A 6-8 day stroll along the most northerly border of the Roman Empire
The Hadrian’s Wall Path: The Basics
WHERE IS THE PATH? The trails runs west-east across the narrowest part of England. Hadrian’s Wall no longer marks the border between England and Scotland but instead lies wholly within England, crossing the country’s two most northerly counties, Cumbria and Northumberland.
HOW LONG IS THE HADRIAN’S WALL PATH? 84 miles
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WALK THE HADRIAN’S WALL PATH? 6-8 days
WHERE DOES THE HADRIAN’S WALL PATH START? Wallsend, a suburb of Newcastle (though see ‘Tips’ below).
AND WHERE DOES IT END?Bowness-on-Solway, west of Carlisle
IS IT A NATIONAL TRAIL: Yes
HOW HARD IS THE HADRIAN’S WALL PATH? Average; there are a couple of long and remote stages but it’s a short walk, difficult to lose your way and reasonably straightforward.
Sign at the start of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, Bowness-on-Solway.
Opened in 2003, the 13th National Trail of England and Wales has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. As this is the only trail to be accompanied along much of its length by a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is understandable, and there was always going to be a lot of thought and care into the trail’s design and construction. Small wonder, then, that the trail took ten years to build – even though it is estimated that it took the 2nd and 6th legions of Hadrian’s army just six years to build the Wall itself!
Thankfully, all that effort has been worth it. Though there’s only a few miles of the Wall left – and that which does exist seldom rises to more than half its original height – it does make a fascinating trekking companion. Punctuated by milecastles, turrets, watchtowers and other fortifications, where bits of the Wall still exist there’s plenty to interest. But even in the sections where there isn’t any Wall, the scenery is usually diverting enough to prevent boredom setting in.
I say ‘usually’, because the Hadrian’s Wall Path does suffer from the occasional longueur. On one stage you follow the busy B6318, while west of Carlisle there’s no Wall whatsoever – though there is a certain lonely tranquillity to this stage which I find seductive. The highlights are largely concentrated in the central stages, where you’ll find the best bits of the Wall, a couple of excellent forts (Birdoswald and Housesteads) and, a little way away from the Wall itself, the Roman fort of Vindolanda – the single most important historic site in Britain, according to experts at the British Museum. This central section is remote, beautiful and highly photogenic.
Almost as interesting as the Wall itself, however, are the churches, castles, farmhouses and barns that line the path, many of which were built from stones taken from the Wall. Sometimes, too, you’ll find a stone Roman altar just standing in the corner of a sheep field, or a Roman inscription on the wall of a B&B… not to mention the very impressive phallus carved on a Wall stone near Birdoswald Fort by (presumably) a bored Roman. It’s all rather charming and quirky.
And if this doesn’t persuade you to don your boots and book a train to Newcastle, then surely any walk that encompasses not only Paradise (a suburb of Newcastle) but also Heavenfield (before Chollerford) and even Eden (the river that runs through Carlisle) must be worth investigating…mustn’t it?
I probably learnt more on this walk than any other. For those who, like me, slept through their history lessons at school, this walk does actually go a long way to making up for that lacuna in one’s education. From the start of the trail at Wallsend (home to an excellent fort) to near the end of the trail at Carlisle (home to a splendid museum with an excellent permanent exhibition about the Romans and their Wall), the authorities have done a terrific job in helping visitors to understand what the Wall was for, when and why it was built, and what life was like for those who were employed to man it. Nevertheless, if you want to make the most of your time on the trail, I strongly advise you to read something about the Wall and its various fortifications before you go – or you can read the background section in my guide book for a distilled but hopefully fairly comprehensive look at the Wall’s history.
