Hadrian’s Wall; Coast To Coast In January
One of the most famous hikes in the UK is the route along Hadrian’s Wall. It runs from the East coast at South Shields near Newcastle, across country to the coast at Bowness-on-Solway at the Solway Firth.
This Hike follows the path of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Wall, which divided the country in two during the Roman occupation, and was built in a concentrated period of 10 years, starting in AD 122.
The wall was a monumental undertaking and consisted of some two million tons of stone being cut, transported, and laid, to create a northern boundary for the Roman empire.
I have always wanted to walk from coast to coast following the route of the wall and after suggesting the idea to my friends we decided to do it in January. Mad you might say, but we had our reasons.
We all have games that we play when we enter outdoor activities and such games come with rules which can be spoken or just understood. For example, the type of kit you might take on a night out in the woods might include a sleeping shelter such as a tarp or tent, or you might decide not to take anything to sleep under, instead intending to build a shelter.
The aims for our hike were as follows:
- To see the sea on both sides of the country
- To walk from East to West following the direction in which the wall was built
- To carry all our kit and food with us
- To wild camp every night
- To do it in winter
Once our goals had been established, we set out to plan and prepare for this mini adventure. Our chosen start date was the 4th of January, and we gave ourselves 6 days to complete the cross country hike. (This journey can be achieved in a much shorter time; but due to the fact we intended to carry all our kit and because at that time of year there are less than 8 hours of daylight, 6 days seemed to be a good estimate.)
The standard direction of the walk is from West to East, but we wanted to walk in the direction that the wall had been built. Every wilderness journey usually has a part of it that starts in an airport or train station but this was the first hiking trip I had undertaken that had begun in a city.
The walk through Newcastle was very interesting as it was the first time any of us had visited the city. Seeing the start of the wall at Wallsend was a highlight, but also reminded us how far we had to go.
Our spirits were high as we continued through the city and onto Hadrian’s Cycleway. We did however, at times, wish we had bicycles to ride for the next 84 miles.
It was one of our longest and toughest days because we had to get to the other side of the city for our first night in the woods – which were 32km away. This was made more difficult because we had all the food for our 6 days with us, making our packs the heaviest at any time of the trip. Eventually, the city lights started to fade behind us, and after a long day we finally made it to our first wild camp near Heddon-on-the-Wall.
The next morning, we started to get into our planned routine; if it wasn’t raining, sleeping bags up and drying in the branches, stove on, breakfast, then pack up and leave no trace. We were very conscious not to leave any sign or presence at the locations where we chose to camp. All litter was carried with us. If we had had a fire, it was very carefully cleaned up and we dug scrapes for our toilet needs and burned our loo paper.
Once we got beyond Heddon-on-the-Wall, the trail started to become more rural. Open fields, a cold wind and clear skies greeted us. The weather forecast for the week was not a good one, with snow and strong winds predicted, but we had come prepared with warm clothing and extra sleeping mats for the cold nights.
Despite the cold wind and freezing temperatures, during the first two days we were treated to beautiful paths to hike along. Every hour and a half we stopped for a quick drink and a bite to eat. Not wanting to cool down too much by having a break longer than 10 minutes, we made good progress.
That night we found a great campsite at the edge of a plantation. This was our coldest night dropping down to -5 Celsius, (23 Fahrenheit) turning the moss floor of the wood into a patchwork of glistening ice crystals.
That night gave us our first snow fall, which turned to rain by the early hours. Our sleeping bags and tents needed drying out every morning, or if it was still raining we would wait until the next evening. This was not ideal as the extra weight of moisture was not welcome.
On the third day, the weather was not as kind to us. It rained most of the day leading to shorter breaks and rain covers on our backpacks. This was also the first day that the wall was truly visible and stayed with us for the next 3 days.
Winter is not a particularly great time to forage for wild food. There isn’t much that is readily available to just pick up – especially if you’re keeping to a schedule. We did walk past quite a few bodies of water that had ca-tails in, but other than that, the only things in abundance were sorrel (both the wood and common varieties) and lots of apples on the trees and ground.
Once we had passed through the small village of Chollerford, we entered the part of the trip that was the least inhabited and consisting mainly of moorland. This was the area that I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. Big sky and wide panoramic views greeted us.
The only problem now was that we had very few options of where to camp, and the few woods that existed lay on the other side of very boggy ground.
