Hiking England’s oldest road

England is an old land where you can drink in the same pubs as the Crusaders did and watch a play in a Roman theater, so it’s a rare treat to touch or experience anything that can legitimately boast of being the “oldest.”

The Ridgeway Trail in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in southern England just might have the claim of being the country’s oldest road. The 87-mile route runs along a chalk ridge from the fantastic megalithic complex of Avebury northeast to the River Thames. People were using this as a road all the way back in the Neolithic 6,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. Various tribes left their mark in the form of megalithic ruins, forts, and enigmatic chalk figures. There were many of these “ridgeway” routes in prehistoric Europe, allowing travelers to bypass the thick woods and primeval swamps that covered much of lowland Europe at that time.

While not as scenic or rugged as other National Trails such as the one that runs along Hadrian’s Wall, the Ridgeway still makes for a pleasant ramble. B&Bs and campgrounds dot the route so you’ll never have to worry about where to stay, as long as you reserve ahead of time in the peak season. Another big plus is that you can see the trail’s two greatest prehistoric sights, Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington (pictured here) in a long day hike.

The day hike starts in the pretty little village of Bishopstone, a short taxi ride from the railway stop at Swindon. Signs point you up the steep hill overlooking town and onto a broad field that narrows and ascends to the Ridgeway proper. From there head east, and it’s easy sailing from then on. There are no great changes in elevation, just some gentle swells.

Once you’re on the Ridgeway, it’s only five miles to the White Horse, but two miles along there’s a road heading south that takes you to the old stately home of Ashdown House and its grounds. Hidden in the forest is Alfred’s Castle, attributed in local folklore to King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact it’s a hill fort dating to the about the 6th century BC. Hill forts were settlements or refuges enclosed by ditches and earth palisades. They tended to be on high spots to make them easier to defend. There’s not much to see of the old earthworks here, but the birds tweeting in the branches makes this place a good spot for a picnic. The detour is two miles each way plus another mile or so of wandering through the woods.

%Gallery-84894%Back on the Ridgeway, it’s not long before you reach Wayland’s Smithy. This megalithic tomb was built about 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic, the last phase of the Stone Age. A low, narrow passageway of stone slabs leads to three burial chambers set inside a long earthen mound. Archaeologists believe it was the burial place for an important chief and his family. It’s similar to West Kennet Long Barrow at Avebury. Like West Kennet, Wayland’s Smithy is completely open and you can explore the entire tomb, as well as pick up trash left by less respectful visitors. The place is named after Wayland, an old Germanic blacksmith god a bit like the Roman Vulcan. Local folklore says if you need your horse shod, you can leave it and a silver coin here overnight and the god will do the job for you!

After Wayland’s Smithy the ridge becomes more exposed and you get broad views of the lowlands to the north. Soon you’ll come across Uffington Castle, a hill fort that’s much easier to see than Alfred’s Castle because it stands on a high, treeless promontory. On the hillside nearby is one of England’s most famous monuments–the White Horse of Uffington. This horse, drawn in the Celtic style, was made by cutting off the topsoil to reveal the white chalk underneath. Nobody knows exactly how old it is or its original form since it’s been recut numerous times over the centuries, but most archaeologists agree that it dates to the same time as the hill fort, the 7th or 8th century BC. A recent excavation, however, suggests the horse may be a few centuries older.

The White Horse is fascinating to see up close, but there’s no good way to see it in its entirety. The photo attached to this article is an aerial shot for a reason! Only when you walk down the ridge and towards to village of Uffington to take a bus back to Swindon will you see the horse as it was meant to be seen–from the valley with Uffington Castle next to it. Back in the day it must have been a powerful symbol of the local tribe’s dominance over the region.

The entire walk from Bishopstone up to and along the Ridgeway and down to the village of Uffington is about seven miles, plus another five or so for the Alfred’s Castle detour.

Three points to remember. The path can get gooey in parts if there’s been a recent rain, so be prepared. Also, sources of water are scarce along much of the trail so bring a full day’s supply. Finally, rural bus service tends to be poor in England. Plan ahead with the schedules. I got to the village of White Horse at 4:10 PM, just in time to miss the last bus for the day, so I ended up having to hike another five miles to Faringdon to catch another bus. My legs weren’t happy, but it did give me a chance to see the White Horse from a distance.

National Park Service pledges $875k for trails

The U.S. National Park Service has announced a number of updates and improvements to existing trails throughout the park system, and backed the plan by pledging nearly $875,000 specifically ear-marked to complete the initiative. The “Connect Trails to Park” project will be funded from a grant program created last year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the National Trails System.

Created back in 1968 with legislation that mandated the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the system now consists of over 52,000 miles of trails. 11 of those are National Scenic Trails with another 19 being designated as National Historic Trails. Over a thousand other hiking routes are listed as National Recreation Trails as well.

All told, 17 projects will receive funding from the grant, which is designed to “restore or improve existing trails and trailhead connections, provide better wayside and interpretive services, encourage innovative educational services, support bridge and trailhead designs, and provide planning services for important trail gateways.” In other words, we can expect improved infrastructure on the projects that are receiving funding, which includes the Continental Divide Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, amongst others.

