Hello Faithful. I have been away on my own for a week, walking the 84 miles of Hadrian's Wall. This is my lengthy account. Being lengthy, it is really very long. Aren't you lucky?
Thursday 21 April - Day Zero - London to Newcastle
16:27 Sitting on stationary train at King’s Cross, waiting to leave. I have butterflies and beef Monster Munch. Striking how little I know about what I’m going to do. Don’t even know what century Hadrian was in. OK. I’m going to guess… pre. 600 AD. Let’s look it up in the book. OK. 122 AD. Only 400 years out. My historical knowledge - or, more accurately, my inability to remember historical data I have been taught several times - appals me.
16:38 There is an incident in the Quiet Carriage. Why must there always be? Why can’t people just buy a ticket for the Quiet Carriage, and then stay quiet? I don’t think I have ever been in a Quiet Carriage when everyone has stayed quiet. I find it immensely upsetting. I can’t decide if the huge surge of internal rage I experience while listening to the inane chatter of the two men seated at a table diagonally across the aisle from me is better or worse than feeling like an annoying bitch having actually got the nerve up to point out that THEY SHOULD NOT BE TALKING.
16:44 It was better when I was just upset in my own head. I now have the quiet I wanted, but I feel like a dick. Also it’s not exactly quiet now due to the industrial phlegm machine that is seated directly behind me. It is grim (en route to) up North. Sigh. I hate myself for getting annoyed. But really, how hard is it to define quiet? Apparently everyone is fine with the fact that it is unacceptable to talk on mobile phones in the Quiet Carriage, but there is some disagreement about whether or not it is acceptable to talk to the stranger sitting across the table from you. Why, I ask (both rhetorically and literally), would it be annoying for me to hear half a conversation, with you speaking to a silent other on your phone, but not remotely irksome for me to have to hear both halves of the conversation when you speak to your table mate? One of the men rolls his eyes at me as if I am the World’s Pettiest Woman. I feel horrible. He is, however, dressed like he’s about to enter to Tour de France, and he is ugly, so that help me cope with things a bit.
18:38 Rape the crop - one of my favourite sights in the world. Rape the verb - not such a fan. Note to self: research etymology of rape.
18:42 Am listening to Appalachian Spring by Copland, conducted by Bernstein, and yearn to be a cowgirl. Failing that, I’d settle for being a cellist in movement seven.
18:50 Quiet Carriage carnage. OK, now no one can shut up. Perhaps they felt that when I put in my headphones, I was giving them the all clear. Chatter has spread from one table cluster to another, with Mr Tour de France and his bearded BFF delightedly joining back into the gossip fray now that they’re not the only transgressors. Clearly two hours and twenty minutes is the longest men can sit quietly, resisting the urge to ask each other where they’re from (curiously ratio of men to women in Quiet Carriage is around 4:1. Not sure if that’s because women know they won’t be able to stay quiet or because they are more likely to be traveling with children. If I have children I am still going to travel in the Quiet Carriage. My offspring will be sedated and lain in the overhead luggage racks while in transit, like transatlantic pets).
19:14 Oh! Lambs! I forgot about lambs. I want there to be so many lambs on Hadrian’s Wall that I am sick of the sight of them by the end.
I arrive at Newcastle and get in a taxi. We are immediately stuck in traffic. Next to us, on the pavement, a man wearing a large pair of grey canvas culottes helps a woman with her bag.
“What’s he wearing?” asks my young driver. “Is he wearing a skirt?” I like that he asks. In London, we don’t draw attention to the gaps in our knowledge, especially not if we are a taxi driver. We pretend we’ve seen it all. I tell him I think that the man is a monk. The driver does not know what I’m talking about. I’m not sure if it’s my accent or the concept. I stay silent for fear of being patronising.
20:20 I am at the Jesmond Park Hotel. The adorable fat gay night manager is so desperate to chat that it makes me feel a bit sad. He would fit right into the Quiet Carriage. I have been in the reception area less than five minutes and am yet to remove my rucksack for fear he will start unpacking my things and make me stay For Ever, but he has already told me that he was bullied at school, about how the one time he bowled out the ‘Jack the lad’ in his year at cricket, they all waited for him that evening and beat him up, about how his dad’s partner just died a month ago, aged 65, three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, that after the diagnosis, she was okay-ish for about two days, but then on the third day she slipped into a coma and never recovered. He asks me what I do and I tell him I work in a bank. He brightens up. I quickly add that I’m just a secretary and he looks crestfallen. “Oh,” he says, “I thought you might have been a good person to know.” I agree that I am not.
20:55 I go out for food. The residential streets are eerie, foggy and quiet. Hardly any cars are on the roads, just huge swathes of empty residents’ parking bays. On the main drag, stereotypical Geordies fill the bars, the men in crisp short-sleeved shirts and hair gel, the women bare-legged and miniskirted - everything is tighter, louder, heavier than at home: the make-up, the clothes, the voices. The last of my foundation wore off as usual by 11am, my hair’s a shambles, I’m wearing muddy running shoes, grey jeans and a bobbly black polo neck. I feel totally foreign and it’s good.
The garlic bread I buy from the heaving Italian restaurant is tasteless and dry by the time I get back to my room. I eat only one bite before rejecting it, but I sit in bed and wolf the dull vegetarian pizza and half a bottle of South African wine, which I bought for £4.45. Once it’s over I feel sick. Lucky, then, that I am setting off on an 84 mile journey tomorrow morning. I watch 10 O’Clock Live, feel angry about AV and glad to be getting away.