The remains of the Roman forts along the Wall and their accompanying museums on the way are well laid out and informative. What’s more, their cafes provide a great excuse to stop walking for half hour or so. The best on the Wall itself is at Housesteads, with Chesters and Birdoswald both running it close. Make time to visit at least one and it will add to your knowledge and your enjoyment of the trail. But it’s not just the official attractions that are such a feature. So many of the buildings in this part of the world – the walls of Carlisle Castle, Thirlwall Castle, Lanercost Priory, various barns and bridges – so much architecture up here has been made, at least in part, from repurposed bits of Roman masonry. Which is why you get a Roman altar being used as a flowerpot by a front door; or a Roman inscription in the interior wall of a B&B, or on the side of a byre. It’s great fun spotting all this stuff – I point out as many as I can in the guide book – and such a highlight.
The variety of scenery is great, beginning with a riparian stroll through one of Britain’s major cities and ending with a lonely march through the bleak, windswept flatlands of the Solway Estuary, with nothing for company save the occasional flock of oystercatchers and lapwings. The centre of the trail, from Once Brewed to Walltown, is widely accepted to provide the best scenery, and the best chunks of Wall too.
It’s a fairly short walk, and can be done by the fast and the furious in just five days – though I think a more leisurely 6-8 days is much better and gives you time to visit the odd Roman fort or museum.
It’s a National Trail and as such the maintenance of the path is very good and the information on their website is, as always, good too. It also means you can order a certificate too, of course, and a badge!
By extending the walk slightly at either end of the trail you can justifiably say you’ve walked from one side of England to another. Given that the Romans built their Wall across the narrowest part of the country (how they knew that this was the narrowest part, given the technology at their disposal, is something I am still trying to fathom), it’s perhaps one of the easiest ways of doing so. Indeed, if you’ve plenty of time on your hands you can always take a train from Carlisle to St Bees and then walk the ‘official’ Coast to Coast trail, which runs roughly parallel to the HWP to the south.
...and why you shouldn't
Local resident relaxes on the grass near the Wall.
The worst thing about the walk is that on occasion it follows the Roman wall too closely (or at least, where Hadrian’s Wall once existed). In other words, by deliberately following the exact line of the Wall, the path inevitably passes through some areas that are, well, if not downright ugly then at least desperately dull. When going through the city of Newcastle, the authorities took the decision not to follow the line of the Wall, but instead takes a fascinating riverside course through the heart of this lovely city. They are to be applauded for doing so.
But for me the worst stage on the trail is the section outside Newcastle where you end up following the course of the busy B6318 for almost the entire day. This is because, on this stretch, what little was left of the Wall here was largely demolished way back in the 18th century, and a road built on top of its foundations to help English troops to patrol the Scottish border more efficiently.
Admittedly, you don’t actually walk on the road for most of this second day – the path is usually separated from it by a farm wall or fence – but the noise of the traffic does provide the background music for pretty much the entire stage. It’s another stage where, perhaps, they should have considered taking a more interesting diversion away from the line of the Wall (I suggest one below, and describe it in detail in the guide.)
On a similar theme, the very eastern extremity of the walk does take you through what my mum would euphemistically call a rough part of town. I have never felt threatened or worried in any way on this stretch from Wallsend to the centre of Newcastle, but I have heard rumours/myths of people who have been mugged or subjected to abuse. Which does lead one to wonder if this is actually the most dangerous stretch of any National Trail?
This is great if you are interested in photography (the views can be awesome), wildlife, or just want to get away from it all. But it does mean facilities can be a little few and far between, so you have to organise your time on the trail pretty well, and have a good idea where you’ll be eating during the day and sleeping at night.
Only about 2.5 miles out of the total 84 miles in total. True, pretty much all of that which does exist is visible from the path; but by the same token don’t come expectingto see an unbroken 84-mile wall stretching from one side of the country to the other. You’re at least 1500 years too late for that, I’m afraid.
The cows are more aggressive here than on any other long-distance trail in my experience! On a couple of occasions I’ve had to hurry through a field, and been nearly crushed too. (I should point out that on both of these occasions I was walking with Daisy. Those without dogs shouldn’t have too much trouble, though I know of people who carry trekking poles primarily to ward off overly-curious cows.)
