5.30.04 Hadrian’s Wall Walk: Burgh-by-Sands to Brampton
Location: Slightly east of Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria
No, it’s not German: Say “Bruff,” not “burg”
Is It By Sands? Yup
Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail … of course, in this case, no dust to be seen. Grass everywhere. Green in about a hundred different shades. Exactly what I was hoping for, and a bonus: The day started out bright, sunny, and cool. When preparing for walking long distances I knew it’d be me versus the weather, so I prepared for rain and for chill – the temps, I was told, would be in the mid 50s to upper 60s, which really isn’t all that warm. Turns out, when you walk many miles, chill isn’t all that big of a deal: You work up a pretty decent sweat. It’s the rain you have to watch out for. More on that later.
I didn’t start at Bowness, although I saw small clumps of other backpackers milling around in the street outside the King’s Arms with that intention. The point is that there’s pretty much nothing wall-related in that area, and it’s a lot of tarmac walking, which is not only boring but can be dangerous when there aren’t any shoulders to the roads, so the Trek-Inn people had arranged for me to get dropped off at Burgh-by-Sands (a cousin of the woman who ran the Rectory and was visiting was enlisted for that task), and literally, I just got dropped at the side of the road.
We drove out of Bowness and passed by some lowland (signs indicated that when the area flooded, it got to one foot above the road, or two feet, depending on the area, which is informative but hardly useful once the whole thing floods, I imagine). There was a small “lay-by” indent of tarmac, and next to it the first Hadrian’s Wall sign I had seen, so it was pretty much, here you go, good luck. And for someone who’s never hitchhiked or done a whole lot of hiking at all, that’s a strange experience, this being abandoned and left to your own devices on the side of a road.
I was going West to East because that was how Trek-Inn arranged things, but having asked around the idea is this: Even though the guidebooks all go Newcastle (Wallsend) to Bowness, which is East to West, the experienced hiker (or the well informed one) goes West to East, so that you have the wind at your back. And trust me, on top of the high crags or along the shore or up in the hills, wind is a factor. According to one of the owners of my lodging, you can lose a half-mile an hour if you’re walking windward. (I don’t think the wind actually buoys a person along; we’re a little too heavy for that, but I can see that it would be a hindrance the other way around.) So off I went, into the kind of glorious sunny day I’d seen the day before, perfect walking weather. Something no one had mentioned was that – although I knew the trail was marked – how consistent and well-organized it was.
I hardly needed the directions Trek-Inn gave me, in the end (though having them when I did need them made a big difference). All you really have to do is follow the white acorns, which are engraved and painted on signposts, stiles, posts and fences through the whole route. Much of the walk goes through farmers’ fields, which involves climbing stiles and opening gates (I feel fully expert on every manner possible to design and latch a gate or ascend/descend a fence, having walked the Wall), all of which are marked with the acorn. No acorn, don’t go there (and there are plenty of signs which are just “public footpaths” and are marked with their own posts or signs, and are acorn-free). Sometimes, after a long bout of walking without indication I was even going the right way, I’d start thinking, Show me an acorn. Show me a freakin’ acorn. And eventually, there would be one. Eventually. And usually in a logical place.
This first day was hot. I had on jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt which could be rolled up, and I was mopping sweat after the first few miles. Fascinating walking, mostly. Strong scents of fecundity and fertility everywhere – trees popping green, white, purple, flowered and not; water rushing by (which turned into the River Eden trickle by trickle), manure from the sheep and cows and horses and goats and chickens.
