Getting up early I take a last look at the crags that I crossed yesterday before heading west and towards Carlisle. I’m now in the lowlands and after scrabbling over steep rock for the past two days it’s very easy going. Add the fact that it’s sunny and I only have eleven miles to walk today, and I have an easy ramble ahead of me.
The countryside is more populated here, and I pass by hedges, fields, farms, even housing developments. Yet there are still wide swathes of untouched land. Rabbits hop into hedges as I approach and I spot the track of a fox in the mud. The Wall, sadly, has almost disappeared, quarried over the centuries for use in other buildings. I’m still along its course, though, as the ditch to the north and the Vallum to the south show me. They’ve survived better than the more durable stone.
The richness of this region made it a target for reivers, and I pass another pele tower, almost swallowed up by the more modern house built around it. There were probably more around here but they’re been quarried for stone just like the Wall was.
I stop by the side of the trail for a snack and meet some other hikers. I’ve met a few along this hike, but this group is different–it’s a whole family, including a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. They’re doing the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path and have already made it all the way from Newcastle to this spot, more than sixty miles. They’re taking it slow, the kids carrying little day packs and being encouraged with a steady supply of treats, but they’re doing it. Hmmmm, perhaps I should have picked a more challenging hike for my midlife crisis. It helps that these are two of the coolest kids ever. I ask them if any of the other kids in their school have ever walked across England and they blush and smile and shake their heads no. Impressive. Once my kid is a bit bigger I’ll have to take him across the country too. At age three he’s already walking a kilometer each way to and from school.
Next I come to the River Eden, which flows westward to Solway Firth, my final destination. Thick bushes colored with purple wildflowers grow along its banks. It’s a peaceful spot, but I see the tops of buildings ahead.
It’s not long until the River Eden winds its way into suburban Carlisle. I pass through a city park and nod at someone passing the other direction. He gives me a confused, wary look and I realize that I’m off the trail, where conversation is easy and everyone is helpful, and back into the world of city attitude.
%Gallery-72022%Carlisle is the most northerly city in England (it would be hard to go further north without ending up in Scotland) and has a population of a little more than 100,000, although it feels much smaller. An ugly ring of modern sprawl surrounds a few winding historic streets with a soaring cathedral, a few very old buildings such as the Guildhall built in 1407, and a massive castle. Carlisle Castle is built atop a Roman fort and the oldest bits still visible were built by Henry I in the 1120s. It was actually finished by David I of Scotland, who captured Carlisle in 1136. This city and Newcastle, where I started my hike, were top prizes in the constant English-Scottish border wars. David was one of the great early kings of the Scots and helped unify the rival clans into something approaching a national identity. It took a lot of fighting to bring the proud families under the feudal yoke, and he was only partially successful, but the Scots loved him because he was good at killing Englishmen
In a pedestrian underpass in front of the castle is a large boulder of sculpted granite that has got to be the strangest example of public art I’ve ever seen. It’s a reproduction of a famous “cursing stone” made in 1525 and inscribed with a curse against the reivers by the Archbishop of Glasgow. It’s pretty nasty, going on for more than a thousand words and inscribed in a spiral around the entire stone. For sheer spiteful detail, it cannot be matched.
“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without. . . May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them. . .“
And on and on and on. It’s so creepy, in fact, that one local councilor has blamed it for everything from foot-and-mouth disease to floods and tried to have it removed.
Luckily reason won out over superstition and the cursing stone remains in place. But having read it and touched it, will my good luck on this hike hold out?
Read the entire series here.