Three Castles Walk

If August, during this otherwise glorious summer, has been a bit of a disappointment with more rain and cooler temperatures, it certainly decided to go out in a blaze of glory as ten of us tackled the Three Castles Walk on the last two days of the month.

David and I set out to establish camp at Meredith Farm at Llancloudy on Friday afternoon. It is called a farm but feels more like a menagerie. There are two large fields, one referred to as the ‘very quiet field’ and the other the ‘games field’. We were pitching in the games field with rope swings hanging from large trees and numerous animal pens housing pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, guinea fowl and a play area with guinea pigs among the plastic toys. A ‘Wendy’ house tucked under trees provided toilet, showering and washing facilities as well as a library of books and a chest of children’s toys. A real family orientated campsite and clearly popular as there were several families having a final treat before the start of the new school year. In the early evening the farmer, Dr Neil Wheeler, would come to feed the animals and he would have a following of children, and parents, as they were all encouraged to become involved.

David sporting the 'Lobster of Laughter'

David sporting the ‘Lobster of Laughter’

It was quite breezy as David and I erected our two shelters, which would form the kitchen and dining areas, and it took rather longer than expected to put them up. Tents were still being erected when the first of the group members began to arrive. Thankfully, friends, Richard and Anita, arrived to collect some pears from me, and got roped into helping put tents up. It remained dry throughout but as we settled down to evening drinks and pasta bolognese we had spells of light rain. After the meal, David was presented with the ‘Lobster of Laughter’ for omitting to pack the gas rings before he left home. Thankfully, Annie, David’s wife, came to the rescue. The plastic lobster was found in the toy chest and he would have to look after it throughout the next day.

Skenfrith Castle

Skenfrith Castle

The morning dawned reasonably bright and dry, although the light rain of the previous evening would guarantee that long grass would hold its moisture for a while and give our feet a good soaking. There was no great rush as we were only hoping to cover a little under ten miles and we needed to move a car to the finish point at Lower Green. While that was happening the rest of the group enjoyed exploring Skenfrith Castle, the church and the church yard where there were lots of ripe and juicy plums fallen from the trees but kept moist in the damp grass. As a result it was shortly after 10.00 that we set out on the walk.

Skirting round the edge of a newly prepared field

Skirting round the edge of a newly prepared field

The walk proved as delightful as it had been three weeks previously although there were obvious signs of progression with the farming year. What had been fields of cereal crops were now fields of stubble and those that had been stubble were ploughed ready for use again. Bales of straw, which littered the fields earlier, were now carefully stored in barns. Thankfully, we encountered very few fields of long, damp grass so our feet remained comfortable throughout.

DSC_0004As the day progressed the weather improved further and it proved quite warm. The strong breeze of the day before had gone. Occasionally we came across information boards giving an insight into the history of the area from the medieval, castle building, era through to more modern times. Part of the route we were taking was a major coaching route from London to Ross to Abergavenny to Milford Haven. We passed a now ruined coaching in with attached blacksmith forge, neither used since the early 19thC and with the passage of time and the changes to the landscape it is difficult to imagine how they were ever reached by coach. The descent to the inn is fairly precarious on foot.

White Castle from the gateway.

White Castle from the gateway.

Soon after lunching in a field with a view we reached White Castle, the most complete of the three and the only one that requires you to pay an entry fee. The woman on the kiosk looked dreadful and complained of feeling ill for the last three weeks. As a result she wasn’t very welcoming and should not have been there at all. We declined the opportunity of going into the castle, largely because we did not expect to see much more than we could see in both Skenfrith and Grosmont, both of which are more easily accessible.

The Skirrid and Sugarloaf with a hint of autumnal colours in the foreground

The Skirrid and Sugarloaf with a hint of autumnal colours in the foreground

The scenery on this walk just gets better and better. In the morning we had views of Blorenge and the Skirrid but as the afternoon unfolded and we moved slightly north of the Skirrid, Sugarloaf came into view along with the rest of the eastern side of the Black Mountains with Pen y Gadair Fawr poking its summit above the ridges in the foreground.  Even further afield, through the haze, the Brecon Beacons began to show. It was a glorious day.

We reached Lower Green at about 3.40pm and although the cars were there to take us either back to camp or to the White Castle Vineyard there was no Angela to drive the second car. David had to go and rescue her, she having been misdirected by a farmer and thus not intercepting us en route. By the time we were ready to pile into the cars a cup of tea and some cake was far more enticing than a glass of wine, so we headed straight back to camp for leisurely cups of tea and a variety of yummy cakes.

I made the mistake of going for a shower at about the same time as the menagerie were to be fed. The small shower cubicle had a window overlooking numerous tree swings and adjacent to a pen containing two pigs. The only thing separating the shower from the outside world was a net curtain. As I am drying myself lots of children and their parents came to feed the pigs. One mother came to lean on the windowsill two feet from my naked body. One worries at times like this just how effective net curtains are. If she saw anything it did not register. When I had finished I just had to check and, yes, net curtains are very effective, she saw nothing. Phew!

The farmer persuaded us to buy twenty lamb chops off him for our meal that evening and at £1 a chop it was good value. They were reasonably sized and probably belonged to the sheep that greeted me when I went to book the site a couple of months previously. The rest of the evening was spent in amusing chatter and another wonderful poem from Ann, who is becoming Adventure Guide’s own poet laureate. We had touched on the theme of forgetting things in our conversation the previous evening , particularly in the light of David forgetting the gas rings. Bearing in mind the reference to Thomas, Walton, Angela Treks (T.W.A.Ts) on Hadrian’s Wall she quickly put together the following:

ADVENTURE V DEMENTIA

Apparently I’m at that funny age
When arthritis steps in to where my hormones once raged
My face is all wrinkled (tho I was never a looker)
I’ve lost all my marbles. Thank God, not the cooker (sorry David!}
My blonde hair’s turned grey and I’ve lines on my face
And my body looks like a sack in a race
I forget where I’m going, forget names and places
And can’t find things in the simplest of places
I once tried to phone with the TV remote
Put T-pots in fridges and forgot when to vote
I snore when I sleep, and I’ve started to dribble
Johns caught it on film… so that fact, I can’t quibble
One day, I read that to ward off Dementia
Exercise loads…. take a walking adventure
It keeps the brain going…. sharp as a tack
Go walking for miles and still find your way back
So I bought all the gear, with boots firm and stout
Now I can walk for as long as my bladder holds out
I’m fit, refreshed and ready for grub
And don’t have to dither ‘tween tea-room or pub (pub!)
I’m sharp and alert and now fully aware
I’ve proved to myself I’ve still got it up there
I’ve stopped having to search for purse, keys or phone
My husbands impressed I can find my way home
I’m living proof Adventure cures all your ills
So swap potions for oceans, and pills for some hills
Walking is good for you, I’ve studied the facts
So start getting active by walking with T.W.A.Ts
                                                                                 Ann Jones

Brilliant! I am always full of admiration for anybody who so easily puts poetic pen to paper. As we adjourned to our tents for the night we marvelled at the night sky, ablaze with stars and the very distant explosions of fireworks over in the general direction of Hereford.

The chapel at Upper Green

The chapel at Upper Green

The morning dawned bright and clear and after another leisurely breakfast we drove to Lower Green and our finishing point of the day before. The walk today was going to be that little bit harder with two decent hills in ever increasing temperatures. The chapel at Upper Green stands completely surrounded by fields, trees and rolling hills. It is in such a beautiful setting and on this particular Sunday morning seemed to be full for a service and flower festival.

What a view!

What a view!

