Hadrian's Wall Path

England, United Kingdom

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Housteads to Steel Rigg, 6.8.09

 

After the wettest UK July in more than 100 years, I couldn't believe my luck: a clear sky was peppered with puffy little clouds, heat tempered by a gentle breeze. Perfect walking conditions.

This stretch of Hadrian's Wall is one of the most enjoyable walks I have ever made. While its scenery may not match the Himalayan, and it was a bit overpopulated the day I was there, it was captivating nevertheless: gorgeous, wide views out from abrupt cliff-faces over the high farmland, moors and small lakes to the north and across the Tyne valley to the Pennine hills to the south; and an area redolent of extreme history.

The wall was brilliantly sited here, marching along a series of ridges, known as Whin Sill, the result of a hard igneous dolerite sheet having pushed up through the area's predominant limestone. These ridges break up into cliffs and tough slopes to the north, and you can see why the defensive line was moved northward here from the gentler banks of the Tyne.

Beginning at the sprawling remains of the Housteads fort, and a sandwich munched on the wall, gazing northward to the land of the pictish barbarians, I struck westward, along the only section of wall you are allowed to walk on, in pine and beech woodland above sheer cliffs to the north. While there is now doubt about whether the wall was regularly patrolled, there is a very intense feeling of connectedness about striding along the actual wall, overlooking the rough hill farms to the north through sturdy pine trunks (which, presumably, were not there in Roman times).

Shortly after dropping off the wall at the wood's end, I was inspecting Milecastle 37, with its broken arch framing a fine view to the north. This is a gorgeous stretch, snaking along Hotbank Crags, dropping in and out of steep little notches. The wall is particularly charming and fascinating here, its even sides and grassy top evidence of their reconstruction under John Clayton in the 19th century. Ersatz they may be, but they speak vividly of how the wall must have been.

At the end of these crags is a glorious view to the famous Crag Lough, huddled below the dramatic Highshields Crags to its south, with the wall receding along precipitous ridges to the western skyline.

Down toward the lake are the banked remains of Milecastle 38 and a fine stretch of the vallum (great defensive ditch) that ran parallel to the wall on its north side.

The mixed woodland and then open rocks above Highshields Crags are particularly memorable, with their magnificent views over the lough a couple of hundred sheer feet below. The rowans were bursting with the brightest red berries – almost a Platonic ideal of redness - when I was there.

Beyond Highshields, the wall drops to one of Britain's more remarkable trees, a magnificent sycamore that seems to touch both sides of the steep little notch that is Sycamore Gap. It was apparently made famous in a film I never saw.

After a steep pant back onto the ridge, you wind around the cliff face, passing the remnants of another milecastle and enjoying perhaps the walk's most famous view, back toward Crag Lough beneath the obdurate mass of the Highshield Crag.

A very steep dip indeed – how they managed to build (and operate) the wall in this terrain is sharply reminiscent of the outlandishly confident construction of the wall's great counterpart, the Great Wall of China.

And then one more hillside – a steady trudge up close-cropped sward for a change – gets you to the roadhead at Steel Rigg.

A very concentrated 3 miles – a bit over an hour – of inspirational walking.

 

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