— The Bookseller
Sample route guide: Heddon-on-the-Wall to Chollerford
HEDDON-ON-THE-WALL TO CHOLLERFORD MAPS 8-16
Anyone glancing at the maps for this 15-mile (24km) stage will find their heart sinking and probably conclude that this is a walk to be endured, not enjoyed.
Why? Because most of the trail on this stage is owned by Northumberland Highway Department and throughout much of its length this walk is accompanied by one of its most important charges, the thundering B6318.
Indeed, based on what the map is telling you, some of you may even decide to take the Corbridge–Hexham deviation instead (see pp114-29), and rejoin the official trail again towards the end of the stage at Heavenfield.
But to put it succinctly, it would be wrong to do so, because this stage is packed with interest.
For one thing, though the road is a constant companion, for most of this stage you'll be trekking slightly away from it in fields alive with livestock and other, wilder creatures of the British countryside such as hares, rabbits and a superb variety of birdlife including crows, lapwings, finches, swallows and, on the waters of Whittledene Reservoir, the great-crested grebe, tufted duck and dunlin.
Furthermore, permanent presence though it may be, the road is rarely an obtrusive one.
Besides, the reason the trail follows the highway in the first place is because it is built right upon the Wall: the B6318 is merely the modern and more mundane moniker for the Military Road, built on top of the Wall on General Wade's orders in the 18th century to facilitate the rapid movement of his troops across the country in order to ward off incursions by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his followers.
And though the Wall itself may not make much of an appearance until after St Oswald's, this allows its accompanying defences – the Vallum and, on the Wall's (and thus the road's) northern side, the Roman ditch – a chance to bask in the spotlight for a change; and it will be these, and the expansive views beyond, that will be occupying your attention today.
So, by all means, take the Corbridge–Hexham alternative if you prefer – it's a cracking walk – but not if your only reason for doing so is because you believe the official trail to be a bit duff. It's not.
And my advice to those who are hoping to take the detour would be to take it and then come and do the proper trail. While those noble foot soldiers who intend to follow the official Hadrian's Wall Path faithfully should gird their loins and prepare themselves for an eventful march; just watch out for the chariots!
The day begins as it means to go on: on the B6318 which starts behind the Three Tuns. it's not long before the first evidence of the Wall appears: as you enter into a field following a diversion to cross the A69, stones from the Roman Wall lie where they tumbled from the road embankment.
Those with eagle eyes may be able to make out the platform outline of Milecastle 13, though it's extremely faint and you shouldn't worry if you can't make it out; there are plenty of better examples of milecastles to come.
More impressive tumescences appear just a few hundred metres further on in the next field. These are the subterranean remains of Rudchester Fort (aka Vindobala Fort), once heavily pillaged by local farmers and the builders of the Military Road in the 18th century but now lying undisturbed beneath the soil of Rudchester Farm.
Now owned by the local county council, there are hopes that this 41/2-acre fort will be excavated and developed properly one day – though what exactly is left after all these depredations remains to be seen.
The next few miles provide scant evidence that you are following a Wall, though other Roman constructions are evident.
A little beyond Ironsign (tel 01661-853802, www.ironsign.co.uk; 3T; single occupancy from £35, £65 for two sharing; evening meals are available in the locality), a pleasant B&B, one crosses the road to walk in the Roman ditch, the fortification that lay to the north of the Wall.
This you follow almost all the way up to Harlow Hill (Map 10), a tiny little hamlet whose most noticeable feature is its old church, now converted into a farmyard barn. Harlow Hill is a stop on the AD122 bus service but the times are not listed in the official timetable.
The trail continues in the ditch down to Whittledene Reservoir's Great North Lake. The reservoir pumps 25 million gallons of water a day to the treatment works and hosts a number of rarely seen native birds.
With benches nearby and the views opening up north and south, it's a highly disciplined individual who resists taking a break here.
After the reservoir, the path keeps to the north of the road until Robin Hood Inn (Map 11; tel 01434-672273, www.robinhoodnorthumberland.co.uk), a favourite stop for trekkers with some hearty food (served Mon-Fri 12-2.30pm and 6-8.30pm, Sat 12-2.30pm and 5.30-9pm, Sun 12-3pm) and a passport stamping point; the AD122 bus service stops here though is not listed in the timetable.
