Personal Journey: A hike along a wall that once was

Sam Beckley , the writer's son, at the remains of a gateway arch at Milecastle 37. He and his father trekked the Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail in England, staying at bed-and-breakfasts.
Sam Beckley , the writer's son, at the remains of a gateway arch at Milecastle 37. He and his father trekked the Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail in England, staying at bed-and-breakfasts.
Posted: February 19, 2012

A few things we learned about Hadrian's Wall Path in northern England: There is no wall, there is no path, and nearly everyone in northern England sounds suspiciously Scottish.

The Roman emperor Hadrian built his coast-to-coast wall - 85 crow miles [73 miles] - in 122 A.D. Nobody knows why: to occupy his army, to show off, to regulate trade; but probably not to defend against the Scots. Rome defended by attacking. Nevertheless, it stationed soldiers there for some 300 years.

In 2003 the English government created Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail - more a well-marked right-of-way than an actual trail - which means you can now freely traverse the entire country (walking or pedaling) along the wall's original footprint. My 16-year-old son, Sam, and I walked it in summer.

We paid a flat fee to a tour company that booked us into a B&B each night and moved our luggage every day. Otherwise we were on our own. We worried for the first couple of days whether the system would actually work. It did.

Like most folks, we started east at Wallsend with the Roman fort of Segedunum. Originally manned by soldiers from what is now Iraq, the fort today is a field with a few foundations and a small museum aimed mostly at school groups. The Romans built an identical fort every mile along the wall. It didn't take too many before we'd gotten a pretty good sense of Roman wall forts.

But we did find surprises. The path contained very few substantial Roman ruins, whether of the wall or otherwise. Most portions of the wall currently standing - the postcard views - are 19th century reconstructions. Even the famous Housesteads, the wall's best-preserved fort, wouldn't draw a crowd in Italy. Oddly enough, the ditch the Romans dug just north of the wall - the vallum - has survived better than the wall itself.

And there was more manure than we thought possible. Much of the journey involved climbing various styles of stiles - little ladders over fences - and walking through pastures. Sometimes we shooed sheep and dodged cows, but we couldn't escape the manure. Miles and miles and miles of manure. Many B&Bs didn't allow shoes inside.

We saw plenty of cows and sheep but not many hikers or other humans. The path covers gorgeous, mostly remote country, flat on the ends and hilly in the middle. Sometimes the only structure you can see on the distant horizon had better be, for the love of God, your B&B. Traveling on foot with no alternative gave us a keen sense of distance and height.

We couldn't buy much. The path offered few opportunities for T-shirts, sundries, souvenirs, food, or even water. Generally, if we didn't bring it, we wouldn't have it. But there was the occasional country pub - invariably out of central casting - and the food at our B&Bs was generally (and surprisingly) good.

I'm not sure whether we found ourselves or discovered any great truths while on our walk, but after eight days we did find the Kings Arms pub at the wall's western end, and that seemed reward enough.

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