Sunday morning and we awoke in our bunk beds at the Old Repeater Station. We were tired but ready for another day on the wall. This wouldn’t just be any day. We knew that this was likely to be toughest and, spoilers, it was.
After breakfast I made a call to the luggage company that the other walkers were using and, in exchange for leaving them £20 in an envelope, they would take our bags to our overnight stops on both of our remaining days. Some of our kit had to be transferred into carrier bags as I was still going to be taking one rucksack, but it would only be carrying the supplies we would need for the walking hours.
We set off into a beautiful morning. However it was a beautiful mix of low sun and dark clouds. It looked unlikely that we’d get through the day completely dry.
A very short walk on the busy road and a trek along a farm track brought us back onto the wall path at Sewing Shields Farm and onto the crags.
Although we’d been watching the countryside open up as we headed west the previous day, we really noticed the difference now. From the urban sprawl around Newcastle the country had been expanding, even until later in the day (somewhere around Limestone Corner), the landscape was still regular farm fields with hedges and fences. Now everything was high open moorland intercut only with occasional low stone walls. It is a beautiful part of the world.
After about a mile we approached Housesteads Fort, probably the best of the sites situated directly on the wall. The last time I came here (on a short afternoon walk from Brocolitia whilst visiting an old friend in the North East) it was possible to continue walking on the wall straight into the fort. Now, however, a fence on the wall meant that we had to go to the English Heritage ticket office and pay entry. Which was, of course, perfectly fine with us.
We had started the day a little later than planned (largely due to sorting the luggage). We had anticipated being at Housesteads before opening hours so it was a double edged sword that we were able to get in. We could visit, but we couldn’t spare too much time so we had a brief look around, used the toilets, stamped our passports, and walked back to the wall at the West side of the fort.
The path continues along the crags. With such a sharp cliff face making a natural barrier from the north it’s a wonder that a wall was needed at all. If any attackers did make it up the crags they would surely have little energy left for a fight.
We passed the beautiful remains of Mile Castle 37 and dropped down to the farm next to Mile Castle 38, then back up some stone steps onto the narrow path overlooking the drop to Crag Lough.
From Housteads, atop the crags, admiring the wall, and the countryside across the Lough is one iconic view after another.
And then you come to Sycamore Gap.
The most famous and photographed section of the wall, and therefore the busiest section full of daytrippers coming here from the nearby Castle Rigg carpark. It was also where the first drops of rain started to fall.
We had the approach to the famous tree largely to ourselves but there was a lot of for traffic from there on for the next mile.
We also had the first taste of how the walking would be for the next few miles as we headed up and down some steep, rocky tracks. We had been warned that this section felt a lot longer due to all the hills and we were about to find out how true this is.
The rain was quite heavy as we approached the car park and some of the group of German students being marched across to Sycamore Gap did not seem pleased to be dragged out in the rain and mud.
After passing to the other side of the nearest car park from the gap, the number of other walkers dropped back down again and we largely had the path to ourselves along the ridge of Winshields Crags.
We had, at one point, considered a diversion here to visit Vindolanda. We had by now however agreed to just continue on our way without deviation. It would be a three mile extra walk plus time (which we couldn’t spare) at the site. We would come back another time. Possibly even by breaking our journey back to Newcastle.
It was the right decision.
At the trig point on Winshields Crags we reached the highest point on the trail however, whilst the direction now would be West and Down, we were far from down with any uphill climbing.
Bogle Hole, Caw Gap, Bloody Gap, Thorny Doors, Hole Gap. The next few miles were a near constant round of ups and downs. The rain had eased but the path was now slippery and as a result, carefully picking our way down from the crags was just as slow as climbing back up the other side of each of the gaps. It was also very tiring work.
At Cawfields we made use of the toilet facilities in the car park and took a break on a bench for a mouthful of coffee and a biscuit. We needed some sustenance, however, today we did not have any lunch with us so only had the lightest of snacks.