If finishing the trail at Bowness-on-Solway, getting back home is occasionally tricky. There are several buses each day but they’re not evenly spaced throughout the day and there’s nothing on a Sunday. The only alternative is to walk the 16.5 miles back to Carlisle or arrange for a lift/taxi. See below for ore information on public transport.
Useful info for Wall walkers
Transport to and from the path
If you’re starting at Newcastle, you’ll have no problem getting to the start of the trail. Buses, trains, planes, ferries – Newcastle is a major transport hub and however you decide to get there, you’ll find there’s probably an option for you. Once you’re in the city then getting to the start of the trail is similarly straightforward. Newcastle is one of the few UK cities with its own underground network, with Wallsend station (note the name!) standing just 100m or so from the start of the walk at Segedunum Roman Fort. Buses from the city centre can also take you there.
At the other end of the trail, however, things are slightly more tricky. Bowness-on-Solway (the official end of the trail) is a lovely spot but it’s a little isolated, with only about five buses a day (the number 93) connecting it to Carlisle (and, note, none on Sunday!), the last one leaving at about 7pm. To save you hanging around for several hours in Bowness-on-Solway with nothing to do, find out the latest timetable from the website of Cumbria County Council. Once you’re in Carlisle, there are trains and buses to take you back home.
Transport along the Hadrian’s Wall Path
There is some sort of bus service serving just about every part of the trail, though whether it’s heading to where you want to go is another matter. The most useful bus remains the AD122 (the bus number commemorates the year in which Hadrian invaded Britain). When the trail first opened, this bus used to serve pretty much the whole path, operated frequently and was an absolute godsend for trekkers. Alas, cuts to the service mean it now runs only along the central portion of the trail, from Hexham (which is not actually on the path) to Walltown (about a day’s walk east of Carlisle). Supplemented by other local services, the trail is adequately – just! – served by local transport.
Walking Hadrian’s Wall with a dog
You can walk along the Wall with a dog, and I have done so, though in the guidebook I conclude that the trail is not actually that dog-friendly. I still hold with that conclusion today. For one thing, there are a lot of sheep and cows about so you’ll have to keep your pooch on a lead for much of the trail. Secondly, the number of B&Bs, pubs, bunkhouses and campsites that accept dogs is surprisingly small.
Another problem is the lack of bins in which to deposit any faecal matter that you, as a responsible dog owner, has picked up from the trail. As such, expect to end each day with your rucksack festooned with filled poo bags.
Nevertheless, like I say you can walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path with your dog and there are rewards for those determined enough to do so.
Road sign near Drumburgh, right on the Hadrian’s Wall Path (though nowhere near any actual Wall!)
So where might I get lost? It’s not easy to get lost on the Hadrian’s Wall Path. The money spent on the trail means the signage is very good. Besides which, for large sections of the trail you’re walking alongside a road or, if you’re not, then you may find yourself walking alongside the Wall, of course. There are a few sections where you may miss a turning – the sharp left at Drumburgh, springs to mind – and it pays to follow the book closely through Newcastle and Carlisle just to make sure you’re still on the path. But as long as you follow the signposts and the book carefully, you shouldn’t stray too far off the way….
Camping and accommodation along the Hadrian’s Wall Path
Camping along the Hadrian’s Wall Path is not straightforward. For one thing, the trail authorities are adamant that you can’t wild camp along the path. There is still a lot of the Wall that remains unexcavated beneath the trail so the rangers are keen that you don’t start driving tent pegs into the soil. Secondly, the cities of Newcastle and Carlisle have no campsites. Once out of the cities, however, you can camp along the path pretty much every night, though the weather may persuade you to secure more solid accommodation for at least one night.
Since I wrote the first edition of this guide the number of YHA hostels on the trail has fluctuated wildly. For that first edition, there were hostels strung out along the length of the trail so you didn’t need to stay anywhere else throughout your trek. For the last edition, however, there was only one, at Once Brewed (see p000), and even that was closed for reconstruction. Thankfully, the situation has improved over the last couple of years: Once Brewed has reopened, there’s now a new youth hostel in Newcastle, and these YHA establishments are supplemented by independent hostels at Carlisle, Greenhead, and two more in Newcastle. Combine these with the odd night in a bunkhouse/camping barn and you can avoid staying in a tent or B&B for every night of your trek.
