Signpost on Hadrian's Wall Walk

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[NOTE: Portions of this post were originally published in an article I wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer.]

Michael and I recently completed the Hadrian’s Wall Walk, an 84-mile trail that spans England at its narrowest point. My 60th birthday was approaching and I was looking for a unique way to celebrate it. Would the meme “60 is the new 40” apply to me? As a full-time traveler, my natural inclination was to find a new, spectacular destination . . . Antarctica? India? Easter Island? All of those incredible places are definitely on my list. But I realized that for this birthday I didn’t want to just visit a destination. I wanted more, I wanted to do something, something maybe a little outside my comfort zone.

You’ve probably read about people who describe themselves as “adventure couples,” people who zipline through the Amazon, or climb Mt. Everest. That ain’t us. For me an adventure is taking a cooking class in Malaysia, or maybe swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos (but only for an hour). So I was scouting about for an adventure-ish (on my terms) experience, something that fit with our slow travel style.

What is The Hadrian’s Wall Walk?

Larissa hiking next to Hadrian's Wall

Then one day Michael said, “you should do the Hadrian’s Wall Walk for your 60th birthday.” (A suggestion that to this day he does not remember making . . . and would come to regret.) The Hadrian’s Wall Path, an 84-mile British national trail that was established in 2003, traverses England coast-to-coast from the Irish Sea to the North Sea just south of the Scottish border. Emperor Hadrian selected this spot as the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire in AD 122 and ordered the building of his eponymous wall. Considering it’s almost 2,000 years old, a remarkable amount survives, along with the remains of a Roman town and several forts scattered along its length.

Larissa and Michael at beginning of walk-Bowness on Solway
At the start . . . blissfully unaware of the dangers ahead.

Hmm. . . I like walking (the ultimate slow travel mode of transportation). I’m interested in Roman history, and this was a challenge. BANG! Like a crossword where you finally figure out the theme, all the pieces clicked into place. What really sealed the deal was that we didn’t have to backpack/camp to complete this walk (although many do). We could stay in bed and breakfasts along the way–the Larissa version of camping. AND, our luggage would be portered each day to our next destination. This meant no backpacking–we’d just have to bring along a day pack with water, snacks, etc. Ding, Ding, Ding! We had a WINNER! And so we headed to the north of England . . .

The Walk Begins

Fingerpost sign Hadrian's Wall
Following the “fingerpost” signs

Eleven miles into our hike I slipped in a field. I had been careful to mind the “fingerpost” signs designating the trail through the English countryside so we didn’t stray off-course. My sturdy hiking boots helped me navigate rocky paths; a walking pole was useful for scrambling up and down embankments and dodging prickly hedges of hawthorn. But this stumble, in the middle of a flat grassy pasture, caught me unawares. I looked down and saw the culprit: sheep droppings. Lovely. Somewhere in the back of my head a snide little voice chirped, “Happy Birthday to me.”

Here we were, on Day 1, with my keister in sheep poop. This was shaping up to be some adventure. I’d had fantasies of scaling hills (with the Rocky theme playing in the background, naturally), triumphantly hoisting my hiking pole in the air. Instead, I had a cluster of ewes about 10 feet away, placidly chewing on grass and giving me a look that said, “Hey lady, what’d you expect?” And I stank.

Hiking with purple daypack and sheep
The culprits that caused my tumble–totally unfazed.

But I had said I wanted a challenge, and we were in Britain, the land of “keep calm and carry on.” Tidying up as best as possible (three cheers for quick-dry hiking pants!), we marched onward.

Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail

We planned 10 days to complete the trail, eight days of walking with two rest days mixed in. Michael and I had done some hiking to prep for this walk and lived to tell the tale. We’d even completed a 15-mile trek just prior to leaving for England. But we had never done extended walking every day for a week or more. So we built in the rest days to give our weary bones a break. We scheduled these days off near some of the major Roman sights, so we could explore them at leisure.

Larissa-yellow jacket on path-long vista
Hadrian’s Wall snakes for miles over the rolling hills and crags.

Hadrian’s Wall lives up to its billing as an awe-inspiring sight. The majority of the Roman ruins are in the central section of the 84-mile path, largely because this section is the steepest. The slope on the western and eastern extremities, near the cities of Carlisle and Newcastle respectively, is fairly flat as it approaches each coast. Over the centuries the stones from the wall there had been used as a de-facto Home Depot to build farmhouses, churches—even Carlisle Castle, circa 1200, was built from Hadrian’s Wall stones.

“Sailing” with the Wind

Modern-day Roman soldier

But the rugged terrain in the center made plundering building materials more difficult so it’s the most intact section of the wall. For about 30 miles we walked (or more accurately, climbed up and down) alongside the 1,800-year-old wall. Here, it’s perched atop the rolling crags. We wondered what it felt like for a Roman soldier to have been stationed in what must have seemed a bleak, desolate place.

The wind here is intense, making our decision to walk from west to east a sound one. The wind was constantly at our back, providing an invisible hand pushing us along. At one point, we turned in the opposite direction out of curiosity–what a difference! Had we been walking from east to west we’d be fighting that wind with every step. (And with a reluctant husband in tow, I needed all the help I could get!)

