6.2-3.04 Hadrian’s Wall Walk: Haltwhistle & Chollerford
Location: Next to the South Tyne River
Population: Can’t find out, don’t care
Means: “Fine hill”
General Atmosphere: Dreary (outside Haltwhistle)
This was supposed to be a day off in Haltwhistle, and that would have been super fab and groovy had it worked out that way: I liked the Centre of Britain hotel a lot, but a glitch by – who else, Trek Inn – meant they didn’t book me in for two nights. The man who ran the CoB managed to get me a second night at my next stopover, but that meant I’d have to hump all my luggage one day’s journey down the trail, then go backwards and walk to the hotel the next day. Which is what happened.
But until all of that, the weather was pleasant in Haltwhistle, the town looked inviting, and they said they would hold my luggage until I was ready to move on. So I walked around town and checked out some of the shops, including a cute little used bookstore that was something I’d like to run someday. The woman running it also makes handmade books which were very clever and interesting. They reminded me of those Jacob’s Ladder toys. I bought two postcards of Beethoven (hey, don’t see those too often outside Bonn) and a Monty Python book, then shifted down the road to the train station, of which the town seems inordinately proud. It was cute, and I tried to take a picture of a train coming in – only to find my batteries were dead in the camera. A nice guy in a hardware store set me up again, yet I ended up getting no photos of the town in the end! I ate some lunch in the town square across from the hotel, surrounded by pigeons – who paid more attention to the french-fry wielding kids than me, fortunately. It was an adorable place I can totally see wanting to move to to “get away from it all,” but it seemed to me that if you grew up there it would also be a place you’d be dying to get away from. That said – the few people I spoke to seemed in no hurry to leave and see the wider world. And the property values are quite high – apartments could be the equivalent of $250,000! Center of England indeed!
While my luggage went along to the Swallow George, I got the special Hadrian’s Wall bus (reading A.D. 122) to Vindolanda, the massive Roman fort and museum.
They actively excavate there, and it is possible to watch the volunteers (yes, volunteers – people take vacations to go dig in the dirt, and not professionals necessarily) root around.
One man showed me some of the pottery he dug up that day, which must be extremely exciting – you’re the first person in God knows how many centuries to handle this item. Inside the museum were displays of what had been dug up and cleaned, and some of the items are so common, they’re amazing – hard to imagine they’ve been underground all this time: knives, jewelry, shoes, bones. Pretty astounding considering the age. I mean, those things are around since the dark ages! Still, after an hour and a half, I was ready to go. It is possible to O.D. on forts and relics.
The bus driver gave me shit when I asked him to drop me off at the Swallow George, which I’d been told was a common enough place to be asked to stop, if not an official stop itself. Put in a bad mood, I was immediately tired and not exactly prepared for the minimal, cheesy, poorly-staffed SG Hotel. I ended up staying up late watching TV (I’m a sucker for foreign television, and in this case, Big Brother 5 – and there was this documentary on this young woman singer named Alice Martineau (warning: audio) who had cystic fibrosis, which is what my friend Jo had, so I needed to see that whole thing. Credits ran – and then it said she died in 2003, and the doc was clearly a year old. I hadn’t expected that.
Lodgings: Swallow George Hotel
Porn Name? No, you freak, it’s a bird reference
Location: On the edge of a ring road where the old Roman Road crosses the River Tyne at Chesters Bridge.
Silly Blonde Desk Receptionists: 1
J B Priestley
George Bernard Shaw
The Swallow George is what I think is considered a “spa” hotel, though I was hard pressed to find the “spa” or “resort” aspect. The rooms were not so great or special, had no amenities (admittedly, I was spoiled by the freakin’ sauna in the last place) and just felt tired. Since I’d been set here I had to call my ride for the morning to come pick me up at the SG, not at the CoB, and he said he’d call me back to confirm the 10am pickup in the morning. I got no call, so on my way down to breakfast I stopped at the front desk to get change for a pound so I could call (I had a phone card, but did their phone accept phone cards? No, it did not, moan gripe whimper, bitch). First it took ages for the blonde behind the counter to get off the phone with a customer. Then, I got change. Then, the driver (Steven) said he had left a message for me, would be there at 10. Back to front desk.
“So, did you have a message for me?”
“You were in breakfast.”
“Em, no, I haven’t been to breakfast yet.”
“Oh, well, he asked for room 101 and we don’t have a room 101.”
Clearly, she was just inventing. I offered a stare of death and stalked off.
And, it turns out, they do have a room 101. (I was in 110.)
The ride came (yay!) and I was better mentally prepared for what I’d get – I figured there would be more up and down crags, and of course it wasn’t teeming rain, so the whole thing was more pleasant. At the top of one hill I was looking at the various countryside and sheep and caught one with its legs straight up in the air. Not a natural sheep pose. It was just a parody of a dead sheep – which is of course what it was. Dead, not a parody. These fields are so vast it could be a while before the farmer rounds it up. I wonder what killed it, and if all sheep die with their legs stuck in the air.
Later on, I came upon the much-discussed “Robin Hood Tree” in Sycamore Gap. As I learned along the route, everyone asks if you’ve seen the Robin Hood tree. And then whether you have or not, there’s a bout of laughter at the ridiculous geography presented in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which features the tree. (What, you were expecting Errol Flynn?) Apparently, Costner’s accent wasn’t the only dodgy thing about the film – apparently Robin lands at Dover, and goes through Nottingham to get to Hadrian’s Wall in record time.
From notes at the IMDb:
Having just landed on the south coast of England, Robin tells Azeem that they will sleep in his father’s house tonight. It would have been impossible for them to reach Nottingham in a single day, especially if they went via Hadrian’s wall, which is several hundred miles to the north of Nottingham.
There is a pivotal scene with Marian at the tree, and so, everyone takes the tree’s picture. It looks a lot like every other tree out there, but having it standing alone in the middle of a dip is striking. So, photos.
Most of the day was made of mountain-goat style scaling and descending, and then a lot of fields. Some bulls in fields – not like El Toro, but unnerving. Like, can I get away fast enough if I have to flee? And then as I passed through a smaller field, two men in an ATV, along with their border collie mix, rounded up a herd of sheep and led them to another field. I stood on a stile and watched; it was pretty cool. Also on this part of the walk: Another fort called Vercovicium, aka Housesteads. According to my directions, it has “well preserved ramparts that clearly show the structure of the fort — including the sophisticated communal latrines” but, alas, my photos do not bear out that I was there. I was, though. Really!
It is funny what you forget to take pictures of.
I did get pictures of the oddly-named Brocolita, a fenced-off area that has nothing to do with broccoli. It featured the remains of the Roman Temple of Mithras, which was a religion among the soldiers. A bull was sacrificed, and its blood spilled, to revive the earth. No wonder the cows look at me funny.
I was very ready to be done with the day by the time I got back to the SG, but not in a panicky way like the day before. I skipped the Chesters fort (about a 5 minute walk from SG) and decided I’d poke into it the next day. There’s just one more day of the walk, and then I have a day in Newcastle – and then home. Time enough, though I always hate leaving England.
Stats (June 2)
Distance: 6.35 km
Time Walked: 1:50:38
Speed: 3.44 km/hr
Rate: 95 steps/minute
Stats (June 3)
Distance: 17.27 km
Time Walked: 4:33:19
Speed: 3.79 km/hr
Rate: 105 steps/minute