The first test of the day was the ascent of Edmund’s Tump. It was sufficient to get the heart pumping and sweat dripping from our brows. However, it was worth every effort as the view revealed itself on a glorious day. Before us lay Blorenge and the whole of its accompanying ridge hiding the once industrialised valley where Blaenavon nestles, the Skirrid, Sugarloaf, the whole of the Black Mountains ending with Hay Bluff and, in the distance, the Brecon Beacons. It was a pleasure to take time to recover from the effort of the climb and just soak in the view. We could not have seen it looking any better.

The climb continued a little way into the woods lining the ridge of Edmund’s Tump before we followed its line and eventually began the long descent into Grosmont. Occasionally, through the trees, we were given glimpses to the east of Penyard Hill overlooking Ross-on-Wye and May Hill. Similarly, gaps in another direction gave us views overlooking Grosmont, a most attractive village with its castle turrets rising just to the right of the centre. The many roofs with solar panels gave the village some modernity.

The battlements of Grosmont Castle

The battlements of Grosmont Castle

The village has retained its shop and post office and the pub is still at the heart of the village. The church is large and well worth the time to have a browse around. However, on this occasion we bypassed the church, the shop and the pub and headed straight to the castle for our picnic lunch. As we approached the people in the house adjacent to the castle were pottering in their garden and I couldn’t help think how lucky they are living in a beautiful village next to a medieval castle. I wonder if they appreciate it?

We had now visited all three castles and all that was left for us to do was make our way back to Skenfrith. The route dropped from Grosmont along the road for a while before beginning a lengthy climb through fields and woodland, only to drop down again. From our descent we now had views looking across to the Malvern Hills. It was hot in the still air with the sun beating down.

When I did the walk three weeks ago I made a slight error in navigation and instead of following the official trail followed one that ran slightly higher but parallel, but ultimately ending up in the same place. Thinking I knew how to avoid a similar mistake and did not need the map to hand, I fell into the same trap and we found ourselves similarly off track. This time we endeavoured to correct it. It did not diminish or detract from the walk as a whole. However, I felt slightly uncomfortable at one point. When you enter a field of cows, they often stop what they are doing and stare. They are not always standing the same way but their heads are turned in your direction and as a person you are never sure whether they will stay where they are or take a closer look. I had gone to look for the best route to pick up the trail and when I finally met up with the group who had avoided climbing a barbed wire fence, and thus made better progress, they were standing in no particular uniform direction and their heads were all turned towards me. Would they accept me into their group or would they shun me. The similarity between the two scenarios was uncanny and, as I say, for a moment I felt slightly uncomfortable. I am pleased to say they accepted me back into their herd and did not trample me to death!

Tea and cakes bring a really good weekend to an end.

Tea and cakes bring a really good weekend to an end.

Angela was waiting for us in Skenfrith and after an ice cream we headed back to camp for tea and cakes. It was good to relax a while in camp, to spare a little thought to the two days of walking, to appreciate that we had been walking in a stunning area of border country and that we were justifiably tired. With that thought we struck camp and headed home, this time for a shower without a stranger standing eighteen inches from me.

 

 



				
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Three Castles Walk – Recce

In three weeks time I shall be taking a group around the Three Castles Walk over a weekend. I needed to have a look at it myself so set out to complete the 19 miles or so in one day.

Skenfrith Castle

Skenfrith Castle

It was a beautiful Saturday so I drove over to Skenfrith, the site of the first castle. Setting out, I had a number of thoughts going through my mind. I had heard that the route was not very well way marked. I had heard that farmers like to put their bulls in the fields you have to pass through. I thought of all the protective dogs I was going to have to pass and I thought about the distance I had to cover. It is not a huge distance but I am beginning to find, as age catches up with me, that long days have a negative effect on my joints.

With the exception of the last thought I need not have worried. The route was well way marked and the couple of occasions I did go wrong was down to me not following instructions closely enough. Hardly a cow, let alone a bull, was to be seen and those that I did see saw no interest in me at all. Even the dogs had signed a non-aggression pact for the day and simply rolled their eyes as I walked past.

The harvest in with Blorenge and the Skirrid

The harvest in with Blorenge and the Skirrid

It was a thoroughly good walk with some outstanding views of Blorenge, the Skirrid, eventually Sugarloaf and the whole of the Black Mountains all to the west, and in the closing stages of the walk distant views of Penyard above Ross, May Hill and the Malverns.  As good as the views were, it was the smaller pleasures that I came across that made this walk so good – the birdsong from the abundance of birds in the hedgerows, many too camouflaged to identify, a family of buzzards circling on thermals above a newly harvested field with the young mewling their plaintive cry, dragon flies darting in the air, rabbits dashing for cover as I approached, sheep so busy eating that they did not notice me until the last minute and then scamper in fright, grasshoppers playing dare, seeing who could wait the longest before my foot stepped on them but always making an escape, butterflies in profusion of every size and colour, some camouflaged for protection while others were vivid blue, thistle down floating lazily in the breeze looking for somewhere to settle and the sound of farm machinery bringing in straw or harvesting a bumper crop of oats. It was beautiful and there was always something to take your mind off the ever increasing aching limbs.

The patchwork of fields with the Black Mountains in the distance

The patchwork of fields with the Black Mountains in the distance

The walk to White Castle was relatively easy, never particularly hilly but undulating. It was warm, particularly in the lea of a hill so it was always a welcome relief to expose myself to the breeze every-so-often. It took me a little under three hours to reach White Castle. With a group it will take longer as I took no breaks at all and they won’t be under any time pressure as they won’t be doing the full circuit. The only pressure they may feel is if they wish to visit White Castle Vineyard at the end of the day, before it closes at 5.00. Of the three castles, White Castle is the only one that demands an entry fee and it often has weekend activities. While there I saw wandering minstrels and maids, who, sadly, I discovered won’t be there in three weeks time.

The village of Grosmont with castle to the right

The village of Grosmont with castle to the right

Moving on the route began to get more hilly, but by the time I reached the finish point between Lower and Upper Green for our next venture on this walk I was satisfied that it would be a good day well within the capabilities of the group. However, I was beginning to feel less comfortable. There are so many stiles on this walk that I was beginning to get cramp every time I hoisted myself over. I was slowing down, so this middle third, supposedly slightly shorter than the first third, seemed to be taking a long time. The hills became longer and steeper and I was beginning to run low on water. The climb up to Edmund’s Tump was hard work but it was followed by a long ridge walk through woodland, which helped cool me down. This was followed by a long, knee jarring descent into Grosmont. By the time I reached the village, I was not interested in the castle but the village shop where I bought water and immediately sank 2 litres. The village pub was a few doors away but I had to resist; I knew that if I sat down for a pint I would not want to get up again. I still had the final third, all be it slightly shorter again, to complete.

Grosmont Castle

Grosmont Castle

There was another long and punishing climb out of Grosmont with numerous cramp inducing stiles. Leaving the fields the route takes you through woodland, still climbing, but eventually brings you into another field, whereupon cresting the hill you can begin to think about the finish. The path then follows the ridge line before descending to the valley floor. It is on this section that you begin to come across another way mark for the Monnow Way, and the last couple of miles brings you in touch with the River Monnow, a delightful stretch of river before finally returning to Skenfrith. As I sat by my car eating the remains of my lunch the noise of children at play behind the castle walls could be heard. Or were they at play? I suddenly found myself under attack as a football came flying over the castle walls, bouncing a few feet from me. I was too tired to send it back and eventually a dad came from the castle to retrieve it. This just highlights the differences between Skenfrith and Grosmont with White Castle. How fabulous that families can play unrestrained in a medieval castle.

It took me nine hours and fifteen minutes and I can only have stopped for a total of twenty minutes throughout the day. It is right to do this over two days; I certainly would not do it over one again. Remarkably, I saw not another soul all day!

