I have no idea what satanic hell-beast possessed us to make us think that hiking 84 miles from Bowness-on-Solway to Newcastle-upon-Tyne across the narrowest part of England would be any manner of relaxing, but that’s how we chose to spend a week of annual leave in September as colleagues raised an eyebrow and suggested that we have a word with ourselves about what constituted a holiday. I mean, we both enjoy a hike. On any given Sunday you’ll probably find us up a hill somewhere shovelling sandwiches into our chops as the rest of Sussex tries to cram as much roasted produce into their digestive systems as possible before they slip into a food coma.
So anyway, hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path it was then. The drive from Brighton was probably going to be the hardest part of this on account of it being about a thousand miles away. We tend to fuel up on Red Bull on these drives then need to stop regularly for a pee but I have an inability to walk past a WH Smiths without purchasing a Red Bull and so the cycle repeats. Honestly, it’s like a Pavlov’s Dog thing, it’s a reflex reaction. Sometimes I don’t even realise what I’m doing until I’m stood at the till clutching the biggest can of Red Bull I can find, salivating. I think I might have a problem. We pit-stopped in Blackpool for the Saturday night before continuing up to the small, Cumbrian village of Bowness-on-Solway on the Sunday afternoon. Bowness-on-Solway being the end of the Hadrian’s Wall Path or, some what controversially in our case, the beginning. Most people seem to walk it east to west but my brain insists that that’s backwards so here we are.
We checked into Wallsend Guesthouse which offers an array of rooms and glamping wigwams (which aren’t wigwams by any definition I’m aware of), none of which we would be utilising. We were directed towards the camping field where we set up our tent. There was literally one other camper, possibly because it’s coming to the end of the season now, but also possibly on account of the fact it had been pissing rain on and off all day and no one else was mental enough to consider ground based accommodation a viable option. Fair enough. It stopped raining for long enough for us to get the tent up without having a complete nervous breakdown and walk into the village to locate a shop to buy bread because we had a slab of cow each to stick between two slices. Turns out there is indeed a shop but it’s relatively new and part of a small complex offering rooms, shepherd huts (also seems to be a common glamping theme at the moment), camping space, motor home rental (though by motor home I mean a small palace with more space and similar amenities to our flat) and, I shit you not, a fully equipped gym. Ian Hunter, the owner, is the new kid on the block and the competition is ruffling a lot of feathers locally.
He sold us a loaf of bread and happened to mention that he also sold beer and, well, we weren’t intending to drink at all on this trip… but tomorrow was an easy, flat day… yeah sod it. Why not. You can even drink it there if you want and Ian is a lovely bloke so we chatted to him for a while before heading back to cook dinner as it started to rain again. Yeah, sky definitely looked like it had plans for minor flooding that night. As we munched steak sandwiches we assessed our immediate future; it would, it seemed, be perpetually damp. The forecast for the whole week was rain. We had a reliable tent and waterproof everything though, we’d be fine. It rained a lot that night but by the time we’d woken up, had a cuppa and shovelled a Pot Noodle (breakfast of champions, assuming champions aren’t overly fussed about an actual nutritional content) our faceholes it was just a bit grey.
Day 1 : Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle : 15.7 miles including the walk from the trail to the bus stop.
Right. So you’re meant to start at Banks Promenade where there’s a shelter and a little box containing a rubber stamp for if you’ve bought the Passport. We had, we bought it from Ian the previous night and we’d gotten it stamped by him. The Passport is only a fiver and it’s a way of supporting the upkeep of the trail whilst satisfying obsessive tendencies for collecting shit. A sign along the top of the shelter kindly advises you that you have 84 miles until the end. I hoped the part of my brain responsible for my feet hadn’t noticed.
Well standing around posting Instagram stories wasn’t going to get us any closer to Newcastle. Off we went then, along the road towards Carlisle. Fun fact about this section of the walk; if you don’t time it right you’ll need a canoe as its prone to flooding when the tide comes in. The route hugs the Solway Firth which is fond of a tidal surge or two. You’re meant to check the tide timetable and if it’s above nine metres at high tide then forget it, sunshine. You’re going nowhere. The road is marked with signs telling you how high the water is if it reaches aforementioned sign. We knew we’d be fine, we’d checked, the tide was well away from us but it didn’t stop my paranoia that I’d read the timetable wrong. I eyed the estuary suspiciously.
