Friday, June 9, 2017

Trip Log: Hadrian's Wall Path May 2017 - Newcastle to Wylam

Dune restoration at South Shields on the North Sea.
This year's long distance hiking challenge was Hadrian's Wall Path in northern England. My son George and cousin Molly accompanied me on this trek of 110 miles from the North Sea to the Irish Sea with the theme of "Walls: What Are They Good For?" (sung to the tune War - What Is It Good For?) playing against the current political climate here in the States. Seems like some elements of admin feel its important to build a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific to keep those south-of-the-border out. It's not a very popular idea, however, and it serves, at least rhetorically, as a monument to racism, isolationism, and nationalism for most of us here. But with walls as our theme, we set of on May 12 to look at why walls were/are built and how their purposes have changed over time. So off we went, long distance pilgrims on another quest!

Rough seas outside the sea walls.
Hadrian was Roman Emperor from 117-138 A.D. and a well-traveled emperor at that. He visited every corner of the Roman Empire during his reign. Northern England, the farthest reach of Roman rule, however, concerned him quite a bit. He was a military man through and through and understood the importance of highly trained legions and well-defended borders to the security of the Empire and he observed that constant conflicts with the northern tribes, mainly the Picts,  weakened and demoralized his positions throughout the island occupation.

First Day: Wallsend visit at Segedunum then Newcastle to Wylam.

The Empire was experiencing border troubles in a number of areas in Syria, along the Danube, and in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Hadrian, best remembered now for the physical wall that bears his name, spent much of his touring time fortifying or withdrawing from areas of constant conflict while working to improve infrastructure in the Empire's interior.  To secure the troublesome border with southern Scotland he ordered a high wall be built to shut out the "northern barbarians" and control crossings for trade and safe supply lines for troops and forts. Every ten miles or so, large enclosed forts were built to hold cavalry and infantry. At regular intervals there were turrets and mile castles. Key archeological sites along the trail reveal foundations and ruins of these structures. The path today roughly follows the course of the Roman wall and is a designated National Trail.

We start!
George and I visited the mouth of the Tyne River at South Shields on the North Sea the day before we struck out on Hadrian's Wall Path with Molly. Here we watched a stormy sea crash against broad and newly restored dune areas. A Roman garrison fort Arbeia was built here in 160 A.D. to house archers and spearmen. Later, during the days of frequent Viking invasions, this river offered prime access to the resource-rich interior region the Northumberland hill country 70 miles inland, provided ships could safely enter the treacherous mouth of the river where the shape of the coast seems to focus a fury of rough seas at the estuary port.  By the 9th century the Vikings had conquered the headlands at South Shields, and soon thereafter all the kingdoms of Anglia Northumbria fell to their control. Take note,  I wrote in my journal - this explains my 18% Scandinavian DNA. I noted, too, that a "good wall" was the double sea wall at Tynemouth that protects the river's harbors from the fury of the sea. 

Hadrian Wall remnant in Wallsend.

Next day we arrived by Metro to the museum and fort site at Wallsend, a shipbuilding town of some reputation although the famous Swan Shipworks is no longer there. We viewed the partial excavations from the museum tower and explored the exhibit halls. A tiny bit of restored wall emerged from the bank of the fort mound. It was a great way to orient ourselves to the time period, the building style of the wall, and the architecture of the forts, turrets, and mile castles all built on smilar patterns from one end of the structure to the other. 

Partial fort excavations at Wallsend with the remains of The Swan Ship.

Model of Segedunum Fort at Wallsend.

We skipped ahead by Metro to start at the Millennial Bridge at Newcastle to save several miles of hard surface walking. We found the acorn logo of the National Trail System on a sign nearby and dodged some fierce winds and squalls on our walk along a revitalized city waterfront. With twelve miles of hiking our first day, walking into headwinds at the start was the most difficult!

Millennial Bridge start in Newcastle.

High winds and bursts of rain slowed our pace up the Tyne River path.

Shipyards and naval arms factories on the Tyne, c. 1920.

Revitalized waterfront is beautiful and traffic free.

The path follows streets and a few wooded venues leaving Newcastle and we took our first rest at the monument at Scotswood Montague Pit Disaster Memorial. Mining has been a centuries-old industry in Newcastle and tales of colliery and pit mine accidents were plentiful.  This monument, however, memorializes the 1925 disaster with a hopeful look forward. Modern children hold their cell phones up for a picture with a pitman, while sitting playfully astride a pit pony. The pit pony has a smile! I thought - now that's interesting! I did a little research on the smiling pony when I crashed into my bed that night and discovered that pit ponies saved many lives by leading men and boys from the flooding pit into the daylight.

Scotswold Mine Accident Monument with smiling pit pony.

The smell of methane, the snuffing out of coal oil lamps as oxygen was sucked away, and the sudden gushes of water through the pit mine wall signaled to the ponies it was time to go. Just as the walls began their horrific cracking and buckling and flood waters filled the pit, miners were running for their lives up the dark passages behind the galloping ponies who knew to run to the tunnel end, towards the light. "Hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are here today because of the brave pit ponies," said one descendant in 2012. Still, 38 men and boys were lost in the disaster as the broken walls allowed the river to spill in, trapping and drowning those in the deepest parts of the mine. Broken walls. Broken lives. 

1925 funeral for those killed in the Scotswold-Montague Pit Mine disaster. This site is now a nature park through which the Hadrians Wall Way passes just west of the memorial. Photo courtesy of Sixtownships & Coal Mining Memories.

A nature park is where the Matague Colliery once stood.

The site of the Scotswold-Montague Colliery has been reclaimed for a park at Denton Dene. The plant and its pits closed for good in 1959. The miners village is still here sporting trendy homes in a neat historic area. It was a friendly and well kept park and people were walking their dogs and playing football as we walked through. All nature now. The old tailing pond is a refuge for amphibians and aquatic plants.It was hard to imagine such a dense and dirty industrial mine site ever having been there.

Denton Dene park path along a defunct rail line that served the colliery.
English Oaks on the way to Wylam.

Our walk continued across the pedestrian bridge high over the A1 then back into pleasant parks and green space. Our first encounter with English oaks happened in a small but busy little park along the Tyne. The river banks were no longer reclaimed industrial property, covered instead with lush forest and wildflowers blooming as far as the eye could see. Grey herons flew upriver. English Robins alighted in the path. The paved paths turned gravel then dirt as it followed the river bank. We were almost on the Wagon Way, a former wagon road and rail path turned bike trail to connect Hadrian's Wall Path with the small river town of Wylam. We met several birders, bikers, and dog walkers who assured us the town was just ahead.

On the river path coming up to the Wagon Way (looking back)

On the Wagon Way to Wylam!

Another hour and we found the small town of Wylam and uphill (of course, uphill) was the Ship Inn! Our first night's stay above a rowdy pub was an adventure in pub songs, the Geordie accent, and laughter but we were pretty tired so it didn't bother us for long. The pub owner was a delight to talk to and he took care of our every need. He invited us to stay longer downstairs for another round of beer and hard cider. We looked at each other with sleepy smiles and thanked him for his kind offer and headed upstairs to our rooms for hot showers and an early turn-in.

First night's stay in Wylam at The Ship Inn. Delightful!


Sixtownships and Mining Memories is a treasure trove of local historical resources for the mining historian interested in The Great Northern Coal Fields. Most of the links at seem to work but there are some breaks and dead ends. The Scotswold-Montague funeral picture can be found here -

Segedunum Roman Fort Museum in Wallsend (east of the city) was well worth the visit, but we did skip the six miles of industrial path walking to start in Newcastle proper.

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