As I eased myself into my car the raindrops began to fall bringing a damp end to a glorious day. Hurricane Bertha was on her way.

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Iceland – Mt Hekla and the Laugavegur Trek

Eventually the flight from Heathrow to Keflavik took to the air forty minutes late. Once we had climbed above the clouds we were heading towards a perpetual sunset that only disappeared when we descended through the cloud covering southwest Iceland where it was perpetual twilight.

There were only three of us on the flight, the other members of the group having arrived earlier. Progress through the formalities at the airport was rapid and we soon joined Oskar waiting to take us to our city centre hotel. The other group members had long retired so it was only a matter of getting to our room and getting some sleep.

After breakfast the following morning we all gathered in reception where Oskar was waiting for us. Our kit was loaded into a trailer to be pulled by a vehicle with very large tyres and driven by Siggy, while we piled ourselves into a super jeep for the journey to Mt. Hekla, a journey of about two and a half hours. We were all expecting the ascent of Hekla to involve 1000m of climbing. However, the advantage of having a super jeep was that it could get much higher up the mountain, thus reducing the effort needed by us. Parking at over 900m we were left with only 500m of ascent.

Climbing Hekla

Climbing Hekla

The route took us up steep slopes of very small, loose volcanic ash, across boulder fields of sharp edged volcanic rock and up snowfields. We were soon in cloud, seriously restricting any views we might have had. Known as “the Gateway to Hell”, Hekla is Iceland’s most dangerous volcano because of the regularity of its eruptions, generally speaking every ten years. It is now fourteen years since it last erupted and one is expected any day. The mountain showed signs of getting ready to erupt earlier in the year when the northern slopes began to bulge as the magma chamber filled. For a time the mountain was closed, anticipating an eruption was imminent, but when it didn’t happen it was reopened. It is being closely monitored for increased volcanic or seismic activity.

On the summit of Mt. Hekla

On the summit of Mt. Hekla

Our route, from the north, took us by recently formed, small craters, now dormant but capable of erupting at any time. The lava was predominantly jet black with splashes of rust coloured rock. To pick up a large piece took no effort at all as it was a honeycomb of sponge looking post eruption debris. It was all totally devoid of vegetation, plants finding it impossible to gain a foothold in the sterile conditions. As we approached the summit and the edge of the main crater the clouds parted and we were given extensive views all around but particularly to the west. Lunch was taken on the top in almost calm conditions and in pleasant temperatures, nothing like the experiences we had in other nearby locations last year. Stored in a watertight box on the summit is a ‘visitors’ book for summiteers to comment in. I obliged and commented on behalf of the group.

DSC_0043Descending by a slightly different route we spent more time descending and traversing more extensive snowfields. Stephen took the easier but slightly more precarious option of tobogganing down the snow on a survival bag.

Returning to the super jeep the ascent of Hekla had been much easier than expected, largely because of the higher start and finish point. It is a stunning landscape of new earth. It is an environment completely devoid of vegetation of any kind and the regular eruptions mean that any possibilities of vegetation taking a hold are seriously hindered. I look forward to hearing of Hekla erupting again, knowing I have been there.

A bumpy two-hour ride in the super jeep took us to Landmannalaugar for our first night in a hut. It was incredibly crowded and, when we rounded the corner, had the appearance of Glastonbury with the number of tents filling the camping ground adjacent to the hut and a ring of vehicles of all shapes and sizes parked beyond.

Wallowing in the hot spring

Wallowing in the hot spring

The camp facilities were stretched to the limits as people cooked, ate, washed up, washed, showered etc. steam rose from the stream behind the hut and a little distance away a crowd of people bathed in the hot waters. After sweating our way up Hekla it seemed the best way to wash away the sweat as we wallowed in the stream before dinner. Dinner, grilled trout, potatoes and salad, was taken on bench tables outside our hut as the temperature was pleasant enough to sit outside. It really was a busy place and it was a relief to know that not everybody would be on the trail with us in the morning.

After dinner we had our first nominations for the daily award, the Puffin of Shame, awarded for words or acts so ridiculous that they deserve the responsibility of looking after a puffin while the rest of the group try to steal it at every opportunity. Grumpy Steve, so called because we had three Steves in the group, was awarded it this evening. While we were travelling to Landmannalaugar we stopped above a lake where Steve noticed a potential nude bather on the water’s edge. He could not get his binoculars out quick enough and having established the fact continued to watch.

That night we all slept in the same room on bench beds either side of the room. The events of the night, and subsequent nights, would fuel conversation for days to come. Amongst us were light sleepers, conscious to any sound or movement in the night hours. Others were more vocal in the night, snoring, mostly gently, on and off throughout the night. As gentle as it was it was enough to disturb some. I had the finger of blame pointed at me as one of those who snored. Speaking for myself, I never heard me snore but I did hear the others, who shall remain nameless for their own protection. The third group heard nothing on account of the fact that when they went to sleep they effectively died!

Leaving crowded Landmannalaugar behind

Leaving crowded Landmannalaugar behind

Crossing the hot spring the following morning, we climbed out of Landmannalaugar and left the bulk of the crowds behind us. Looking back there were so many tents it was impossible to count and we were pleased to be leaving for quieter places. We were heading into the Icelandic Highlands, an area of outstanding beauty and thermal activity. The valley floors, where water flowed freely, were covered in vegetation, largely mosses but some grasses also, and a myriad of colourful flowers. The slopes were mainly of bare rock with such a variety of colours from pale greys to yellow ochres and orangey reds. Gullies were streaked with snow left behind from the winter and, now, unlikely to disappear before they are added to by the onset of next winter. There was significantly more snow than we experienced last year.

Passing areas of thermal activity

Passing areas of thermal activity

All along the route were pockets of thermal activity with plumes of steam rising from small vents in the earth’s surface. As you drew closer bubbling water could be heard, often appearing above the surface in little cauldrons surrounded by toxic stones and mud. From a high point we were able to look back at the wide riverbed flowing from Landmannalaugar with its braided rivers intertwining and threading their way through the stones. Beyond, conical hills rose pointing their summits at the clouds above.

Bizarre volcanic ridge

Bizarre volcanic ridge

The further we delved into the highlands the more spectacular they became; bizarre shaped rocks, once molten but now frozen in time, dotted the skyline on craggy outcrops, vegetation became more sparse, revealing the vibrant colours of rock and earth and, as we gained height, we were able to look across a sea of rounded hilltops disappearing into the distance. There was very little evidence of wildlife, no telltale droppings or holes for small animals to scurry into, just the occasional birdsong. The lack of food on the ground probably accounted for the lack of large birds circling the skies above. We did come across a family of ptarmigan, a mother and numerous chicks, apparently unphased by our proximity to them. Perhaps that is why they are easily shot in the hunting season and decorate many an Icelander’s dinner table, especially at Christmas.

DSC_0103Snow became more widespread and we trudged our way across numerous snowfields littered with wind-blown volcanic dust across their wind-sculptured surfaces. It was stunning. However, the stunning vistas did not last forever as we were engulfed in cloud the higher we climbed. By mid afternoon we reached our overnight hut at Hrafntinnusker, perched just below the prow of the hill of our high point of the day.

Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice

Feeling it too early to stop, I went to explore the surrounding area, making sure not to stray too far from the hut in case I became disorientated in the limited visibility. To one side of the hut was a scene of contrasting environments. Piled high against the north facing slope was deeply set snow, undercut in places creating an arch and snow caves with sculptured roofs. Adjacent to this cold scene were hot springs of bubbling water with plumes of steam rising to mix with the enveloping clouds.

