite the slight organisational issues, it was a great walk in a part of the country I have never walked before, and I am sure I will be back.

Hadrian's Wall

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