Friday 22 April - Day One - Wallsend to Heddon-on-the-Wall (approx. 15 miles)
09:00 My taxi driver takes me to Wallsend, to the east of Newcastle town centre. This is where the wall ends, but where my walk begins. His phone rings moments after we set off: the ringtone is the theme tune from Local Hero. I have it in my head on and off for the next six hours.
Mid-morning: I reach the Tyne and it is slightly foggy! Am thrilled. Local Hero now interspersed with Fog On The Tyne and Gazza rapping about sausage rolls. A man cycles past and says, “Morning, flower.” I burst with pleasure.
Unexpected object: single yellow gummy bear.
Later, two boys walk past me. They are about eleven.
Boy: I love your tits.
I stop for a two hour lunch at The Boathouse pub, having walked through the centre of Newcastle along the river. It’s been a great morning. I’m tearing along, have done 12 miles. Will definitely, DEFINITELY be in pain tomorrow. Tuna and sweetcorn bap not a highlight. Now stretched out on sarong in baking sun. It is quite delicious.
Afternoon: I walk on, through a park crammed with locals. Apparently you are not allowed in unless a) you are wearing a pastel polo-shirt at least one size too small, and b) you have a disruptive baby in a buggy. It is not the type of environment that I find relaxing but everyone else seems happy in a kind of enforced Bank Holiday fun way. The queue for the ice cream van is like something from Dante. Then onto another disused railway. These are straight and hard underfoot, which makes for boring, unvaried walking. The cyclists are loving it. I am stroppy, but I do break my own silence by uttering the words, “Yay! Rape!” in a Tourette's fashion when I see a particularly beautiful field. There’s a big climb at the end of the day to Heddon on the Wall, a village at the top of a hill - I spot the climb coming about three miles off, and am dreading it, but after the monotony of the railway line, it’s an unexpected relief to use a new muscle group. I’ve walked fifteen miles and I’m hot, sweaty and beat. Also, I quite need the loo. I find my B&B with a bit of difficulty and ring the doorbell. There is no answer. I ring again. Then I phone the owner. She doesn’t pick up. I leave a message that suggests terseness and desperation. I try again. Still no answer. I sit in the sun and start to get grumpy about customer service and the freaking North.
Finally, the woman calls me back.
“Is that Jane?” she says. There is the noise of a loud tea party in the background.
“Yes,” I say, thinking that if she’d listened to my message, she’d know this. “Did you not listen to my message?”
“Oh, did you leave a message? No, my phone was at the bottom of my bag and I didn’t hear it.”
“OK,” I say, feeling like a Londoner.
“Where are you?”
“I’m outside your B&B.”
“Oh right, OK dear, I’ll leave now and come let you in. Shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes.”
I wait on the bench outside her front door, sweating and fuming and thinking that twenty minutes should entitle me to a discount. She pulls up in fifteen minutes, and explains that she doesn’t have a car at the moment as it failed its MOT and she’s reliant on others to give her lifts. That’s all very well, I think, but you have PAYING CUSTOMERS. Somehow I don’t think I have quite managed to switch off and get into relaxed holiday mode yet, but then she unlocks the front door and shows me my room. It is gorgeous and the enormous white bathroom makes me want to cry. There is a large glass decanter with a silver lid on the corner of the tiles that contains Radox. I run the bath and climb in. My shoulders sting a lot. Something to do with the combination of the straps of my pack, the straps of my bra, the straps of my top, and sweat is clearly not great. I climb onto the huge bed. My legs seize up. I realise I may never walk again.
19:00 Dinner for one at The Swan in Heddon. The waiting staff are extraordinarily nice and have such an obvious rapport that, for possibly the first time in my life, I think I’d rather waitress than sit at my table. There is an adorable Rowan Atkinson-esque controller of the carvery area, wearing a 20 inch paper chef’s hat, who is taking enormous pleasure in removing the heavy iron lids of each of the eight or so Le Creuset style serving dishes. Every time a potential carvery-eater wanders into the vicinity, Rowan leaps up and uses a heat-proof glove to methodically take off each lid, placing it down near the vessel, then quietly hides his dejection as they walk on by, neglecting his troughs of creamed leeks, potatoes, roast meat gravy and carrots. At the table behind me, a woman wearing grey and white floral leggings orders a Greek salad and has been told that they’re out of feta. She is offered cheddar or stilton as a substitute. Understandably, she dithers, finally asking uncertainly for a bit of cheddar “on the side”. I feel far from London and then some yuppy kids walk by playing on their parents’ iPad.
My meal: carvery veg selection from Rowan, vegetable soup, crusty roll and butter, fruit crumble, two large glasses of delicious American unoaked Chardonnay. The waitress tells me that day three will be the hardest in terms of fatigue. Her advice is to keep drinking. I make vague noises about hangovers. She clarifies that I should just not stop drinking at all, and do the whole walk while a bit pissed. I think I love her.
I am worried that my B&B and dinner have been too good and that it is downhill from here in every way other than literally.
Saturday 23 April - Day Two - Heddon to Wall, near Chollerford (approx. 15 miles)
Oh fuck. It is tough today. Really really fucking tough. Just putting my pack on was very bad. Ow. I break for lunch and accept that I have completed 1.5 days and have 5.5 days to go. I don’t doubt I can do it, but I am looking at the prospect of spending nearly a week doing something deeply painful. It is not hilarious.
Unexpected realisation: if I passed a shop that sold them, I would definitely - and with gratitude - buy a bumbag.
