Greenhead to Bellingham
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 14 - 23.4 miles - 'Wall'
Generally speaking I’m not into rocks. Nor am I much into antiquity. But bringing the two together on today’s walk along Hadrian’s Wall made for a fun first few miles.
Shame that the 13 or so thereafter descended (often literally) into some of the worst mires on the Pennine Way to date.
Hadrian's wall runs 73 miles from the banks of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west. While historians still argue over the original purpose of the Wall – was it a defensive fortification, an expression of Roman power, the result of divine instruction or a means of increasing taxation? – they agree it was a fine achievement, with lime-washed parapets standing 20 foot high in places, creating a shining ribbon of white that threaded across the Borderland hills, visible for miles around.
While plotting the frontier the emperor's building surveyors were fortunate to be able to take advantage of one of northern England's most impressive geological features, the Great Whin Sill, the layer of igneous diabase rock that creates a natural rampart beneath many miles of its central section.
I’d passed the Whin Sill before, on High Cup and alongside High and Low Force. In border country the Sill cuts a mighty swathe through the countryside, rocky crests breaking the subsoil in waves, giving the Romans readymade ramparts on which they built their fortification.
So good was the resulting Wall that it served the Roman Empire, on and off, for the best part of 500 years. If Donald Trump ever makes his threatened state visit our own Wall would make a worthwhile stopping point – both to soak up the fine Northumbrian air, and to get a few construction tips.
For the walker who doesn't share the President's interests, the popular ramble along it is more a novelty than a highlight.
Sure, in places the Wall reaches ten foot or more – where you can start marvelling at its scale – but for the most part it’s lower, and it frequently disappears from the ground, its beautifully carved blocks now incorporated into nearby homes, streets and churches.
Just as impressive are the cliffs of the Whin Sill that offer a breezy rollercoaster ride (over 3,000ft of ascent) and expansive views either side – even in the north Pennine murk.
Just beyond Turret 44B I meet Mike.
Mike is coming to the end of his Pennine Way walk and has had a blast.
In the past he’s walked across France and Spain, but the Pennine Way, he says, tops both – including high level routes over the Pyrenees.
As we’re chatting we pass an Ozzie couple with a daughter who looks like she’d rather be anywhere in the world but trudging along some Roman half-wall in Northumberland.
“Hello Gandalf,” chimes up the husband.
We stop. “Sorry?” asks a bewildered Mike.
The guy points at Mike’s stick. “Your staff – you look like Gandalf. You know, the wizard. From Lord of the Rings.”
I give Mike a glance. It's true; the resemblance is uncanny.
“Hey,” continues the Ozzie, “could you do an impression? Of Gandalf?”
I was waiting for Mike to tell our new friends where to go when he, instead, lowered his voice and gave a word-perfect and Oscar-worthy Gandalf performance: “...All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Ozzie dad was so bowled over by the speech that he stood in silence. Even his daughter was starting to look interested. I didn’t know what to make of what was going on.
Mike then explained to us that before retiring he'd been an actor who’d played the white wizard in the UK’s first ever amateur production of Lord of the Rings. (Pointed) hats off to the guy: he was astonishingly good.
With this short screening performance over it was inevitable, I suppose, that the Ozzies would require a photo or ten. So Mike struck up a series of poses that delighted the cameraman.
Then the dad turned on me. “Hey, can you be Frodo?”
“He’s not that fat!” cried his giggling wife.
Nevertheless. I did what was asked, kneeling down next to Mike to give Gandalf the correct sense of scale and humiliating myself as hobbit to his wizard.
As we parted ways with the Ozzies Mike got the last word in. “Onwards for second breakfast!” he called back through the mizzle.
At some point while planning their journey over the Pennines every Wayer comes across the name Once Brewed. It's a minuscule village just south of Hadrian's Wall that offers accommodation at, confusingly, the Twice Brewed Inn.
This means that a motorist arriving on the B6138 from the east sees the place name plaque 'Once Brewed', while those coming from the west read the pub sign 'Twice Brewed'.