As an alternative to the pub, just a few minutes down the road is the Vallum Farm (tel 01434-672652, www.vallumfarm.com; Wed-Mon 10am-4.30pm), a licensed café with a great selection of cakes.
In the same building there's also a shop (Wed-Mon 10am-6pm, to 5pm in winter) selling fresh produce. Incidentally, the name is well chosen, for you can see the unmistakable undulations of the Vallum in front of the farmhouse.
About a mile to the north, and signposted off the trail, is Matfen High House Farm (tel 01661-886192, www.highhousefarmbrewery.co.uk), part tearoom (Thur-Tue 10.30am-5pm) and part brewery.
You can find out exactly how beer is made on a tour (by appointment) of the brewery, sample some at the Real Ale Bar, then buy a barrel or two of the product to take along the trail with you.
Incidentally, John Clayton (see p135), the man whom, after Hadrian himself, is most associated with the Wall, was one of the previous owners of the farm. Next door, Matfen High House B&B (tel 01661-886592, : firstname.lastname@example.org; 2D/2T) dates back to 1735 and is said to serve ‘fantastic’ breakfasts.
One of the doubles and one twin are en suite; the other double and twin share a bathroom. Rates vary but are up to £35 per person, £30 for stays of two nights or more. They don't do evening meals but will prepare a packed lunch (from £3.50).
Having passed the Robin Hood, tiptoe through the free-range chickens in the next field and round the Wallhouses diversion.
The trail now travels alongside miles of farmland before eventually arriving at a row of pretty cottages lining the busy road, known as Halton Shields (Map 12).
Turning left off the road at the end of the hamlet, you come to the next major Roman remain on your walk: the large, soft, curvaceous undulations of the Vallum as it burrows its way through the fields south of the trail.
The Vallum quickly disappears again, lost beneath the corrugations caused by medieval ploughing and the depredations of an old quarry, though more incongruous grassy bumps beckon by the monumental gates of Halton Castle.
These mounds in the field are the remains of Halton Chesters (also known as Onnum; Map 13), the second unexcavated Roman fort on this stage.
As with Vindobala, there's little to get too excited about with everything covered by a layer of turf and the undulations, other than the outline of the fort itself, difficult to distinguish from other, later, bumps.
Those wishing to take the Corbridge to Hexham diversion or who are staying in Corbridge overnight should head south from here. T
Continuing west, it's not long before the road and trail join forces for the final push up to Port Gate (Map 13, see p116; also spelt Portgate). A modern traffic roundabout at the junction of the A68 and the Military Road, this may not seem the most auspicious place to find evidence of Roman occupation.
But the A68 to Corbridge was once the old Roman Dere Street that ran between the fort (and indeed further on down to York) all the way north to Scotland; and as such, the Port Gate was one of the few gateways the Romans built into the Wall.
When the roundabout was built in the ‘60s it was deliberately moved a little way to the north so as not to disturb the unexcavated archaeological remains around here. This is also the place where the AD122 bus turns off the Wall and trail to head to Corbridge and Hexham.
Reaching the roundabout, a pause at the Errington Arms (tel 01434-672250, food served Tue-Sat 12.30-2.30pm & 6.30-9.30pm, Sun noon-3pm), named after an important local family, is scribbled into the itineraries of most trekkers and with good reason; the food here is great, with an extensive menu of dishes including plenty of sandwich options: if available try the gargantuan lamb, mint and redcurrant wrap (£5.50) or, more substantial still, the game pie with red wine and brandy jus (£8.95). (However, note that the pub may close in the afternoon, especially in the low season).
Fully refreshed, head off from behind the Errington Arms through the field, with the Vallum a constant and clearly defined companion to your left, before another bout of Roman ditch walking follows as you cross the road by the outline of Milecastle 24 (Map 14).
Through fields and woods the trail continues to St Oswald's Hill Head (Map 15), with its lovely little church set in a meadow to the north of the trail. This is St Oswald's, built to commemorate the victory of the eponymous saint over his rivals Cadwallon and Penda at the Battle of Heavenfield, the field in which you're now standing.
In the 7th century St Oswald, who was merely a king at this stage, was the leader of the Angles following the death of Edwin (after whom Edinburgh is named) in ad633.
