Monday, July 19, 2010

"Veni, vidi, pustuli!"

# "If you believe that there's a bond between our future and our past, try to hold on to what we had, we build them strong, we built to last..." # - Jimmy Nail

In AD 122, so the history books tell us, Emperor Hadrian of the Roman Empire ordered a grand structure to be built to cut through the British Isles from east to west and isolate Scotland... This "Roman Wall" has been on the doorstop of where we've lived all of our lives, so this summer, my wife and I planned (and I'm happy to report completed!) our own Hadrian's Wall walk. We were walking it to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society and I thought I'd write up a report for the blog on our whole adventure, because by this walking week's end I'd come up with a brand new series of stories to begin working on in the near future...

Day 1: "Urban Jungle" - our first day was a leisurely start but would be one of our longest at 15 miles, from our home, to Wallsend, to beginning the walk proper and then on to Heddon-on-the-Wall for our first night's welcome rest. After getting our first official trail "stamp" for our Wall passports at Segedunum in Wallsend, we were off! This first section of the National Trail follows the riverside for the most part and not the true line of the Wall - we think it's probably to avoid the major roads that have cropped up in the 1600 years since the Romans were here but whatever the reason, we'll have to do a "fill-in" walk for ourselves at some point in the future to trod that real route from Wallsend, through Byker and Westgate Road, up and over West Road, down to Denton Burn and then Heddon itself... The path we did follow though was pleasant enough, although quite built up in parts of Wallsend and Scotswood, and was mainly on Tarmac - wearing my newish boots for this was probably not the brightest idea I ever had because by day's end I had developed and popped at least two blisters... But this first day did get us going and was mainly on the flat, except of course once we'd passed the Newburn Country Park and were then faced with a near-vertical climb to Heddon - we saw the collection of houses on the hillside from afar but kept telling ourselves they couldn't be the ones we'd eventually end up at - of course, they were! So when we got to our B&B for the night, it was definitely well-earned...


Day 2: "the Long & Straight of it" - we set off after a grand B&B breakfast in what seemed like midday heat (we did pick a great week weather-wise, as it would turn out - not much rain but plenty of sun which is good and bad depending if you were carrying a pack - we both were, at about 40 litres each... Mainly made up of water and comfortable shoes but BOTH are essential on this kind of walk - 2 or more litres of water a day each, minimum). My blisters once again gave me some pain from the get-go today but it was more like a "bruising" of my feet that I could feel - I'd definitely recommend wearing in new boots long, long before a walk of this magnitude and become best friends with them before setting off - by week's end, we were best friends but on Day 2, it was an uneasy acquaintance at best... Perhaps the most tiring thing today was the long length of the old military road that we were following, all the way to a small but beautiful village called "Wall" for our next night's rest. There were of course brilliant parts to this day - getting our second official stamp of the journey at the Robin Hood Inn (you learn to live for these milestones!), stopping at Whittle Dean reservoir and finding a thirst-quenching cuppa near the truly spiritual place of Heavenfield, at St. Oswald's Tea Room. It was at this point along the way that we criss-crossed the Oswald's Way walk, and we were both still eager enough to tell ourselves we would one day attempt that walk too... We did see our first ruins of the Roman Wall itself today too - first in Heddon, then Vindobala and also Planetrees - all of which I'd been past in cars and coaches when I was younger and had never had the opportunity to stop and take a look at... Bedding down in the nicely-named Hadrian Hotel in Wall for the evening with a hot meal was perfection, even if we only had access to a shared bathroom (all camping readers, that's your cue to say "Oh, poor you!")