Why twice? One theory says that on the eve of the Battle of Hexham in 1464 Yorkist foot soldiers demanded their beer be brewed again because it lacked its usual fighting strength.
A more likely explanation is that eighth century farmers tended to brew weak ale. 'Twice brewed' meant the inn offered stronger ale.
Shortly after the Breweds the Pennine Way strikes north from the Wall, leaving the steady stream of international tourists to cross the wilderness plain that was once barbarian no-man’s-land.
And God, it's a barren place.
On a moorland stile I look around. Apart from the clifftop curves of the wall, rising in the misty distance in a horizon-panning series of humps and dips like a kids’ drawing of a seamonster, there's nothing but moor and the approaching mass of Kielder Forest. No farms. No roads. In the silence I find myself missing the company of sheep and cows.
When you finally enter the dark confines of Kielder – the biggest forest in England – there’s even less. Just a heavy air and dead silence, in which your breaths are held close and reverberate back at you as you squelch through mud marsh penned by rows of pines that run for miles.
It is only later in the day – as the path exits the forest and a few farms dot the horizon – that a car passes by. It is the first I’ve seen in hours.
For Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in England with just 62 people per square kilometre (the English average is 413 people per square kilometre; London has 5,000+).
It feels, as you head ever further north, over the last few moors and hills, that England is running out. That there are no people left to maintain these bleak, windswept lands.
The landscape felt cosier the other side of the Wall.
My feet begin hurting badly at mile 16.
The shortage of accommodation means I’m back to following Robinson's often punishing End to End Trail schedule.
The stabbing pain in my right heel that was a problem a few weeks back has been superseded by a constant rubbing of my toes. It’s started since I bought my new boots but it’s impossible to work out if the pain is simply me getting used to new footwear or whether there’s something else going on. Footwear or feet? How do you know after 750 miles on the road? Can you really expect to get up and dance every day?
What I do know is that the new insoles I bought alongside the boots last week made matters worse. And it needed a salesman with some integrity to tell me why.
At the excellent Cotswold Outdoor in Carlisle that I visited on yesterday’s rest day I told the sales guy my problem: despite being recommended insoles to twin with the boots my feet have hurt ever since – far more than when I didn’t have the inserts.
He wasn’t surprised, he said. Too many sales reps were upselling insoles as essential purchases when: a) they're not necessary; and b) the new generation of 'extreme' inserts should only be prescribed by someone who knows what they’re talking about – like a physio or podiatrist.
Poorly chosen insoles can have a profound impact on how you walk, he continued, which in turn can impact on anything from your knees and hips to your back. What's more, because the inserts take up room in the boot, they can also intensify blisters and friction injuries .
I tell him I’m surprised they’re being sold in sports shops.
It’s big money, he explains. If you fork out for good boots, the extra £30 or £40 for insoles is an easy sell – and the reps for the insert companies are good at what they do. The result? More people are turning up at walking shops with feet and joint problems created by their upsold inner soles.
The moment I replace the harsh inserts I bought a week earlier with a gentler inlay it’s like my feet can breathe again. My whole gait relaxes back to how it usually is.
Which makes the day's walk easier than it might have been. But 23 miles of tracing the Wall followed by heavy duty marsh-trudging is hard work, and by mile 20 I’ve had enough. By the time I walk the last tarmacced mile into the town of Bellingham every step hurts.
When I finally reach The Cheviot Inn I order a pint of lemonade and pint of lager and pretty much collapse into my seat.
My spirits only lift when Barrie unexpectedly walks in and buys a pint, shortly afterwards followed by Cliff, the US expat walking the Way on a nostalgia tip who I met on the wintry summit of Cross Fell.
We started talking about life after the Pennine Way. What will they do next week? Relax, rest, sleep. Most of all throw the knackered walking boots away.
I can't help but feel slightly envious. Which is not something I've felt so far on the Trail.
Back to Pennine Way
Continue the walk: Day 15 - Bellingham to Byrness