The path was mostly flat, with a few variations – ascents up hills and down into meadows, circumventing the river mainly. The National Trust people have really done a marvelous job making the path safe – flagstones in potentially muddy areas, freshly-built wooden bridges to cross difficult areas. The whole route was not all so finished; there were areas that needed help, but this first day, it all was very crisp and organized.) The path went from clear-cut to worn away and sometimes ran along a road, sometimes through a field, sometimes through a long stretch of trees on either side. This last one was my least favorite – I quickly learned the midges like to gather in these areas, and I quickly learned to do this weird judo-chop windmill in front of my face so as to avoid aspirating them. Occasionally I’d pass another hiker, but I was a fairly quick step and no one passed me from behind, so largely it was people going in the opposite direction – or nothing at all. The quiet was incredible, or at least, the quiet of no people and no cars. At one point I stepped off the trail to go dip my bandanna in the river, remembering how it kept me cool in Arizona. A man was standing in hip-waders, fly-fishing
|Just Passing Through
Famous Deaths “Near Carlisle”: Edward I, of pneumonia
As I approached Carlisle – I never went through it, just skirted the north of it – the area became more industrial and peopled with bikers and other holidayers (it was Memorial Day weekend in America, but a bank holiday weekend leading into the half-term break for British schoolkids). A lot of single parents with kids on bikes. Heartwarming! I even saw a father and his kid on ATVs, which proves the Brits can be just as irresponsible as Americans. Heartwarming!
Also noted: Who graffiti, which either means it’s been there way too long – or someone with a classic rock bent can’t seem to put down the spray can. I spent a long time walking along the river, passing by life preservers for the unfortunates who may fall in (I love how the Brit government takes care of people like that; in America we’d just put up a fence and guard signs, which wouldn’t deter anybody and there still wouldn’t be any life preservers). That long stretch led into the only part of Carlisle proper that I saw, emerging into a carpark and a community center area that included soccer fields, tennis courts, and a community center. Since that was about the halfway mark, I decided to have the pack lunch I’d been given at the Rectory, and got my second passport stamp there (totally unexpected). It’s a silly, goofy thing they’ve set up, but there are six stops along the Wall in which you can get these stamps; the first was where I saw the sunset in Bowness, then this turned out to be the second. They all mark stops along the route. I had a lovely relaxing lunch (and a super-expensive soda – 2 pounds!) and decided to make tracks once a birthday party of ten or twelve shrieking eight year olds descended on the room.
Lodgings: Abbey Bridge Inn
Ciders Drunk: 1 and a half pints
Nearby Earl Residences: 1
Earls spotted: 0
Religious Priories Visited: 1
Way to pronounce “Priory”: Preeree
Unfortunately, things went downhill after that (not literally). The sun vanished, and it began to drizzle. I could either stay at the center until it stopped (if it stopped) or walk in the rain, and I figured I may as well walk, because there was no point in hanging in Carlisle if I had hours of walking still ahead. At first it wasn’t too bad, but quickly the rain turned to pelting. The path came to a bridge on the left, and seemed to continue forward along a golf course. No acorn telling me to turn left, though, and my directions were in danger of getting soaked if I took them out, so I followed the path. Bad move: About a half mile later I came to a small footbridge and signs – but no acorn. “Are you lost?” asked a few tenacious golfers (yes, they never went inside) and that’s when I realized I wasn’t quite lost, but I definitely wasn’t on the right path. After doubling back, I took the bridge and made it back on the route, which led me out of Carlisle and into towns so small they felt like suburban developments.
But charming! Jeez, if charming could be bottled this place would make a fortune. Every place I came to I kept thinking, Yeah, I’d live here just fine. Houses often had names, they nearly always had impeccable gardens, and people standing by their windows waved at me as I went by. Eventually the rain slacked. I passed through a field of wheat – I suppose it was wheat; it was green but looked wheat-like – which defined the old phrase perfectly, as it really did wave like waves on the ocean.
Smack in the center was a strange, solitary turret, like something out of a fairytale. It was hard not to wonder who was cooped up in there, because surely someone was cooped up. It was too perfect not to have a prisoner. Or a tenant. But the field wasn’t mine, and if it really was wheat, I wasn’t going to trample a crop, so I just snapped a few pictures and kept moving. You get used to these odd little surprises along the way.