Day 3: "Peaks & Troughs" - we were really cooking now that we were fully immersed into the countryside, with no towering blocks of flats or office buildings to hide us in their shadows, and so set off from Wall down (and up a very steep hill) past Chesters Roman site (collecting our third passport stamp for posterity!) and onto the soft turfed grass trails leading to the main section of the awe-inspiring most intact ruins of the Wall. There's some great names dotted along all these ruins, perfect to inspire the writer's imagination inside me, and Black Cart's Tower heralded our reaching this middle section of the whole trail. Then we came across the temple to the Roman god Mithras, which probably helped to keep the troops warm on freezing northeast nights all those centuries ago. The peculiar personal significance of this ruin is that when I was a kid of about 8 or 9, my dad used to take us into the old Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University on a regular basis to see the Roman remains, and the thing that's always stuck with me from then was a mock-up of that Mithraic temple, life-size and looming in the darkness of a back room, eerily recreating the feel of this lone outpost on the edge of the Empire... So to see the stone-markings and recognise the imagery on it, having never actually stood next to this real site before on Day 3 was fantastic. It was on to Houseteads from here for our fourth passport stamp and we were also rewarded with the picture-postcard type views you expect from Roman Wall Country. But for walkers it also means the real "ups and downs" begin and we had a role reversal of the previous few days where I was the one keeping morale up instead of my wife keeping me going - she had (finally) gotten her first blister of the trip - misery loves company! The highlight for the two of us on this middle section was always going to be "the Robin Hood tree" which is actually called Sycamore Gap and it's where in the early 1990s Kevin Costner and his American film crew landed to shoot a pivotal scene for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (every generation has a Robin Hood film/tale and this one is ours) - it did always amuse us though, as local "Nothumbrians", how after landing at the White Cliff's of Dover at the beginning of the film, old Kev is suddenly seen tramping along the ruins of the Roman Wall and then does battle not in a glen but at this sycamore tree in one of the dips of the Wall (obviously in the narrative of the film, it's just meant to be some ruins "daan saath"!). Our "inn" for the night was the Twice Brewed B&B and in the middle of such scant landscape, we were glad of the warm night's kip (and also the evening meal, provided for us by some friends who lived nearby - thanks Riv & Jane!)

Day 4: "Welcome Waterproofs" - up until the previous evening we had enjoyed glorious sunshine to take in our views of the Wall, but the rain that had moved in overnight had left a damp, grey mist hanging all about when we left Twice Brewed, reminding us of how some of the legionaries from more exotic climes would have felt being plucked from some cushy number in the Med, and plonked out in the North East of the British Isles, keeping a lookout for some sneaky Scots while freezing their toes off... The mist did clear as we began our ascent back up onto the Wall heights though and we made our way through Cawfields (passing the highest point of the Wall!) and onto Walltown Crags - yet more amazing vistas of the countryside both sides of the Wall came our way as well as some curious views of cattle on top of some of the highest crags, silently grazing and basking in the morning sun. As we stumbled and nimbly made our way down often steep steps dug into the side of the hills that the trail now followed, we wondered just how the cows got up there and would get back down – but they seemed happy enough with where they were at that moment, and I guess that’s all you can ask for in life sometimes... From Walltown we made our way across more sprawling fields and back onto Tarmac for our approach into Gilsland and our next night stop. The Brookside B&B was probably our most recommended stop on the trail – we had great views from the rooftop room we stayed in and Gilsland itself is particularly significant for both of ourselves because my wife’s father was born there (his pregnant mother having been evacuated there during the War years) and my own parents got engaged on a holiday to this area, at the poetic “Popping Stone” which has links to Sir Walter Scott.

Day 5: “Not Far To The Farm” – this was our shortest day but it also turned into the hottest too... It was also the last day that we’d see the last visible physical remains of the Roman Wall itself. It’s perhaps a shameful fact that once you’re past Walton going west on the Wall trail, the county councils responsible for these areas simply stop marking the trail with the detailed and informative plaques that we’d seen all along the way from our walk’s beginning at Wallsend. There are Hadrian’s Way signposts to tell you you’re on the right track but just because all the ruins fall away (from Gilsland to Carlisle the original Wall was a turf defence and then later, stone was added), doesn’t mean the walker is less interested in knowing what had been there all those centuries ago... Still, this day had some highlights for our walking interest, including an impromptu walk down a hill (and back up again!) to visit Lanercost Priory, a brilliant medieval church and collection of buildings that has ties to the Tudor monarchy, and also a brilliant “walker’s refuge hut” not far from Walton itself, where we purchased some Wall walk T-shirts courtesy of iTrod printmakers. Having said all I did about the lack of plaques from Walton to Carlisle, one big bonus about this section is the effort that local farmers and residents go to, to make trail walkers on the Wall route feel welcome – we came across various small boxes attached to fences with snacks and provisions inside to keep your weary feet going (it all works on an honesty-box system where the walker pays the prices put on the crisps, chocolate bars and drinks inside these “Stalls on the Wall”). We got to our B&B quite early – a bunkhouse farm called Sandysike, owned by the nicest beef farmers two vegetarians could ever meet – and were invited to watch the day’s Wimbledon Murray match on TV with the owners’ family. It’s such a grand place and we felt privileged to have had the chance to spend the night here.

