Saturday, July 1, 2017

Trip Log: On To the Sea and the End of Hadrian's Wall Path Hike - Days 7 & 8, May 2017

Honesty Box - Trail Angel Magic

Our wonderful stay in Brampton ended with a pleasant taxi ride to our start point the next morning and the sad realization we were on our way to Carlisle, the city at the other end of the HWP. We started in Newcastle a week ago, and with a stay in Carlisle after the day's hike today, we would have just one more full day on the trail. We all thought about slowing down a little just to drag it out. We were out of the high country, walking across gentle swells of farmland of Cumbria, on to River Eden's floodplain. All along the way we'd met people and found trail magic to make our hike wonderful. Today we came across an honor box and read all the nice notes to the farmer who maintains it. 

Last two days!

The Eden was always at our side. Signs of serious flooding in the very recent past could be seen everywhere, however. I can't say I became immediately aware of it, but when we crossed into the riverside town of Crosby-on-Eden, it was crushingly obvious. Knots of flood debris caught high in tree branches. Washed out roads marked as impassable. Sandbars clean and bright, free of plants and shrubs. And the town itself, the center of a catastrophic flood in 2015 was still in repair. Boarded up homes. Pubs closed indefinitely. We had planned to have lunch at a pub marked as a favorite of Hadrian Wall Hikers but found instead the windows boarded up and a worker on a second floor porch who pointed to the high-water mark nearly at his feet. I was a child brought up on creeks and rivers and I remember well the tragedy of Hurricane Agnes at it lumbered across Pennsylvania, downgraded to "just" a tropical depression. My heart went out those who lost their homes and businesses as we walked slowly through the town.  But the river - my eyes could not leave it. I went into the zone as we walked and hardly heard a thing Molly or George were talking about. It was beautiful.

Salmon fishers on River Eden - we stopped and talked to these great fishermen with their huge fly rods!

The River Eden - birding along the banks was impressive.

Crossing the Eden into Carlisle.

We crossed the river to enter the city of Carlisle and not far from the bridge and in a historic neighborhood we found our accommodations for the evening. This city neighborhood turned out to be our home-away-from-home as the owners (father, son, mom) gave us an amazing welcome and treated us as family. We decided to book a second night after we returned from Bowness-on-Solway as our basecamp in Carlisle for a free day exploring. They were more than happy to help us, and really were happy to see us upon our return two days later. But I'm ahead of myself...

Cornerways Guest House - Home Away from Home

The river and the flood had been on my mind and as an environmental historian, my history-and-nature-brain was swirling with thoughts. I talked at length with our hostess about the floods and she assured me that the city and its outlying villages and towns along the river have had a long love-hate relationship with the River Eden. "It's happening more frequently," she said. "Some say its because of the effects of climate change - more rain is falling in shorter periods of time. In 2015 we got 75% worth of our annual rain in twelve hours. It was astounding. These kinds of rains come more often. People who would have rebuilt and left it to the next generation to deal with their own hundred-year storm are seeing these things happening four or five in their life times. People are moving away from the river." (From journal notes.)

Flood Quilt on display at the Tullie House Museum. 

Flood debris old and older.
Bits and shards of centuries past.

Floods, unlike other kinds of natural disasters, can happen over many days, weeks, or months. In the States we often think of natural disasters as happening with ferocity and speed - tornadoes, wildfires, Nor'Easters, earthquakes, and so on. Floods, however, carry with them not only the element of gradual onset, they carry the silt, muds, and toxins that come with submerged lands. As we hiked out through the river-side park the next day I observed the banks of the River Eden and took note (and pics) of the debris piles, sand banks, and high water berms that formed during the 2015 flood. Shards of pottery, old beer bottles, clay pipe stems, decorative bits of china and tea cups littered the ground for miles. We walked close to the river in a "Do Not Enter" section gated off (but torn open by others) and imagined what the scene looked like just two years ago. 

Fort and Flood Marker.