General Atmosphere: Pastoral
And then, wobbly-legged and somewhat eager to put my ass down for more than a few minutes, I came to the end of things: A cattle gate with a sign on it for the Sportsman Inn, which was my destination. Very clever of them: The sign was geared to walkers, telling them if they were tired, hungry, cold or thirsty, to call the Inn’s number and a ride would come to pick them up. I decided I could handle the extra ¾ a mile, and kept walking, but just then an Inn van passed me by and the Inn’s owner, Martin, gave me a ride the rest of the way. Very nice guy: As I sat and sipped cider and watched music videos (Lord, but they do have tons of music video channels here) with his daughter on the satellite, he told me how he used to work for Mercedes-Benz and had only just begun running the Inn a year earlier, and they were still getting used to owning a pub. Nice, friendly people, nice, friendly place. A lot of blue and white décor. But still fairly empty owing to the hour – it was just about 4pm then.
But I wasn’t staying there, and when I was ready he very kindly took me to the Abbey Bridge Inn a few miles away, in Lanercost (he was in Laverdale, which is a great name; it makes me think of washing up), which is just outside Brampton. The Abbey Bridge is just stunning, a wonderful stone house – one of the owners, Sue, came out of her adjoining cottage where she said she was watching Lord of the Rings – and let me in.
I learned the Priory down the road closed at 6 that evening, so I decided to race over there and see what I could, not knowing if I’d have the time in the morning. I scooted over and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous, crumbling but holding its own ruins of what was once a place for monks to live and study, and briefly stepped into the next-door church, which is still in use. I was taken by the one tomb marker which was a beautifully-rendered sculpture of a child; I loved the open-air feeling where the sky and sun streamed in from all sides. Walking through it, it’s impossible not to be struck by the age of it, and how well preserved it is. The crap we build these days and call modern buildings – the only good thing about them there is that they won’t be around half as long as these old structures.
Headed back over the bridge to the Abbey (built by monks, too!) and rested a bit, then came down for dinner around 7:30 and went through another rigmarole of “I’ve paid for dinner ahead of time” versus “we don’t do pre-fixed menus here” and so she contacted the Trek-Inn guy and it appeared that all came out fine. Still, awkward. While we worked that element of things out I sat at the small bar area and had a half-cider, and was drawn into a conversation with a man at the end of the bar. He had a small mustache and was – the word came to me later – erudite. Smoked small cigarillos and drank several pints, all without moving an inch on his stool. Very nice; asked about me and the walk and told me about the area. Noted that the Earl of Carlisle’s home, Naworth Castle (“Is it worth going?” “Nah.” That’s a joke. I made that up.) was just up the hill across the street. It wasn’t open to the public, but he was a friend of the Earl’s brother, who lived there. (Apparently the Earl himself lives out of the country, so I guess this is the stand-in Earl. Stand-in Earl Philip Howard.)
He said if I went I should tell him John Lee (who is listed as The Man to get tours of the Priory from) had sent me, and that I should ask to see the gardens; apparently Howard is very proud of the gardens. Also, Howard is a writer “like myself,” having contributed columns recently to a magazine, the name of which John told me but now slips the mind. Something like Earl Quarterly. Now, that would have made for an interesting conversation. I showed him an article in Harper’s I’d just read which quoted a speech made in the House of Commons on how to deal with royal titles if the individual got a sex change; it dealt with Earls specifically. He found that amusing. He said he and the now-Earl’s families had been friends for 130 years. (Figurative fall off chair, get back up again.) Later on, when I was reading up on Naworth and the Lanercost Priory, that name – Howard – has truly been in charge of Carlisle for generations upon generations upon centuries. The mind reels.
Later on, more locals joined us at the bar and we all chatted for a while longer, and finally sleepiness (and that the bar seemed ready to close) made me bid farewell. What great people! Exactly the kind of evening I’d have liked to have, dinner glitch aside.
Distance: 20.23 km
Time Walked: 5:02:04
Speed: 4.01 km/hr
Rate: 111 steps/minute