This second day of the walk is particularly hard because some dickhead built a B-road over the wall. Not by it, ON it. This entire section is consequently in a ditch alongside a fairly busy thoroughfare, with noisy traffic passing by pretty much constantly. The weather is fine, and the views are too, but my hips are hurting, the car noise is rubbish and I am worried that I’m going to spend the rest of my ‘holiday’ moaning.
I have my first wilderness wee mid-morning, and en route back to the main path, learn that it is possible to be stung by a nettle through a pair of Nike dri-weave running trousers. So there you have it.
I stop at a pub around lunchtime, but mindful of yesterday’s tuna bap error I play it safe, and order two bags of Mini Cheddars and a Diet Coke. On the next table there is a couple in their mid-twenties surrounded by huge backpacks. Both have ruddy cheeks and her thick, dark blonde hair is in two pigtails. If Thomas Hardy were alive and writing about Hadrian's Wall, these two would be perfect. They tell me they set off from Chollerford (approximately one mile beyond Wall, where I’m staying tonight) at 6:45am this morning. It has taken them five hours to get here. I am already close to death and two fighting fit, bovine walkers have told me I have another five hours’ walking ahead of me, and that it’s boring. A few minutes later, I relay my findings two two guys who I’ve been walking with/near all morning. They seem totally unconcerned. I tell them I might die.
“Don’t worry,” says the tall one. “Kev’ll carry you.” Kev is about 5’5” and nods happily. I am desperate and will take any comfort I can get, so reluctantly, I allow myself to feel reassured. I try not to picture my massive lycra-clad arse over Kev’s shoulders, my comatose head banging against his rucksack as he jogs along with me in a fireman’s lift.
I plough on. It is fucking tough. It is never so tough that I think, “I can’t go on,” but definitely so tough that I wonder why I ever thought this was a good way to spend seven days’ holiday. At about 3pm, I am in a forest of conifers. My lower back is screaming from the weight of my pack. I bend over to relieve the pressure, and while I’m stretching, a couple who’ve been about a minute or two behind me for quite a while catch up. They are in their forties. He had a pot belly and a bald spot but still manages to be very attractive. She is gorgeous too, homely and warm.
“Is it your feet?” she asks.
“No, my back,” I admit.
“It’s my hips,” she says. “Is it your pack?” I nod. “I’m lucky. I’ve got him. He carries all the heavy stuff.” She jerks her head in the direction of her handsome sherpa. He grins. We chat for another couple of minutes. They go on, leaving me to stretch alone, unimpeded by the knowledge that fast-approaching strangers may be able to see the waves of cellulite through my skin-tight trousers. This is what people wear while exercising in London. Apparently in t’country they wear loose-fitting khakis. I do not own loose-fitting khakis, and even if I did, I prefer the tight-fitting dri-weave as it doesn’t make a noise as you walk. The repetitive brush brush of my khakied thighs could well be enough to send me running into the gorse to self-harm, but as a compromise I must deal with strangers seeing my rippled legs. It’s a trade-off. I carry on walking.
A few minutes later I reach the edge of the forest and see the couple again. I assume they are taking yet another break, but the woman comes straight over to me.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but we realised after we’d left you that we’d been really selfish. Can we carry some of your stuff?” I am utterly taken aback by the generosity of their offer. I don’t want to accept because a) they are not staying anywhere near me tonight, so to hand over my stuff would involve them being held up by me later on as well, and b) I can’t bear the idea of skipping along with a lighter pack and then having to readjust to the true hideousness again later on. A false hiatus. I feel like it’s cheating. I decline. They don’t believe me. I decline again. And again. “I swear,” I end up saying, quite sternly, “nothing you can say will make me change my mind.” They are eventually convinced.
“Well, if you’re sure,” mumbles the man, seemingly a bit disappointed.
“I am,” I say. They walk on.
I had texted Amyas in the morning admitting that I am struggling, but that I am strangely quite enjoying the struggle. Not unreasonably, he asks why I'm enjoying it. I think about this for much of the next five hours. My answer, typically, is complex. Firstly, I find it difficult to admit that I am not enjoying something that I have chosen to do. That would feel like I’ve made a mistake, a bad choice, which makes me feel like I’ve failed, which isn’t fun. I know I’m putting on an act when people pass me walking in the other direction and I consciously rearrange my features from a wince into an expression that loosely suggests pleasure. Why do I care what they think? Why does it matter if they see me struggle? It shouldn’t, but it does. Then, on top of that, there is a part of me that does genuinely enjoy the struggle, enjoys feeling like I’m doing something hard. It is something to do with wanting to prove that I’m strong, or rather, not weak - that I can achieve things that some other people can’t. Something to do, too, with always having perceived myself as tall and fat means that I am not allowed to be weak and vulnerable. It’s OK for a petite girl to be fragile, but I’m big and strong and so I must ACT big and strong too. I've asked myself several times if I regretted coming, if I’d rather be somewhere else. And even when every step hurt, the answer was always no. That says to me that I can’t accept my own weakness, which is not a good thing. But then, there are plenty of other people out here doing this trail too, plenty of others suffering, struggling, in pain, when they could be at home watching TV. Are we all masochists?
As I write this at the Hadrian’s Hotel, Since You Been Gone comes on. I think it’s by Whitesnake. They have questionable grammar.
Why do I want to suffer? I must admit, there’s a rush of achievement on reaching the pub, knowing I’ve attained my day’s goal. I eat my dinner: carrot and parsnip soup, garlic bread and a large glass of Sauvignon.