Also the way seemed very well marked with finger posts and little white acorns. I mean, we can get lost on a straight road with GPS and full voice navigation but hopefully we wouldn’t end up too far off track wandering aimlessly through bum-fuck Cumbria, ending up in a ditch having our faces pecked off by sparrows. Talking of straight roads, that’s pretty much what epitomised day one. We did come off the road onto trails every now and then but mostly we were hiking along the tarmac, through little villages with pubs there definitely weren’t open yet on account of the fact we considered 7am an appropriate time to start walking. Once we were through Drumburgh we had to slog along a long, straight road for what felt like half our bloody lives. Seriously, just give us a corner or something. Anything! If you need to pee by this point then you’re shit out of luck if you don’t posses the inherent gift of standing whilst pissing. To one side the actual footpath had turned to ankle deep slush so we stuck to the road, and the other side was salt marsh and gorse bushes.
We trudged, because trudging is the only appropriate motion when you’re kind of only doing it at this point to get somewhere, all the way into Burgh-by-Sands, where there was a seasonal portaloo. I never knew seasonal portaloos were a thing but there you go. It’s probably there to stop the hordes of hikers pissing in locals’ bushes. Not a euphemism. I’d already ducked behind a gorse bush by this point and actually managed to relieve myself without falling backwards off the tuft of grass I was precariously balancing on into the marsh I’d painstakingly picked my way across, but it was a welcome sight for Tarrant. There’s also seasonal drinking water at St Michael’s church in Burgh-by-Sands in case you needed to replace all those fluids you’d just offloaded into the seasonal portaloo.
We were off-road on a trail which highlighted the fact that one of my brand new hiking shoes was very definitely not waterproof until we strolled into Beaumont where we risked a sit down and a cup of tea as we’d been reliably informed that there was a toilet in the vicinity that wasn’t a strategically placed gorse bush by the side of the road. There’s a lovely church here too. This one, apparently, is the only church slap bang on the line of the old wall. They wouldn’t have had far to carry the stones, then. Most of the churches we’d walked past, including the one in Bowness-on-Solway, were 12th century and built from stone nicked from the wall. We knew we wouldn’t see any actual wall for the first couple of days and I guess that would be why then; it was all church shaped now.
We finally left the trail and picked up a footpath which followed the River Eden all the way into Carlisle through a lovely local park, emerged up onto a main road where we walked to a bus stop which would, we hoped, produce some manner of large vehicle bound for a campsite we’d booked north of the city. Tarrant popped to Sainsbury’s for supplies and I sat down then realised that probably wasn’t my best move on account of the whole having to get up again thing. Today wasn’t too bad to be fair, it was relatively flat, the hardest bit was the boredom of hiking along a long, straight road whilst cows glared at us a lot. As we sprawled across the pavement at the foot of the bus stop we did wonder at some point if the number 79 bus was a myth but it did eventually show up and once we were pitched up at Dandy Dinmont Campsite we spent the evening playing cards in the sunshine. Yes, actual sunshine. It hadn’t rained all day despite the predictions to the contrary. Not to worry, the forecast for the following day promised a proper drenching from the moment we woke up.
Day 2 : Carlisle to Walton : 12.3 miles, including the walk from the bus stop back to the trail.
Well bugger me backwards, we didn’t wake up in a swamp. I unzipped the tent at 5.30am and it wasn’t even raining. In fact we were treated to quite the display from the sky as the fiery skyball inched its way up over the horizon, the clouds glowing an epic pink colour. Tarrant glanced up from her Pot Noodle and said, “Red sky in the morning…” Tarrant is a ray of fucking sunshine pre-coffee. But yeah, there’s that, but right now I’ll take whatever non-wet weather I can get. We only had just over 11 miles planned for today anyway, plus we’d booked a bunkhouse for tonight. If it was going to rain then it was going to rain, there was sod all we could do about it apart from whinge incessantly and wish we’d gone to Lanzarote instead.
We bussed back in Carlisle and picked the trail up where we left off, crossed under the bridge and nipped into The Sands Centre to get our passport stamped and have a wee. Always have a tactical wee when you can if you’re a human who must squat to pee on this hike. Trust me, it’s a popular route, you could have a lot of walking in between appropriately sized bushes and I’ve never been one who can give a cheerful wave if someone happens to wander around the corner as I crouch with my trousers round my ankles, simultaneously trying to avoid peeing on my own clothes whilst not stacking it into a patch of nettles.
It’s a lovely walk once you’re out of Carlisle, and in fact it’s not bloody awful as you walk through the parks on the outskirts of the city along the River Eden either. We were by the road until we got through Linstock, then we picked up a trail which led us past plenty of accommodation options and mini snack shops operating on an honesty system. We’d brought all of our snacks for the whole trek with us, we had no idea that they’d be so readily available. To be fair there were a lot more options for me in these sugar filled treasure chests, I’d live off Snickers bars if I didn’t think it’d kill me, but if you have an allergy or an intolerance you can’t risk there not being options for you apart from an occasional packet of Fruit Pastilles.
