I did a lot of preparation for the 84-mile (it turned out to be 97 all-in) trek across England along Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. One of them was to make a playlist, which I titled ‘England, coast-to-coast’. In fact, I never listened to it once during the whole nine-day excursion. But the songs looking back offer some oddly spiritual foresight. Maybe I would learn something from them after I was done. Here are some of the songs, and stories, from the journey.
feel the weight of letting go
feel more lightness than you’ve ever known
you can’t see when light’s so strong
you can’t see when light is gone
Rain. I am about five miles from my starting point: Bowness-on-Solway, the west coast of England. The weather is surprisingly tempestuous; water is blowing in off the choppy Irish Sea, and it’s hard to say if it’s rain or ocean water. Probably both. The road is flat and empty and feels endless and I am walking on pavement that, at the wrong time of day in the wrong season, would be flooded over by the firth’s tide. It nearly is now.
First one sock begins to dampen. Right down the leg, straight in through my waterproofs. Some minutes – or hours – later, I feel the first slosh. Water has breached my boots. I am officially English-wet. My internal screams of agony – why are you here. Just turn back. What are you doing. Walking across a country? You are incapable of this. You are going to have blisters on day one. Give up now. You don’t have to. – almost best me.
Walking across a landmass is, above all, a meditation. It is a self-coaching session. A test in the mettle of your mind. Over the next nine days, these self-flagellatory comments will transform into zen mantras – a study in how to carry out mind over matter. But for now, a shivery pub lunch of vegetable soup and hot whisky, then steeling myself back into a sodden jacket and onwards, because if I give up on the first day, I will never forgive myself.
I don’t, and am never gladder than to reach ‘cosmopolitan’ Carlisle and be greeted by Adele, a chatty former finance manager turned guesthouse owner who overshares about her marital problems. She hugs me in all my wet things and doesn’t fuss about muddy boots on her floor and, after drying out and having a beer and a meal, I think, I can do this. I am doing this. Bring on tomorrow, into the wilds.
over the turnstile, out of the traffic
there’s ways of living, it’s the way I’m living
I want a range life
if I could settle down, then I would settle down
(Pavement, ‘Range Life’)
Evening light and it seems like it will never darken over Walton, or this bunkhouse garden. There are the northern lasts of the Pennines. It’s clearing to sun and blue sky and the closer hills are green with ridges lined by dark trees. You can differentiate the Pennine fells because they are purple and tan and grey. I am reminded of Connemara.
Day two is a walk out of civilisation, over the M6 motorway on foot – an arresting moment on a pedestrian bridge – and the first glimpses of the wildness of Hadrian’s Wall that is yet to come: green fields, the beginnings of the vallum (a trench the Romans dug alongside the wall, which becomes my closest friend on this journey), the faraway buzzing of light aircraft from Carlisle airport at about midday.
Nighttime: a deserted bunkhouse with a needy, pushy cat and some sheep outside my window for company. I set an alarm for stargazing but, at this latitude, it’s past midnight before the sky gets truly inky and I snooze right through it, my body racked with the surprise of two full days on foot.
have you ever wandered lonely through the woods
and everything feels just as it should
you’re part of life
you’re part of something good
if you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods
(Brandi Carlile, ‘Have You Ever’)
The walk into Gilsland, over the River Irthing, curving south under limestone crags and lined by cool, early summer grass on its east bank. This is surely the best section of the walk: a path so close to the wall you could (but shouldn’t) brush it, fingering every fissure and chink as you go along.
At one in the morning, I descend a darkened stairwell, head still hazy from much beer and wine shared over dinner with a Canadian couple and English brothers, all boomers, walking west opposite of me. The steep, narrow guesthouse stairs creak; have I woken them all? Maybe not. I turn the latchkey to the giant front door and step out into the chill of the garden. A million tiny pinpricks of light through blackness form a dome over this magic place. I’m still in Cumbria, but Northumberland is on the other side of the road.
I wanna walk and not run
I wanna skip and not fall
I wanna look at the horizon
and not see a building standing tall
I wanna be the only one for miles and miles
(The Chicks, ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’)
Crags, the start of them in Greenhead. I am so worried about ascending the first one at Walltown that I use the men’s room in the quarry picnic site and, upon realising my error (hmm, I think those are urinals.), simply shrug at a group of German walkers warming themselves with coffees at covered tables just adjacent to the loos. ‘Been walking too long,’ I muse and they chuckle knowingly. They must be on day five, headed the other way.
I have fallen in love with Northumberland. It is a 1.5km walk from today’s guesthouse, which is perched along the Wall’s edge on a bare bluff, to the only other building within view in any direction: the Milecastle Inn. The sun sets to the west, casting yellow, then orange and now the deepest of pink rays through my pint glass, nearly empty of a locally brewed best bitter. A late-running cyclist flies by in a hurry, probably on his way to the village of Once Brewed for a more lively night’s stay, and as the sun reaches the horizon it’s time to stroll back to my bed. Feet aren’t even tired; they are being good to me.
By the time I reach the B&B, pink is fading to purple and rich azure. I stop on a small stone bridge below the house and spend an uncountable number of minutes listening to the trickle of Haltwhistle Burn carving a watery ribbon out from under Cawfields Crag to the east. I will climb it, and many others, tomorrow.