These infrastructure upgrades kick off the “Decade of National Trails” initiative that will see similar updates on a number of other routes in the years ahead, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the trail system in 2018.

To see the complete list of trail upgrades, and where the money is being spent, click here.

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

Hadrian’s Wall Day Five: across the lowlands

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.

Tomorrow: Finished!

Hiking Hadrian’s Wall: Day Four–over the crags

I set out from Twice Brewed having hiked halfway across England without discovering any problems in what is now officially my middle-aged body. In fact, I feel pretty damn good.

The central portion of the Hadrian’s Wall Path is dominated by a series of crags. The Wall goes right up and over them. It would have been easier to build around, but the Romans wanted to take advantage of the natural defenses and commanding views the crags provided.

And the views are impressive. I can see for miles across an open land of rolling green. Herds of grazing sheep and cows appears as a dusting of white dots, and every now and then the sun will glint off loughs, the local spelling for “lochs”. When the weather is clear, as it is for a few hours today, I can see all the way to Scotland. On the rare instances when I meet people I can hear the difference in the local dialect. Border areas have always fascinated me because of their mixture of people and cultures. All along this hike I’ve been hearing a variety of dialects from northern English to Highland Scottish and a few regionalisms I can’t identify. Sadly, the cuisine hasn’t turned Scottish up here. I have yet to be offered haggis or a deep-fried Mars bar.

The hike today is a series of ascents and descents with the Wall as my constant companion. I see few hikers and fewer farms. The hamlets I spot from the summits of the crags look tiny in this vast, open landscape. It must have been a lonely existence for soldiers up here. Some compensated by bringing their families with them. The fort of Vindolanda near Twice Brewed had a large civilian community around it. The damp soil has preserved a whole series of wooden slats with writing on them, called the Vindolanda Tablets. These were letters by soldiers and civilians and offer a rare glimpse into a life not all that different from our own:

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.”

Other letters were about military affairs:

“… the Britons are unprotected by armor. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.”

If you’re in London, go to the Roman section of the British Museum and you can see the letters for yourself, along with translations. It’s one of the most evocative displays in one of the world’s great museums.

The Romans left their mark on the countryside in many ways–not just the Wall, but in the stones reused for later farms and churches, the milestones used as gateposts, and the altar stones and troughs that can still be found amidst the herds of grazing sheep. Later epochs are visible too, as I soon discover when I leave the last of the crags behind and descend into the lowlands.

%Gallery-71936%As I come to an open valley, I realize this would have been a prime place to invade. I bet the Wall was stronger here, but it’s hard to tell because many of its stones were hauled away in the 14th century to build Thirlwall Castle. Set atop an artificial hill with thick, sheer walls, it must have been impregnable to the many bands of Border Reivers who terrorized this region from the 13th to 17th century. These bands of cattle rustlers came from both sides of the border and knew no loyalty other than to their own kin. Local lords would build castles to protect their communities. Poorer people made simple pele towers, single towers that were proof enough against the reivers, who usually lacked siege equipment or artillery. Despite the many forts the reivers were the terror of the borderlands, sweeping down on isolated farms at night to take cattle and anything else they could get. This was rough country and it was a long time after the Romans left before any real order was reinstated.

Most of Thrilwall Castle’s walls stand to their full height, although a big part of the eastern side has disappeared, exposing a winding staircase leading nowhere. I walk inside, seeing where regular sockets in the stone held beams to support three floors, and windows where people once sat looking out over the same views I’ve been enjoying. It must have been the center of its community, a place where people came not only for protection, but to appeal to the lord for the rule of law and commerce. Now it’s just a shell and I walk through it alone.

Just beyond I come to Milecastle 48, another of the Roman fortified gateways along Hadrian’s Wall. This one still has the lower few steps of a staircase that once led to the top. Archaeologists calculated the angle of the stairs and figured out that they would have met the nearest side at 15 feet above the ground, a simple yet clever way of figuring out how tall the Milecastles once were.

I’m in richer land now, and I pass by prosperous farms and through lush stands of trees. It’s a remarkable transformation from just an hour ago. Part of the reason is the River Irthing, which flows from the northern peat bogs and deposits nutrient-rich soil along its banks. The foundations of a Roman bridge stand in the middle of a field, left high and dry when the river changed its course. I cross over a modern footbridge as the river flows the color of tea below me. The peat bogs have preserved some startling finds from prehistoric times including swords, wooden idols, and even human bodies. I don’t see any bog bodies floating down the river, though, so I continue on my way.

Another major attraction on this portion of the hike is Birdoswald Roman Fort with its Roman Army Museum and reconstructed barracks. Suddenly I’m back in civilization again. The spacious parking lot is full of cars and kids in Roman costumes run squealing through the museum. The fort and museum are well presented and worth a look, but I feel glad to get back to the quiet trail where I see only the occasional hiker or some farmer standing in a distant field.

I don’t have much more time to enjoy it, though, as the sun slants to the west and I climb a long, hard hill on my sixteenth mile of the day to stop at the Centurion Inn. As the country darkens into night I sit by an open fire and drain my well-earned daily ration of two pints of fine British ale. Good and good for you.

Read the entire series here.

Tomorrow: Day Five: through the lowlands.