DSC_0130Vivid moss grew adjacent to the streams, adding contrast to the vibrant colours of the earth where nothing could grow. It was an enjoyable environment to explore and only the lure of tea and latticed tart filled with jam could tempt me back to the hut.

As afternoon drifted into evening and evening into night the drizzle began to fall and it became quite unpleasant outside. We were all confined to one room in the roof of the hut with mattresses laid out side by side on the floor. Again the night chorus disturbed some more than others.

After dinner we had the customary nominations and awards. This time it was Young Steve who disgraced himself during a conversation with Caz. On discovering that Caz worked at New College Worcester, a school for blind and visually impaired children, he said, “I guess that means teaching things like sign language?” Need I say more?

Permanent snow and ice fill all the hollows

Permanent snow and ice fill all the hollows

In the morning the hut and surrounding hills were shrouded in mist and the drizzle continued to fall. It may have only been light rain but it was the sort that was instantly very wet. Expecting the worst we all geared up for a wet day with layers covered with waterproofs and gaiters. No sooner had we started our descent from the hut the rain eased and the clouds began to disperse. All the waterproofs succeeded in doing now was making us hot and wet from the inside.

Stunning

Stunning

Realising the weather was improving, we divested ourselves of waterproofs and began to enjoy the walk much more. It was such a reward because, had the clouds remained, we would not have had such a superb day’s walk. The scenery was stunning and the contrast between the snowfields, of which there were many to cross, and the highland desert landscape was fantastic. The route was undulating without being too arduous and there was plenty of time to enjoy being there.

Big Steve's hand waves at us through the ice

Big Steve’s hand waves at us through the ice

Crossing one small gully filled with Snow, Fraser’s foot went through into space below. Fortunately, he reacted quickly enough to avoid any more than just a foot going through. Big Steve, as opposed to Grumpy Steve or Young Steve, ventured into the cavern beneath the snow, located the hole and stuck his hand through, looking like something out of the Adams Family. The rest of us gave the weakness a wide birth.

Descending toward Alftavatn

Descending toward Alftavatn

We stopped for lunch in the most idyllic spot at the top of a gully on the edge of the highlands with the expanse of moss covered valleys, conical peaks, blue lakes, all overlooked by distant extensive glaciers. The contrast of colours was superb and it was a place you could never tire of viewing from. Eventually we did drag ourselves away and began our descent to the greenness below and the hut at Álftavatn on the lakeshore. Before we reached the hut we had our first river crossing. These are not a major event as the water tends not to be any deeper than knee level and the distances across are not too long. Most people manage unaided but when there are couples in the group it is nice to see husbands taking good care of their wives. Big Steve was very attentive to Elizabeth and guided her all the way across. Fraser, on the other hand, started out well, guiding Julie with care and attention, but when half way across he shrugged his shoulders, let go of Julie and left her floundering in the middle of the river while he strode manfully to the bank. While Big Steve’s approach was sickeningly slushy, Fraser’s behaviour towards his wife was inexcusable, so later, in the evening he was awarded the Puffin of Shame.

Through the eye of a needle

Through the eye of a needle

Again, we arrived at the hut in good time, so after a brief rest and time to sort out our kit, we ventured up a hill on the east side of the lake. I don’t know what sort of activities go on on this hill but its Icelandic name, when translated, means Porn Hill. I had been up it eleven months previously with the mixed group of visually impaired and sighted students from Worcester. As we left the hut and approached the hill we were plagued with flies, not the kind that give you nasty bites but ones that get everywhere. There were thousands of them, mostly about the head and face, and it was so easy to breathe them in. Fortunately, by the time we reached the ridge leading up to the summit there was sufficient breeze for them to disappear, thankfully.

Low cloud shrouds the peaks viewed fro Porn Hill

Low cloud shrouds the peaks viewed fro Porn Hill

The walk up the ridge is fabulous. Not only do you have extensive views to either side, to verdant green pyramidal peaks, glass like lakes, streaks of silver depicting where the rivers weave their way through the landscape and glistening glaciers, but there are some stunning rock formations thrust up from deep inside the earth before being molded and sculptured by the elements. These formations are worthy of any art gallery. The summit is one of those places that you could easily spend many an hour just absorbing all that is around you.

Back at the hut Fraser was duly awarded the Puffin of Shame for his callous treatment of his wife.

The first river crossing of the day

The first river crossing of the day

Leaving Álftavatn the next morning we were due to walk to the hut at Emstrur but it was fully booked and had been long before we committed to this trek. Instead, we were going to walk to a small hut at Hungursfit, about 10km out of our way. The walk started off well undulating over green ridges, with just one river crossing, for the first hour or so. Eventually we left the green behind as we crossed a relatively flat volcanic desert with little or no vegetation to break the grey monotony. At least the green slopes of volcanic cones rose steeply out of the greyness. By now we were walking along the dirt road and several kilometres of this began to get a little tedious.

Lunchtime waterfall with rainbow

Lunchtime waterfall with rainbow

Lunch was taken by a thunderous waterfall where the water was being squeezed through a narrow gap and down a ledge in the rock. As long as the sun was out a permanent rainbow hovered above the fall.

By mid afternoon we reached our hut, a small building with just a single room off the entrance. Bunks were on three sides of the room with a long dining table in the middle of the room. The wall without bunks was almost entirely window overlooking a stunning view. Below a river disappeared into a gorge with mountains rising above it. In the distance the glacial icecap shimmered in the afternoon sun.

Learning that there were some French trekkers joining us in the hut Mike and I decided to camp rather than disturb those in the hut. Putting up my tent became a bit of a mission. It was a tent I was not familiar with and this unfamiliarity, along with a fairly strong wind provided the group with some amusing entertainment. Fraser took pity on me and came to help but things did not improve until Caz came and took control of the situation. I feared I was in danger of seriously challenging for the Puffin of Shame. Caz also decided to camp but had her tent up before I could help her.

While I sorted myself out and maybe closed my eyes for a minute or two, most of the others ventured down to the gorge below for an explore. When they later returned they were full of enthusiasm for the gorge and the waterfalls that marked the beginning of it. I promised myself that I would make the time to go there for myself before we moved on.

Late evening sunshine lights up the hill

Late evening sunshine lights up the hill

That night, when it came to nominations and the presentation of the Puffin of Shame, I knew I had to deflect attention from myself. I pointed out that so far only men had won it. It was about time it went to a woman. For some reason Big Steve nominated his wife, Elizabeth, and suddenly the attention was deflected. Remarkably, despite the nomination being very flimsy, the vote went against Elizabeth and she had the privilege of being the first female custodian of the Puffin of Shame.

Young Stephen standing by the waterfall at the start of the gorge

Young Stephen standing by the waterfall at the start of the gorge

Following the best night’s sleep of the trip, we prepared for our walk to Pórsmörk. Rather than walk the extra 10km that our change of hut would entail, Siggy took half the group to Emstrur in his land cruiser while the rest of us explored the gorge the others had visited the previous afternoon. It was as impressive as they had said, and more so. A small waterfall, shortly followed by a larger one marked the entrance to a dramatically deep and narrow canyon. As I climbed down to a shelf closer to the water thousands of fritillaries fluttered from the grass and mosses dampened from the costant spray. The noise from the larger of the falls was deafening and it was dramatic to be standing on a rocky ledge at the side of it, feeling slightly giddy as the water raced by.

Looking down the gorge

Looking down the gorge

Climbing back up to the top of the gorge I ventured further downstream to where the river turned sharply away from me. From my vantage point I watched the river disappear, reappear and disappear again as it twisted its way through the norrowest of gorges.

Soon Siggy returned to take us to Emstrur to join the others.

The walk from Emstrur to Pórsmörk was beautiful and took us through a variety of landscapes, including, towards the end, a forest of miniature birch trees.

