The Hadrian’s Wall Path starts with a bang.
It doesn’t look promising. This 84 mile National Trail begins at the appropriately named Wallsend neighborhood of Newcastle Upon Tyne, an industrial city in northern England. Not my ideal way to start a six-day hike, but right at the Wall’s eastern end is Segedunum, one of the most completely excavated Roman forts in the world. Virtually all of it has been uncovered except for a strip buried by a nearby road. An observation tower offers a fantastic view of the foundations of every building.
Going up six floors in the tower’s elevator, I step out into a broad viewing room with floor-to-ceiling windows. To the south flows the River Tyne, an important trade route even in Roman times. Wharves and shipyards line each bank, massive cranes towering over them. To the north, homes and shops stand in orderly rows stretching as far as I can see. At my feet the fort spreads out like a diagram from one of my archaeology books. The headquarters dominates the center. Next to it is the commanding officer’s villa. Even though nothing is left but the foundations it still emanates an air of luxury. The common soldiers had to settle for the long, narrow barracks that run the width of the fort.
Just beyond Segedunum I can see the beginning of the Hadrian’s Wall Path (pictured here) cutting through a screen of trees and disappearing amidst the crowd of buildings. Further to the west all I see is city. My first goal is a village 15 miles away, just beyond Newcastle’s western edge. I have a lot of walking to do before I get to the countryside.
But first I want to explore the fort.
The museum is filled with artifacts found at the site and around Newcastle. There are reconstructions of Roman rooms, diagrams of Hadrian’s Wall, and statues of the man himself. But the most interesting part is next door where there’s a faithful reproduction of a Roman bath, minus the water, slaves, and occasionally randy bathers. Roman forts usually had baths, as it was considered essential for good health and a symbol of Roman civilization. Even poor people went to baths, with the wealthy sponsoring free days for those too destitute to fork over a few copper coins.
After browsing the displays I wander around the fort itself. There’s nothing left but the outlines of buildings, and my ears are filled with the rush of nearby traffic and the horn from a passing boat, yet I find this place strangely evocative of the past. Its completeness despite its position in the middle of a bustling city makes it seem almost defiant, a 2,000 year-old reminder of Newcastle’s origins. But this is just a taste of what’s out there beyond the office towers. It’s time to get walking.
I won’t lie to you, this first stretch of the Path is underwhelming. I’ve never been one for city hiking, and it’s a long, hard slog over pavement. The path mainly runs by the river, so at least I get to watch the boats and get a few glimpses of the past–a Norman keep, some ornate Victorian buildings, and a series of magnificent bridges–but I’m in a hurry to get into the country. There’s nothing more beautiful than the English countryside in good weather, so it’s probably just as well that there’s been a steady drizzle ever since I left Segedunum. I’ll save the good weather for later.
I leave the city center behind and continue along the Tyne through the outskirts. At times the path leaves the river and passes by office parks and abandoned factories. In the distance I can see hills that haven’t been completely absorbed by the city. Housing developments stick like scabs to their otherwise green slopes. People are fewer here–the occasional jogger, a couple of cyclists with packs who are probably doing Hadrian’s Wall too, and a guy in a business suit who parks near the river, gets out, looks down at the water for a couple of seconds with a grim expression, glances at me, then gets back in his car and drives off.
I have one last bit of purgatory before the wilderness–an industrial estate with rows of buildings like concrete boxes. Past these sprawls a vast junkyard of thousands of rusted cars surrounded by a chain-link fence and enough barbed wire to supply the Western Front. Giant signs tell me NO PARKING. NO DUMPING. NO PHOTOGRAPHS. WARNING: GUARD DOGS. I don’t know who these signs are for because I see nobody. Many of the cars are wrecked, and one near the fence, which looks like a giant hand has given it a karate chop, has a message scrawled in yellow paint. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DRINK AND DRIVE. I imagine a group of laughing teenagers coming back from some Newcastle club on a Saturday night. A sudden turn, a truck coming the other way, the kid at the wheel swerves but it’s too late and they go under. I need to get to those hills.
Finally I’m through to a nice stretch of greenery along the placid river. It’s still raining but my spirits lift. The steeple of a village church rising through the trees on the opposite bank provides a welcome change from decrepit docks. Past that I see an old earthwork from the Battle of Newburn Ford, when in 1640 invading Scots met an English army here. The earthworks were English forts, placed there to stop the Scots from crossing the river. They didn’t work. It didn’t help that the English were outnumbered nearly four to one. Newcastle fell to the Scots and the massive amount of spending to get rid of them was one of the contributing causes of the English Civil War.
This has always been a border region. The Romans built the Wall to keep out the Picts and other tribes. The Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and later English kings had trouble with the Scots too. I pass through the battlefield and on through some farmers’ fields. It’s getting dark but it has finally stopped raining and I’m almost to my goal.
I continue on through a golf course and up a steep hill. At the summit is Heddon-on-the-Wall and my first stop, the Houghton North Farm. It’s a farm-turned-hostel at the edge of the village that serves walkers doing the Hadrian’s Wall Path. After settling in I head on over to the local pub for a huge meal of roast beef and a couple of pints of ale. One of the best parts about hiking in England is there’s always a pub waiting for you at the end of the day.
I feel pretty good. I’ve done the first and worst stretch of the hike and am 15 miles closer to my goal of crossing England. Most importantly, the city is behind me. From now on it’s open countryside all the way to the other coast. The good stuff is all ahead of me.
Tomorrow: Day Two, from Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford.
Read the entire series here.
All photos by Sean McLachlan unless otherwise noted.