Windshields Crag: Life at the Top

About 42 miles, or halfway, into the hike, at the appropriately named Winshields Crag, we reached the stone marker indicating the highpoint of the wall. It’s only an elevation of 1,132 feet, but that’s a bit misleading; it doesn’t take into account all the up-and-down rollercoaster hiking to get to this point. Some of these “mini-hills” are steep enough that the trail is made up of stone steps.

From here, as if in recompense for our labors, the countryside offered up a spectacular 360-degree view of the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. Looking back to the west we saw the wall hugging the undulating crags like a massive gray Slinky for miles; it looks very much like images of the Great Wall of China. I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow—we hiked and climbed over all of that!” Nature-phobic Michael, on the other hand, looked east to where the wall stretched beyond the horizon and thought, “Wow! We still have to climb all that?”

Hiking in the British Weather (i.e. Rain)

In addition to the challenge of completing an 84-mile hike (approximately 200,000 steps, for those of you with Fitbits) we needed to prepare for the notoriously changeable British weather. Which meant rain gear—waterproof rain pants, hats, jackets and ponchos. For the first eight days we dutifully packed these items into our daypacks for the inevitable sudden downpour. And for eight days there was not one drop of rain.

When the ninth day dawned blustery and wet, we were perversely glad. Finally, we’d get to use this foul weather attire and earn our British walking “stripes!” With just under 60 miles covered, our creaky bones were used to the pace. But wet weather can turn even a walk in the park into a slog.

We donned our nifty waterproof cover-ups, which looked like oversized hoodies, along with our rain pants (thanks to our cousin Josephine for that recommendation!). Looking a bit like camouflaged turtles, we set out fully suited up and maintained a decent pace for this 10-mile stretch.

Keeping up the pace

Our pace wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. That morning, our B&B had given us a ride to our starting point for the day. (Most of our lodging was directly on–or very near–the Hadrian’s Wall Walk. But in two cases the inns were more than a mile or two off the path, so they provided a free shuttle service.) Our shuttle had dropped off another walker (a guy about our age) doing the path about 2 miles farther west. Everyone walks to his schedule, and stays at different lodging points. He hadn’t gone as far the previous day. Yet about 3 hours later, a lone figure appeared in a windy pasture. That same guy who had started 2 miles behind us ambled up with an easy stride, bid us a jaunty “Cheers!” and continued on! It’s a good thing we were nearly finished our walk, or we’d have been thoroughly discouraged. *

We reached our lodging for the night in time to dry out our soggy gear. Just one more day and 15 miles to go. This, along with the first day, would be our longest distance to cover. Just like that first day the terrain was mostly flat. Unlike that first day, I knew to be alert in the sheep pastures.

Almost finished walking Hadrian’s Wall

 On our final morning of the walk we both woke at dawn, energy and excitement thrumming through our veins. On prior days we had risen late and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before striking out for five or six hours of walking. But sometime in the past few days the reality that we were close to completing our goal began to dawn on us. I was excited at the prospect of the accomplishment . . . Michael was excited for the whole damn thing to just be done already.

The weather was misty, with thunderstorms expected as the day progressed, so we went full-on with the rain gear. It appeared we’d finish in true British fashion after all. By now we’d left most of the Roman ruins behind; the remainder of the walk followed the Tyne River through Newcastle. Mostly flat, and not particularly difficult, but it was still 15 miles in a driving rain at the end of a long slog. We strode (well, trudged) right through the city’s Quayside, a redeveloped area full of shops, bars and sidewalk cafes. Despite the rain, intrepid Brits were enjoying a holiday weekend. They looked sophisticated and carefree. We looked like drowned rats. Always helpful, Michael muttered Billy Crystal’s line from the movie City Slickers (the scene where he bounced uncontrollably on a horse): “I’m on vacation!!!

The end is in sight (or maybe not)

Signpost at Wallsend, Larissa
The (almost hidden) signpost. Victory is mine!

The final few miles were along a path through a park, miles that seemed to go on forever. We trekked on beneath a dense canopy of trees, heavy with rainwater. Unlike prior days, where we had unlimited vistas, today’s view was restricted by vegetation, which meant the end was nowhere in sight.

And then, boom! there it was. An inconspicuous clearing with a signpost marking Wallsend—the end of our journey. No fanfare, just a signpost along the side of the path—we almost missed it. Eighty-four miles from Bowness-on-Solway where, 10 days earlier, we had begun our journey. As if on cue, at that moment the clouds parted—seriously, they did—and we were basking in, well not exactly sunlight, but at least not rain.

Not only had I completed this challenge, I had managed to get my nature-averse husband to do it as well! Once again, the little voice inside my head chirped, “Happy Birthday to me.” This time I replied, “Thanks.” Maybe 60 really is the new 40.

Epilogue

*As fate would have it, after we completed the walk we ran into the guy that had passed us a few days earlier. He was staying at the same hotel and we enjoyed dinner with him on our final night of the trip. Denys had done the Hadrian’s Wall Walk for his 61st birthday. His son Kym, who was traveling with him, also shared this little nugget: Denys had once trained for the Olympics as a race walker! So now, instead of feeling discouraged that he passed us, we were encouraged. We were hangin’ with a serious walker and managed to hold our own. Yep, 60 is the new 40 indeed 🎉.


Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.