Soon after leaving Emstrur we dropped steeply to cross a river freshly released from the glacier a little further up the valley. Already the water is raging down, cutting a deep cleft in the rock and carving a gorge for itself, which gets deeper the further downstream it goes. It would be impossible to cross without a bridge from where we climb back up the other side.

The Unicorn

The Unicorn

The route continued undulating through stunning scenery as, gradually, a most noticeable peak came into view. It is called the Unicorn but it bares some resemblence to a rhinoceros and even more to a scarab beetle with horns at either end of its arched ridge. It is such a fascinating shape that it is hard to take your eyes off it, particularly as it changes the closer you get.

We were gradually losing height and in the distance you could see the ribboned river leaving Pórsmörk with the sea some distance to the south. Cloud was hugging the summits of the higher peaks to the east and occasionally they would drift towards us shedding rain as they passed over.

A rare Icelandic forest

A rare Icelandic forest

The question, “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” is often jokingly asked. The answer is, “Stand up!” That is almost true of the trees we encountered on this walk as we crossed a couple of low ridges on our journey into the main valley where our hut was situated. Oskar gave us the chance to climb a peak just to the south of the path and while he, Young Stephen and Caz climbed it, the rest of us went in the opposite direction straight to camp. This part of the walk required us to walk up the river bed for a couple of kilometres and included our last river crossing. As we walked up the river bed the showers came and went, but the sun never stopped shining, so we were treated to some wonderful rainbows arching across the valley with green and snow encrusted mountains behind.

Grumpy Steve, the pot of gold

Grumpy Steve, the pot of gold

I always thought that there was a pot of gold at each end of a rainbow, not that I have ever been able to find them. However, it was on this day that I learnt something new. You will have to look at the adjacent picture to understand. Rainbows emanate from the head of Grumpy Steve! If only he were worth his weight in gold!

Despite the facilities at the Básar being some of the best of any hut, our sleeping area seemed very cramped for the number of us wanting to sleep there. To make life more comfortable half the group chose to camp, almost guaranteeing that everybody got a good night’s sleep.

We sat outside enjoying a little beer in the evening sunshine awaiting our feast of barbequed legs of lamb. Unfortunately, just before the meal was served it started to rain and we had to dive indoors. That did not detract from the taste of the lamb, which was so succulent and tasty.

Throughout the day we could not help notice how Big Steve was always on hand to give Elizabeth help, or words of encouragement, or perform little chores for her. It was sickening to watch a grown man crumble in such a way. It was, therefore, no surprise that Elizabeth nominated him for creeping to her in the hope that she might forgive him for nominating her the previous evening. We all had to agree, so Big Steve was awarded the Puffin of Shame.

A wonderful lava arch

A wonderful lava arch

Our last day of trekking was by far our hardest. We were trekking up to the new lava fields created by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that caused such havoc to air travel. Unfortunately, the rain of the previous evening had continued, on and off, throughout the night and looked set to continue for much of the day. We had little choice but to don our waterproof gear and get on with it. We had been incredibly lucky so far with the weather; to have just one wet day in a week of trekking was a bonus. Two members of the team, realising that the day was going to be hard, opted to take a ride round to Skogar with Siggy and enjoy a restful day. It was also an opportunity for us to say our farewells to Siggy and Hannah who, having delivered our kit to Skogar, were heading back to Reykjavik. They had been good company.

Heads down

Heads down

Caz and I were crossing familiar ground for the first three hours as we had taken this route with the group last year, only to be forced back by bad weather before reaching the top. This year the pace was much faster, not having blind students to guide over difficult terain. The combination of wet from the outside and sweat from the inside made the going difficult. It was only as we gained height, when the temperature dropped, that I began to feel more comfortable. Sadly, when it mattered, we were shrouded in cloud and it was impossible to see very much. The rain continued to fall heavily.

The steep climb up to the hut

The steep climb up to the hut

As we reached the top between the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull Glaciers we walked on contrasting jet black lava fields and white icefields. We were so grateful to have Oskar with us to guide us through the desolate, shrouded world. Even he had to resort to his GPS when it appeared that some of the marker posts had disappeared. Our direction was also thrown by the fact that the ice bridging a remarkably large river so close to the summit had collapsed and we had to detour some distance to get around it. Oskar was aiming for the hut just below the summit so we would have some shelter for our lunch. In finding it we were faced with an almost vertical cliff climb of about 20m up very loose volcanic ash dotted with what looked like firm rock outcrops but, in fact, turned out to be boulders resting on the surface of the ash. It was a fairly intense moment of scrambling for us all as it was impossible to gain a firm foothold and there was nothing reliable for the hands to hold.

Making the most of some warmth and the dry

Making the most of some warmth and the dry

Eventually we all made it, unscathed, and piled into the warm hut for some lunch. To greet us was a friendly warden and an even friendlier husky dog with one brown and one blue eye. They were there, not only to look after overnight lodgers but also to rescue people lost in this desolate place.

It was with some reluctance that we donned out wet socks, boots and waterproofs to, yet again, face the elements, which, if anything, had deteriorated further. Fortunately our departure from the hut was much more straight forward than our approach and we picked up the trail without difficulty. We crossed a few more icefields and lava flows before beginning our long descent to Skogar. By the time we began to emerge from the clouds we reached a second hut and picked up the stoney road, which made walking easier, if less interesting. This was the road that many an Icelander drove up when Eyjafallajokull first began to erupt harmlessly. It was only after a couple of weeks that the eruptions became more devastating.

The road soon drew alongside a large, fast flowing river disappearing into and reemerging from tunnels of ice. Thunderous waterfalls dropped it dramatically over lava flows as the weather showed signs of improving. The rain had stopped and we were able to start drying off.

two of the thirty five waterfalls on the Skogar River

two of the thirty five waterfalls on the Skogar River

Leaving the road, we crossed a bridge and picked up a path that followed the Skogar River. What we saw for the final few miles was so unexpected, so welcome and took our minds off our increasingly tiring limbs. The Skogar River, a fast flowing body of water, has cut a slit in the rock forming an impressive gorge with many thunderous waterfalls crashing over vertical shelves of lava. There were thirty five in total, all in excess of 20m and hardly a soul in sight to admire them. Many people visit Skogarfoss, the last and highest waterfall on the river, before it reaches the sea, but few venture up stream to see the other delights of this river. I couldn’t help think that if this was the UK we would have had walkways constructed, railings to protect visitors and tea shops. The Icelanders are so understated about what they have, thank goodness.

The triumphant group in front of Skogarfoss

The triumphant group in front of Skogarfoss

It was with a tinge of sadness that we descended the final steps from the top of the 62m Skogarfoss and the end of the trek. It was a fittingly impressive conclusion to such a fantastic day’s walk and trek. Although it was not quite over. We had another kilometre to walk to the hotel where we would find Julie and Elizabeth suitably shrivelled having spent most of the day pampering themselves in a hot tub and spa. They would have done had this been the right hotel. Oskar had thought we were staying there but we after a phonecall we continued for a further kilometre to a former school, now a hotel without a hot tub or spa. It was a relief to take my boots off, to release my wrinkled feet from their wet socks and climb into a hot shower.

Over dinner the beer helped soothe the aching limbs and there was a huge feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Big Steve had done a good job in looking after the puffin and we had our final ceremony after dinner. Claire had confessed earlier in the day to having had some difficulty going to the toilet when we stopped for lunch. The only receptacle she could find was a men’s urinal so it was with some difficulty that she performed. Her confession was sufficient for her to be awarded the Puffin of Shame.