As for B&Bs and hotels, there are plenty of these and some of them are charming. As mentioned before, some of them are built with Roman materials and more than one has a Roman inscription still visible on one of the stones.
Facilities along the Hadrian’s Wall Path
Food and drink With Carlisle and Newcastle bookending the path, you’ll have no difficulty places to eat and drink at either end of the trail. However, there is a shortage of eateries between the two cities – a section that takes about four days to cover in total. To be honest, even here are enough pubs, cafes and tearooms to keep you nourished. But there is one day – the rather dull stage after Newcastle, in which you spend much of the day walking alongside the B6318 – where places to eat are in short supply. But prepare carefully, plan where you’re going to eat each day and you should be fine.
Shops, banks and ATMs Once again, there is no shortage of shops, banks, ATMs and other facilities at either end of the trail -it’s the bit in middle that you have to worry about. Once you leave Heddon-on-the-Wall (just outside Newcastle), the nearest ATM isn’t until Carlisle, about four days away. If you run short of funds during this section, you’ll have to drop down to Hexham, Corbridge, Brampton or Haltwhistle to replenish your wallet. There’s nothing wrong with this (all of them are interesting and Corbridge has an excellent Roman fort) but you are adding 4-5 miles onto your trek round-trip. Shops are a little easier to come by on the trail, but only if you are after basic supplies, and even then they’re not at all frequent. For this reason, several enterprising locals have set up unmanned refreshment stalls with drinks and snacks for sale. The idea is that you pay your money in the accompanying honesty box. Even if you don’t buy anything from one of these stalls they are still great places to shelter from the rain, and you’ll often meet a fellow trekker or two cowering inside too.
Trekking companies and baggage carriers As one of the most popular trails, there’s no shortage of companies looking to convey trekkers and their baggage along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. There are several guiding companies too, and I think that, if there’s any path that is enhanced by the services of a knowledgeable guide, it’s this one. An enthusiastic and intelligent guide can really help to bring the Wall and its accompanying buildings to life.
Dangers and annoyances
There are just a couple of potential hazards. The first is one that can apply to any trail in the UK: the weather. The UK is a notoriously damp place and the north of England is a famously wet part of that notoriously damp place. Furthermore, shelter can be hard to find on the trail and if you’re walking in winter, temperatures can plummet significantly, which could lead to serious problems. There is usually a road nearby, which should be the first place you head to if you run into difficulties; but it pays to be well prepared with warm clothing and good waterproofs.
The second warning is specific to the Hadrian’s Wall Path. The very beginning of the trail, where you leave Wallsend for the centre of Newcastle, is perhaps one of the most dangerous parts of any national trail, at least if all the rumours and gossip about this stretch are to be believed. Abuse from locals, stones being thrown, even muggings – I hear stories about such incidents every time I visit the trail. I can’t confirm or dismiss any of these stories, and it might well be the case that none of them are true; I certainly don’t feel in any way threatened whenever I’m walking along this footpath. Nor, if these rumours are true, am I certain what you can do to avoid being a victim yourself, short of missing out on this section of the trail altogether, which seems a shame. But perhaps you can mitigate the outcome of any incident by, for example, leaving any valuables back in a safe place (eg your accommodation in Newcastle, or even a locker at the Newcastle city centre train station, which lies close to the trail).
I do hope I haven’t besmirched the good name of this part of the trail unnecessarily; and, like I say, I’ve never run into any trouble myself, nor met anyone who’s been a victim. But it probably pays to be aware of this section’s reputation – just in case.
Tips and hints
Many of the guide books, (including the first few editions of ours), describe the trail from east to west. This is unusual as most walks in the UK head in the opposite direction, so the weather is on your back rather than in your face.