Pretty much everyone else I’ve passed, and everyone at the hotel, is doing the walk in pairs or groups of three or four. I have passed two solo men. No solo women. Not only did I choose to come on a trip where I knew I would struggle (and I DID expect this) but I chose to do it alone. I tell people who ask that I’m an only child and that I need to get away every now and then for some space. But the truth is, I live on my own, and work on my own, sitting in a glass box, rarely talking to others, so I don’t especially need to be on my own during the Easter holidays too. Why then? Because, frankly, I didn’t have any other appealing options. I knew I was going to take this time off work, I knew I had a big trip abroad lined up for later this year, I knew my friends had other plans, and I knew I wanted to do something significant. Safest way to guarantee not sitting at home on your own feeling like the world's most unpopular 33 year old? Book something yourself. Control freak that I am, it’s easier to go away on my own - my companion can’t fall down and ruin my itinerary, and when I fall down, I don’t have the guilt of screwing up someone else’s itinerary. Everyone says, “You’re on your own? Oooh, that’s brave,” and I think first, “Would you say that to a guy?” and then I think, honestly, I’d find it more brave doing it with someone else. There’s so much more that can go wrong. More people, more risk.
God I sound like a miserable fool. I'm not, I promise. I'm not thinking about this stuff all the time. Most of the time I'm thinking, "Ow, ow, ow..." and sometimes I'm thinking, "Ooh, that bird is so pretty," and, "I may well be getting thinner."
And now they’re playing Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong, and I made it even though it was really hard, and I’ve had a not-nearly-hot-enough bath and taken two ibuprofen, and now I've ordered a second glass of Sauvignon, and I’m writing this and listening to the not-remotely-dulcet tones of a young couple on the other side of the room, he’s Australian, she’s Canadian, and I’m trying not to hate them, really I am, but GOD what is it about foreigners and voice volume? There are two other couples in here who’ve been talking pretty much non-stop since they sat down and yet I haven’t discerned a word either of them have said. Whereas these two are planning their wedding and they clearly don’t know each other very well at all. I become convinced they’re slightly box-ticking, getting hitched because ‘she’ll do’ rather than because of any genuinely unique or special connection. Which is, of course, absoLUTEly fine and dandy, and 100% their right, they can marry whoever they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone, but let the record show that I’d rather be alone forever than marry someone who I barely know, when weeks or months after we’ve committed to spending the rest of our lives together we’re still asking each other each other whether we like cats or dogs. BRING ME MY SECOND GLASS OF WHITE WINE IMMEDIATELY.
19:55 Google search: How to burst a blister. Song on in dining room: Winds of Change. Aussie guy says, “It’s people who don’t organise anything and who just think that this stuff magically just HAPPENS… they're the ones that drive me nuts.” Hmmm. Clearly we’re not as dissimilar as I’d hoped.
Back upstairs I lance a 10p-sized blister with my unsterilized Swiss Army knife, briefly feeling very SAS before applying a Compeed and feeling inescapably Islington. Now I’m slathered in Deep Heat and praying it’s not too ugly tomorrow. Britain HAS Talent starts in 15 minutes but I don’t have the energy to watch it. Crazy days.
Sunday 24 April - Day Three - Wall to Twice Brewed (approx. 13 miles)
17:00 Oh. Em. Gee. What a day. Yesterday I asked myself why I put myself through the pain. Is it sad, I wondered, that I put myself through these situations, that mere existence is not enough to satisfy the you're-not-good-enough voices? If I was truly at peace, would I need to leave my sofa? But today I remembered something: if this walk was only about enduring pain, then maybe that would be a bit of an odd holiday choice - but it’s not only about pain. There is also joy.
I went to sleep last night feeling very nervous. I’ve done my research: today's walk is long and hilly. The weather forecast is mixed, and a good 78% of my body is in some degree of discomfort. Then I have a weird dream where a strange man turns the handle of my bedroom door (that I’d locked from the inside) and I know I have a baseball bat, but I also know that he has a gun, and that he’ll wait, and that whenever I open the door, he’ll get me. I awake with a jolt, all scared, at about 23:30 and don’t get back to sleep for ages. When I do, it’s fitful. I eventually get up around 7:30, breakfast isn’t great, and I pack my bag. In a fit of good sense, I jettison a few inessential items, including the last two months' Prospect magazines. I flick through them first, planning to tear out any articles that I am really desperate to read. There are none. I feel liberated.
And then, after all that stress, I am on day three, and I am shocked that it is OK. Yes, my legs hurt a bit with every step, but it’s not unbearable. Neither is the fairly constant angry interplay on my shoulders between the aching muscles and the stinging of my skin from my pack straps. Ow: yes. Fine: yes. I have a totally unexpected spring in my step.
And the weather. What a stunner.
I follow the annoying Aussie/Canadian couple from last night for the first few miles. My suspicions are proved accurate when I spot them walking 20 metres apart and sporting large silver his ‘n’ hers headphones. I’d planned to listen to a lot of podcasts along the wall but actually it’s ended up feeling like I’d be blocking out a lot of the experience - the bird calls have been constant, the lambs’ bleats, the wind in the branches during passes through copses. I don’t want to miss it. Even so, I’m on my own and I'd certainly understand if a solo traveller decided to alleviate the internal struggle with the addition of an iPod. Were I, however, here with someone who chose to block out the sound of my voice, things might be a bit different. Needless to say, if I plan a long walk with my fictional fiance and he spends large chunks of it listening to his iPod, I think I might strop. This will probably involve: walking annoyingly slowly, sniffing a LOT and taking far too long getting the perfect macro photo of a ladybird on a post. I did all three of these yesterday.