The clouds were looking threatening by the time we got through Bleatarn, the site of an ancient quarry used to obtain the stone for Hadrian’s Wall. You can still see mounds dotting the land that were used to dispose of the rubbish from the quarries which is quite cool, it was the first bit of non-church related wall trivia we’d come across. We’d been pretty lucky so far, we’d seen the clouds behind us and assumed that they’d catch us up but they seemed to skirt around us for the most part. We weren’t far past Bleatarn though when our luck ran out and drops of rain started pattering down. We stopped and got kitted up in our waterproofs; full on jacket and over trousers, devices sealed into ziplock bags, backpack covers on, the works. Excellent. As we hoisted our packs backpacks onto our backs the spitting stopped and the sun came out. I’m not even shitting you. The actual fucking sun. Black clouds still loomed in the distance but exactly where we were was lovely and warm. I started to sweat profusely because I was basically decked out in a crisp packet. Bugger it. We stopped again to strip off our waterproofs.
The sun was only out for about 0.4 seconds but we’ll take what we can get. We hurried on towards Walton, glancing back at the ominous skies. The trail had been largely flat until we started getting close to the end and it started to gently ascend, nothing too horrific, our calf muscles thus far seemed blissfully unaware. We sort of raced the rain as we made it into Walton and Florries on the Wall Bunkhouse, our accommodation for the night. We’d booked a dorm bed each but we were early so we dumped our bags and our host told us we could check in early if we wanted to but give him half an hour. No worries. We wandered to the church and sat down on the pews. We did have plans to hike the three miles each way to Lanercost Priory this afternoon, it was only 2pm by this point, but when we made those plans we hadn’t just spent two days walking. As we discussed just checking in and having a chilled one, we heard the rain against the stained glass. Yep, screw hiking anywhere. We headed back to Florries to take full advantage of having actual, proper walls and a roof.
There are no words to describe the rain that started coming down as we sat in the common area playing Rummikub and sipping wine, because apparently all plans to not drink go under a bus when presented with a fully stocked bar. It was utterly torrential, and it didn’t relent. It was the kind of rain that soaks you to your underwear before you have a chance to get one leg into your waterproof trousers, as the path around you becomes a muddy stream that flows over your shoes and fills them with enough water to breed frogs. I was so glad we weren’t camping. Don’t get me wrong, I love camping and I do trust our tent, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a proper bed and a non-inflatable pillow to drool profusely into, and not having to go outside to pee is definitely a bonus when the sky is trying to drown you.
Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle to Walton, Cumbria, England
Stayed at: Wallsend Guesthouse in Bowness-on-Solway, Dandy Dinmont Camping & Caravan Park in Carlisle, and Florries On The Wall Bunkhouse in Walton.
Activity: Hiking the Hadrian’s Wall Path from west to east.
Useful shit to know…
- You’ll need to check the tide times for Silloth before starting out on your hike, but then you’ll need to convert them as Silloth isn’t the Solway Firth, it’s just the nearest place where you can get a tide timetable. Add an hour onto the time during Greenwich Meantime in the winter, and two hours during British Summer Time. The National Trail website links to .pdf documents linking the tide times for the year. You probably won’t be able to cross an hour either side of a high tide around nine metres.
- Our Carlisle accommodation was Dandy Dinmont Camping & Caravan Park, about six miles north of the trail. You can book through their website, a pitch cost us £16 for both of us in a two man tent.
- The 79 between the campsite and Carlisle is a Stagecoach bus, you can check the timetable on their website or get live times from their app. Don’t rely on Google, it sleeps on a bed of lies. It was £3.30 each one way and you can pay cash or contactless. Ask to get off at Blackford Church.
- The Sands Centre opens from 7am and there doesn’t seem to be a box outside if you want to stamp your Hadrian’s Wall Path passport.
- We can very highly recommend Florries On The Wall Bunkhouse in Walton. It’s right on the trail. We paid £25 each for a bed in a four bed dorm. They have no cooking facilities so we bought dinner and dessert there for £13 (we booked this when we booked our room) and we also booked a packed lunch for the following day for £5.50 each. Tarrant’s dairy intolerance was very well catered for without her having to settle for something vegan. They have a well stocked, reasonably priced bar with beer, wine and spirits. A large glass of wine was £3.30. Breakfast was included in the price and was excellent. You can have cereal, toast, and our host also cooked pancakes with bacon.