Monday, October 21, 2013

Hadrian's Wall Walk: A Foodie's Take on this Epic Trek!

The title of this post may be a little confusing. This is, after all, a food blog. What does Hadrian's Wall have to do with anything? Well, recently my best friend and I decided we would walk this epic 84 mile National Trail that starts in Wallsend near Newcastle and finishes in Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria (you can also start and finish the other way around, but we didn't). And, of course, my first question when researching was, what the hell can I eat along the way? Hadrian's Wall is almost an economy of it's own, with very few roads and almost no public means of support. The wall is the attraction. Through much reading, both online and off, I managed to have good to great food the entire 5 days we walked the wall. The below documents not only the places we ate, but some of the sites as well.

If you found this site but don't want to spend your time reading what I have to say in detail, do yourself a favor and buy this book and read it when you can. Then book your accommodations as soon as you can. This is the book I used to plan my every move. It is very thorough and provides excellent maps and advice on where to stay and eat. Don't even think about trying to do this walk without a guidebook.
Newcastle, 6 miles from the start of the walk in Wallsend.

Many people doing the Hadrian's Wall walk will be traveling to Newcastle. From there they will need to take a bus, or taxi to Wallsend. The official start (or end if going west to east) of the walk. To make it  really official pick up a passport for £2 that will enable you to: 1. get a nice certificate at the end and 2. give yourself mini targets to attain along the walk. There are 7 stamping stations along the Hadrian's Wall walk and when you get all 7 stamps in your passport book you're awarded with an A4 certificate. However, you do need to write your own name on it and there is a small cost. You can also ask for a badge, but when we finished in Bowness they were all out, so I can't comment on whether or not I advise spending the money on one.
My Trusty Backpack
My trusty backpack. Initially packed with about 40 pounds worth of gear, I had to dump some in the bin at Houseteads Roman Fort due to my knees wanting to shatter from the weight.

The first stage of the Hadrian's Wall walk is a little disappointing. Wallsend quickly turns into Newcastle and for the better part of 6 miles you walk through council estates, factories and parks. There is a lovely stretch along the quay though that takes you straight into the center of Newcastle. What waits for you there is far from Roman. Unless Starbucks was started by Hadrian, or Caesar you're probably going to be a little discouraged and wonder why you didn't just take the AD122 coach (if it's running, which is not likely if you're traveling outside the summer months) from Newcastle to Heddon-on-the-Wall or wherever your first night may be.

It is here that I must be totally honest and say that after a 4am start and a 6 hour train trip from West Sussex, we did indeed find a bus running from Newcastle to Heddon and decided that after 6 miles of seeing nothing but modern buildings and commercial eateries, we'd take a bus (the Arriva 685) to Heddon and get an early start the next morning after a nice (hopefully) meal and a warm bed... hopefully.

The Swan, Heddon-on-the-Wall
The Swan at Heddon. The best quality to price ratio meal we had on the trip!

After getting very lost around the lovely village of Heddon-on-the-Wall we finally made it to Houghton North Farm. A bed and breakfast located about a mile from where the bus lets off in Heddon. Checking in was a breeze and Paula, the owner made us feel right at home. The Swan was all the way back in town and after a quick shower, rubbing some baby powder on my aching and bloody feet (yes, after only 6 miles... thank you sharp toenails) we headed out again. The Swan is an idyllic country pub. It's just modern enough to make you feel like you're dining in a place with a clean kitchen, but old enough to not distract from that pub feel.

The best thing about The Swan is their carvery. For £5.95 you get to choose from 3 meats and all the veg you can eat. Topped off with Yorkshire Pudding and gravy, this was the perfect start to a long walk.

With bellies full of ale and roast dinner we set off in the dark towards Paula's. "Good thing I brought this flashlight", I said to Lou. "I know it adds weight to my backpack, but this would suck without it." To which, Lou responded by taking his iPhone out and using his flashlight app. This would be one of many items in my backpack that I wish I didn't bring. My mini-tripod being the biggest offender. Only using it once and nearly being killed by a cow while doing so (you think I'm joking, I'm not) and not being able to throw it away as it would be cost prohibitive, I was stuck with it.

My Walking Partner
Our first morning of proper walking. No wall yet, but lovely countryside.

In My Element
Bear Grylls aint got nothing on this!

Hardian Hotel, Wall, Northumberland
Our second night was spent in Wall at The Hadrian Hotel. Now, I wouldn't classify this as a "nice" hotel, but it did get the job done. Wall, despite it's name is not actually on the Wall. It is located about a mile south of the wall and it really should be named appropriately as this was not a welcome detour after a 14 mile walk from Heddon.