So I follow the annoying couple for a bit, and gradually, the scenery gets more and more stunning, and at about noon I stop to soak it all in, feeling pretty emotional. I pull in by a milecastle for another wilderness wee, eat the three-pack of complimentery custard creams that I’d taken from last night’s hotel and then set back off into Sewing Shields Wood. Step by step, the walk turns into the most beautiful walk of my life. And sure, undeniably, if you’d driven to the car park just off the road by the woods, and if you’d walked up the hill, and emerged at the top of the climb with the identical view over Broomlee Lough, the wall snaking up and down and up and down over disappearing undulations on your left, you’d also feel lucky to be alive on such a spectacular day in such a breathtaking place. But for all that pleasure you’d be experiencing, surely the person standing next to you at the summit wearing the heavy backpack is experiencing a greater sense of achievement, right, because they’ve walked here from Newcastle, and their back really hurts and their hips have been aching for hours? Oh god. I’m treating this like a competition: who enjoys it the most? Who gets the BEST experience? And I know life’s not like that. And that both enjoyments are valid. Kill me now.
And on to Housesteads, and the famous Sycamore Gap, both of which are exceptional moments in British Countryside Walking, but that bit above the woods…. When I was up there I felt delirious, emotional, fit to bursting. And I did want to share it, yes. I was welling up at the beauty, and I made eye contact with strangers so that we could say Wow to each other. And I took a photo on my phone and texted it to a couple of people to try to show them how extraordinary it all was. Yes, I wanted to not be alone right there and then. But then I imagined having someone there with me, and the fact that they’d be far more likely to be being annoying than enhancing, and that it’s safer alone, and once again I worry about my isolation and my inability to risk relinquishing control, and I know that I am on dangerous ground.
Finally, after many miles of fairly continuous climbs and descents between steep waves of land, I arrive at the gorgeous Saughy Rigg Farm B&B, have a shower and wolf down tea and toast, and wash my clothes and hang them on the line by the duckpond, my dri-weave trousers dripping as mallards quack loudly and chase each other not ten feet away. It is all totally dreamy, and I accept that, even if it rains the rest of the time, I feel extremely lucky to have had today.
There’s a discussion to be had regarding my concept of cheating. There is a company called Hadrian’s Haul, who will collect your bags from your B&B each morning and drive them to your next evening’s destination. Many, many walkers along the route make use of this service, which means they can pack a large suitcase for their week-long walking trip and then spend their days unencumbered, carrying only a small, light pack containing a bottle of water, an anorak, varying sizes of Compeed and a wide range of chocolate bars and horse tranquilizers (day-pack contents author’s suggestion only). I knew about Hadrian’s Haul before I came away, but I made the decision to carry my pack (which I think weighs about 10kg). To use Hadrian’s Haul would be, I felt, for me to cheat. Taking ibuprofen along the way has felt like cheating too. But staying at a B&B has not. Where do I draw the line? At my own personal limits. Basically, I feel that on this walk, if I can physically bear something, I should do it. I can carry my pack. I could not, however, do the whole thing as a camper. I’m here to push myself to my personal limits. Some people can't carry their luggage, so they don't. But I can. And if I can do it, I should.
Monday 25 April - Day Four - Twice Brewed to Gilsland (approx. 9 miles)
Visibility from my B&B window this morning is about ten metres: the duckpond is hidden beneath a thick layer of fog. I turn up the volume of my internal weather forecast and decide the mist might lift if I stay patient, and with only nine miles to do today, I decide to hang about a bit. Regardless of the mist, having walked fifteen or so miles for each of the past three days, I am quietly confident that today will be a bit of a breeze.
The skies do clear and by 10:30 I’m back high on the ridge, feeling exceptionally healthy and optimistic. With the first third done in good time, and feeling fine, I take a long break by a disused quarry, now filled with water, and have a brief snooze before re-donning my pack and continuing. Unexpectedly, the remainder is not easy. It is definitely pleasant and even nods towards fun in parts, and I am still glad that I’m doing this, but my body aches far more than I’d expected, and without the world-beating scenery of yesterday, it feels decidedly tougher. I start to rejig my brain and accept that I have now completed the section of the walk with the best scenery, in the best possible weather conditions, that I am now at the halfway point with 3.5 days down and 3.5 days to go, and that the remainder might be a bit of a schlep, one foot in front of the other, get it done, get it done. It’s all still good, and certainly from a psychological point of view it still feels valuable, but today has been fairly tough.
That said, there is a special moment at about 3pm, when I am descending a steep section towards a road. At the bottom, a car has pulled over and a Geordie dad is photographing his approx. 11 year old daughter.
“That’s it, pet, stand there with the wall behind you, that’s it, absolutely stunnin, ooh, it’s such a good photo, and look pet, turn around, that’s it, look at this lady here walking down, she’s a proppah walker, look at her, you come from Wallsend have you?” I confirm this as I gingerly pick my way down the slope. “That’s right, pet, this lady here has walked all the way from near where we live, can you imagine that? Absolutely amazing.”
“Can we do that one day, dad?” asks the girl.
“Aye pet, maybe we can, but it’s hard, isn’t it?” he asks back in my direction.
“It is definitely hard,” I laugh, nearly at them.
