Day 4 : Sheild on the Wall to just before Walwick : 14.9 miles including a stroll around a fort.
One of the fun things about sleeping in a tent is that you never really know what the outside is doing because everything sounds like the apocalypse when you’re under canvas. I woke up predictably early to my bladder insisting it needed to be emptied somewhere sociably acceptable but it sounded utterly awful outside, like it was blowing a gale that our tent had no right standing up to, and rain was lashing down onto the roof. But if I wanted the last 40 minutes sleep I was entitled to then I was going to have to brave it. I unzipped my side as quietly as I could, shoved my feet into my shoes, braced myself for the onslaught and eased myself out into the storm.
Oh. Actually it was fine. The horrific winds weren’t even that bad, they just sounded worse because we were pitched next to a flag pole, and it wasn’t even raining. The bit-of-a-breeze was just throwing drops of water from the trees onto the tent. In fact once again we seemed to have escaped the forecast weather-related battering. I let off a few Summit to Eat farts to minimise the risk of gassing because for a food designed to be eaten when you’re likely going to be sleeping in a confined space they certainly do play havoc with your guts, and went back to bed until our alarms went off at 5am. We’d decided to try and get an earlier start this morning after only just making it to camp before dark the previous evening, but apparently everything takes longer at 5am so it was still 7am by the time we were hoisting our backpacks on and heading back towards the trail.
It turned out to be quite a beautiful morning though as we rejoined the trail at Shield on the Wall. I will say though, it’s insane how much of a difference a few grams make to your backpack. We’d been eating our way through snacks and meals and I swear I noticed every hundred grams or so. My backpack felt not only lighter but it was infinitely more comfortable too, it just sat better on my back, and thank fuck it did because all those crags we’d seen stretching off into the distance the previous evening were to be today’s reality and we started our day by slogging up and down hills in varying degrees of what the crap am I doing with my life. Again, the weather forecast was doom and gloom and would have had us swimming to Newcastle but we even got a bit of fiery skyball. It’s incredible how much better everything looks bathed in golden, morning light.
We took in a trig point with some particularly outstanding views, and hiked through Winshields, the halfway point and the highest point along Hadrian’s Wall. The crags here made it unnecessary to dig the ditch to the north and they think the wall would have stood 4.5 metres tall to a wall top walk, with a parapet adding a further 1.5 metres. If I have seen that bugger stood atop a crag I would have thought twice about invading too. Your eyeholes will be very, very happy here, even if it feels like a team of goblins in crampons are doing the Riverdance on your lungs. The scenery is all manner of stunning but those hills are killer, and after a particularly brutal ascent after a series of ascents that we thought we brutal until we met this one, we clambered over a crest and into Sycamore Gap, home of a tree made famous by that 1991 Robin Hood film starring Kevin Costner and his very not-British accent. You can consider British geography butchered too, we were about 150m miles from Nottingham at this point.
You can see why it’s an Instagram star though, as trees go it’s a ridiculously photogenic one. I believe that despite the inclines your calf muscles will never forgive you for, this is one of the more popular sections of the trail. We were there at about 9am thanks to our stupidly early start so there was only one other person knocking around and she only wanted to take her photos and crack on. We pretty much had it to ourselves. But gawping at a tree, regardless of how lovely the tree is, wasn’t going to finish this trail. We had several more hills to do battle with before finally walking through a wood to Housesteads Fort which is a Passport stamp stop, and has a toilet you can use too. We’d set aside time to visit this but we wary given how underwhelmed we were by Birdoswald Fort but we’re National Trust members so it was free for us and English Heritage members. It also turned out that even if we’d had to pay we wouldn’t have been sad, this fort is actually really interesting. Whereas Birdoswald is really aimed at children, this is much more geared towards the grown ups.
Out of the sixteen forts along the wall, this one, known as Vercovicium to the Romans, is the best preserved. Roman forts were built to a template, partially to make them easier to build and partially so soldiers would be just as comfortable from one fort to the next. If everything is laid out the same it’s familiar. We could easily have spent more time here than we had. It doesn’t seem to cover a lot of ground but so much stuff went on here. Obviously there were the barracks, plus the fort headquarters where the commander would address his men. This also housed the shrine to the Roman gods, and a strong room where valuables and wages were held. The entrance gates to the fort would have been way grander than they needed to be, merely to demonstrate the general badassery of the Roman Empire.