From Cawfields there was a bit of respite on some more even territory across to Great Chester Fort, another of those still buried under fields, yet whose outlines are easy to see.
If we thought we had been lulled into the easier walking of the last mile, we were right and we were soon brought back to earth. The ground became more undulating and. as such. our progress slowed again.
At King Arthur’s Turret we were close to done. At the bottom of that gap was a road. Spying more crags and climbs and dips ahead we took a quick look at the map and without any hesitation followed the road. Yes, we might officially be deviating from the path but the distance would be the same. We were tired. We were hungry. We were both a little emotional. We were close to throwing in the towel. We needed the easier walking on the much more even road and would follow it to its end and our planned break at the Roman Army Museum.
We might have missed something amazing here by taking the road. Who can tell? Not me that’s for sure. But for us, at that time, we had made the right decision. We paid entry into the museum and had a quick look around. It was much later than we hoped to be here. It was gone 3pm and the museum closed at 4.
We enjoyed the exhibition, though not as well as we should. Then we went to the tearoom and ordered the last remaining sandwiches and cake that were still available.
Had it not been Sunday we may well have finished the day at this point. There was another 8 miles or so to go and we were shattered. However, the AD122 bus along the wall was not running today. If we were going to bail we’d either have to try and persuade a taxi to pick us up here and take us to our B&B, or we could get a bus back to Haltwhistle, a train to Brampton or (more likely) Carlisle, and then get a taxi. It seemed more trouble than just keeping walking. What was more, having rested and actually having eaten properly for the first time since setting off from the Old Repeater Station, we both felt refreshed and ready to tackle the remaining miles. I was doubly glad that the new feeling of refreshment would keep us walking. Not only as we naturally really had no desire to give up, but also as it was very close to this point that I had suffered a major mechanical problem when cycling along the wall a few years earlier and had to abandon from here and start again the following morning in Carlisle.
We were now almost off the hills (and almost out of Northumberland National Park). Leaving the museum we were back to following the line of the vallum rather than the wall; indeed we were not going to see too much of the wall from here on in.
We passed Thirlwall Castle and carried on across some fields towards Gilsland. Through the village, across a couple more fields, and down towards the River Irthing, which not only has another great section of wall to admire, but also the footings of the Roman Bridge that crossed the river here.
The bridge itself has long gone, but a new replacement has, fortunately, been built and so we were very soon and easily on the other bank and ready to head back up a surprisingly steep hill to rejoin the wall, which was surviving quite well here.
A few yards on and we came to the fort of Birdoswald. By now we were too tired to stop and admire the site. This was just as well as it was also too late and had just closed up. We were able to stamp our passports from a box on the wall though before carrying on along our way.
We were now 2 to 3 miles from our base for the night and were desperate to push on and get there. The path here crosses some fields to avoid the road but we wanted to push on. It was late and the road was quiet. Unlike our earlier tarmac diversion we were actually closer to the line of the wall by staying on the road. Being dead straight and largely flat, we could vaguely see our destination in the distance but it felt as though we were never getting any closer.
It was close to 7pm by the time we finally made it to our destination; Quarryside B&B. We arrived and were welcomed by our hosts and we were pleased to find our bags waiting for us. I’m so glad we had made those arrangements. We were exhausted and not having to carry our luggage had been a godsend.
As pleased as we were to get to our room, we had to shower quickly and get changed as our hosts were keen to get us out of the house. This was not a bad thing. The village of Banks does not have any facilities so the hosts were driving us to a local pub for dinner.
We were taken to the Belted Will Inn a fair few miles away where we had an excellent and massive meal. When we were finished the pub landlord, once he had cleaned up in the kitchen, took us back to the B&B. Apparently this arrangement has been in place almost every day for around 15 years. Hospitality at its most remarkable. It made for an excellent end to a very long day and was most welcome. Once back at the B&B we were soon fast asleep in a very comfortable, large double bed.