But there’s a strong argument for walking it from west to east; indeed, I prefer it. In addition to walking with your back to the prevailing weather (which here in the UK usually blows in from the west, of course), I also think that Newcastle, with its bars and restaurants and its excellent transport links, is a better place to end the walk. That stretch through the centre of Newcastle, too, as you walk along the riverside under all the bridges across the Tyne, feels like a suitable, celebratory end to the trail (though you do have a couple of miles after this to reach the official end of the trail at Wallsend).
Doing it from west to east also means you start your walk at Bowness on Solway, and if you’re staying there for the night you’ll probably…
Hadrian's Wall hints and tips
Unusually, this is one walk in the UK that is usually walked from east to west. I’ve no idea why – I guess it’s just the way that the guidebooks (including ours, originally) were written. But there’s a strong argument for walking it from west to east. For one thing, there’s the old argument about walking with your back to the prevailing weather (which here in the UK usually blows in from the west, of course). But I also think that Newcastle, with its bars and restaurants and its excellent transport links, is a better place to end the walk. That stretch through the centre of Newcastle, as you walk along the riverside under all the bridges across the Tyne, feels like a suitable, celebratory end to the trail (though you do have a couple of miles after this to reach the official end of the trail at Wallsend).
Doing it from west to east also means you start your walk at Bowness on Solway, and if you’re staying there for the night you’ll probably end up eating in the King’s Arms – the only pub in town. Your fellow diners will, for the most part, be fellow Hadrian’s Wall walkers too, both those that are starting the trail and those that have just finished it. So you can hear the latest news about the condition of the trail, pick up tips and make the acquaintance of those who will be walking alongside you. The pub even has a visitor’s book for walkers with advice and information on the trail, and sell certificates and other paraphernalia for those who’ve completed their hike.
Finally, if you need more convincing, what could be more appropriate than finishing your walk along the Roman Wall at a place that rejoices under the moniker Wallsend????
2) This is one path where it really pays dividends to read some background to the path and the Wall beforehand. In particular, get to know a little of the history and construction of the Roman Wall, so by the time you set foot on the trail you are know the difference between your Vallum and your defensive ditch, your milecastles, turrets and Wall forts. The first few chapters in the guide book should prove sufficient – and you can always follow my suggestions for further reading that I give in the book. The free Great North Museum: Hancock at Newcastle and the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle both have excellent permanent exhibitions on the Wall too, which any self-respecting Wall-walker should find the time to visit.
3) As you may have read above, I don’t rate the section of the trail between Chollerford and Heddon-on-the-Wall that warmly. There’s little ‘Roman’ on this bit save for the chunks of Wall at Heddon, Planetrees and Brunton Turret (as well as the lovely bridge abutment right outside Chollerford, which is off the path but you can walk to). As such, there is an argument to be made for attempting, instead, an alternative walk via the towns of Hexham and Corbridge, before rejoining the trail near Heavenfield (where the Wall returns). The latter has an excellent Roman fort, while the former is a reasonable size town with an excellent abbey and lots of facilities. In the book I describe this walk in great detail (with maps) and it’s certainly the more interesting path.
Purists, of course, will baulk at leaving the official National Trail, and it’s certainly shorter to stick to the path. But if you have the time, and just want the best walk possible, then there is an argument to be made for taking this alternative walk instead.
4) Trying to keep your budget to a minimum but don’t know want to stay in a hostel in Newcastle? Consider a Premier Inn or Travelodge, which have rooms starting at around £25, and sometimes cheaper. They’re cheaper than the B&Bs, more central and the all en-suite rooms are very smart and comfy. (And no, I didn’t get paid to write this). Note that check-in isn’t until after 3pm, however.
5) Do pay attention to the special ‘code’ that Hadrian’s Wall trekkers must follow, which replaces the usual Countryside Code to which walkers normally adhere. Because you’re walking alongside an ancient monument, the protection of which is of paramount importance, so the normal rules are flipped. For example, on other trails you are encouraged to keep to the most worn and heavily used trail to prevent the ground erosion from spreading. However, on the Hadrian’s Wall Path you are asked to avoid walking on any eroded sections and instead try to keep to the grass, to protect any archeological treasures that may be lying unearthed under the path.