I’m walking in your shoes
for just a mile or two
my heels are raw and torn
but I will dig them in for you
…I’m running out of faith, I’m tired of saving face, and where the hell is grace
(Jonatha Brooke, ‘Walking’)
Up, it goes straight up. You grab the first rock handhold and employ a tired knee to lift the left boot up onto a ledge. Steady, and wonder why you overpacked. Why do you need so much water. Was that second protein bar a necessity? Maybe not, if it means you might fall bass-ackwards off the back of a craggy face. It’s only the first of these today; there are at least 20 more ‘ups and downs’ to come. In places they are steep hikes, in places they are vertical climbs. Take it easy, I say out loud to myself and the rocks. Go slow, and go easy. You have all the time in the world. Don’t fall. Just go slow. One step, one rock, one climb at a time.
I tell the universe thank you for holding off the rain today, right now. And beg it to continue. I can’t do this if it’s slippery, I chide myself. But I could have. This first face is a watershed moment at the halfway point across England, on this journey’s most difficult place. I am not even to Sycamore Gap – that perfectly placed tree where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman jauntily scared away the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchmen in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – and I’ve promised my friend Joe I will send him a selfie from there. Up, down, up again. Stones, some of them slippery some steep. I am afraid of heights and why am I doing this again? Have to get to Housesteads and then I can rest. A huge ruin of a Roman fort, a hastily scoffed tuna sandwich, nip into the portaloo and then I have to be on again, for I’m only halfway through today’s 26k trek and there are still crags to come, and rain. Yes, rain.
Sewingshields, one of two toppermosts on the whole walk. For me, the second and last one. There is a waymarker here and the sudden realisation that I’ve climbed all the crags there are to climb, and that the tough work is done, brings a flood of tears. These turn to tears for a dear one lost, and three more kilometres have passed before my face is dried by the wind. Just a measly 10 more kilometres to my bed.
The path flattens out onto the treeless Northumberland wilds. I am avoiding a group of walkers ahead and slow a bit. Legs tire, feet begin to ache. There is nowhere to sit down, for leagues in any direction. The vallum carries on in a straight crevice, mile after mile. The elation of finishing the crags wanes more quickly than I’d expected. It’s here the positive voices surface to keep me going. Encouraging words from friends, texts from family members, simple mantras from soul mates:
you got this kween!
you can do it, I got your back my girl.
I’m really proud of you sweetheart.
keep on walking!
I put this last one on repeat and meditate. Kilometres pass. Feet throb more and I think I can’t. I can. Keep on walking! I begin saying it out loud, shouting it out into the nothingness, shouting it with cheer and a jaunty lift of the arms. A smile, it helps. Up another hill. Then, reaching Brocolitia Fort, I expend a few precious extra steps to enter the Temple of Mithras – now reduced to a collection of low stone ruins – and leave a few new pound coins. Just in case.
Days six, seven and eight
keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
and I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
(Caedmon’s Call, ‘Faith My Eyes’)
By day six, I can do anything. Walking has become as natural as breathing, as it should be for any human being. We are born to walk. Most of us, if lucky, are given legs and we learn to use them before we can even communicate with other humans. We are born to walk. By day six, I am in my most natural state. Strides are long. Feet are in fine condition (a credit to my Scarpa boots, and a careful routine of washing, moisturising and application of body glide and preventative Compeed each morning). Legs feel strong, soul feels stronger. I hope this walk never ends.
Day six, I stay at the wonderful Robin Hood Inn, a must for all walkers of the Wall. It is the last point at which you feel you are walking the Wall. From here, it is a simple two-day descent into urban Newcastle, watching wilderness turn to farmland, and farmland to village, village to suburban riverside, industrial suburbia, and suddenly, you are counting six bridges crossing the River Tyne and there are no more crags, just the pubs and mobile phone shops and hurried Novocastrian pedestrians marching up Dean Street. Where am I?
there’s forty acres, and redemption to be found
just along down the way
there is a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
and you will turn it over
cause out here hope remains
and all these rocks they are crying too
and this old land is crying out for you
(Caedmon’s Call, ’40 Acres’)
I pack light, shed a small tear, then stuff my boots into the bottom of my large rucksack, which will be stowed in the hostel until the day’s walk is done. In a moment of planning madness, I’d arranged to catch a train back to London the same evening that my walk finished.
Feet feel weird in trainers but slowly adjust to pavements as I stray out of central Newcastle early and into the eastern suburbs. Pound shops give way to endless blocks of modern red brick houses, then dual carriageways banked by greenery, and then a glimpse of water and some bobbing boats. I duck through a council estate and past an actual Coronation Street, then down to the Shields Ferry. This seven-minute boat ride will be the only form of non-foot transport I take on the whole 97-mile trek, and so close to the finish!
Out of the boat, my heart is starting to race. I have to walk down South Shields’ High Street first, past McDonald’s and more pound shops and pubs with midday punters drinking tall, bubbling pints of lager. I can’t go fast enough, but I’m anxious about the end.
Then there’s the sea. I want to finish on a proper sand beach. Pound, pound, pound…my heart is matching my footsteps for the first time since Bowness. I stop at a bench and wrench off the trainers in haste, tossing them into the daypack in favour of sandals, and finally, here is Sandhaven Beach. I can’t get up the dune fast enough and the tears are stinging at my eyes making me lose my way. Toss the bag down, toss the sandals off.
The North Sea water is freezing in May and feels blissful on my tired feet. I stay for awhile, because the sun is high, savouring the last few minutes of solitude, and the view out into the nothing of shimmering waters.
When I get on the Newcastle metro, and then the Virgin train to London, life will not feel real. Probably ever again.
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