If you’re thinking about walking Hadrian’s Wall, then this post will provide you with some brutally honest information (and practical advice) about the challenge, from someone who’s just completed it.
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At the end of August, a friend and I set off to walk the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England. The trail runs for 84 miles (134 kilometres) between Bowness-on-Solway (on the west coast) and Wallsend (on the east). As you would expect, we did our research beforehand – bought a Hadrian’s Wall guidebook, compared and contrasted various itineraries, read countless blog posts, examined a number of different accommodation options, and gave a considerable amount of thought to what we needed to pack.
However, nothing can fully prepare you for walking Hadrian’s Wall. And what I mean by that is that there are some things you’ll only learn from the experience of actually completing the trail yourself.
But there are a few things that I wish somebody had told me about beforehand; things that, had I known about prior to walking Hadrian’s Wall, may have influenced the decisions I made when preparing for the adventure.
So, in the spirit of helping you to prepare as thoroughly as possible, I thought I’d put a little post together about a few of the things that nobody tells you about walking Hadrian’s Wall. I hope you find it useful 🙂
1 | A six-day hike is VERY different to completing six one-day hikes
In order to adequately train for walking Hadrian’s Wall, Jayne and I completed multiple long one-day hikes. Every weekend, for around six weeks prior to our Hadrian’s Wall adventure, we would set off early on either the Saturday or Sunday and subsequently spend the best part of the day exploring parts of Shropshire that we’d never visited before. We’d cover anywhere between 11 and 25 miles – the sort of daily distances we’d be up against on the Hadrian’s Wall trail.
And at the end of each hike? Yes, our legs were tired and we could certainly tell we’d been on our feet all day, but we’d suffered no blisters, and no aches and pains. So, we assumed all would be okay when we set out to do six consecutive days of the same.
We couldn’t have been more wrong!
What we hadn’t accounted for was the cumulative effect that a six-day hike has on your body – especially on your feet. By the end of day three, the balls of our feet hurt so much that we found ourselves having to walk on the sides of our feet for the last mile or two. And, whilst we felt fine when we set off every morning, our feet were becoming painful a lot sooner in the day as time wore on. It wasn’t an unbearable pain and we could walk through it, but it’s definitely something we hadn’t prepared for.
The problem is that if you work full-time (as we both do), it’s nye on impossible to replicate the six-day hike in training – unless you want to walk through the night.
The only advice that I can give you is to take regular breaks, where you actually sit down and take the weight off your feet for a while. We generally didn’t, because we weren’t sure we could afford the time to do so, but our feet definitely thanked us when we did!
2 | If you don’t NEED to carry all your stuff (i.e if you’re not camping) then don’t!
We fully intended to carry all of our stuff for the duration of the hike. We’d even bought new Osprey packs specifically for this purpose. We figured that we could pack pretty light, and that it wouldn’t matter what we looked like, as long as we were comfortable, clean and dry. We even tested our fully-laden packs on the final day-hike we completed prior to walking Hadrian’s Wall. It certainly made walking up hills that bit harder, but again, our packs had been comfortable to wear and we’d suffered no aches and pains.
Of course, when it came down to actually packing for real, we ended up with more in our packs than we’d carried on our day hike. Not by much, but a few kilograms makes a lot of difference.
It’s a bit difficult to weigh your pack on a pair of bathroom scales (as you have to hold it to prevent it from falling over), but I reckon mine weighed around 10 kilograms. Considering they (the experts) reckon that you shouldn’t carry any more than a fifth of your body weight (preferably less), my pack was already the maximum weight I should be carrying. And, I didn’t have anything that I didn’t need in there – except, possibly, an extra pair of leggings.
Bearing in mind that we didn’t need to carry all of our stuff for the first section of the trail from Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle (we could leave a large chunk of it at our hotel in Carlisle, where we’d stopped the night before), the first day of experiencing what it’s like to do a long distance walk with a fifth of my body weight on my back was the second day – from Carlisle to Walton. This was our shortest day of walking, at just under 12 miles. Yet it felt like at least 10 miles more by the end!
Hiking with a fully laden 36-litre pack on your back is a very different experience to hiking with a 20-litre day pack! I’ve never had any issues with my hip flexors in the past (and I do a lot of running!), but I did towards the end of the second section of the Hadrian’s Wall trail. And this was almost definitely a result of the weight I was carrying for such an extended amount of time.
So, when we arrived at Walton, Jayne and I decided that – with the longest and hilliest stretch of the trail only a day ahead of us – it would probably not be a sensible idea to continue the hike while carrying such a significant amount of weight on our backs. At the very least, it would take all the fun out of the experience of walking Hadrian’s Wall. But, of course, the worst case scenario was that we’d sustain injuries that would leave us unable to complete the trail. And we’d be absolutely gutted if it came to that.
Consequently, we immediately started Googling the names of some local baggage transfer companies. For a small fee, these companies will collect your bags from point A and deliver them to point B in time for your arrival. Hadrian’s Haul offered this service for the cheapest price AND had great reviews, so that’s who we ended up using.