It did provide clean rooms and hot food. However, the beef mince served with chips (fries) and veg was delivered to us no more than 2 minutes after we ordered. A microwave would not be a far fetched idea if you thought that just now. But, after 15 miles of walking it didn't really matter. What mattered was getting something hot into our stomachs so we could fall asleep soundly and hopefully stay that way. The latter was not so. The Hadrian Hotel has a system of plumbing that uses an electronic flush. I'm assuming it's because they have poor water pressure and this electronic system forces all of the waste down the drain. To say that this was not a quiet system would be an understatement and I slept for about 2 hours the entire night. Our next door neighbors clearly had too much ale and were relieving themselves all night, which normally would have been fine except: 1. I heard them and 2. the flushing all night was startling and I woke up numerous times to the sound of flushing wee.

Lemon Drizzle Cake
The best lemon drizzle cake ever. At Vallum Farm Tea Room.

Nothing satisfies me, when it's cold and I've been moving my body, more than tea and cake. And there is no better place on the Hadrian's Wall walk to get this vital nutrition than the Vallum Farm Tea Room. After you get your stamp from The Robin Hood Inn, take a few hundred more steps and cross the street to this incredible sanctuary of a tea room. You won't regret it.

Gnarly Tree
A tree growing out of a wall. Not Hadrian's Wall though.

Twice Brewed Inn
On our 3rd and biggest day of the entire trip we were hurting. We had been ascending and descending 300 meter hills all day. It was only 12 miles, but with 40 pound backpacks my knees were starting to hurt like nothing I had felt before. Not being able to walk is a weird thing. It is such a natural movement and to have to adopt a style of walking that I can only imagine looks something like those penguins in that movie where they march around doing... whatever penguins do, is not something I would ever like to experience again.

After dumping a second pair of shoes, running shoes I was advised to bring to cover the Newcastle bits that are on pavement, and a backup pair of hiking trousers, my pain was alleviated slightly, but I could still go faster if I crawled into Once Brewed on my hands and knees.

We were greeted by a warm inn at the bottom of the hill, with nothing around it, except for the UK's oldest youth hostel, a couple of National Trust cottages and a long road. It was beautiful. We opted for their best room, not because we wanted to splash out on luxuries, but because it was the only room away from the road and I desperately needed sleep if my body was going to heal.

Locally Sourced Meat
Locally raised meat used in all of their dishes.

Our Meal at The Twice Brewed Inn
I truly enjoyed my meal at The Twice Brewed Inn. It was exactly what we needed. I had the steak and ale pie served with carrot and parsnip mash with chips and cabbage. Lou had bangers and mash and we washed it down with local ale. We were both still hungry and loved the chips, so at £2 a portion it was a no brainer, we had to order a couple more sides of them. Gotta have the carbs! That's what I told myself anyway.

Hadrian's Wall Path... Epic!
One of the most impressive views on the entire 84 mile walk... Steel Rigg.

This is what we had to battle for nearly 12 miles on day 3. It was the best day in terms of scenery, where everything reminded us of being in Lord of the Rings, but it was an absolutely brutal day! If you inserted razor blades into your knee caps and tried walking downhill, you'll understand what I mean.

My Favorite Part of Hadrian's Wall
Long and tiring ascents were rewarded with breathtaking views of the English countryside.

Beautiful Hadrian's Wall Walk
Seriously? This is almost too beautiful to comprehend. At times I had to look around, then look at Lou and there were simply no words...

Cows Blocking our Path
A few cows blocking our way over the wall and back onto the trail.

Follow the Acorn
Following the trail is very simple, just look out for the acorns and walk.

The push from Carlisle to Bowness is lackluster. We had 14 miles to walk on the last day and it felt like 14,000. Carlisle is not the nicest of cities and most of the walk is paved. The last signs of the wall are in Banks leading up to Walton before Carlisle. One walks with no wall from here on out. A total of about 26 miles are wall-less. However, not all is lost, there is an excellent pub near Carlisle in Crosby-on-Eden called The Stag Inn. Lou and I stopped in for a pint of real ale and sat with the owner and his business partner for the better part of an hour. It was a wonderful history lesson and well worth the stop. We learned about The Border Reivers, who were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century. This is where the name "bereaved" came from. When one of The Reivers would kill someone, their family were said to be "bereaved."

We learned where much of the stone used to build Hadrian's Wall went and that Mary Queen of Scots was brought to Carlisle Castle by Elizabeth I and kept there. We could have stayed there all day drinking Jenning's ale and learning about the wall, but we still had another few miles into Carlisle.

Once we arrived in Carlisle we were anxious to leave. The owner of the Brooklyn House Bed and Breakfast in Carlisle was not a friendly man and we were given a room with an en-suite bathroom but no working toilet. We had to use the bathroom in the hall, which is a shared bathroom and had a window that looked out onto the interior stairway. So... needless to say, if you wanted the window open and a guest was going up or down the stairs, there would be nothing stopping them from seeing you in your most vulnerable position.

The End, Bowness-on-Solway
The end! Bowness-on-Solway.

After walking the Solway Estuary for miles with nothing around but marsh and Scotland visible in the distance, this was mentally the hardest part of the journey. It was flat and seemed to go on and on. Being almost exclusively on tarmac made it very hard on the joints as well. When we finally did arrive in Bowness we looked haggard and walked with a distinct limp, which my lovely wife decided to film on her iPhone for later viewing.