Day 6: “Back to the City Limits” – the next morning brought heavy rain but it gave us a chance to wear the waterproof trousers and jackets that we’d been lugging around since the start of the trip. We’d packed and repacked before setting off to lighten our loads but now at least we could say we’d used everything we’d been carrying! (small comfort in muggy rain though) Open fields and small villages were the order of the day as we made our way towards Carlisle and our final night’s stop on the trail. Crosby was the highlight of these, a quaint place with another friendly and welcoming “Stall on the Wall” for walkers just as you leave the village, heading west. The walk into the outskirts of Carlisle takes you along the River Eden and is really picturesque. By now the sun was emerging once again and as more and more buildings began to appear, you realised how much you hadn’t missed the urban architecture of towns and cities, out on the quiet of the Wall... Our penultimate stamp for our Wall passports was to be got at the Sands leisure centre in Carlisle and then we bedded down for the night at our B&B, but not until we treated ourselves to an evening meal at a local restaurant (our first chance to wine and dine for a week!).

Day 7: “There and Back Again (all in one day!)” – the final day of our trail took us out of Carlisle, following the River Eden west once more – midgies followed our progress here because of the rain of the previous day and the heat of this morning, but we soon emerged into open fields again and the knowledge that we’d be sleeping in our own bed later that night kept our walking spirits high. Hitting Burgh-on-Sands we knew we were now on the home straight. This village has historical significance not only because of the Roman Wall but also because it was the deathbed of Edward I. “Longshanks” waged war with Scotland for a good amount of his reign (he’s the king who chased William Wallace of Braveheart fame around the border country) and he was still having trouble with the Scots when he died – the ruins of the Roman Wall obviously didn’t really help him that much in his defence of his realm... Leaving the Burgh-on-Sands we made our way onto the long tidal road to Bowness-on-Solway. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait for any safe-crossing times as the tide was low as we reached the beginning of the road, but the wind was relentless here and even though the sun was out, it was the chilliest I’d felt all week. Crossing eventually onto Bowness itself, we still had about 3 miles of our 84-mile marathon to go, and it’s sad to say this was the most boring part of the whole trip. Perhaps it was because we were so close to the end and just wanted to reach the pub and a comfortable seat, but nevertheless our interest wasn’t peaked by the small country lanes we now had to meander around. The coastline here though is fabulous and you can see Scotland so close across the bay. Getting to the end of the path was a fantastic achievement and we both felt satisfied that we’d completed an epic journey. Thankfully there is a marker plaque at the Carlisle end (but the King’s Arms pub was closed at 3pm when we got there though! We eventually did get our well-earned drink when at a minute-past-three the owner's opened the door...)
Our lift home was well-timed for picking us up from Bowness at the close of our journey and sitting in the back of the car, zooming back in about 1.5 hours across the near 100 miles we’d just travelled in 7 days, I reflected on what my wife and I had achieved together. For myself too, this has been a personal victory – last year, I posted about a “minor” operation I’d had that laid me up for about 3 months in the end, (and actually I was still healing well up to 10 months later...) As I daydreamed and dozed on our car ride home from the end of the Wall trail, I noted that 48 hours before we set off for our Hadrian’s Way walk marked the 1-year point to when I’d had that operation, and to think how far I’d come and been able to go during this week of historical adventures made me realise I truly have "healed" and can move on with things now...
Now, you may have gotten to the end of this rather lengthy post (well done, by the way!) and are thinking, “Hang on, what’s all this got to do with creative writing?!” Well, you never know where new ideas will come from and when imagination will be sparked – I mean, where better to find inspiration than this piece of mega-history, right on my doorstep that I can see and touch within half-an-hour’s drive or an hour's walk?! And of course, as ever, I DID take a notebook along on the journey with me – jotting down points of interest for “my history mystery” along the way, like Thirlwall Castle or the “Busy Gap”... So writing ideas did indeed come - I also found the impromptu break from my "100 days of writing" Book I of the "Moon Crater Adventures" series gave me space to develop another idea for a novel that I had a few years ago (the good ones never go away quietly!) and that has now evolved into a potential 5-book saga, with the working title of “7/11” (probably what I'll refer to here as “my fantastic fantasy” books in the future). But what's it all going to be about? Well, as ever, you'll just have to watch this space for more clues...

No comments:

Post a Comment