“Tell you what, pet, stand here next to this woman and have your picture taken with the proppah walker, will you? Is that OK? And you, do you want to come in too?” Suddenly I am standing with my arms around the shoulder of a second woman who’s out walking her weighty King Charles spaniel and the young blonde girl, while the world’s nicest Geordie dad takes our photo with his camera-phone. It is surreal and I feel briefly like a celebrity.
And then later, the welcome from the absurdly nice B&B family is off the scale: a fantastically charismatic Northern Irish father called Malcolm, his opinionated and warm English wife and their extremely cool, bearded son who works in the theatre in Glasgow and scuffs around in his flip-flops, surfer shorts and hoodie being intensely good-looking. They offer me a stool in their kitchen, ply me with free red wine and pretzels, we discuss Andrew Lansley’s health proposals and country vs. city living, and it is really nice to chat. I think I might be lonely. I sit in their conservatory for a while after my shower and watch two lambs playing in a field. Then I realise they aren’t playing, but that they have become separated from their mum. They’d climbed through a gate and then couldn't work out how to get back, so the pair of them are tearing up and down the length of the field, bleating like mad. The sound of their screaming is worse than a police siren. Malcolm comes in to bring me some biscuits. I show him the lost lambs and he laughs and says they are idiots. The countryside is brutal.
A few home friends are struggling with things too so I’ve been texting them a fair bit, which has made me feel less present here. My left foot is swollen, and the blister on my right is not painful but there’s a worn bit of skin from where the Compeed gets rucked up inside my sock. The tops of my thighs and knees hurt with every step I take, my hips and groin hurt even when I’m lying down. My shoulders are so painful that the thought of a massage is actually unappealing, and my face is sunburned and freckly. Mystifyingly, since I'm using it for precisely nothing, the ganglion on my left hand seems to be worsening and it’s hurting. I feel like crying but I’m also genuinely looking forward to going on, and if you sent a chopper to bring me home, I wouldn’t climb in. Well, I’d ask for a ride, because helicopters are the cat's pyjamas, but I’d like to be dropped right back here to pick up where I’ve left off.
Tuesday 26 April - Day Five - Gilsland to Newtown (approx. 9 miles)
Ooooh, well THIS is pretty special. An easy day’s walking, once again in almost constant sunshine, ending up at approximately 15:20 in yet another lovely B&B, which pretty much means all my hopes were met, as tomorrow’s final guesthouse in Carlisle is a steal at £25 and I’ll barely be there anyway.
Which brings me neatly on to my discussion point for the day: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway on Thursday. This will be the final section of the walk and is also the second longest of the whole shebang AND there is a time factor as I must be on the 15:49 from Carlisle to Euston. And if I say that worrying about the logistics of this relatively straightforward manoeuvre has dominated my mind for about 50% of the walk’s duration thus far, I think that even may be understating it. The number of times I’ve calculated how fast I’m walking, how long it might take me, what time I need to leave Bowness to make it back to Carlisle, what time I need to set off in the morning, when really, I know perfectly well that if I allow seven hours it'll be more than enough, that if I set off at 7am rather than 9 then it will be fine. And today at about 11am I finally crack and begin to talk to myself, reprimanding myself for so much wasted headspace along the way, revising and re-revising a perfectly good plan. And then I decide that I’ve had enough of worrying about Carlisle to Bowness, and that I am going to find something else to worry about instead, and that’s when it hits me: nothing else is wrong. There simply isn’t anything else for me to worry about. My family are lovely. My friends are wonderful. I am in the early stages of a blossoming romance. My job ticks many good boxes. Ignoring current walk-related agonies, I appear to be in good health. My present is pretty awesome and my future is bright. I am worrying about Carlisle to Bowness because, without it, I have nothing else to worry about. Realising that is something of a shock. I stop by a kissing gate and take a moment.
Other points of note: if you want to return home evenly bronzed, walk Hadrian’s Wall from west to east and then immediately turn round and go back from east to west. At present, I have a deep farmer’s tan on the back of my left upper arm, the left side of my forehead, the top and back of my left ear, my left nostril, and the inside of my right forearm. Everything else remains a bluer shade of pale. Terrified of getting burned-in rucksack strap-marks at this early stage in the sun season, I have been wearing factor fifty on my neck and shoulders every day. To try to redress the imbalance in my colouring, every time I stop I whip down my bra straps and sit with my right side in the sun. Thus far, as a plan, it is failing.
Also: I swallowed a fly on day two and nearly vomited trying to cough it back up, and then today one flew into my left nostril. I tried to do footballer-style emergency nasal evacuation and looked extremely sexy. Kate Moss eat your heart out.
Also: I saw my first EVER non-flat hedgehog today. Sadly it was still dead. :(
Also: the plastic parts of the nylon strap of my water bottle holder vibrate very slightly whenever a cow moos, and every time, I think that my phone (which I store in the front zipped pocket of the holder) is ringing or that someone is texting me, and then I realise it’s just that a cow has mooed, and I feel like a bit of a loser.
At about 18:00 I stagger from my B&B to the Irthington village shop to buy a cheap dinner to eat in my room. While I am gathering items, a local comes in to pick up a few provisions, and points out that the entire stack of bread appears to be out of date.
“Oh, it’s not really bad, is it?” asks the elderly, hirsuite lady standing behind the counter. It would be fair to say that she does not seem especially concerned.
“Well, this one says 15th April, 15th, 15th, 17th…” lists the doubtful shopper, picking up each pack in turn.
“Oh well, just take it now," she says. "If it’s off, then you don’t have to pay me. If it’s OK, just drop the money into me another time.” This wouldn't happen in Tesco Metro.