Near the A7 bridge was the Sands Center that had a post for the site of the greatest Roman fort built on Hadrian's Wall. Only the post existed to declare that here was the headquarters and epicenter of the Roman legions who built and guarded the wall. A flood post stood behind it with the 2015 flood high water level marked four feet up. Lugavalium was long, long gone. Not a trace survives, washed away like so much floodplain history. The River Eden continues to meander, bend, and create new channels, make new courses, no matter how protected the city shorelines appear to be. Yet, they are recently protected by wise decisions to turn industrial riverside areas into open space and buffer parks to allow the river to jump its banks and spread out. But not all of Carlisle's shoreline is this way. A system of new levees failed in 2015 filling school yards and neighborhoods, reminiscent of the storm surge disaster in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The flood that came with Storm Desmond  had been the third torrential rainfall in a month. As we hiked along in the rain watching the river, I could feel the exhaustion of a city challenged to deal with a new and long-term reality of climate change effects.  

George is quickly surrounded by a dairy herd - both trying to stay out of the heavy rains under shelter.

The rains intensified as we hiked out of the city and into farm country. We climbed stiles again and crossed muddy barnyards. We walked along with cattle to seek tree cover and enjoyed their playful company. Each young milking cow had her name written on an ear tag and we had so much fun chatting with them. "Nice to meet you Ellie!" "Why, Moppet, you look fabulous!" and "No, no. no! Adelaide! George's pack cover is not the kind of green you eat." The landscape flattened and on shifting winds we could smell the salt air. We stopped at the Greyhound Inn for late lunch, our last HDW pub lunch - this made me sad. After paying our respects to King Edward I (who died of dysentery near here) we made the final walk to Bowness-on-Solway. I think I cried a little but maybe it was just the rain on my cheeks...

King Edward I greets us at the Greyhound Inn and Pub.

The rolling hills disappeared. Cries of gulls and salt air drifted over the great bend of the River Eden in its final course to join the River Esk. The salt marshes rose up and the sun came out. It was a remarkable change in weather as the squalls blew themselves out. The wall was no more. The last day on the path was also the last we saw of the Vallum. But the wall lives on in the place names: Walton, Walwick, Walltown, Heddon-on-Wall, Wallsend, Thirlwall, among others. The stone has been reused in so many different ways. We saw this from the start - churches, farms, pasture walls, castles, pubs. I was surprised to see Roman altars as porch and garden ornaments in Chester about midway on our walk and at the fortified farmhouse in Drumburgh, just a few miles from our finish at Bowness.

Almost finished!

The great estuary was my companion for a solo final four miles. Molly and George had hiked ahead while I dawdled along, dropping farther and farther until I lost sight of them. I enjoyed the birding, the wind, stopping to talk to farmers, and fellow hikers coming the other way. I figured Molly and George would have finished hours before me.

Cattle in the marshes, the estuary beyond.

The estuary, its flats and mud banks exposed at low tide, is an incredible intertidal stop-over for migrating birds in fall and spring. A cattle farmer, having lunch with his wife near his tractor, told me of the tremendous numbers of waders, oystercatchers, godwits , and plovers in the fall. He knew his birds! "You need to come back in fall and winter. It's not to be missed!"These marshes have been grazed and farmed for centuries but the wildness of the place was unmistakable. The first farmers here, stated my cattleman friend, had bee the Cisterian monks from the Abbey at Holm Cultram. Many of the drainage ditches dug during the Middle Ages were still visible and still kept good salt marsh pasture.

Drainage ditches dug during the Middle Ages still function to create pasture for sheep and cattle.
Fortified farmhouse in Drumburgh - note the Roman altar near the lower door in the garden.
Spent a long time here birding.
Just before I heard a voice call "MOM!"

I was taking so long to make the last four miles that I thought for sure that Molly and George would have found Wallsend House and gotten their showers, taken their naps, and headed out to dinner at (the only) pub in town. I was slightly (enormously) surprised to hear behind me a faint voice calling "MOM!" I turned around to see George hiking up behind me! How'd I get in front?! Not sure how they missed a turn after Drumburgh, they'd wandered farther inland about a mile or two and realized they'd not seen a trail blaze in a while. Meanwhile I'd passed the turn-off as I decided to walk the road so I could watch for birds along the banks. I felt so speedy! Molly was even further behind, electing to chat with a village character in Port Carlisle. So George and I walked together to Bowness and found the trail hut that marks the end. (It was a little tricky to find, but worth the snooping around.)

