Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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For my first time backpacking solo, I wanted to pick a destination that meant something to me. When we go backpacking with my husband and kids, we usually do an A-to-B route on new trails and I go for big landscapes with a few beaches, rivers or mountains along the way. As I had never wild camped by myself, I decided to go easy on mileage and navigation but big on the views. This is how I chose Hadrian’s Wall, the iconic Roman wall marking the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. More precisely, I picked a tree on Hadrian’s Wall. Never mind that the wall was a notoriously hostile spot for wild campers. I trusted that I’d find a way to make it work.
I’m a mother of two teen girls and I love them all the way to the moon but what with school schedules and weekend activities, it’s tricky to escape into the wild. As I was working 3 days a week at the office this summer, I decided to plan my escape mid-week, when the girls were on summer holidays at their grandparents’ and when my husband was away traveling. Rather than be by myself in London, it made sense to escape the big city.
Hadrian’s Wall is a classic case of Game of Thrones geopolitics. South of the wall, civilisation and Romans. North of the wall, wildlings and Picts. The wall itself – deemed impossible to pass along its 80 Roman miles. All along: forts, turrets, more forts, and stone galore. Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was rather tempting to wild camp along such an iconic monument.
At 7am, I got to Kings Cross St Pancras and at 7.30am, I was on the train heading north for Hexham. To see that the weather was horrid is an understatement.
Maybe it was only miserable, but looking out the window, I was glad to have all my rain layers with me. Ever optimistic, I also hoped that the skies would clear. In Hexham, I looked for the AD122 bust stop for Hadrian’s Wall. It was right outside the station and as luck would have it, I had just missed the hourly bus.
Hexham Station isn’t exactly Funtown so I crossed the road to a Waitrose store and used my membership card to get a free cup of tea. First time I’d done it and a great way to drink something warm without depleting my own water reserves. On the bus, there was a Spanish couple who got off at Chesters after much consideration. My goal was a tree on Sycamore Gap but I didn’t want to get there just yet. First, I was going to explore the highest part of the wall.
Backpacking along some of the most scenic sections of Hadrian’s Wall sounded like a nice way to keep me busy during two days. Peel Crags, right off the small village of Once Brewed, offers a steep climb up slippery stone stairs to a lookout on top of a cliff known to climbers as dangerous.
As I waked up to the crag from the road rather than, like everybody else, from the parking lot on top of the hill, I took the wrong trail and found myself separated from the trail by barbed wire. Ah well, I would have to jump it, which I did, leaving some precious hand skin on the wire. Damn it! Never mind, the trail was clearly laid out in front of me, if made quite slippery by the rain. The view from the top was nice but I would have even nicer shortly. I set out hiking west, in the footsteps of Roman soldiers who once patrolled this part of the Roman Empire.
Culminating at 345m, Winshield Crags is the highest portion of Hadrian’s Wall. When I started going uphill, I had to turn my head away from the wind as the combination of horizontal rain and strong wind kept pushing my hood down on my eyes. Resigned, I walked with my head looking down at the grass until I reached the top. If my July weather was any indication, I can only imagine how the hundreds of soldiers garrisoned at the important portion of the wall must have felt. Assuming they came from Italy, how they must have hated the cold damp summers and brutal cold winters. I didn’t linger long on top (more wind) but enjoyed nice views from this small sheep door.
As soon as I clambered down the steep slippery mud/grass slope to a ditch, the wind died down and the skies cleared. Hallelujah! I wanted to keep walking to the Roman Army Museum in Greenhead but given my slow progress, I realised I would never make it in time before they closed.
Since Peel Crags, I had already passed Milecastle 40 and I was now passing by Milecastle 41, en route to Milecastle 42. Yes, you’ve guessed it, milecastles are small forts placed at mile intervals along the 80-mile Hadrian’s Wall. The ones I saw were squarish ruins with low walls, big stone footprints in the grassy landscape.
They had an average internal area of around 18 square metres (60 square feet). Each one included a gateway to the north and one facing south, allowing people to travel through the wall at these forts. Each northern gate was topped with a tower for extra defence. It would have been hard to guess the turrets but looking at the walls (1.4m high, 2.8m thick), it was easy to figure how solid they were. Fortunately, interpretive signs provide historical details at each milecastle (that’s the upside of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Right below Milecastle 42 was Cawfield Crags, another sharp depression in the landscape, and at its foot, a disused quarry by Hole Gap.
If you visit in the summer, the trailsides are thick with wild raspberries that make a delightful impromptu snack. At Hole Gap, I walked around the quarry and hesitated getting into my swim kit to go for a swim but I was reluctant to leave the backpack alone and it was right by a parking lot. I decided to stay dry but used the toilets in the parking lot, the only time in two days when I didn’t feel the wind on my face. There was even running water.
From Hole Gap, I retraced my steps and on top of Winshield Crags, enjoyed chocolate ginger shortbreads by the trig point. On the way down, I met a woman who was solo hiking Hadrian’s Wall and we exchanged a few words. That’s when I realized that I missed sharing my experiences all day. Yes, I had shared a few pics with my faraway family on WhatsApp but that was silent.
