Hadrian's Wall: Spiritual renewal on Britain's own famous 'camino'
- Credit: Kerstin Rodgers
Since the pandemic, international travel is difficult and expensive; many of us are sticking to the UK. A concurrent trend in travel is long-distance walking. The tourism success of the Camino de Santiago, half a million visitors per annum, led to Britain exploring its own pilgrimage tradition.
Last year an illustrated book, Britain's Pilgrim Places, was published, in collaboration with The British Pilgrim Trust (https://britishpilgrimage.org) which seeks to revive "British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage", something that was banned in 1538 by Henry VIII.
This August I walked the path following the Roman Hadrian's wall, coast to coast, across Cumbria and Northumberland.
This 84-mile hike takes between 24 hours (I met one guy doing it by torchlight) and 10 days. Do you have to be fit? It helps, which is why I took the full 10 days. Booking last minute, I decided to do it west to east, from Bowness on Solway to Wallsend, although it was built starting from the east.
Accommodation consisted of bed and breakfast at either end and camping in the middle. Hadrian's Haul will take your bags, £7 per stop, so if you don't want to carry your pack (I know my limits), you need a schedule.
This three-metre-wide wall has lasted almost 2000 years, a testament to Roman engineering. It took a decade to build. The stones are only finished on the outward-facing side in a mortared framework filled with Roman "rubble".
From Birdoswald to Greencarts farm, the stretches of the wall are continuous, the path adhering closely beside. You "follow the acorn" carved on every post. There are "mile castles", gatehouses built every Roman mile where soldiers would live, eat, sleep, as well as two, (every third of a mile) look-out turrets" between. Hadrian's wall is unusual in that the soldiers lived on the wall, rather like in Game of Thrones. Soldiers were lodged a few miles back at Roman walls in other countries.
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The first couple of days, starting in either direction, is flat and mostly on tarmac, which hurts your feet. Many walkers sustain damage during these sections; I met several experienced hikers who had to give up due to blisters.
"It's like walking on glass," said one lady, finally abandoning the quest and taking the bus.
It's the middle that is tough yet exciting, ascending craggy hills with views over the Pennine Way. In August, purple heather carpets the lower reaches. The weather was hot, I got very dehydrated.
On the way up, your lungs hurt, on the way down, it's your knees that trouble. Walking solo, this was my Reese Witherspoon in Wild moment. At times I'd press my face and hands to the wall, trying to physically immerse myself in history.
Walking long distance seems to be a common project for those who are grieving, something I noticed on the Camino de Santiago. It's a cleansing, purifying routine, literally putting one foot in front of the other, and also a remembrance.
While there are "honesty boxes" and "honesty fridges" where the locals leave water, fruit drinks and snacks, sometimes on a wall, or in a specially-built hut, food, toilets and water are difficult to access in the more remote areas.
I didn't have a hot meal after Carlisle for five days, living on oat bars, as I hadn't taken cooking gear. Campsites may let you use a kettle for pot noodles but that's about it. After an eight-to-ten hour day walking, the last thing you feel like is walking another couple of miles to a pub. Much of the Hadrian's Wall Path is block-booked by tour companies months ahead which is difficult for independent walkers. There is often no room at the inn, even for a beer.
Once I arrived at Wallsend, the Segedunum Roman fort and museum, I took the metro (which has Latin signs) back to Newcastle central station. The train took just under an hour to return to Carlisle. I felt refreshed and inspired. I felt proud of myself, an authentic form of self-esteem. My pilgrimage was based on the joys of fresh air and history but it had the effect of a spiritual renewal.
Kerstin blogs at msmarmitelover.com