The beautiful trail hut at the end in its own cliff garden.

Across the water lay Scotland. We sat for some time and watched the tide begin to turn. A young man was far out on the banks watching the water advance. He'd step back, then back again. Finally he fast-walked up the bank and to the trail. I met him on the path. He was a recent graduate from University of Virginia, an ancient history major, and about to start the Hadrian's Wall Path with his girlfriend as a graduation present to themselves. He was so excited to meet us and was staying at the same guest house, Wallsend. We spent time at the pub over dinner answering his many questions about where to stay and what to see. It was great to meet them again on our free day in Carlisle as they walked through carrying their backpacks, headed to Newcastle!

Path to the banks, Scotland beyond.

Molly arrived an hour or so later and we had a great hug! The tiny village is built on the foundations of the Roman fort here. The church, parish house (Wallsend), and all of the little homes, including the pub, were built of the wall stone. I was reminded of how I felt when I finished the Camino de Santiago last year, after 550 miles from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic - a little sad and reluctant to say it was over.

Molly, me, George - Finished!

If I could take just a paragraph here to mention that this trip was made all the more fantastic by having our cousin Molly along. She trained hard for the long days and many miles at home in New Hampshire through a long winter and wet spring. I could hardly keep up with her and her knowledge of European and British history kept us intrigued at every turn. I cannot imagine ever having English breakfast without her again. So I won't. We will hike again!

An accomplishment! George at the finish!

George was raised on hiking trails, in canoes and kayaks, doing photography and digging history (literally), both ancient and pre-human. It was such a blast getting to spend time with him on this walk, a dream trip for mother and son. His enthusiasm for capturing the historic landscape was infectious and though I know my point-and-shoot pictures will not come anywhere near the beauty of his DSL wide-angle shots, I learned to see the land through his eyes - composition, light, line, and color. He excitement for adventure and discovery is equally infectious and I completely loved sharing this experience of a ten-day hike with him.

On their way! University of Virginia graduates, historians, sweethearts.

It is solved by walking.    - Algerian Proverb.

* We took a cab back to Carlisle and stayed an extra night at Cornerways Guesthouse. This gave us plenty of time to see the Cathedral, the Tullie House Museum, and the Castle in the city. Our visitor pass for English Heritage sure got used a lot! We HIGHLY recommend the Tullie House Museum for an afternoon.

** I have a lot of reflection yet on the theme of our hike "Walls - What Are They Good For?" and will probably write an essay for publication, which I'll post with a link on my EH page. The Tullie House, however, had an excellent and very thoughtful exhibition on Hadrian's Wall and border walls around the world both historic and contemporary. I think that the idea of stiles and bridges will figure a lot in my essay as will ideas of boundaries, barriers, deconstruction, and obscurity.  I certainly kept in mind the chest-pounding promises of current administration to build "big, tall, beautiful, border wall" while considering what happened to Hadrian's Wall and the empire that built it.


Our stay in Carlisle was like coming home, thanks to the warm smiles and family-like place at Cornerways Guesthouse. Highly recommend!

Our last night at the end of the HWP at Bowness-on-Solway was at the Wallsend House. What a beautiful and expertly run establishment. I am thinking of going back to spend a writing retreat week here. Hmm.

Print Resources We Carried With Us:
  • Stedman (2014) Hadrian's Wall Path, 4th Ed. (Guidebook) Trailblazer Pubs. Pocket-sized but loaded with info and hiker's tips for places to eat, stay, etc. Ordered on Amazon.
  • National Trail Hadrian's Wall Path (XT40) Waterproof, detailed, section panel maps on one fold out map. Purchased at the Segedunum Fort Museum Store. 
  • English Heritage Hadrian's Wall Guidebook. (2009) Thin, 60 pages, but packed with architectural lay out diagrams of forts and mile castles, aerial photography of much of the path area, and lots of concise historical info. Purchased at the Chesters Fort south of Chollerford. 
  • English Heritage visitor passes, a bargain at $30 per person for 9 nine days. They paid for themselves right away as we stopped at most all of the many EH excellent sites.