His defeat of the combined forces of Gwynedd and Mercia, though not quite the victory of Christianity over paganism that the Venerable Bede portrays in his History, was nevertheless a significant victory for the Anglo-Saxons over the Celts and, as such, an important moment in English history. Incidentally, at the back of the church by the font there's a large Roman altar.
Nor do St Oswald's charms stop with its church. There's a delightful little tearoom, St Oswald's (tel 01434-689010; May-Oct, Tue-Sun & bank hols 10am-4.30pm, Mar-April and Nov Fri, Sat & Sun only) just before Heavenfield.
There's also an associated B&B, run by Mrs Reay, the mother of the lady who runs the café; St Oswald's Farm (tel 01434-681307; 1S/1T/1D; May to Oct) has been operating for 20 years, well before the trail came into being.
The simple rooms aren't en suite and have no TV though there is one in the very comfortable sitting-room. B&B is extremely fairly priced at £23 per person.
Those staying in Acomb or Hexham may wish to turn left south off the trail by the large cross in the corner of Heavenfield to join the route of the Corbridge–Hexham diversion.
The rest of you should continue through the fields and across the road down to Planetrees, the first proper bit of Wall on this entire stage. Its existence is largely due to the efforts of William Hutton, who came across some workmen taking stones from the Wall to be used as raw materials for a new farmhouse.
Hutton's entreaties to the local landowner responsible for the desecration, Henry Tulip, ensured that this small fragment survived; though 224 yards (204m) of the Wall which had already been pulled down by Tulip's men before Hutton arrived, did not.
However, the portion that has survived is interesting: notice how, near the culvert built into the Wall to prevent water from collecting and weakening the foundations, the Wall changes from being a broad Wall on broad foundations, as we saw at Heddon, to a narrow Wall on broad foundations.
A similar pattern can be seen at Brunton Turret (see p134), just a little further on, and suggests that it was around here that the Romans gave up building an all-broad Wall and opted instead for a narrower version that nevertheless still made use of the original broad foundations.
But before we get to Brunton Turret there's a rather dull stretch of road-walking that veers towards, and then away from, the village of Wall.
Wall MAP 16
Quite a large place, it's typical of the rather perverse nature of this trail in that Wall village doesn't actually lie on the Wall. The village is perhaps of most interest to trekkers because of a decision by the local parish council to allow a night's camping on the village green free of charge.
There are toilets nearby but no other facilities, nor indeed is there a shop in town. But there is a very good pub-cum-B&B at the southern end of town, about ten minutes from the trail: The Hadrian Hotel (tel 01434-681232; www.hadrianhotel.com; 2D/4T) is an 18th-century coaching inn that offers food daily (12-8.30pm) and some very comfortable rooms with TV, including some with a four-poster bed.
Rates range from £45 for single occupancy to £58/65 for a twin or double with shared/en suite facilities. They also have a separate cottage for £87 per night with one double room that connects to a twin room.
Instead of turning left at the junction to Wall, if you keep on the path ie turn right you'll soon come upon Brunton Turret (officially Turret 26B), sitting in a field to the right of the road.
Said to be the finest turret extant on the Wall – up to eleven courses high in places – it was excavated, surprise surprise, by John Clayton in 1876. Note how the Wall is of different widths here, going into the turret at one width and coming out the other side at a narrower gauge.
This kind of chopping and changing with the width of the Wall continues for several kilometres (we've already seen an example at Planetrees), though nobody's really sure why.
Possibly it was for economic reasons, or maybe it was because the limestone core they used west of here was stronger than the puddle clay used in the eastern section of the Wall, so the Romans decided a thinner Wall would suffice.
Continuing along the road, before visiting the fort or collapsing in your temporary abode at Chollerford, those with the necessary curiosity and gumption may want to check out the remains of the Roman bridge abutment on the southern side of the river facing Chesters Fort.
It's about 1000m off the trail but it's a pleasant walk, and you'll be rewarded with a big fat phallic symbol at the end of it that would make your auntie blush; it's perhaps the best example of this Roman symbol of prosperity on the entire trail.
The symbol is carved into one of the stones on the abutment's eastern side, just above ground level. Two other piers in the water were also discovered but are visible now only when the water is low.
The hub of a water wheel was also found and is now on show at Chesters. Incidentally, this was the third Roman bridge over the Tyne, the first, of course, being Pons Aelius in Newcastle and the second at Corbridge.