If I take away one thing from this solo backpacking trip, it’s that I like humans and I like sharing outdoor experiences with friends or family. That almost came as a surprise but it’s good to know. I had always wondered if I would be the John Muir type, happy to wander by myself in the wilderness for weeks on end. I guess not and that’s OK.
Onwards I kept walking and was thrilled to see the clouds slowly part to let the sun play its rightful part in a summer day. here is Peel Crags (again) in a sunny disposition.
My goal of the day was the most photographed tree of Northumberland, a sycamore tree located smack in the middle of Sycamore Gap. Straddling the wall, the tree became Hollywood famous in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood Prince of Thieves movie in a rather burlesque scene where he and Morgan Freeman stop at Hadrian’s Wall en route to Nottingham, coming from Dover. This 536-mile trek has got to be the longest way to rally two points only 190 miles apart but whatever, the movie has His Awesomeness Alan Rickman in it.
Before I reached Sycamore Gap, I walked past Milecastle 40. By then, the weather was downright nice and I was glad to be able to take a nice picture of this well-preserved fort. If you look closely, you can see the circular line of the trail in the grass and if you look further, you see that the hill dips and picks up gain. The tree is in the dip.
Right around 6pm, I reached Sycamore Gap and its Everything-I-do-I-Do-It-for-You Sycamore Tree. To say that it’s iconic is an understatement. People come all around the world to take a photograph of this tree and who could blame them? It’s absolutely perfect. The tree was voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2016 and sitting on the grass below or on one of the few mounds around it, you can spend hours enjoying the view.
Fortunately, I met a group of Brits who were at the end of their walking day and about to go for a pint and a comfy bed at the Twice Brewed Inn. They congratulated me for wild camping by myself and took this picture of me. As i said, I like humans.
Now came the next big decisions: where to eat dinner and where to sleep. The first one was more easily solved than the second.
The fort at Milecastle 37 has a gorgeous view on the plain below and even features a broken arch at the entrance. It seemed like the perfect place to take off my backpack and have some freeze-dried mushroom risotto, basking in the sun of a late summer day.
This sounds like obvious advice but it’s true. After I heated a half liter of water in my JetBoil Zip, I added the hot water top a pouch of mushroom risotto and zipped it. I then looked for my spoon. That’s when I came empty handed. No spoon. I emptied the whole contents of the backpack. Nothing. Frantically on our WhatsApp family group, I shared the news. “Use a stick!” suggested my 12-year-old. No tree in sight. “Use a rock!” said the oldest. Most rocks were the size of my head. I really didn’t want to use my fingers as I was nowhere near a water source. Finally, I had an idea and looked in my medical kit.
A hair comb! That’s how I ate my mushroom risotto. Next time, the spoon goes in first in the backpack.
Finding a place on Hadrian’s Wall was more tricky. I couldn’t very well pitch my tent on the wall as it was visible from either the road or nearby houses. I saw two green pockets on my map and hoped that I would be able to pitch there. Soggy terrain and bad slopes. They weren’t an option either. Looking far from the wall, I saw a copse of conifers in the middle of a field, Ridley Common. That’s where I would go to pitch my tent and spend the night.
I waited for the sun to set to pitch my tent. That’s standard wild camping practice in the UK. Pitch after sunset, pack before dawn. Do you know at what time the sun sets mid July on Hadrian’s Wall? It sets at 9.41pm. Therefore, I waited an hour sitting between two trees, wondering if any walkers were going to come, or maybe a farmer with his dog sniffing out strangers. Lo and behold, only birds ruffled their feathers loudly in the trees. It was long. Again, the solo in solo backpacking didn’t suit me.
Finally, I saw the sun disappear behind the hill and though the luminosity was still crazy strong, I pitched the tent. I had never done it by myself and it definitely wasn’t straightforward. Once inside, I set up my sleeping quarters with one of my daughters’ dollies (no laughing) and a small cushy pillow. I suspected I might be nervous at night, what with everything I’d read about aggressive farmers, so I built the most comforting sleep environment I could think of. Note, for you would-be female solo backpackers, that I was not worried about a serial killer hiding behind bushes. I had done my homework and read that farmers didn’t like wild campers and patrolled the fields on ATVs with dogs. That’s all. No bogey man fear here.
Did my doll house set up work? Did I get a good night? Meh. Let’s just say that I was glad when morning came and packed my tent in record time.
Dear English Heritage, I am sorry that I trespassed to have breakfast inside the boundaries of Housesteads’ Vercovicium Roman Fort but at 6am, the doors were closed. There. Also, it was very easy to jump the fence, even with my backpack on and I was ravenous.
However, I would urge anybody who travels in this part of the world to visit Housesteads Roman Fort because it is really great. Such fantastic interpretive signs and wonderful ruins too. It is the most complete Roman fort in Britain and kids would love it. I certainly intend to bring mine for a proper visit soon.
A breakfast of tea and chocolate ginger shortbreads concluded my first solo backpacking trip and at 8.50am, right before the fort opened its doors, I took the bus back to Hexham. I had not intended to stay any longer and was just happy that I had achieved a solo trip without falling off a cliff, setting the tent on fire or being booted out at night by a farmer. Success!
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To plan this trip, I used this map.