The remains of the 1973 emergency landing with the Myrdalsjokull Glacier behind

The remains of the 1973 emergency landing with the Myrdalsjokull Glacier behind

We had a leisurely start the next morning while we waited for the super jeep to be dropped off. We were not in any rush to get back to Reykjavik as the hotel would not be available until the afternoon. Oskar wanted to show us the wreckage of an American Dakota, which made an emergency landing on the beach during a storm in 1973.  Rather than rescue it in its entirety the Americans decided to just take the important bits away, leaving the fusilage. Now children, and bigger boys, can clamber over it and imagine.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

Heading back towards Reykjavik we made one more stop at Seljalandsfoss, an impressive waterfall with a path going full circle behind it. The wind catches the water easily, varying its descending pattern and sending spray into the path of those walking round it. Here it was crowded, being one of the highlights for touring groups travelling around Iceland. I wonder how many of them would consider venturing to some of the stunning waterfalls we had seen yesterday? Very few, I suspect and I am grateful of the fact that tourism has not spoiled Iceland.

The back of a minky whale

The back of a minky whale

Back in Reykjavik, a number of us decided we would like to go whale watching. It was a very pleasant evening, gloriously sunny and a flat sea. Sailing out to sea we saw a number of puffins scurrying across the water. I never realised just how small they were, much smaller than our puffin, which we had carried throughout the trek. We saw three minky whales in total but it was not at all exciting. They hardly rise out of the water and their dorsal fins are remarkably small. Whilst it would have been good to see whales leaping or displaying their flukes as they dived it was not important. It was just a pleasure to be relaxing on a boat in glorious sunshine.

A Reykjavik sunset taken at 11.15pm

A Reykjavik sunset taken at 11.15pm

Our last night together in Reykjavik we celebrated an excellent trip with a meal at the Argentine Steak House. We thanked Oskar for his care and attention throughout and for guiding us through some stunning Icelandic scenery. We rebuked Claire for being a poor custodian of the Puffin of Shame, leaving him in her room and not looking after him at all. The puffin is now in the capable hands of Oskar who will look after him until next year. Yes, there will be another trip next year to explore the beautifully remote north east.

The following morning the group began to split up. Mike and Catherine picked up their campervan to explore other areas, while the rest of us visited the Blue Lagoon en route to the airport. Grumpy Steve, Young Stephen and Caz headed back into Reykjavik to explore lava tubes, Big Steve and Elizabeth to continue their extended tour of Iceland and the rest of us to catch our flight home.

The more I see of Iceland the more I like it. I like the people who are warm and friendly, the scenery is unique and stunning and the travelling companions are a lot of fun. Without wishing my life away, I cannot wait for next year.

 

 

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Wall Weary

During the course of our week on Hadrian’s Wall, David Thomas, John Walton and Angela Walton who organise and managed treks were given a name based on certain letters as highlighted above. We became known as the T.W.A.Ts.

Towards the end of the week one or two people put pen to paper and wrote a poem based on W H Auden’s Roman Wall Blues. Below is the work of Ann Jones. What a star she is.

Wall Weary.

I’m cold and alone sitting on this stone
Watching the sky and people passing by
They all have strange faces and speak a strange tongue
And I dream of my home, the place I belong

I stand on this wall of cold, hard grey stone
And wish for my family….. I’m so far from home
Why am I here in this bare hostile place
Another hard day I am dreading to face.

The wall is my prison, the land is my jail
And I dread what will happen if my duties I fail
The food it is sparse and strange to my tongue
I pray I’ll go home to the place I belong

I sleep, If I can…. on cold dirty floors
Never kept warm by windows or doors
I’m covered in lice and pestered by rats
So never again am I booking with T.W.A.Ts!

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Hadrian’s Wall

Arriving at Wellhouse Farm Camp Site late on Saturday afternoon to find camp all set up, the kettle on, the beer chilled and dinner in preparation was a welcome sight. David and Simon had done a good job after their arduous journey north the day before. At least our journey went to plan and time.

Enjoying the comfort of camp. The "Sword of Humiliation" hangs ominously above the table

Enjoying the comfort of camp. The “Sword of Humiliation” hangs ominously above the table

Having invested some money in new shelters, mess tent furniture and kitchen equipment was really beneficial and camp was very comfortable. The atmosphere was good and everybody was in high spirits and looking forward to the walking challenge ahead.

As is the norm for all of my trips, we had a “Wally Award”. This week it was a plastic sword, the ‘Sword of Humiliation’. Each day it is presented to the group member who has done or said the silliest thing and they have to look after it for twenty four hours, have it on view at all times and protect it from those who desire to steal it from them. I cannot remember what I was supposed to have done but the group voice was much louder than mine and they engineered for me to be the first recipient. This meant I would be carrying the sword through Newcastle, making a very public spectacle of myself. Sometimes my ideas and plans turn round and bite me on the bum!

It was the longest day and it did not really get dark until 11.00pm, significantly later than at home. It also got lighter earlier and the dawn chorus from the hedgerow beside camp burst into song at about 3.45am, just loud enough to ensure that we woke up. Strangely, after that first song burst it went quiet again as, I guess, the birds concentrated on their breakfast. The combination of light shining through the orange canvas, the background birdsong and excitement for what lay ahead prevented any further sleep and I soon found myself sitting in the mess tent reading the guide book and going over the details of the route for the day.

At a more acceptable hour the smell of cooking sausages wafted across camp encouraging those still in their sleeping bags to emerge and stock up on a few callories before we undertook the 15 mile walk from Wallsend to Heddon on the Wall. Fifteen miles is not a huge distance but when much of it is on tarmac and pavement it is far enough.

The start at Segedunum

The start at Segedunum

The minibus took us through the quiet streets of Newcastle, still sleeping off the excesses of a busy Saturday night, to Segedunum, the remains of the Roman fort in Wallsend and the start of our walk. Standing above the Tyne as it ebbed and flowed with the tide it must have looked impressive. Today this area of Newcastle is looking a little depressed with the adjacent Swan Hunter Shipyard now lying dormant, falling into decay along with other riverside factories once vibrant with activity. The white lookout tower at Segedunum looks conspicuous in its surroundings, resembling the bridge of a ship towering over the remains of the fort. With the museum not opening until 10.00am, there was not a lot to keep us from getting started with the walk, so soon after 9.00am we set off, me with my sword, having first had the obligatory start line photo.

The redeveloped marina at St Peter's

The redeveloped marina at St Peter’s

The first two or three miles passed through an industrial area, some of which was in a state of decay, and a clearly deprived area of Newcastle. The path, shared with the Hadrian’s Wall Cycle Way, was littered with rubbish, burnt out mattresses, a burnt out motorcycle and piles of rubbish dumped by people who neither appreciated nor cared for the environment. It was a disappointing start, but deep down, we knew that it would soon get better. And get better it did as we approached areas of new development, areas where there had been an injection of enterprise and areas which had been regenerated to the extent that they were now highly desirable.

The Millennium Bridge with the Tyne Bridge behind

The Millennium Bridge with the Tyne Bridge behind

Our first stop was about four miles into the walk at the Cycle Hub, a café cum cycle shop serving the many weekend cyclists and, of course, those of us embarking on walking Hadrian’s Wall. From the terrace overlooking the river we had tantalising glimpses of the Millennium Bridge and the Tyne Bridge beyond.  The coffee was welcome and the chocolate brownie was to die for. I decided I would use the walk as an opportunity to conduct a chocolate brownie survey, to decide who sells the best. The Cycle Hub would be difficult to beat.