Of course, because we’d not planned to get our baggage transferred, neither of us had brought a day pack with us. Fortunately, though, we had brought a ultralight dry sack each (to use as a backpack liner in case of wet weather), so we transferred everything we didn’t need for the following day’s walk into our dry sacks – which meant that our actual packs were so much lighter! And as a result, walking Hadrian’s Wall was so much more enjoyable.
3 | A good breakfast is the most important start to every day
Walking for up to eight hours a day burns a lot of calories. Couple this with the fact that, once you get out of Carlisle, there aren’t a lot of options available for grabbing food. The middle section in particular is very remote – so much so that even coffee was difficult to find. For these reasons, fuelling up on a good, substantial breakfast before you set out is so important.
We made sure that the majority of places we stayed at included breakfast in their nightly rate. And for those that didn’t, there was somewhere nearby where we could purchase breakfast from.
Although B&Bs are not a particularly cheap option (you’re looking at a minimum of £75 per room), you do generally get a massive breakfast included in the price. We stayed at both Greenacres B&B in Walton and Chesters Bridge B&B in Chollerford and can 100% recommend both of these.
Greenacres can be booked via Airbnb. If you haven’t yet registered with Airbnb, you can get up to £40 off your first stay by booking via this link.
4 | Although the middle part of the trail is incredibly scenic, the rest, unfortunately, is not
You know all those stunning photos you’ve seen online, of the wall snaking its way across the peaks of grass-covered crags for a seemingly infinite distance ahead? Of the ruins of centuries old hill forts and castles, and of immense lakes and ancient copses? Well, I can pretty much guarantee you that they’re probably all scenes from the middle section of the trail, between Walton and Chollerford.
Because the scenery on the rest of the trail – especially the last two days (if you’re walking from west to east) – is, well, really not that remarkable. In fact, at times I’d even go so far as to say it’s boring as hell.
What’s more, with the exception of a few excavated pieces either side of the middle section, the wall is largely buried beneath a mound of grass.
If you’re not bothered about being able to say that you’ve walked the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall trail then I would definitely recommend focussing your attention on the section between Walton and Chollerford, and perhaps skipping the section between Chollerford and Wallsend altogether.
5 | The last mile of every day will be the longest mile you’ve ever walked
A mile is a mile, right? Not on the Hadrian’s Wall Path!
Jayne and I weren’t the only walkers who noticed that the accuracy of the signage along the route leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll quite often see a sign pointing towards a village, say, two miles away, and then, when you’ve walked a mile further, another signpost indicating exactly the same distance to said village.
It also didn’t help matters that we couldn’t find a consistent distance recorded, either online or in print, for any of the sections on the route. So, as we set off every morning, we really had no idea exactly how far we’d be walking.
Consequently, when you think you’re potentially covering the final mile of the day, you may well end up walking an additional two, three or even four miles. To add insult to injury, when you’re tired and your feet hurt, every mile will already feel like at least five.
You have been warned!
6 | Finding cheaper accommodation off the trail may sound good in theory, but it’s not so good in practice
Whilst we had no intentions of attempting to camp on the trail (we’d have the expense of buying all the equipment AND the hassle of having to carry it with us), we did initially plan to to complete the walk as inexpensively as possible – by staying at campsites and in bunkhouses.
However, as a result of COVID-19, many of these establishments either weren’t opening for the season, or they were opening with a reduced number of beds and facilities. So, our choices were already somewhat limited. And, in most cases, the cheapest options available to us were a few miles off the trail.
If you plan to walk to your accommodation at the end of the day and back from your accommodation at the start, you’re adding quite a few extra miles on to some already very long days. If you decide to get a taxi to and from your accommodation, not only is that an additional cost that negates any savings you’ve made on accommodation, but you also have the difficulty of explaining to a local taxi firm exactly where to collect you from (large parts of the trail are very remote!).
And of course, if your accommodation doesn’t serve food in the evenings, you also have to consider how far you’ll have to walk or how much a taxi will cost in order to find somewhere that does.
Consequently, we ultimately made the decision to place convenience over cost, and in hindsight that was absolutely the right decision to make. All the places we stayed at along the trail (with the exception of our hotel in Carlisle) were literally right on the trail. Trust me when I tell you that, when you’re actually walking Hadrian’s Wall and not simply drawing out plans to do so, staying as close to the trail as possible will be a much higher priority than saving a few pounds here and there.
7 | If you want to avoid walking into the prevailing winds, make sure you hike from west to east
For some reason still unbeknownst to me, most people seem to walk the wall from east to west. Pretty much all the blog posts and articles I’d read prior to planning the hike were written by people who had done just that.
And I get it – Bowness-on-Solway is a much nicer location to finish the hike than Wallsend is. Grabbing a celebratory pint or cup of coffee in a a pretty little seaside village with some scenic coastal views is a much more appealing prospect than simply posing for a photo next to a bronze statue in Newcastle’s industrial suburbs.
