Over breakfast, we got talking to other walkers who were about to start on their journey. I love this about long distance walks, the easy, self-assured way of conversing about a common goal. A lady walking on her own was heading to South Shields to start from the mouth of the Tyne; I am awed by anyone walking such a long way on their own. There is something so mindful about not having your own thoughts interrupted.
We headed away from the hotel and back down to the Tyne, from the swing bridge where we had left it the day before, tracing the industrial history for several miles. The Dunston Coal Staiths are a dominant architectural feature on the south bank, where coal would be loaded onto the ships to transport to London. Coal; it seems so long ago that I sat in front of a coal fire as a child. A glowing memory but one to be rejected; if only we had known what we were doing.
The trail takes the Wylam Waggonway for a couple of miles; this place was the home of George Stephenson whose first job was to keep cows off the trail where the horse drawn waggons lumbered past. Stephenson’s childhood home, a white stone cottage is owned by the National Trust and at ten minutes from the trail is possible to visit.
We meander away and then come back to the river, and then finally away and up past the golf club. I am beginning to breathe now as we head up towards Heddon-on-the-Wall, a pretty little village where the wall is starting to exist in real life. It finally feels real, the wall. And I am awed by this broken and incomplete reminder of the history beneath our feet, and beside me.
We take a few photos, conscious of the land on which we stand, afraid to harm the memories of an ancient world, squeezed as it is between modern day fence and road. The ground has been nurtured here, the grass mown short, the hedged entrance neatly clipped. We take a few minutes to look at the crumbled remains, think about the men who built this wall, the endless labour that speaks of fear and control. It was built to keep out the ‘barbarians’, so the guide books say. I have my own barbarians; the blind alleys of my thoughts which cause my irritability and over-sensitive responses.
I need a wall of my own. That is why I am here.