The Sage

The Sage

Having made excellent progress for the first few miles, it slowed significantly for those miles passing through the centre of Newcastle along the riverbank. Firstly, we had to experience walking across the Millennium Bridge, a huge, sweeping curve with a complementary arc rising at an angle above it. On the Gateshead side to the east of the bridge there is the old Baltic Flour Mill, now an art gallery, while just to the west is the Sage Conference and Concert Centre, an armadillo shaped building of glass. Notices on either side of the bridge told us that it would be opening at midday, but as it was still only 11.30 it seemed too long to wait. However, by the time we had been distracted by the river side market between the two bridges and gazing at the iconic Tyne Bridge, the forerunner for Sydney Harbour Bridge, we were able to watch the winking eye of the Millennium Bridge as the arc pulled the walkway up to, supposedly, allow reasonable sized ships to pass through. On this occasion, one riverboat passed through that would not have needed the bridge lifted. It is a remarkably simple piece of engineering but very effective and was well worth waiting for.

Nesting gulls on Tyne Bridge

Nesting gulls on Tyne Bridge

The Tyne Bridge seems to evolve out of the buildings on the north bank of the river some of which are reminiscent of the older style building in New York. Unlike, in many cities, there has been no attempt to prevent birds from settling on the bridge and its surrounding buildings so that every nook and cranny has a nest with a gull’s backside poking from it as they sit on a clutch of eggs. Hence the pavements and the facades of the bridge and buildings are covered with white streaks and smears of gull poo. Linger too long under the Tyne Bridge and you too will be covered.

The Millennium Bridge in the open position

The Millennium Bridge in the open position

Having lingered long enough enjoying the vibrant waterfront of Newcastle, I was conscious that we still had several miles more to walk; we weren’t yet half way . We needed to get two or three more miles behind us before we stopped again for lunch. I knew exactly where I wanted to stop, some way upstream from the city centre, at Elswick where there would be a view of the Angel of the North rising above the gently rolling hills to the south of the river. It was not the best place for a picnic but the riverbank was pleasantly landscaped with modern technology factory units behind, water skiers on the river, rolling hills and the Angel peering across at us from a distance.

It was soon after lunch that we began to see some very tired looking, heavy legged runners heading towards Newcastle. They were competing in an ultra marathon, running 70 miles along the Hadrian’s Wall route from Carlisle to Newcastle over two days. We continued to see them in dribs and drabs for the next few hours, until we left the riverbank  to climb up to Heddon-on-the-Wall.

They were in varying states of agony, some worse than others, and I couldn’t help think that there would be some very tired people going to work the next morning. Remarkably, the women competitors seemed to be in much better shape than the men and could muster up a cheery welcome to us. It was noticeable that we, in return, would clap them and make encouraging remarks to spur them on their way. No such treatment for the men.

We were now on the outskirts of Newcastle. We had left industrial Newcastle behind and were walking through leafy suburbs, through riverside parks and pasture. We seemed to emerge from one of the UK’s major cities quickly and the walking became easier as we left the tarmac in favour of grassy paths and tracks.

Measuring the width of the wall which we found to be 1 Sandie and half a Gerry!

Measuring the width of the wall which we found to be 1 Sandie and half a Gerry!

By the time we climbed up to Heddon-on-the-Wall and met Angela at the Three Tuns pub we were ready for the pint of beer, or two. After some inner recovery we staggered, for now the muscles had begun to seize up, to the minibus, but not before visiting the first significant stretch of wall.

Camp was a welcome sight with more liquid refreshment and a hearty meal to soothe the aching limbs and sore feet. Despite the tarmac beneath our feet and the early rubbish we encountered it had been an interesting day. Newcastle has a lot to attract the visitor and may well be worth a return visit.

Clearly the walk through Newcastle had done us all good as we had a really good night’s sleep and even the dawn chorus failed to disturb us.

Fortified with a bacon breakfast the minibus returned us to Heddon-on-the-Wall for the resumption of our walk. Again I seemed to be carrying the Sword of Humiliation, this time because I kept putting it somewhere safe from thieving hand, forgetting where I had put it and accusing the innocent of stealing it. Life is cruel but at least I didn’t have to explain to quite so many people why I was carrying a sword on this section of the walk .

Light and shade

Light and shade

The vast majority of the route on the second day followed the course of the Military Road just on the south side of the line of the wall. This was largely a dead straight, undulating road. Although the road is dead straight it is not Roman. It was built in 1746 as a means of moving troops quickly in order to suppress the Jacobite rebellions of the period. The construction caused the most damage to the wall throughout its history as much of the stone was used as hardcore and now sits under the tarmac of the B6318. Interestingly, where the wall veers away to follow the line of crags which create a natural barrier, the wall is much more complete, simply because that route would have presented greater difficulty for the road constructors. It proved too far to carry the stone from the wall to the line of the road, so, thankfully, there are still sections for us to enjoy today.

DSC_0067As a result we were not going to see very much wall on this second section of the walk. And we were never going to stray far from the road with it aggregate lorries and speeding cars enjoying the undulating roller coaster which is the B6318. Despite the road we did walk through some wonderful fields of wheat bordered by vividly red poppies and there were increasing evidences of Roman settlement and activity. Sites where forts once stood but now are just a series of mounds of earth and ditches either side of where the wall once stood kept us aware of the areas Roman history.

Stopping for coffee at Vallum Farm, a complex of artisan food outlets, was a welcome respite from the constant placing of on foot in front of another. Known as the River Cottage of the North it was another opportunity to try out a chocolate brownie, which, while good, did not quite match that of yesterday. Somehow my sword was stolen and fell into the hands of a toddler. Here was my opportunity to get rid of it but, despite all my efforts, the little girl’s mother declined my generous offer.

Chollerford Bridge

Chollerford Bridge

As the day progressed it was beginning to get a little tedious; there wasn’t enough variety to break up the monotony and it was a welcome relief to finally reach our destination for the day, Chollerford and the garden of the George Hotel where a couple of pints slipped down beautifully.

That night we ate out at the Black Bull in Corbridge where I was able to pass the Sword of Humiliation on to Steve who, having spent much of his time trying to steal it, clearly indicating that he wanted it more than most. He had even tried commando crawling through short grass! Clearly his King’s education did him no good at all.

The next day we were due to move camp from Wellhouse Farm to the Hadrian’s Wall Campsite near Melkridge. Typically, the weather had taken a slight turn for the worst and while Angela took the group to Chollerford to resume their walk, the rain fell making the camp pack up a damp occasion. At least it would also be raining on the rest of the group as they progressed towards the most spectacular and dramatic section of the route along the escarpment with rolling hills and the Tyne Valley to the south and a bleak, hardly habited landscape to the north. This section would include the fantastic roman remains of Housesteads adjacent to the wall.

Meanwhile, Angela and I moved all the kit to Melkridge and set up camp in preparation for the group completing their day’s walk. This proved to be a nicer campsite, with better facilities and a very friendly and helpful owner.

Looking east from Steel Rigg while waiting for the group to arrive

Looking east from Steel Rigg while waiting for the group to arrive

Camp set, we drove to Steel Rigg, a five-minute drive from our new camp, to meet the group at the end of their long day. The walk had only been 12.5 miles but there were lots of ups and downs and, of course they had had the distraction of Housesteads to delay them. Before returning to camp we paid a visit to Twice Brewed for some liquid refreshment. In the evening Ann was presented with the Sword of Humiliation – what for I cannot remember. She must have spent all night devising a secure fastening to her rucksack, making it almost impossible for anybody to steal it.

on the summit of Winshields Crags, the highest point along the wall at 345m

On the summit of Winshields Crags, the highest point along the wall at 345m

The next day I rejoined the walk taking us from Steel Rigg to Banks. The route  continued along the ridge-line and took us to the highest point along the wall at Winshields Crags. From the summit we could look back at the undulating ridge as far as the eye could see and ahead of us there was just a faint glimpse of the sea and the coastlines, which make up the Solway Firth. The wall on these higher stretches was pretty solid and complete, only the mile castles seemed to have suffered extensively. One section where the wall has completely disappeared is the sites of Cawfields Quarry and Walltown Quarry, now both closed and full of water. These are attractive sites drawing water activity enthusiasts to the former and bus loads of tourists to the latter. Sadly, the desire for road building material outweighed the need to preserve the wall and at both sites the wall has disappeared. I doubt such callous activity would be allowed today.

