Take heart if you’ve considered walking Hadrian’s Wall and were concerned about the effort. I’m fifty-five years-old, slightly overweight and started in the gym only six weeks before the walk. It was physically taxing for me, but if I can complete the walk, anyone can. I walked with my thirty-three-year-old daughter, which could have been a recipe for a family squabble, but instead was a fantastic bonding opportunity for us both. I did learn several very important lessons which I offer up for your edification. If you read my list and take just a few of my tips, I have no doubt that you’ll miss at least some of the larger errors that I committed. The number one tip is about proper apparel but I’ll leave that lesson until later in this story.
First, I’ll offer some background. I have a great personal interest in history and particularly in Roman Empire history. I’ve dragged my wife and daughter across all of Europe, North Africa, the Levant and into the Middle East to see obscure sites in places where I carefully deciphered monuments and regaled them with humorous stories that I hoped brought the history of the places alive. I’m not divorced or disowned so I believe they must hold some small affection for my interests. When my daughter was a teenager and we had recently moved to a home in the suburbs of London, I enthusiastically dragged my two long-suffering women to sites on Hadrian’s Wall and confidently declared, “I’d like to walk the entire trail someday!” That was more than twenty years ago, however. Because I recently retired from corporate life, I am now more time-wealthy than in the past and thus revived my interest in walking Hadrian’s Wall.
My wife, Rosa, was interested but a bit dubious about whether I was physically prepared for the walk. She is in perfect shape and is spending her time preparing for an Antarctic trek in December after doing an Arctic trek earlier this year in March. Rosa is an adventure junkie and believes earnestly in proper preparation. She kept recommending that I build up my stamina by taking increasingly longer walks until I could tramp thirty kilometres with a full day pack. I hate walking with her though. She is an exceedingly fast walker and can walk thirty kilometres without so much as glistening at a rate that I couldn’t match on a bicycle. I always found excuses for why such training was unnecessary especially the frequent classification of the walk as “moderate” on most walking websites, which I should have read more fully as, “moderate, except for a certain overweight and over-confident middle-aged man!” My daughter, Shaz, is a personal trainer and was enthusiastic about the walk because she would spend time with her frequently-absent father while gaining some great exercise. She invited herself and kept me to my timetable.
I did prepare, in my own way, for the walk. First, I booked the trip with Shepherds Walks. They were incredibly efficient, friendly and helpful. Jane and Jackie took a personal interest in my trip and handled everything promptly. I received cheery emails from them giving me updates on the status of all arrangements. Second, I started in a Cross Fit gym with a personal trainer about six weeks prior to the scheduled walk. The phrase, “too little, too late” comes to mind but at least Vitaly, my personal trainer, did his best to build up some core muscle before I blundered out across the countryside. Third, I had great fun buying the gear. I bought high-end walking boots, rain gear, a backpack that must have been designed for the SAS, high-tech water bottles and a plethora of other goodies. Sure, it was expensive, but I justified the expense because I had been wanting to complete the walk for more than two decades. I should have simply walked more with a good sturdy pair of walking boots but it was hot this summer in Malta and in London, where I split my time, so it was easier to buy high-end camping gear in an air-conditioned shop then build up my stamina.
So, that is about the sum of my preparations for a 150 kilometre walk that I intended to perform in six days – with a rest day in the middle. The reader might think that the above is a recipe for disaster but it worked out well for me. I finished but I learned some very important lessons about the walk and about myself.
So here are my top ten tips for walking Hadrian’s Wall.
I think these tips are valid for the novice as well as being a good reminder for the experienced:
10. Prepare better than I did
I chose to walk the entire trail in six days with a rest day in the middle. That means we averaged 23 kilometres per day – but that number doesn’t include the up and down in route and walking on and off the trail from and to our accommodation. I hadn’t walked thirty kilometres in one day during this century! In fact, thrity kilometres is about my weekly total for walking and, before this trip, I was not unhappy with that fact. The first day was a rude awakening when we started in Bowness on the Solway about 10:30am and had a 29 kilometre walk on the trail and then to our hotel in Carlisle. I wish I’d walked a few thirty kilometre treks just so I had some idea of the time required and how sore my feet would be at the end of the day. Whichever direction from which the walk begins, the first day is amongst the easiest. I wish I had tried a few long walks before that first day on the Hadrian’s Wall trail.
9. Look for the Acorns
The Acorns are the little symbols that tell the walker that they are on the right path. If you haven’t seen an acorn in the past twenty minutes, you are off the trail and will probably need to backtrack. This happened to us twice and both times were my fault because we walked off the trail at two of the three standard trail diversions that were well documented in the materials provided by Shepherds Walks. Which leads me to the next tip…
8. Read the instructions
Shepherds Walk provides very detailed instructions on every aspect required. Trail diversions that you should take, places to stop for a drink or meal and how to find your accommodation off the trail. All the information required is in easy reach within the handy folder provided on the first day. It only works, however, if you read it before you are on the trail. It required two days of false steps that cost us three kilometres one day and two kilometres the next before it became clear that taking fifteen minutes in the morning to review the material would save me mishaps throughout the day. Funnily, I only caught on to this lesson when there were no more trail diversions. Three kilometres added due to my own stupidity at the end of a long day of walking was disheartening. Shaz and I became obsessed with spotting the acorns on the trail. It is comforting to see one and know we were on the right path.