There was a big food store too, it had to be big to keep enough food for 800 men, but they didn’t just build a room then chuck stuff in there. This is the Roman Empire we’re talking about. The food has to be kept dry and free of mould, and out of the reach of vermin. The building was probably two stories with air vents and an overhanging roof, and the floor was raised to allow air circulation. It’s quite the feat. There was even a hospital, a valetudinarium, here which is, apparently, quite rare in auxiliary forts such as this one, but whilst the forts were built to a template changes had to be made to accommodate the landscape and the tactical needs of the army stationed there. This was the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, the need for medical facilities may have been greater. All soldiers were trained in first aid but some specialised as doctors and orderlies.
One thing they’re particularly proud of here at Housesteads is their rather well preserved Roman latrine. In fact they advised us not to miss it when we first rocked up so we found ourselves stood in front of the ancient bogs, marvelling at the engineering. The sewers were dug deep and there would have been wooden seats with holes. Flushing was done with rainwater channelled in from all over the fort, and rainwater was stored in stone tanks for use during dry spells, which probably totalled about three days a year given the location in the hills of northern England. In the middle, a stone channel still survives and this would have been filled with rainwater for washing, and the two stone bowls would have been used in times for low water supplies.
I’ve seen similar latrines in Cyprus and over there they used sponges on sticks to wipe their arses, and the sponges would have just stood in water in between uses. Obviously sponges weren’t a thing in England back then so they don’t know what they used, but they speculate that it was bracken, moss or rags. Then someone pointed out that we were all staring really intently at a large device used for shitting so off we went. Out of everything to be seen at Housesteads, why are humans so obsessed with the bodily functions of our ancestors?
We fetched our bags from reception and carried on back to the trail. There was another trig point to see, and this is when the weather turned. We got kitted up into our waterproofs and carried on against the rain which came down on and off. Fortunately it held off long enough for us to enjoy a spot of noodle-related lunch, sheltered from the wind in the remains of Milecastle 35. Apparently not even the gods like me when I’m hungry. There wasn’t much else to see between there and our camp. There was the remains of an old temple, a bit more wall and turrets. The terrain levelled out quite nicely but the weather didn’t have a clue what it was doing.
I’m probably going to read back on this blog and wonder why I banged on about the weather so much but firstly, I’m British, I literally can’t help it, it’s in my blood. Secondly, the forecast had been so utterly shit the whole way but we’d be so lucky so far. We’d been inside under an actual, proper roof during the worst downpour and everything else hadn’t been half as biblical as we thought it would have been. It did mean I had no idea what to wear though so I settled for keeping my jacket on but undone to let the air in, I kept the cover on my backpack and just kept my over-trousers tucked into the cover so I could just grab them easily and put them on without having to take my pack off. That way if the weather turned nasty again I could just struggle into them, hopefully without stacking it into the mud, zip up my jacket and I’d be sorted again.
Another thing that seemed to have become a bit of a theme on this hike was “where the hell can I piss though?” This section was another long, straight bit with no decent bushes to nip behind and not much to distract me from my irate bladder. Once you’re off the crags there really could do with being a few more portaloos along the way. I get that these things aren’t free, but I’d be happy to pay a donation to use them rather than having to do the waddle-pee-dance all the way along the final stretch to the campsite. At least we managed to reach the site in good time today though, rather than having to race the daylight like the previous day.
We had plenty of time to pitch up, shower and order take away from a local village. We knew food delivery was an option from the Greencarts Campsite website but there are pretty much only two options; pizza or Indian. We love both but Tarrant can’t have dairy and I don’t think asking if vegan cheese was available would have going down too well around these part so we ordered Indian. At home we get madras, so that’s what we ordered. It turns out that madras up here is conjured from hell-spices and lava.
After a couple of bites my tongue was on fire and eyeballs were sweating. Shitting hell, was this hotter than we were used to? I looked at Tarrant through the tears to see if she was having the same problem and it looked like her face was about to combust. Thing is, we hadn’t brought food for tonight because we knew we were getting take away, we ended up literally washing the chunks of chicken off under a tap just so we could eat something before bed. Lesson learned, it seems. Either what we consider to be a madras in the south is a tamed version for us pansies, or the madras up here in bum fuck nowhere is fired up because double ‘ard northern bastards don’t feel pain.
Shield on the Wall, Northumberland to Walwick, Northumberland, England
Stayed at: Greencarts Campsite & Bunkhouse
Activity: Walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path from west to east.
Useful shit to know…
- Housesteads Roman Fort is owned by the National Trust but managed by English Heritage, and members of either can get in for free. It’s £8.10 otherwise but we think it’s very much worth it.
- I think the name of the Indian take away was Acomb Tandoori. Beware of the madras!
- Greencarts Campsite was £16 for both of us and we paid by card on the day. We didn’t book, we were assured we didn’t have to at that time of year unless we wanted a bed in the bunkhouse which we didn’t. The family are super friendly and have a lovely doggo who will probably want to say hello.