The ruins of Thirwall Castle

The ruins of Thirwall Castle

Soon after leaving Walltown we came across Thirwall Castle, its ruined keep perched on an imposing hill above the few houses it dominates. This was clearly post Roman and built to protect the area from Scots who came over the border to plunder the English farmsteads. It may have been post Roman but it was certainly made out of Roman stone. Thirwall means ‘hole in the wall’. Whether the hole was already there or was created for the castle is an interesting question to which we will probably never know the answer.

Leaving the escarpment and heading towards Gilsland

Leaving the escarpment and heading towards Gilsland

The route now left the escarpment and descended towards Gilsland. The wall became less continuous but the ditches seemed to become more pronounced. As we passed Gilsland we saw a large, very derelict house, with a section of the wall passing through its garden. There were large holes in the roof, a tree growing out of one corner of the roof, clearly a good refurbishment project for somebody. It was hard to believe, as we saw a white haired woman in the garden, that somebody actually still lived in such a decrepit house. What it must be like inside only the imagination can tell.

From Gilsland the route progressed to Birdoswald, the site of a large Roman fort. Unless you were a member of English Heritage you had to pay but if you continued a few yards along the path you saw pretty much all that there is to see over the fence.

The path again ran parallel to the B6318 but veered away every-so-often to pass round present day farms and homes. It was on one of these minor detours that we passed through a beautiful woodland where we spotted red squirrels, something we don’t see in the south. Eventually we reached Banks where Angela picked us up for the return to camp. The wall was narrowing all the time along this section and by the time we reached Banks it was little more than three feet across. Soon it would disappear altogether and become nothing more than a linear mound of earth.

After several attempts by Steve to steal the Sword of Humiliation, including more commando style raids through short grass, he finally succeeded, much to everyone’s amusement.

Enjoying a night out at Twice Brewed

Enjoying a night out at Twice Brewed

That night when we ate out at Twice Brewed, I presented the sword to Steve because he had shown on several occasions that he really wanted it. He was leaving us at the end of the next day and I thought it was something he could happily entertain his twin grandsons with. God help them!

On day five it was David’s turn to move camp. The group had efficiently packed away the tents and helped with the dismantling of the two shelters before the minibus took us to Banks to resume the walk. The route was largely flat passing through delightful agricultural land and pleasant villages. We stopped for a coffee and my chocolate brownie in Walton but I still had not had one as good as that on the first day.

During the course of the morning, I had a phone call to say that the campsite I had chosen, and booked for the next two nights, Highfield Farm at Boustead Hill, was not suitable. David had been there and, unable to rouse anybody to help him, had had a nose around. The site was not accessible by vehicles and this was going to be a problem. The kitchen facilities were very small and rather dirty and there was one shower in the corner of the kitchen. He could not find the toilets. Deciding it was definitely not suitable, he set about finding an alternative site. The area west of Carlisle appeared to be bereft of campsites so he and Angela turned their attention to the east of the city and eventually decided upon Sandysike Farm just outside the village of Walton, where we had stopped for coffee earlier in the day.

The River Eden approaching Carlisle

The River Eden approaching Carlisle

In the meantime, the rest of us headed towards Carlisle. I had set a pretty good pace throughout the day, particularly in the morning, as we wanted to make sure that Steve arrived in Carlisle in time to catch his train south.

As it was we arrived in good time and, leaving him behind, Angela took us back to camp. She had given us a hint that it was somewhere special and indeed it was.

Our lawn camp at Sandysike

Our lawn camp at Sandysike

We were camping on the lawn in front of a beautiful Georgian farmhouse owned by a rather eccentric but interesting couple. The view from the lawn looked out across the Pennines and the north Lakeland hills; a beautiful location. There were no other campers there, which was just as well with only two showers and two toilets between us. The buildings around the farm were a rambling pile and there was much that could be done to improve them but there was a charm about them. David was less impressed as a spike of metal had pierced one of the tyres on his trailer as he passed over a cattle grid in need of much repair. Richard, the farm owner provided him with a spare tyre from one of his trailers and his son had it changed so it was not a problem for long.

The last leg of our journey took us back to Carlisle to complete the walk to Bowness on Solway. It was easy walking and while some of it was quite pleasant , there were parts that seemed tedious and unnecessarily dull, particularly when we were diverted inland to walk along farm tracks, which, like the early part of the first day in Wallsend there was a lot of rubbish, but this time debris wilfully dumped or carelessly left by farmers.

When we reached Boustead Hill, David and I went to visit Highfield Farm to see if we could have a conversation with the owner. Initially, nobody was in evidence so we went and had another look at the kitchen. It was very small and had been left in a mess.  Eventually, the woman who owns the farm came out and we had a conversation which deteriorated quite rapidly, and significantly so when I asked for a refund and David questioned the accuracy of the content on her website. It referred to “posh camping” and a list of wonderful facilities, all of which were not in evidence. After she had slammed the door in our faces David went to find the toilets and found one very dirty toilet to serve the whole of the camp. Hardly ideal and we were both relieved that we had made the right decision to go elsewhere, even if it meant losing money.

Sally and Stella at the finish

Sally and Stella at the finish

For a couple of days I had been suffering with uncomfortable twinges in my back and it was most uncomfortable when I stopped. While the rest of the group finished their lunch, I continued along the trail, expecting them to catch up at some point. There was still four miles to go and I wasn’t moving that freely. Nobody did catch me and I reached the finish at Bowness-on-Solway at 3.55pm. Trevor, who had horrendous blisters on the soles of his feet and who similarly found stopping and starting painful, limped in ten minutes later. Sally and Stella were next, fifteen minutes later and the rest of the team arrived after another ten minutes.

The rest of the team at the finish. They don't look too bad considering they had just walked 87 miles

The rest of the team at the finish. They don’t look too bad considering they had just walked 87 miles

Then it was off to the pub for a well-earned pint or two, although some preferred visiting the tearooms a little further on into the village. I, for one, was not going to walk any further than I needed to get a drink.

It was Sandie’s birthday, so we celebrated back in camp with some fabulous steak bought from the butcher in Brampton, some good beer and several bottles of wine.

You would have thought that that would be the end of the story, but not quite. The following morning the well-oiled team dismantled camp very quickly and we headed south. David, who had managed to get ahead of us was towing the trailer and reported that the tyre he had been given had shredded near Crewe on the M6. As we were behind, we could pick him and the shredded tyre up, find a replacement, return him to his vehicle and continue home, arriving a little later than planned.

One of the iconic views along Hadrian's Wall

One of the iconic views along Hadrian’s Wall

It had been a super trip. The weather had been particularly kind to us, being mostly dry and not too hot. The route is extremely well marked and maintained throughout, with the exception where it has shared use; those first couple of miles in Wallsend and the farm tracks in the last few miles. Otherwise it is excellent. I can thoroughly recommend the route if you want to travel along a route in its entirety, but if you want just the best bits, then I would recommend walking from Chesters Fort to Birdoswald, which can be done in two days, or three if you want to spend a day visiting Vindolanda and the Military Museum. If I was to do it again, I would certainly include a day off in the middle for the museums and archaeological sites.

 

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