Meanwhile I am struggling to find anything that looks appetizing. I end up with a blackened banana, a Mars drink, a finger of fudge, and a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle. While I'm counting out my money, the shopkeeper asks me about the walk. We chat briefly and I tell her that I am going to eat my dinner and then watch Masterchef. Given that the bread in her shop is two weeks old, I somehow doubt that she has engaged in the haute-cuisine reality battle, but it turns out that she is avidly supporting Tim from Wisconsin and thinks that the only Brit, Tom, is a disappointment. I share her views exactly. This unexpected congruence is a pleasant surprise. I return to the B&B, eat my dinner, snooze, watch Tim from Wisconsin do good things and then sleep.
Wednesday 27 April - Day Six - Newtown to Carlisle (approx. 10 miles)
My desire to write notes has disappeared. I am still enjoying the walk but I have stopped needing to share it. I am on a mission. The extravagant, adjective-riddled paragraphs in my tattered notebook have dried up, and now there are only a few aide-memoire phrases. I can barely recall anything from Day Six. The entire focus of the day is on reaching Carlisle, where I have, in a superb moment of genius organisation, booked a 16:30 full body massage at Bannatyne’s Health Spa.
Early in the morning I pass a man who’s around my age, maybe a few years older, carrying a huge backpack. He is clearly suffering, trudging slowly as if returning from war, and his left side is so sunburned that his upper arm warms me as I overtake.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Be better if I had a smaller pack,” he says.
Late morning I take a longish break by the River Eden, which I’ll be following on and off into Carlisle and beyond. There are swans and a few too many powerlines. Later I catch up with the trudging man again, who clearly didn’t stop for as long as I did, if at all. This time I walk with him. He tells me his feet are basically one big blister. He set off a day and a half after I did, leaving Wallsend on Saturday lunchtime, and camping along the way, so he’s made excellent time, but this is his last day off work so he’s decided to stop in Carlisle rather than continue onto the last leg. I’d be devastated if I’d got so close but couldn’t make the whole distance, but it doesn’t seem to bother him one iota. “I think I’ve done really well,” he says, reasonably. He really has. I am immensely impressed by his laissez-faireness. He makes furniture out of wood in Retford and spends his money on his sixteen year old daughter who likes expensive shops where jumpers are eighty five quid. He also likes canoeing and bridges. It is really pleasant chatting to someone, and undoubtedly makes the walk pass easier. We chat together for a couple of hours, crossing the M6 (major milestone) and eventually reaching the city, where he turns south towards the station and I head north across the bridge to reach Bannatyne’s. This definitely feels like cheating but I don’t care any more; I try to swim in the pool but my ankle and foot are too painful for me to make any progress, so I float for a while before spending a long time in the steam room and sauna, and then heading upstairs for my full body massage, which in Carlisle apparently is includes back, shoulders, neck, backs of legs and calves - no front of legs, no arms, no chest, no head. Bit of a weird concept of a body if you ask me, but I am desperate and accept her patchy efforts with gratitude. I can’t face my backpack again so take a five minute taxi back to the guesthouse, leaving the meter running outside the Sainsbury’s Local for a panic-bought packet of prosciutto, a bag of bacon rasher crisps, two Rolo desserts, two apples, a banana, a bottle of Copella and a bottle of Chardonnay. I consume almost all of it by 8pm, snooze, wake up when my alarm goes off at 21:00, watch the Masterchef final, am happy for Wisconsin Tim, brim with tears when his wife comes in and he says, “You’re here?” and she says, “Yes.” And he says, “I won!” and they hug. I sleep fitfully, aware that the much-feared, much-considered Carlisle to Bowness D-day is finally approaching.
Thursday 28 April - Day Seven - Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway (approx. 15 miles)
It is the last morning and I tread carefully down the loudly-patterned carpeted stairs in my guesthouse at about 07:20. The owner emerges from her sitting room.
“We’ve had an idea,” she says.
“Oh right?” I say, cautiously. I am not one for other people’s ideas, generally.
“Why don’t you take the taxi to Bowness and then walk BACK to Carlisle?”
“Oh. Ummm. No, well, I’ve been walking along the whole wall in this direction. I think I kind of want the continuity.” Inside I am saying, “That is the world’s most stupid idea you utter fucknut, don’t you understand ANYTHING?” Somehow I manage to keep that bit to myself.
“OK. We just thought it might be more pleasing to walk back to your final destination.” She does not understand. She is not a proppah walker. “So anyway, you know where you’re going, do you?”
“Yes,” I say. I do not say: “I have made it here from Newcastle without your assistance. It is nearly eighty miles. Do you think I am a moron?”
“Round the back here, through the little hole-in-the-wall and then down the steps to the river?” she continues.
“Oh,” I say. “No. I’m going to go back over Eden Bridge to pick up where I left off yesterday.”
“But that’s longer,” she says. "That'll take you to the south side of the river."
“Yes. The Hadrian's Wall Path runs along the south side of the river,” I tell her with the smile of someone who has fifteen miles left and doesn’t really need a discussion about directions at 07:20. “I’m just following the path.”
“Goodness, you’re a purist aren’t you?” she says, as if wanting to walk the wall from east to west, along the pre-ordained track, is an absurdly petty and conformist choice. I try not to batter her with my walking stick. On the way to the front door, I check my eye in the hall mirror. It feels as though someone has slipped a clear A4 envelope between my eyeball and my contact lens. I can see no evidence of any external sabotage.
“I’ve got a problem with my contact lens,” I explain.
