Friday, June 24, 2022

Walking the Wall - Part One


Do you still have dreams? Are you actually trying to make those dreams come true? I have a bucket list, which could also be called a "dream list" and I've been neglecting it for too long. Most of the items are travel or hiking related, so the last couple of COVID-19 years have made those dreams more difficult to achieve. I've also added other kinds of  personal goals like artistic/creative endeavors and simple experiences (particualarly shared with friends and loved ones) to capture all of the ways I would like to fill my life with whatever time I have left on this old swinging sphere. One of my top hiking dreams is Hadrian's Wall in northern England. It's not a particularly difficult or long trail running 84 miles from Bowness-on-the-Solway to Wallsend, but the history of the Wall and the fact that the route runs coast-to-coast captured my imagination. I love paper maps and find they make it easy to daydream about walking a path like this or following a coastline or climbing a mountain. The Hadrian's Wall Path looks quite inviting to me when laid out on the kitchen table, with a city on either end (Carlisle and NewCastle) and that big, beautiful, bulge of green landscape swelling in between, belted by the ruins of the Wall. While I do appreciate learning about history, I am not a history buff, so I'll spare you my fumbling to provide what so many others have done better. The barest of facts are; the Wall was built by the Romans some 1,900 years ago, which they maintained for about 300 years before leaving one day without a word of goodbye and left the Brits with a huge resource of cut stone block ready for repurposing as churches, homes and pubs, which is why the wall is mostly missing now save for some short sections in the middle. I'll stop there and point you here for the official facts. 

A photo taken of me by a fellow hiker somewhere in the middle fun bit of the trail.

It had been more than three years since I last embarked on a long distance, multi-day hiking adventure, that being the week I spend hiking in Nepal to the Annapurna Base Camp in March of 2019. I'm not getting any younger, so I wondered, do I still have what it takes to put the pack on and go the distance? I make an effort to stay fit by walking or running everyday, watch my diet, etc, but you never know until you get out there and give it a go. Besides physical fitness, long distance hikes are also a mental game. I've seen more then one hiker mentally surrender on a difficult stretch and the result is the same as a twisted ankle. Game over. One aspect that I crave from the challenge of a hike like this is to push myself and see what I'm made of. There's only so much planning that can be done and it's impossible to plan for everything, so when it comes down to it, you have to show up and put one foot in front of another (in this case about 257,000 steps!). When it comes to planning and deciding on what kind of experience you want to have, I'm of the mind that you should understand yourself and punch your weight. In other words, if you don't enjoy tent camping (particularly in a country known for it's rain) and physically aren't prepared to carry a heavy backpack loaded up with camping gear, then don't do it. It's not a competition, there's no medals handed out at the end. It's your time and money, so plan for the experience that you want to have. You win if you show up and do the thing, however you wish to do it. Some folks will camp out, others will drive and stop at certain historical sites, some will hike but use a baggage transfer service; whatever ticks your box. 

Of course I'm smiling, it's the start of the trail!
I planned to hike the full length of the trail carrying my full backpack (clothing, rain gear, food, water, etc) from end-to-end and stayed in accommodation along the way, so no camping. I set a six day itinerary, averaging fifteen miles a day. In hindsight, I would have divided the path into seven days, which would have allowed for more time to enjoy historical sites and have chats with the locals, but also would have left me less tired at the end of the day. 

Lesson Learned - Stop planning hikes like I'm still thirty years old and slow down and smell some roses, or sheep shit or whatever there is to smell along the way.

Another Lesson Learned - I over estimated my capacity to eat snacks, particularly trail mix and wound up carrying a 700 gram package of nuts  the entirety of the trail unopened, besides some other items. The Hadrian's Wall Path is never far from a village or town, so it's easy to buy snacks along the way, in fact many locals set out snacks and drinks along the way with an "honesty box" system, basically if you take anything, you pay for it. I always skipped these as I was always carrying more food then I needed. 

So which direction to go? Walk east or west? After doing some research (this blog was particularly helpful - ), more than one experienced hiker recommended heading east towards Wallsend, primarily because the prevailing winds would be at your back. I heeded that advice and don't regret it, but take note of my experience, which was, I hiked into a westerly wind for most of the trip! Some westward hikers (both older Americans) happily pointed this out to me on the windiest days, trail trolls. In response, I would urgently point out to them a suspicious-looking bump on their face that looked like melanoma and they should get checked as soon as possible. Happy trails trail troll! 

I felt like a Roman Centurion
An eastward plan put the trail's start at Bowness-on-Solway, a small coastal village on the Southside of Bowness Firth about twelve miles west of Carlisle. Instead of staying in Solway, which has few accommodation options and what is there is a bit expensive, I decided to stay in Carlisle two nights. which allowed me to take a bus (the 93 on Stagecoach Bus) to the start with just a daypack. I felt just like a Roman Centurion waiting at the bus stop that morning, eager to begin my quest! I noticed another hiker with an impressive sized backpack also waiting for the bus. This was Steven, a friendly Scottish fellow from Glasgow area, who turned out to be my first trail friend of the hike. He was camping along the way and had an open itinerary, stopping where and when he felt like it. I admired that approach, but it is not my way and I was glad for the confirmed bookings I had made. Steven and I hiked together on and off that first day, sharing a lunch break and discovered we are both widowed, so we had more than the hike in common.  
You shall not pass! 
It's not the first time that a chance encounter with the right person at the right time on my travels and I saw it as a good omen for the journey. Although we never did see each other again, we kept in touch throughout the hike and I hope to catch up with him again one day. The weather that first day was cool and mostly kind, with only a little rain, which we avoided stopping for lunch at park shelter next to the Greyhound Inn. I munched a snickers bar contemplating the memorial statue of King Edward the First who died there from dysentery in 1307. My Scottish friend said, "Good riddance" showing the strength of that grudge. 

The day's hiking was mostly uneventful, other then one stubborn sheep that block the trail. Despite her efforts, I found away to continue on! The trail ran through farm fields and along quiet roads following where Hadrian's Wall once was. The walking was easy, even relaxing and I settled into the rhythm of my stride, meditating with each footfall grateful to finally be back on the trail.

End of part one. Much more to come!