We did identify a good camp site in the end but it was over extremely boggy ground; which ended up with most of us going in over the top of our boots. It looked like we would have even more kit to dry out that evening.
Once we got to the plantation it was well worth the wet boots. When choosing a place to set up camp I looked for wooded locations that were reasonably flat, and not too far off our trail. It was also important not to be too close to water, as in January, the ground was extremely wet. Finding places to camp that had ready access to water was not always possible, so we used one of our dry sacks to collect between ten and fifteen litres at a go and carry it back to the camp to be processed and boiled.
Again, the morning routine commenced and by this point we were getting quite efficient at it. The only problem was that if we had a fire, our routine would take a bit longer. We had to make sure the fire was completely out and cleaned up and this was a task that we never took lightly. The only trace that could be seen of our presence was the occasional fire dog, (half burnt log) extinguished and left up against a tree trunk.
Once we had broken camp we headed back up to the wall, across the lovely bog we had encountered late the night before. In the light of morning we managed, thankfully, to make it across the marshy ground without getting our boots too wet again.
That morning we made it to Vercovicivm Roman Fort which is the best preserved Roman fort along the length of the wall. While having a chilly coffee break and wandering through the ruins we found the remains of the bath house complete with underfloor heating. The Romans were a smart bunch and we wished the bath house was still functioning.
After our enjoyable visit to Vercovicivm we continued our hike along the ridges of the wall path. It was obvious that the remoteness of this part of the wall had saved the fort from being broken down to us in other building projects.
The path of the wall runs as much as possible next to the wall. At some points, you will see a clear path on top of the wall. It is not recommended that you walk on the wall. Due to every foot fall doing very minor damage to the wall, protecting this World Heritage Site for future generations is a priority.
The hike from Vercovicivm onwards was a long but a very enjoyable day for us. Sodden ground underfoot made the going slow in the numerous undulations of the section. We finally finished well into the dark. Having reached the first camp site we had aimed for, we found the woodland I had chosen on the map was pretty much just a bog with trees in it; so, we carried on walking into the night finding a camp site in an old Roman quarry at about 2100.
Without exception rain fell every night. In order not to carry the extra weight of water on our tents we dried them out in the mornings if it wasn’t still raining.
After our very long day from Vercovicivm onwards, and because of the lack of woods to camp in, I was very mindful as we approached the district of Carlisle as to where our next campsite was going to be. This trip wasn’t a race, but it was a chance to enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful countryside we were passing through. So that afternoon after 10 km on the trail we started scouting for a camp site.
That night we would relax by the fire in style. A few hours of collecting firewood, clearing a site and sorting out water and we were nearly ready. There was only one thing missing… a sofa! Near our chosen camp someone had chopped down a spruce – obviously for their Christmas tree, but they had only needed half of it. I cut the leftover branches from the remaining log to make a seat for our bush sofa. Any idiot can be uncomfortable in the woods. That evening we sat happily warming ourselves in front of the fire, before heading to bed for an early night.
The next morning we woke to torrential rain. Breakfast and pack up was completed in record time and we had been on the trail for an hour before it was light enough to turn off our head torches. This was the second to last day and the worst weather we had encountered so far. By midday, the rain was easing off and a very welcome break in the cloud brought us some sunshine as we reached the river Eden.
That night after collecting apples on our walk, we made the most delicious apple pudding. The apples were cubed and gently baked over the embers, then honey was added, chopped up dried mango slices and for some sweetness, we used a powdered drink sachet.
We woke early, packed and cleared up the fire; then said our goodbyes to the last wood we camped in on the trip. Once back on the Hadrian’s Wall trail, the route took us to the coast where we caught sight of the first bit of sea that we had walked across the country to see. The last part of the hike was alongside the mud flats of the Solway Firth. A Roman road stretched out in front, tempting us closer to the end of our journey.
Walking Hadrian’s Wall in winter gave us great respect for the men who built it and gifted us with a rare experience. The path is very popular in summer, but not so popular in winter. We only came across one other group doing the route and they were taking the more common direction of West to East.
We were very lucky with the weather. There was a lot of rain but the sunny breaks really made the tough days manageable.
This walk was something we really enjoyed and I can highly recommend to do in winter. With the right attitude and skills and a few warm layers, winter on the Wall is an excellent experience. My only advice is to be sure you know what you are taking on.
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