“Oooh, I don’t know how you do that,” she shudders. “I can’t bear putting things in my eyes.” There is something in her tone that suggests I am some sort of vain fetishist. “Have you not tried glasses?” she asks. She actually says this. I wonder if she can really believe that glasses are an option I hadn’t ever considered. I walk out onto the street. The wind is cold but the sun’s bright and I’ve only got one last stretch. How hard can it be, I wonder for the millionth time?
It is fucking hard.
Yesterday’s massage must have helped a bit. I try and remind myself that it could be worse. It could be raining, I could be carrying a tent, I could have salmonella. But there is a stretch alongside the river, at about 10am, and the scenery is utterly stunning, wildflowers are bursting all around, the sun is dappling the pathway through woodland, but everything, EVERYTHING is aching, and my contact lens is still unacceptably annoying, and with every breath I inhale a cross-section of the five BILLION bugs that are swarming around in the moist riverside air, and I have still about ten miles to walk and I know I will do it in time, but I am not enjoying myself one tiny bit, and eventually I take out the contact lens and allow my eye some time to get rid of whatever irritant it’s currently harbouring, and I am stumbling up and down the wooded paths, spitting out bugs, whimpering because the pain in my left foot is excruciating, swollen and stabbing, all the while holding my left contact lens in my right hand, and knowing that if I’d turned up in Carlisle that morning, fresh off the train, I’d be walking this same stretch remarking on how splendid it all is. I start to cry as I walk and hope that the tears shift the object in my eye. They don’t. I put my contact lens in my mouth to stop it from drying out. After half an hour, I give up on ever being able to replace my lens, and spit it out into the hedgerow. I am delirious in the worst possible way.
Then the pain in my foot passes. I have no idea why. It just does. I have a rest in a village about a third of the way along the day’s journey, and call my mum, and start thinking it will be OK. I carry on. It is briefly OK. Then it becomes really not OK again. I am bored of walking, I am bored of the sun, of the air, bored of lambs and of the sight of green fields and blue skies. I want it all to fuck off. Worst of all, I feel deeply aware that what I am doing is really not that difficult. Many people have walked further. Many thousands in impoverished countries walk further every day just to get to school. A family of four overtook me on Tuesday who were doing the whole walk in six days rather than seven - two parents, their 11 year old son, Niall, and their 8 year old daughter, Holly. They weren’t carrying 10kg backpacks, but they were in good spirits and they were going at a good rate. I feel like a weakling. My parents tell me I’m doing an amazing thing, but all I can think of is the people all around me who are doing the exact same thing, many of them seemingly finding it a good sight easier than I am. In fact, with the exception of the furniture-maker I walked with yesterday, no one at all has seemed to be finding it as hard as I am. I hate that.
I plough on. A straight stretch along the marshes that I’ve been dreading turns out to be bearable, but then an incomprehensible two-mile diversion via a farm and a campsite nearly kills me in its pointlessness. I dream of the pub in Bowness, of a wee on an actual toilet followed by a pint of Diet Coke and a ham sandwich in a sun-filled beer garden. I look over the water at Scotland. The hours pass. It takes me six to get from Carlisle to my destination. When I finally reach Bowness, I photograph the sign and feel briefly elated. I go on to the walk’s official endpoint, a commemorative hut overlooking the marshes where the original wall disappeared into the firth. I well up. I sit on a bench, take a photo of myself and then walk to the pub. The ham sandwich will probably be the best of my life.
The pub door appears firmly shut, and a laminated piece of paper by the entrance indicates that it doesn’t open until 4pm. It is now 13:20 - the bus taking me back to Carlisle doesn’t arrive until 14:10. I need the loo, I am hungry and thirsty and there are no shops. I feel utterly dejected. I walk fifty yards to the bus stop, a lamppost at the side of a small lane, take off my pack, sit on it, and take off my shoes. My left foot looks like it has been inflated. I eat the only things left in my rucksack: an apple and a Rolo dessert, which in the sunshine has lost its gelatinous quality and is now runny. In the absence of a spoon, I use my index finger. It tastes of Deep Heat.
Over the next fifty minutes, walkers emerge from all directions, all having finished the same walk as me. They all seem in good spirits, they all seem like they do it all the time. Maybe they do. There is a couple in their fifties who’ve carried their camping packs all along, accompanied by their twenty-something son, his girlfriend, and their adorable mongrel dog. The son had found a large, v-shaped piece of driftwood on the beach a couple of miles back that he’d decided to carry too, wearing it around his neck like a yoke. If you’d asked me to carry an extra box of matches I would have laughed in your face, but here was a man who was finding it all so manageable that he’d decided to lug a big bit of old tree along with him too. Once again, I feel insignificant, and embarrassed that anyone would think to praise what I’d done - look at all the others finding it all too easy. I know my achievement is amazing for me, that everything is relative, but clearly I am not impressed by my own relative achievements. I must be uniquely brilliant.
Finally the bus comes and takes us back the same fifteen miles to Carlisle. I walk to the train station, pick up my tickets and, with 40 minutes to spare, retrace my steps for two minutes to the Pizza Express I’d spotted. I order a Diet Coke and an American, change in the toilet, eat, and return to the station. At 15:49 the Virgin Pendolino pulls out with me on board. We speed through the sun. I appreciate the countryside from a seated position and then watch, captivated, as the blue blob on my iPhone’s map shows us skirting Birmingham, crossing the M25, and eventually approaching Euston. It’s been a beautiful adventure that has pushed me to my limits, exactly as I’d intended, and I’m very glad indeed to be going home.