7. It’s not a race; enjoy the scenery
There is plenty to see even when the iconic Wall is not directly on the trail. I found out on the first day that I am not a fast walker and, while the fast walkers were already sipping real ales in local pubs, I was still plodding along on the trail dreaming of a hot shower. I did tell my daughter, “I’ll stop walking entirely if that old couple using the walkers pass us again…” I found that the older ramblers were the fastest walkers. I guess they had more years of retirement to hone their walking gait or maybe only the hardiest old folks walk the trail. When I was young my dad told me, “Someone will always be smarter, better looking than you or richer than you. So, get used to that fact.” I’ll add a forth item to my father’s list, “Someone will always walk faster than you.” After the first day, this didn’t bother me at all. I just wished the fast walkers a “good day” while I watched them disappear in the distance.
6. Take in fuel and water often
Maybe the silliest thing that I did the first few days was ration my water and food intake. I carried two litres of water each day but often found that I had plenty of water left when I arrived in the evening. That’s doesn’t make any sense. I should have drunk early and often and snacked throughout the day. There are plenty of places to fill a canteen on the trail and carrying dead weight is just silly. I don’t know if I thought that I’d be trapped and need the supplies or if I just wasn’t used to long duration exercise. After the second day, I started consuming more during the day and I felt much better throughout and at the end of the walk.
5. Don’t clock-watch the distance
I’m a mathematician by training and I love nothing more than a good equation. So, I’d constantly try to match our rate of walking with a time when we’d arrive at our stop for the day. I’d even factor in a reduced walking rate at the end of the day when I was tired and some estimates of possible break times. I was never within an hour of the actual arrival time regardless of how often I tried. Unfortunately, I almost always underestimated the arrival time which can be disheartening. When I thought I’d be off the trail by 15:30 and the actual arrival time was 17:15, I’d feel like I’d failed when, in fact, I’d probably spent extra time looking at something cool that I hadn’t factored into my estimated arrival time. Interestingly, the last day, when we walked on paved paths in Newcastle for most of the day, we arrived nearly two hours earlier than I expected. I should have ignored the estimated arrival time and just enjoyed the journey.
4. Take a rest day
On day three, we walked from Lanercost to Steel Rig. We had scheduled the next day as a rest day. That was the best decision I made on the entire trip! That portion of the trail ended at a difficult point high up on the shields so a day of rest was a good call. The rest day also allowed us to spend half a day at Vindolanda which was very enjoyable. We spoke to the archaeologists at the active dig, visited the museum and then had a wonderful relaxed and boozy lunch at Twice Brewed before having an early evening in the second night of our accommodation. That fortified my resolve to finish the walk and prepared me for the Steel Rig to Chesters, day-4 walk which is dramatic and challenging.
3. Laugh easily at yourself and with others
People walk Hadrian’s Wall for a variety of reasons and in a variety of manners. Everyone has a unique story and many want to share their opinions. It is fun to speak to them and share a chuckle or two even if I didn’t agree with all their views. I found that I could joke about my own trials and tribulations to raise a smile on their faces. Laughing at myself also raised my own spirits. Laughter really is the best medicine.
2. Walk with a good friend
I’d been frequently absent when my daughter was growing up because of work travel. Then, she had grown into adulthood and we had spent less and less time together. So, spending a week together seemed like a good way to reconnect. My wife knows us both so she had, quite prudently, recommended that we have separate rooms each night. That was a very good call. Still, I would not have been able to finish the walk without the company, encouragement and good humour of Shaz. When I was low-energy, she would perk me up and when she was feeling the length of the trail, I was able to cheer her. I renewed my respect, love and admiration for my daughter.
1. Wear appropriate apparel
This sounds like a very innocuous tip but read on to find out why I found it the most important. On our fifth day of walking (sixth on the trip because of our rest day), we walked from Chesters to Heddon-on-the-Wall. This was a 29-kilometre day for us and one of the longest in terms of time. There are a few jogs at the end of the trail that seem like they take forever to navigate. We were walking through what turned out to be the last field of the day when we noticed several cows on the trail downhill from us. The field had been recently ploughed and it had rained so the trail was the only reasonably passable footing. As we approached the cows we noticed that a pure white bull was rutting and the cows were patiently waiting on the trail to be serviced. Other walkers had warned us to give a wide berth to rutting bulls but we were a bit stuck. We couldn’t move forward as the herd wouldn’t budge off the trail but we also couldn’t walk fast enough through the muddy field to walk around them. My daughter’s ankle was sore and we were close to the end of the day’s walk but we had a small herd of horny cows and a rutting bull between us and the end of the walk. After a bit of a stand-off, the bull started taking an unusual interest in us. My city-born daughter was less than enchanted by the bull’s attentions and I knew I had to do something. So, I did exactly what we were advised NOT to do, I started waving my hands and yelling in a loud voice for the cows and bull to move. The herd moved off the trail while giving us dirty looks. After we climbed stairs toward the last length of trail, my daughter said, “I was becoming worried as the bull looked angrily at me!” That’s when I replied, “You might have been more worried if you’d remembered that you were wearing a bright red jacket!” Some folks will tell you that bulls are colour blind, and they may be, but that bull was very interested in Shaz’s apparel!
One nice offshoot from finishing the walk… all my friends, and even my wife, were impressed that I could finish. My leg muscles are more sculpted and prominent and I have a good base from which to progress.
I am so very pleased that I walked the trail and I’m very grateful to Shepherds Walks for their professional arrangements. I’m already planning for my next walk but I’ll take some time to recover before I jump back on the trail. I’ll take my own advice next time and will enjoy the time even more. I’ll also buy my daughter a grey jacket.