Hexham to Twice Brewed
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Pennine Journey – Day 8 – 18 miles
If you were to draw a line graph of today’s walk with the 'X' axis marking enjoyment and 'Y' hours walked it would form a large smile.
Not because I was smiling for much of the day, but because a wind-battered, rain-sodden tramp along the Roman Wall (wind chill on the Whin Sill) that seemed never to end was book-ended by good stuff.
Margaret’s AirBnB was the perfect Hexham refuge for this weary walker.
A deep mattress, fluffy pillows, tea tray with fresh milk, a cookie jar... It was always going to be tough to leave.
It got tougher when Margaret came into the breakfast room with yet another oven-warmed croissant.
And tougher still when the rain – a regular patter on the skylight before now – began falling in earnest.
But leaving is the long-distance walker's lot, so into Hexham I go.
105 miles since leaving Settle, Hexham is the first town the Pennine Journeyer arrives at, and after days of moor and more moor, arriving in civilisation proper is something of a culture shock.
AW received a cool reception in Hexham – "no supper for me that night", he laments, before finding a lodging so "bitterly cold" that he ends up shivering his way through the night with "icy tremors... so violent as to elicit a creaking sympathy from the bedsprings". No five star TripAdvisor review from AW, then. My welcome was rather warmer – drunken hugs from a Wetherspoons regular and Margaret's fluffy pillows. And while I'm not convinced AW would have many kind words for today's world, he'd surely have appreciated those pillows...
With the rare luxury of access to more than one shop, I do the long distance walkers’ equivalent of Supermarket Sweep. I get myself a haircut and shave at a Turkish barbers where the Geordie barber shares his excitement about joining the RAF and quitting Northumberland for good. I find a solution to a problem I've had with my digital camera in a real camera shop that has real customer service. I visit lovely Cogito Books and identify at least four books I have no space to carry. I stock up on Compede and Haribo. Then I spend an amiable half hour wandering around the Abbey, where I'm asked to record in the visitor book the fact that I have walked all the way from Settle to see the Abbey. I explain to the steward that this is not strictly true, but am told the exact details don't matter.
In every place I go I'm given the warmest of welcomes and I leave Hexham with the impression not only of a fine town with a lively mix of indie and high street shops, cobbled wynds and an impressive Abbey, but, most of all, a friendly crowd that call it home.
When a cold wind’s blowing it makes a big difference.
And so to the Wall.
The Wall was, of course, AW’s goal. His 'Campaign' plan had been to head north, hit the Wall, then turn west. But it wasn't just a neat half-way point; it was the point – the destination of his journey; the return trip was really an afterthought.
That he likes what he sees when he finally reaches the Wall is an understatement. As he sits on a tree stump at Cilurnum (after paying the fee at a caretaker's lodge) the crumbing walls are rebuilt... "As I watched they rose again to their full stature... On either side of the fort stretched the Wall to the horizon, 15 feet high and half as thick..." As the minutes pass AW's imagination runs riot, placing sentries on the towering parapet as he overhears "bustle and shouting: evidently the garrison was being reinforced, for I saw a cohort of infantrymen come marching up there hill..." Nor is this idle fancy: "This was not imagination. It was all real; it happened as I sat and watched... but I was in dread lest I should be observed and taken before the Governor. For what excuse had I to offer?"
In a book not averse to purple prose AW is here at his most purple. So purple in fact one wonders if the prolific smoker was drawing on more than his beloved Holbines.
Sadly for me there are no infantrymen or sentries, and no Governor. Instead the Pennine Journeyer reaching the wall for the first time at Planetrees, a mile or so north of Hexham along quiet country lanes, sees nothing but a 15-metre section of masonry a few feet high in a farmer’s field. Cows wander past, raindrops splashing from them, with zero interest in this faraway outpost of the Roman Empire at all.
If I don't quite share AW's breathless enthusiasm for reaching the Wall it's partly because the weather is deteriorating by the hour. As the ground rises, so does the wind, tearing at ash fronds and sending sheep for shelter behind stone walls. Thank Hadrian for small mercies: at least as I make the sharp turn west I'm walking with the wind – and gale-borne rain – on my back.
Pity the many folk walking the Wall east. The first person I pass – a Devon lass – is in the closing days of her trek along the trail, but today she's had enough; the best bits are behind her and the rain – for the second day in a row – is dragging her down. “Sorry to be a grump,” she says, before ploughing on into the deluge.
Her apology reminds me of a comment made by one of my colleagues before I set out walking. “Don't know why you don’t just go and sit on a beach for a fortnight,” he said, entirely unimpressed by me choice of travel plans.
With 10 miles of wind and rain ahead I can half see his point.
The fun doesn't really start on the plod west until the Wall parts from the B6318 – the main cross-country route between Carlisle and Newcastle. Before that there are a few archaeological titbits for those interested in such things: a turret or ten; Chesters Roman Fort, Coventina’s Well. There’s also more road walking than one might like, and a needlessly convoluted dogleg to the outskirts of Wall (which is not to be confused with the Wall).
