Pennine Journey – Day 9 – 7.4 miles
What a difference a day makes. When I limped into the Twice Brwed Inn last night I was knackered, blistered, wet and done with the walk.
This morning, though there’s still no sign of sunshine – and there’s a frisky wind entering the Twice Brewed Inn every time someone opens the door – the rain’s gone, I only have a short day ahead and for the first time on this walk I’ve got company, in the shape of my cousin Sam.
At 7.4 miles (reduced by yesterday’s extra effort beyond Halfsteads to Twice Brewed), today is not only the shortest leg of my Pennine Journey, it’s also, once again, entirely along the Hadrian's Wall Path, and while the best bits of the wall are now behind me, there are still some fine upthrusts of Whin Slll and some decent sections of Roman remains.
But best of all, in good, if still stubbornly grey, weather, there’s time to enjoy the far reaching views.
Northumberland, England's sparsest inhabited county, is known for its open spaces – big skies above big moors – and on exposed parts of the wall you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but marsh and meadow dotted with isolated farmsteads stretched in ever-rising layers that terminate in the Pennines, south (it's not long before Cross Fell, my destination in two days time, comes into view), in the dark of Kielder, north; and, rising through the leaden gloom far to the northeast, the Cheviots, last miles of English hill country
It’s the view north, though, that really stirs the imagination, confirming – if there was any doubt before – how complete a job Hadrian made of his defensive garrison.
For to attack from the Borderlands would not just be perrilous; it would be suicide.
The first challenge would be the miles of blanket bog and sticky mire, a wretched natural moat that would have been murkier still in days past. Here the wretched invader would have struggled waist-deep through reeds and iced water, distant watchtowers keeping an unsleeping gaze on the marsh below.
If the invader somehow conquered the bog their next obstacle was the Whin Sill: in places over 100 feet of near-vertical crag; a rock-hewn turret higher than any castle. A fall from the crag would likely prove fatal.
If the perilous rock climb didn’t thwart your plans (or, more likely, a watching centurions’ arrow), then, and only then, could you attempt an assault on Hadrian's final and definitive defence: the Wall itself, with its immaculately trained garrison.
As I say, suicide.
Sam and I find ourselves pondering the perennial fascination exterted by walls.
The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall draw thousands of tourists each year; and thousands who walk their lengths. Yet at the same time we baulk at Trump’s plans; in Germany the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated with one of Europe’s largest street parties; and in Belfast few protest the demolition of the 'peace' lines.
Do we flock to these walls only when they are remnants of the past? Why do we admire Hadrian’s artistry but think Trump’s plans a fool’s game?
If there are answers then they don’t lie in the beautifully hewn blocks – chipped to specific dimensions two millenia ago – that lie atop the crags of this northernmost English county, where they have witnessed snows and downpours, and monarch after monarch, as they keep their sleepless watch over the forgotten lands.
At Greenhead we're done. A visit to the ruins of Thirlwall Castle – a 12-century keep partly made using stone from the Wall, now home to bats and owls – and a short ramble along Tipal Burn leads to journey’s end at Greenhead Tea Tooms.
It's a fine establishment that gives the colourless village a refreshing kick up the proverbial (gotta love the Trip Adviser reviews, including this one: “Décor in need of an upgrade but perhaps the locals like it.”), and their Terry’s Chocolate Orange sponge is a triumph.
It went down almost as quickly as today's miles.