Similarly, if you need to go to ‘big toilet’ on the trail, you are asked not to dig a hole. Just as they want you to keep to the grass to avoid damaging any unexposed treasures buried beneath the trail, so they’d rather you didn’t crap on them either.
6) Should you join National Trust or English Heritage? Most of the attractions along the way come under the aegis of one or other of these two bodies, and if you’re a member of either then you can visit their sites for free. To be precise, English Heritage runs Birdoswald and Chesters on the Wall, and Corbridge Roman Town off it, and both English Heritage and National Trust run Housesteads.
But the bottom line is that if you are thinking of joining either of them because it will save you money, then this is only true if you are realistically going to use your membership at other times too. In other words, it’s not worth joining either of these charities purely to save money on the walk. For one thing, it’s unlikely you are going to visit all the sites owned by these bodies. But even if you did, the cost of joining – over £60 for individual membership of English Heritage, and over £70 for the National Trust – is more than you would pay than if you paid the separate entrance fees each time.
So yes, by all means join these bodies, but only if you’re going to use these memberships elsewhere over the year.
If you’re only going to join one, then English Heritage is the most useful round here – membership also entitles you to 10% off the entrance fee to Vindolanda – but most people would probably say that the National Trust is the more useful membership to have for the nation as a whole.
Better value, perhaps, is the joint ticket for Vindolanda (see below) and the Roman Museum on the Wall at Carvoran. This I would certainly do, though only if you’re definitely going to Vindolanda, which is, after all, about 3 miles from the Wall itself.
Oh, and don’t forget, the Great North Museum: Hancock is owned by neither English Heritage nor the National Trust, is free to visit – and it’s excellent for Roman stuff too!
7) Only time for one Roman site? Then Housesteads is as convenient as it gets for walkers – it’s right on the Wall – and has the best setting too. But if I was going to choose one attraction out of all the nearby Roman sites, both on and off the Wall, then I’d go for Vindolanda. You can skip through the actual ruins fairly promptly, for they don’t really rise more than a couple of feet above ground. But the museum at the back is just brilliant – breathtaking exhibits, beautifully presented. The most famous items are the so-called postcards – scraps of wood on which archaeologists have managed to decipher Roman writing that encompass everything from shopping lists to birthday party invitations, school grammar exercises to requests from a local centurion to his mum, asking for more underwear. Small wonder that, collected together, they were voted the nation’s most important archeological treasure by the British Museum.
8) Though the national trail doesn’t follow the line of the Wall through Newcastle, I know where it went and there are still several small ruins visible along its length. The original route taken by the Wall is now largely covered up by the noisy West Road, so you can take a bus to visit the sites. These ruins are modest, of course, but it makes for a mildly diverting hour or two and it’s interesting finding these links to Hadrian’s Wall in the otherwise ordinary residential suburbs of a modern city. Stagecoach North East bus No 39 or 40 is your chariot of choice for this tour – the guide book has more details.
‘This new edition has colour pictures …and useful profiles showing ascents and descents’Scotland Outdoors
The guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall Path, a magnificent 84 mile National Trail that follows the course of northern Europe’s largest surviving Roman monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The book includes everything you need to plan and complete the 84-mile (135km) walk through the beautiful border country between England and Scotland.
* Hadrian’s Wall Path map – plus 59 detailed walking maps (1:20,000) as well as guides to the towns and villages * Hadrian’s Wall history * Detailed accommodation guide with reviews – B&B’s, hotels, hostels & campsites * Taking a dog – experienced advice on walking the path from Daisy, the author’s dog, who walked the entire trail * Hadrian’s Wall A range of itineraries, including one-day Hadrian’s Wall walks * Public transport information including how to get to and from the Hadrian’s Wall Path – and how to travel along it.
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