But then, immediately west of Shield on the Wall farm, and the reservoir beyond, the interest steps up several gears. "If you intend to walk the Wall and have only one day to spare," AW notes, "[this] is the place to start... This is where the excitement commences, and before dusk your sense will be half-paralysed with it." AW: wasted in Kendal Treasurer's office. He should have been snapped up by the Northumberland tourist board and paid by the adjective.
Now, unlike AW I’m no Roman passionista. But as the wall finally meets the Whin Sill – the crust of dolerite that surfaces in scattered outcrops of high drama, most of all at High Force and High Cup – it’s impossible not only to be wowed, but also find a new burst of walking energy. Here the Sill rises and falls like the fins of some ancient rock serpent, frozen long ago treading the desolate wastes of border country.
Crags thrust skyward from the mire, and on these natural battlements of hard-as-iron rock, Hadrian built his wall; man-made fortification atop natural fortification. The effect at points – standing on the airy arret of Sewingshields Crags as the Wall snakes ever-onward; or atop Hotbank Crags where the Sill drops fast away – is enough to stop this waterlogged wanderer in his tracks. Add in the virtually uninhabited marsh that stretches to the northward horizon and distant Kielder – making its dark presence known below lowering rainclouds – and you can well imagine the sleepless eyes of long-dead guards sweeping the wastes for ne’er-do-well barbarians.
In the end, of course, raids were rare. Bar an incursion 80 years after completion – when the garrison was called south – the Wall did its job, its end only spelled when troubles elsewhere in the Empire reduced troop numbers in size and then, a few decades later, the Empire itself collapsed, leaving this remarkable monument to vision, architecture and bloody-minded hard graft snaking across the north of England.
The main obliterator of Hadrian’s legacy was not the Scots, but a Scot, in the form of General Wade, military road supremo, he who constructed the roads that made the West Highland Way possible, and who appropriated much of Hadrian's stone to lay down the B6318. Millions of blocks still lie beneath its tarmac. The rest can be found in farm buildings and private residences within a few miles of the Wall. The main reason for the impressive sections that still stand is John Clayton, the 19th century antiquarian and town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne, whose investments of both time and money gave the Wall a chance of surviving a few more thousand years.
The rain is persistent.
I stop in a sycamore grove for lunch; raindrops dripping into my cheese roll as fingers succomb to the cold. It's better to keep moving on days like this, but ploughing on with dwindling energy is a fool’s game. Two Belfast lads so well armoured in waterproofs you can only see their eyes stop for a chat. Is there a pub up ahead?, they ask, or a cafe?, somwehere to wait for a taxi?
Nothing for miles, I reply.
They’ve had it, they say. They want to abandon ship and make up the lost miles in the better weather forecast for tomorrow.
It’s hard to blame them.
I continue on my way. It’s another long haul. The recommended PJ stage from Hexham to Housesteads is 15 1/2 miles, but there’s no accommodation in Housesteads (there’s not much accommodation anywhere in these parts), so I’m forced onwards to Once Brewed, and the Twice Brewed Inn. It adds another three-and-a-half miles to the day, and in weather like this it feels longer still.
But there are highlights: wind-blown copses of verdant green beech that crest the crags; heather-lined paths that accompany the wall; and the National Trust-owned Crag Lough (a corruption of Loch, so close to the Scottish border), with its alder and willow surround, its reeded fringe and two little boats moored in a pebbeled bay awaiting summertime visitors.
And there’s fun in the company too. Unlike on the Pennine Way, where you might meet a half-dozen fellow walkers on a leg, or the Pennine Journey, on which you’ll meet precisely none, the 84-mile Hardian’s Wall Path is both popular and sociable.
I don’t know whether it’s because the Trail is an easy enough length to polish off in a week, or because more people than I realise share AW’s passion for ancient history, but in my few hours on the Wall I meet Canadians and Swedes, Americans and Dutch, even a few Brits.
Best of all are Geordies Steve and Stef, walking the Wall to raise money for the MS Society (Steve’s nephew has the condition) in full Roman garb. Helmets. Armour. Swords. Even shields. When I pass them – rain running in rivulets down makeshift ponchos, faces red from the blasting easterly – they're still grinning.
Roman soldiers! On the Wall!
Maybe AW hadn't been on the wacky baccy after all...
So finally, with relief, to the B&B at Twice Brewed, an outpost of comfort in these Northumbrian wastes.
It’s a bigger affair than I’d realised; 20+ rooms, fibre broadband, a busy bar, its own microbrewery – and, critically today, a dry room.
I look around for fellow walkers.
They're not hard to spot. You can identify them by the cautious movement of tired limbs; a slow shifting of weight from one blistered sole to the next; hobbles and winces and impeded gaits indicating various stages of incapacity,
But when you're home and dry none of that matters. Instead it's all about the warmth and the beer and comparing notes on the day that's been. There are smiles. There are second, third, and fourth rounds. There's chat in a dozen languages. And there's an unusually high level discussion about Roman antiquity.
This, I think – as the rain still hammers against the window – is why any number of wind-sodden miles beat the hell out of a fortnight on the beach.