Hadrian’s Wall Day Six: reaching the coast

It’s the last day of my hike and I wake up excited. I have only fifteen miles to go to finish walking across the country! Sure, I’ve been going along one of the narrowest parts of England, but it still feels good. I’ll be staying at the same hotel in Carlisle, the Brooklyn House, again tonight, and that means I can finish up my hike with only a day pack.

Back in Roman times Carlisle was called Luguvallium. It started as a wooden fort that soon attracted a civilian community. When it grew in importance the fort and town grew as well. As I make my way through the streets towards to Path I see Carlisle is fairly diverse, with many Indians, Pakistanis, and a few Arabs. It was diverse in Roman times too. The legions came from all over the Empire and members of various local tribes settled here to trade with them. There’s even a report that when the Emperor Septimius Severus visited in 208 AD during his campaign against the Picts he met an “Ethiopian” legionnaire here, the Roman term for a black African. The Roman Empire never controlled any parts of Africa south of the Sahara, but people from well beyond its borders immigrated to seek their fortune.

Walking out of Carlisle takes much less time than walking out of Newcastle did. Soon I’m strolling along the south bank of the River Eden as it wends its way through forest towards the Solway Firth. A few traces of the Vallum are all that show me that I’m still following the Wall. Although the Path is well marked, it would be nice if there were more informational signs. I would have liked a sign telling me, “This is the last bit of Wall above ground, so take a photo.” Yesterday I passed a stretch of the Wall that my guidebook tells me has Roman graffiti and the engraving of a penis, put there to ward off evil spirits. There was no sign to mark the spot, and not only did I miss the penis, I even forgot to look for it. I guess that sort of thing happens to a man when he reaches 40.

Now the Path strikes out away from the river and I’m walking across farms again. I hop over a stile into a field and up a low rise. When I get to the top the rest of the field comes into view and I stop short. A large herd of cows and their calves are standing not twenty yards away. It’s calving season and cows get very defensive of their young at this time of year. The biggest one starts bawling with a noise sound like a mixture of a moo and a roar. I back away as the cows line up between me and the calves. Earlier this year a hiker was killed by cows, and former cabinet minister David Blunkett was injured in a separate incident and suffered a broken rib. More of the herd start mooing angrily and cows from other parts of the field start converging on me. I knew I shouldn’t have touched that cursing stone back in Carlisle. Now I’m going to get trampled. My friends will remember me not for the son I raised, or the books I wrote, or the countries I visited, but as the guy who got killed by cows.

%Gallery-72023%I move quickly but calmly away, which is the best thing to do with an angry animal that isn’t actually attacking. They hold their ground, still braying, and the rest of the herd joins them to make a long line facing me. I make a detour around the edge of the field to get to the other side. Even though I’m a couple of hundred yards away now they turn their line to face me as I go around. If they make a move I’ll hop over the fence and damn the barbed wire.

I finally make it to the other stile and climb over with a sense of relief. Hanging there is a sign saying, “COWS WITH CALVES. ENTER WITH CAUTION” Thanks. It might have been nice to have that sign on both entrances. I continue on, feeling cocky. I’ve looked death in the face and survived. I’m going to eat hamburger tonight. Just then a drop of water splots on my head, followed by another, and then half a dozen more. I yank my raincoat out of my pack as the whole sky opens up. A heavy rain drums against my hood with a punishing force. That damn cursing stone is after me again. I pull on some waterproof leggings and continue on.

The rain is cutting down visibility, but as I crest a high hill I can dimly see the hills of Scotland beyond the River Eden to the north. Soon I come to the village of Burgh by Sands on the site of the Roman fort of Aballava. There’s not much to be seen of Aballava now except for the 12th century church, which, like so many buildings in this part of the country, is made of Roman stone. The church is small and plain and provides welcome shelter from the incessant rain. Set into the wall to the left of the altar is an old stone face of some pagan god, a round smiling fellow with a Celtic-style drooping moustache. Why the builders would put such a thing in their church is a mystery.

A more practical addition was the 14th century tower, which doubled as a pele tower to protect the parishioners from Scottish raids. It was erected after the death of Edward I, who despite his nickname “Hammer of the Scots” never defeated his northern enemies and died of dysentery while camped at a marsh not far from here while waiting to cross Solway Firth for another invasion.

I need to pass through that marsh now. The tide from Solway Firth comes in quickly and I have to time my crossing carefully to either three hours before or one-and-a-half hours after high tide. As I make my way along a narrow two-lane road I see a big red sign saying “ROAD CLOSED”. A tidal calendar tells me it’s almost two hours after high tide, but with the heavy rain and strong easterly wind I hesitate. Drowning a few miles from my goal wouldn’t be as embarrassing as getting trampled by cows, but the result is the same.

I decide to chance it. It’s five miles along the marsh to Drumburgh, where the land rises again and I’ll be safe. A couple of high spots along the way can provide refuge in case of trouble, and there’s an old sea barrier by the Path I can retreat to at any time. Unless the rain causes some record flooding, I should be OK.

I walk quickly, the rain getting stronger as a clammy wind comes off the Solway Firth and over the marsh. A variety of waterfowl peck at the tall grass, but I’m not about to go squishing over the marsh to get photos for the folks back home. I keep casting nervous glances at the waterline. This doesn’t help, because the waterline varies. At points it’s far in the distance; at other times it’s almost to the Path. I can’t tell if it’s going in or out. A few cars go whooshing along the road nearby despite the signs at regular intervals saying it’s closed. This gives me some confidence. If the locals feel the road is safe, it probably is.

After a grinding five miles during which the inside of my waterproofs turn into a humid jungle, I make it to Drumburgh and its local castle. It’s a fortified house really, with thick stone walls and high windows. The stout front door is set onto the wall of the upper floor. There’s a stairway to it, but in the days of the Border Reivers there would have been a crude drawbridge that could have been pulled away to make the house inaccessible. Here I spot a last hurrah from Hadrian’s Wall–a Roman altar used as a garden ornament.

I only have a couple of miles left to my final goal of Bowness-on-Solway. The rain keeps coming and the Path is abandoned. I squish along wondering what it must be like to live in such a spot. Solway Firth is beautiful despite the wretched weather, a sweeping vista of gray water with the green hills of Scotland to the north. The flat marshland with its innumerable rivulets and marshgrass has its own subtle beauty.

Squish squish. Squish squish. This is hardly a glorious last two miles to my hike. I pass through a bit of forest and some weathered stone farmhouses covered in yellow and green lichen until the sigh
t of a sign stops me short.


This is it. At this spot was the Roman fort of Maia, the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. A short stroll up a little lane past stout stone buildings and an inviting pub and I see the Path end at a little hut. A sign congratulates me for finishing. It’s stopped raining for the first time in hours and I stand looking out over Solway Firth as it widens out into the Irish Sea. There’s no-one about and all I hear is the distant cry of gulls and the soft breeze rustling through the marshgrass.In six days I’ve walked 84 miles across the borderlands of England and Scotland, once riven by warfare and now safe but for the occasional herd of cows. I feel a bit sad it’s all over but I know I’ll be doing another long hike in England or Scotland next year. How couldn’t I?

You can read the entire series here.

Next: Hiking Hadrian’s Wall–The Practicalities