However, if you take the whole journey into consideration rather than just the destination, then it makes more sense (in my humble opinion) to walk the route from west to east. The reason? The prevailing winds blow from west to east, so if you happen to be unlucky with the weather (this is the UK: rain is common, even in summer), you’ll be walking into the cold winds and rain if you start from the east.
8 | If you want to look around the Roman forts, you’ll need to book a timed appointment
First up, if you want to be able to have a proper look around the Roman forts (Birdoswald, Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda are the most interesting and best preserved), then you’ll need to make some very early starts. Or be prepared for some very late arrivals at your destination. Or both, if you’re a proper history buff.
Secondly, you need to book a timed appointment in order to enter the forts.
This presents a bit of an issue because, when you’re walking Hadrian’s Wall, you never really know what sort of time you’re going to arrive where. This is partly as a result of the issues described in point 5, but largely because it’s difficult to judge how long it will take you to walk each and every mile you cover. Factors such as the gradient and surface of the terrain, how tired you are and how many times you stop along the way (to take photographs, grab a coffee, appreciate the view or simply take the weight off your feet for a while) all play a part in determining how long it will take you to cover any given section of the trail.
My only advice – in order to avoid a big rush or a long wait – is to wait until you’re reasonably close to the fort you wish to visit, and then to jump online and see if you can secure a place. If you’d rather not risk there being no places available, just be aware that if you book in advance, you will lose your money if you cannot make it in time for the slot that you’ve reserved.
9 | You’ll pass through a lot of fields with cows in. Cows can be dangerous, be careful!
Fortunately I was already aware of this prior to walking Hadrian’s Wall. Jayne and I got chased by cows on one of our walks in Shropshire earlier on this summer. It’s definitely up there among the most scary moments of my life.
You see, I’d always assumed that you had to do something to provoke them in order for cows to chase you – like getting between a mother and her calf or having a dog with you. That is absolutely not the case! When Jayne and I were chased, there was not a calf or dog in sight; just the two of us walking through a field a good 50-100 metres from where the herd of young bullocks were gathered, before they began to chase us.
Advice seems to be to ensure that you have an exit route figured out before you enter the field and to stick to the established path, if at all possible. Running is not recommended, as it will spur the cows on. However, Jayne and I ended up doing just that because when we stopped, the cows didn’t. Hiking poles can be a useful weapon if they do get too close.
Fortunately, all the cows we encountered on the Hadrian’s Wall trail seemed pretty disinterested in us, but I thought it was important to mention the dangers, in case you were completely oblivious to them – just as I was six months ago. If you want to avoid walking through fields when cows have calves, then don’t walk the trail in spring or early summer.
10 | When you get to Wallsend, you’ll wish you had organised your days better so you could’ve made it all the way to Tynemouth
When Jayne and I initially planned this adventure, we didn’t even consider walking all the way to Tynemouth; walking Hadrian’s Wall (all 84 miles of it) sounded like enough of an achievement.
However, what we hadn’t anticipated, when we finally arrived at Segedunum (Wallsend), was that the cafe, museum, parts of the wall and the Roman Baths would all be closed (as a result of COVID-19) – which made the whole experience feel like a bit of an anti-climax. There was hardly anyone around; just a sculpture of a Roman centurion to congratulate us on our achievement.
Not wanting to simply catch the train straight back to Newcastle (where we were staying that night), we decided to hop on the metro to Tynemouth, in order to enjoy a celebratory coffee on the seafront. There we met the couple we’d bumped into several times along the trail, who had been carrying all their camping gear with them. They’d walked all the way to Tynemouth. Coast to coast.
It was at that point that the idea of walking that final section immediately became so much more significant. Yes, Jayne and I had achieved what we’d set out to do; we’d walked the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall trail. Yet somehow we felt as though we’d failed, because we hadn’t walked the entire breadth of the country.
In our defense, we had covered A LOT of ground by the time we reached Segedunum. Ok, so it may have only been a further 5.3 miles to Tynemouth, but when you’ve already walked 16.8 miles on a pair of incredibly tired feet, five miles is a long way! The couple we’d spoke to had started their final day in Newburn, so they’d only walked 15 miles by the time they got to Tynemouth. In retrospect, if I did it all over again, I’d organise my days better so that I could make it all the way to Tynemouth. I’ll be sharing this alternative itinerary in my upcoming guide to the Hadrian’s Wall walk.
Hadrian’s Wall appeared on my hikes in England wish list, that I published in January. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d be able to tick it off that list quite so soon, but with foreign travel continuing to be an incredibly difficult and somewhat risky endeavor, I have taken the opportunity to explore my home country in more depth this year. I’ll be publishing a lot more content based around UK travel in the upcoming months, so make sure you’re subscribed to my posts (scroll down to the very bottom of this one to do so) if you’d like to read them.
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