Our accommodation the previous night had been at Simonburn Tearooms, tucked away in a quaint village, the site of filming for Catherine Cookson dramas. We had kindly been collected outside The George Hotel, on the edge of the stone bridge and transported the ten minutes up the road. Again, we could have walked and would have done, in my other life. This new order was uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
And yet, the Geordie accent and the hospitality that he offered softened me. He regaled us with stories of his life and the characters well known in the village. Like the farmer who had appeared in a film, maybe a Catherine Cookson, herding his cattle. We met him at the Tearooms as we arrived, and he was introduced as the famous local celebrity. He openly looked me up and down and at the patch where my rucksack had rubbed, leaving a red, raw friction burn on my upper arm. “What ya done there?” he asked, examining the wound from a distance. I was amused by the directness of his question; Southerners wouldn’t have asked, would just have stared and muttered something bitchy amongst themselves.
It was early evening and the sun was warm and the garden inviting. As we waited for dinner, we sat in the garden with a beer, the owner organising cushions at the ‘best table’. It was cosy; a book, a beer and a peaceful, forgotten village. No traffic, no white noise. I could have stayed there for weeks. “What’s it like here in the winter?” I asked. The owner laughed and shook his head; he thought it might be quite bleak but wasn’t sure because he was usually soaking up the Spanish winter sun!
Back to the walk the next morning and our first adventure was trying to find the stamp box at Chesters. We weren’t the only ones; people we had met a couple of days ago were emerging from the driveway, confused by the directions which said the box was on the entrance wall but there was no evidence. All four of us looked, up and down the driveway, around the main closed building. Eventually someone came out and told us it was on the wall up by the road. It took us a little while to discover it, underneath a banner announcing an event taking place. Thank goodness! I wouldn’t have been happy going without it.
The guide book promises that this is the best walk of the week, with the best (yes, it’s all superlatives today!) remains of the Roman Wall. The wall, the views, the walking were all reported to be the best. Only about 13 miles walking but some hilly challenges ahead. The walk begins going up, gently, it must be said, there is nothing too onerous about it but my achilles does not like uphill at all. This early on, the complaints were getting louder and I was more than aware that the following day would be our longest.
With clouds threatening to break into rain, the ominous atmosphere, the wild countryside set against the enduring remnant of the Wall suited my mood. It was a day for the metaphor to raise its status; the Roman soldiers lived difficult and uncomfortable lives in the bleak conditions of Northumberland but they had built a wall which endured to this day. It no longer provides the protection it was built for but it is a reminder of what was. Sometimes walls are useful but you don’t need them forever.
And onto The Mithras Temple at Brocolitia, with its dark and uncertain past. A religious place where, it is said, followers would go through a physical trial by fire or cold in order to rise through the ranks. It was built underground, maybe to represent the night sky. We stayed awhile looking at this place; it felt somehow significant.
A stop for a coffee at Housesteads Fort, but little energy to see it closer than as passers-by, we continued on; just above the fort, the path takes a strange turn in that you actually walk on the wall itself. I was shocked by the this, feeling that it was a desecration of the past. No one else seemed to have the same qualms but I chose to walk beside the wall where I could. My decision was also helped by the drop I could see to the side of the wall – heights aren’t my thing – but that wasn’t my main reason. Eventually I had no choice but to walk on the wall, with the care of a ballerina, choosing my footsteps with the utmost caution.
The landscape rises and falls and with my calf burning and my achilles limiting my ankle movement, we opted to take the military way rather than take the higher, hillier route. I am not sure that it was a better option as the ground is less walked, and more uneven than the Hadrian’s Wall Path itself. Finally, we look down over Once Brewed, making our way down the road into the small hamlet, that seems to be famous for it’s pub, Twice Brewed and Sycamore gap we had passed by.