Rain. Droves of it. Slanting from the grey sky, striking the sodden fields and wet stone. The clouds turn to mist and drift across the craggy ridge obscuring the footpath from view. Next to the path is a raised embankment with an old stone structure on top about 4-foot-high by 3-foot-wide. This is Hadrians Wall Path National Trail in the north of England. This 1,900-year-old fortification was built at the height of the Roman Empire in AD 122.
Walking the Wall
I was halfway through my 7-day trek of the Hadrian’s Wall Path – an 84-mile-long National Trails walking path in the UK. Despite my best efforts to remain optimistic, I was tired and soaked through. The weather was getting me down. It hadn’t stopped raining since I set off from Bowness-on-Solway 3 days earlier and if this wasn’t bad enough, I was about to be hit head-on by Storm Francis.
Yet, even with my squelching shoes and shivering legs, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the drama of it all. This seemed, if anything, an appropriate scenario to be walking the wall in. It created a sense of remoteness and transported me back to the Roman times when they would have walked this wall all those years ago.
Building the Wall
Imagine for a second, that you have been sent from the sun-baked streets of Rome to the far reaches of the Roman Empire by your beloved Emperor Hadrian. He has commissioned you to build a wall across Britain at the forefront of civilization, to keep the Britannic hoards at bay.
You lift a torch from its sheath and step out from the warmth of the garrison into the night. You pace the damp stone walls looking out to the wild and unknown north. The wind whips across your face and in the dark the sound of rain sweeping through the trees rise to meet you. You grasp your cloak and grit your teeth from the cold, praying tonight isn’t the night an attack comes.
You’d be forgiven for feeling a little hard done by.
What is the Trail Like?
This, and more, raced through my mind as I followed in the footsteps of these soldiers crossing what is now Northumberland National Park. Luckily, you too can follow this path as it stretches alongside the ancient foundations across the neck of England. Ranging from earthen remains to hip-high walls, and finally to the more significant garrisons and towns such as Housteads, Vindolanda, and Chesters.
The trail starts in Newcastle at Segedunum – also known as Wallsend – following the construction route west, through the soaring crags of Northumberland and the rolling hills of Cumbria, before finishing in Bowness-on-Solway 84 miles later.
However, I recommend walking the path in the opposite direction – from west to east. This means the prevailing wind is at your back and you aren’t walking straight into any bad weather – usually.
It’s possible to add on an extra 13 miles and finish your walk at South Shields, the mouth of the River Tyne. This would give you the added bragging rights of saying you walked across the whole of England. You’d begin your hike looking out across the Irish Sea and finish it on the edge of the North Sea. Pretty amazing.
The special thing about this trail is the combination of history and the variation of landscapes. So significant is Hadrian’s Wall, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. So having a walking path beside it the whole way is truly remarkable.
How to Get Around?
You don’t need to bog yourself down with an OS map and compass. National Trails signpost and maintain the path along its entirety. All you need to do is follow the acorn – the symbol of National Trails and the designated trail marker.
The path is free to walk. You only have to turn up and take your first step, and then another. The best time to walk the trail is during the summer months (June-August) but this is also the busiest time. Shoulder season (March-May and September) may be better if you want a quieter visiting experience at the museums.
Having said that, the path is relatively empty in most parts. Outside of the National Trust car parks and away from the cities of Carlisle and Newcastle, you’ll mostly find yourself walking through fields alone.
I would say whatever season you walk it; the weather probably won’t do you any favors. It’s hard to predict and better to just get out there and experience whatever may come.
The path is well suited to both campers and those wishing to stay in indoor accommodation. Each needs some prior preparation. Although there are many inns and B&Bs along the path they do book up so consider making reservations well in advance.
If you’re camping be aware that there are some stretches with no campsites for miles. So, it’s wise to plan your walking distance each day and to finish at a designated campsite. You’ll struggle to find camping spots in Carlisle and Newcastle, the two bigger cities along the path, so you may want to consider having a couple of nights in a bunkhouse or hotel.
In general, the path is not suitable for wild camping. Much of the walk is through very exposed areas or beside historical sites. It’s difficult to find a discreet spot where you can’t be seen. You don’t want to get caught camping in a farmer’s field or next to a prestigious Roman fort!
Is it Difficult?
Any multi-day hike has its challenges. Hadrian’s Wall Path is no different. Along with the distance, you’ll walk each day, there are steep ravines, slippery paths, and crumbling verges to wrestle with. Not to mention the infamous bad weather in Northumberland.
However, I believe this is a great trail to start with if you’re attempting your first thru-hike (the North American name for a long-distance point-to-point hike). At 7 days it’s on the lower end of the thru-hiking trails in the UK and the distances you walk are not too extreme.
Aside from the tricky mid-section, much of the trail follows along pavement and grass paths making it reasonably easy on the feet. It’s also relatively flat at either end of the route allowing you to ease yourself in and out of the walk.
Should I Go?
With all the virus-related lockdowns I think there’s no better time to explore the local sites we have on offer in the UK. The concept of taking a stay-cation has come on in leaps and bounds so why not make it an adventurous one? Don’t risk a far-flung escape that might get canceled. Spend some time discovering the wonderful range of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty at home.
Even if you don’t plan on walking the whole wall, you can still visit for a series of day walks or just hike the most dramatic section in Northumberland National Park. Taking an outdoor adventure in the UK is more accessible than you may realize. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked and won’t even consider going abroad. Get out there, give it a go, and see what you can find!
Matt Lynch: ‧ Contributor
My name is Matt. I’m a 24-year-old Biologist and adventure traveler. I’ve visited 42 countries around the world and particularly love wild and natural landscapes. I write about all things hiking, camping, and walking. I want to encourage others to experience the amazing outdoors and inform them about how to explore it just like I do!