The official end of the trail going east to west is the King's Head pub. I believe it was them that invented the passport scheme in the first place. The nice lad that handed me the certificate asked us to sign the logbook and wanted to know how many days it took us. I told him 5 1/2 and he said he once did it in 3, but by the end his feet were bloody with blisters. The record is held by a guy in Carlisle, who did it in 18 hours... or something silly like that. The story goes, he ate some crisps, had 4 pints of Guinness in the King's Head, shook this guy's hand and started running. 18 hours later he arrived in Wallsend. Forrest Gump springs to mind! I have to say I felt a little old and a little deflated when I heard that, but hey, we did it. Two guys that haven't had a backpack on their shoulders since they took a month off to walk around Europe in 2002 walked one of the most amazing pieces of Roman antiquity left in the world.

My wife arrived in Bowness at the exact same time as us and she was a very welcome sight! She drove us to The Drunken Duck in Ambleside (even though in my last review of it I said I wouldn't go back, but what the heck, this was a time for pushing oneself and changing one's mind) in the Lake District and we had an incredible victory meal.

Despite what you read online about this walk, it is not a walk for inexperienced trekkers. I should know, I am one. It is clear to me that the people writing the books on the Hadrian's Wall walk are seasoned walkers and hikers. Both Lou and I found the walk to be challenging and extremely so in parts. Doing it in just over 5 days, or a total of 40 hours with backpacks was one of the hardest things I've done. It's been over a week since I returned home and my left knee is still in pain. If you're going to do it, please don't be an idiot like me and get out there a bit and walk with something on your shoulders to acclimate your body to the additional weight.

Top places to eat:

1. The Salutation Inn near Newtown... sorry no photos, I couldn't be bothered to take my camera. Delicious food, including: black pudding, lambs liver, pasta, pork, etc. The potatoes are grown locally by the farmer who owns the B and B we stayed in that night: Newtown Farm Bed and Breakfast.
2. The Swan in Heddon-on-the-Wall. Amazing carvery. Don't "go big" for £1.50. It's huge already!
3. The Twice Brewed Inn in Once Brewed. Locally sourced meat, excellent local ales and a warm fire.

Top places to stay: 

1. Newtown Farm B and B. Extremely clean rooms and bathroom. Excellent cooked breakfast in the morning. Very reasonably priced and the owners are lovely people. We were driven to The Salutation for dinner and then picked up after we ate.
2. The Twice Brewed Inn in Once Brewed. Comfy rooms, amazing pub. Idyllic views. Hot shower!
3. Houghton North Farm B and B. Paula will take great care of you. Rooms are clean. However, the hot water was sketchy and went from scalding to freezing. It also didn't come on in the morning.

Top section of the walk:

Wall to Steel Rigg: Chesters Roman Fort, Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda are all along this stretch of the walk. So is the northern most point of the wall and some of the most breathtaking views I've ever seen. It was also the most challenging, so pack light!

Worst sections of the walk:

1. Wallsend to Newcastle and Heddon-on-the-Wall. If you aren't doing the passport scheme you can skip this section and lose nothing. It is not very pleasant and you look like a fool carrying a backpack, walking stick and accompaniments in an industrial area.
2. Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway. There is no escaping this section. However, it's not awful. It's just unrelenting until you get close to Bowness and can see the final stretch leading up to The King's Head. There is one section as soon as you leave Carlisle that makes you go all the way around a golf course and it was at that point that Lou and I wanted to say screw walking on the exact line where the wall used to go and walk across the greens, upsetting all the golfers, but we didn't. It kind of goes like this for the entire day. You wonder why you're walking a wall trail with no wall. The entire day you're praying for either: 1. a shortcut or 2. something interesting to look at.

Worst place stayed:

Brooklyn House in Carlisle. Stephen, the owner, greeted us with, "you're a little early huh?" Having never given them a time and the fact that it was 3pm, I didn't see a need for this. Having to go to the toilet in what is essentially a staircase, but paying for an en-suite didn't add to it's charm.

Best moments from the walk:

1. Walking up a 300+ meter hill through a forest of tall trees where the roots were exposed and worn down from the thousands of people who have walked on them since the trail began. It looked like polished steps leading up to the top. A cold wind blowing through my North Face jacket. A friend behind me making sure I kept going.
2. Walking down to The Twice Brewed Inn after 12 miles of painful walking. At one point I wanted to give up, but my knees warmed up and we kept pushing on.
3. Getting a ride from a West Yorkshireman who overheard we were in trouble, with no buses running west, only east and my knees were killing me. He gave us a much needed ride to the next section of the wall, which was almost totally flat and on grass.
4. Finishing this walk in Bowness with someone who has been there for me for 13 years. He took my backpack when I couldn't go on, he pushed me and he chatted with me the whole time. Lou, you're a brilliant friend. Can't wait to walk Cotswold Way and Pennine Way with you next!

When I'm not being an intrepid trekker I'm a food and wedding photographer in Sussex. To check out my work please visit my site.

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