Icelanders walk (hike) Hadrian’s Wall
Walking is an ideal way to experience this ancient structure and some of its marvels
M. Michael Brady
In the spring of 2015, M. Michael Brady, correspondent for The Norwegian American, learned that Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson, most known by his middle name, was planning a summer hike along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, just south of the Scottish border. As the hike is one of the classics of Europe that Brady has long wanted to do, he asked Sævarsson to make notes and take photos that, via an interview after his return, could become an article that could interest hiking-aware Americans. This is the result. As suits the venue of an activity that has been going on for a few centuries, the terminology is British. What we call a hike in North America is called a walk in Britain.
This story starts in the summer of 2014, when my wife Moa and I were surfing in Portugal. There we met an Englishman, Stuart McFayden, who upon learning that we are Icelanders with a penchant for rambling the outdoors, suggested that we “walk Hadrian’s Wall.”
McFayden’s suggestion was well aimed. For we Icelanders, Britain has a fascinating niche in our cultural history. The Icelandic Sagas remain the earliest documentation of the Viking Age, in which Vikings often interacted with the peoples of the British Isles. That all happened a millennium or so after Roman Emperor Hadrian had the wall built starting in A.D. 122. The chance to tramp through the landscape prominent in the pre-history of our culture was irresistible.
That opportunity is relatively new. People have walked the many paths to, from, and along the Wall for centuries. True long-distance walking of the Wall came in 2003, when the paths along it were joined and signposted to become the 15th National Trail of England and Wales. It stretches 84 miles from Wallsend on the east coast to Bowness-on-Solway on the west. It’s mostly flat, starting and ending near sea level and reaching a high point of 1,132 feet near Whinshields Crags at its midpoint. Most of the wall and the path run through open country, but there are sections that pass through the cities and suburbs of Carlisle and Newcastle. Hadrian’s Wall now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ensures protection for it and the path.
McFayden’s suggestion also came at the right time. Moa and I had been thinking about activities we might propose for the next quasi-annual gathering of our circle of 30-some friends brought together by its women, who had first met in the 1980s when they spent their summer vacations as seasonal workers at a small hotel in Laugarvatn in southern Iceland. A happening in the UK was just the thing. In 2006, our circle had rented a castle in Scotland. Rambling the landscape near Scotland resonated well for 2015. Over the next few months, in corresponding with McFayden and visiting him once in London, we opted for a “Walk of the Wall” in July.
Planning the walk was easy; a net search brought up several companies providing services for visitors to the wall. At McFayden’s suggestion, we contacted Hadrian’s Wall Ltd. (www.hadrianswall.ltd.uk), a small local company headed by Gary Reed, a former Royal Marines Officer, outdoor life instructor, expedition leader, lecturer in geography and heritage studies, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s a native of Northumberland, the county of England through which the eastern part of the wall runs. So for him, it’s home turf. And as we discovered later, he’s a convivial entertainer on all matters concerning the wall and its surroundings.
We opted for a top-of-the-range, four-day, partly guided walk of a 50-mile stretch of the wall. At a price of 475£ (about $743) per person, it included five overnight stays at country inns, baggage transfer between overnight stops, path pick-up and drop-off service at each inn, and one day of walking with Gary Reed as a guide.
The 11 of us started our walk of the wall with an overnight stay in Carlisle, a city with an urban area population of about 107,000, located 10 miles south of the Scottish border. From there, we walked eastward for four days, to Walton, Newton, Saughy Rigg, and finally past the path highpoint to Chester’s Fort. From the walking point of view, covering 50 miles in four days is tame. Yet our walk had its memorable surprises.
At one point, we went astray and didn’t know which direction to go to get back on course. So we asked a local native passing by. He pointed out a direction that we then followed. After about two hours, we noticed that the river along the path seemed to be flowing in the wrong direction. Or were we going the wrong way? Out with the maps. The error was ours. We turned around and retraced our steps for another two hours. Fortunately, the day was long.
On a lunch break one day, we were joined by a friendly white horse. What does one do when an uninvited horse shows up at lunchtime? Talk to it; give it a nibble. This is England.
One of the benefits of walking the wall is that the landscape it traverses has so many cultural history sites that visiting them all would take months. We had only four days, so we selected. Our two most memorable visits were to two museums dedicated to Roman themes. The Roman Army Museum near Walltown Quarry is the place to go to gain an appreciation of how advanced the Romans were in armaments, then as now the underpinnings of military power.
The Chesterholm Museum in the village of Bardon Mill features artifacts excavated from nearby Vindolanda, a Roman fort just south of the wall. Vindolanda is most famed for the 1978 archaeological find there of what are now known as the Vindolanda Tablets dating from the first and second centuries. They are thin, postcard-sized limewood sheets that bear writing of messages in carbon-based ink, the earliest known communication of their sort in Britain. Otherwise at Vindolanda we viewed the remains of a public bath and of buildings with toilets and heated floors, conveniences otherwise unknown in Europe until centuries thereafter.
By the time we parted with the other nine of our “Walk the Wall” party, we realized that we had come to share McFayden’s enthusiasm for it. And like him, we now recommend it to others.
This article was originally published in the Mountain Gazette (Boulder, Colorado, www.mountaingazette.com).
• Frontiers of the Roman Empire, a transnational property including Hadrian’s Wall listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: whc.unesco.org/en/list/430
• Hadrian’s Wall Country, official visitor information: www.visithadrianswall.co.uk
• National trails, the organization of 15 national long-distance routes through England and Wales, link: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrians-wall-path
• English Heritage, a trust dedicated to enabling people to experience the story of England where it really happened, link: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hadrians-wall
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.