Last week, we completed our much-anticipated walk from the Irish Sea to the North Sea along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, and it was the second life experience (the first one being going to war) I’ve had which I can now describe with the phrase, “I probably wouldn’t choose to do it again, but I wouldn’t take anything for the experience of having gone.”
Our journey began with a Friday night cookout in the backyard of our late friend Oren Miller‘s wife’s aunt, followed by a trip to the pub where he and his wife, Beth, met. Given the reason for our walk was to raise money for a Camp Kesem location at his alma mater in his honor, this seemed altogether fitting and proper. My children opened beer cans for extra pence, alternating between delighting and horrifying everyone, depending on the kids’ level of persistence (and begging).
We took a train from London to Carlisle the next morning and, after sleeping on a cot in an old gymnasium Saturday night, we shoved off for our trek from the Solway Firth at Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle, assuming we’d stop soon for breakfast, but “soon” became 4+ hours and many miles, and I’ve never been happier to see a “Greyhound” sign (this one being a pub, not a bus depot), so we could finally sit down and have beers and food (in that order of importance).
We pressed on toward Carlisle, across pastures full of sheep, over gates, through tall grass, and finally into the city where we’d get nice beds to sleep in at the Ibis hotel on Sunday night. My Fitbit Blaze showed 40,000 steps for the day–over 17 miles. We gathered at The Griffin for dinner and some European football (interrupted by the drunken rants of a local woman, who insisted I should have “been there for her” in 1952–this delighted my companions but mortified your storyteller).
The next morning (Monday), we bought foot care supplies, stopped by Carlisle Cathedral, and continued along the path.
We passed through more pastures. The animals were friendlier on day 2.
And all the while, we followed the white acorn.
Day 2 concluded at Sandysike farm, run by a nice couple who fed us and offered me whisky for my tired, post-30,000-steps-that-day feet, and I loved him for it.
Only the next day did I learn every shot cost £4. My love dwindled a bit.
Day 3 (Tuesday) promised to finally allow us to see remains of the Wall, as so far, we walked the Wall Path, but the stones themselves had been taken to build homes and cathedrals or whatever else the English wanted to do with Roman wall stones once they were no longer under Roman rule. I was excited.
Each day, we wore wooden name tags like the kids at Camp Kesem wear, and on the tags, we honored persons selected by donors of $100 or more of sponsorship. The start of the wall seemed a good place for a lunch break and photographs, so we took advantage of it.
We kept “safety first” a priority along the streets, but most of the day was spent along the wall, going up and down rolling hills, and through the grass.
It was 30,000+ steps and was my favorite day of hiking thus far, since we had wall to look at and rolling hills to climb with the start of some great views from atop (little did I know how much this would improve on subsequent days). We stopped at our B&B/bunkhouse, and I was one of the lucky few to have a room with an attached shower (and, even better, the innkeeper did laundry for us!). Dinner was at an odd bar in Greenhead where we had to act like we were in smaller groups of 4 and didn’t know each other, since they didn’t seem to like non-locals, but we got a pretty good meal. The next morning would be the first day of new topography–crags.
I loved hiking on day 4 (Wednesday). The scenery was the best we’d seen so far, and it was our lowest day of mileage–under 10 miles (just over 21,000 steps), which seemed comparatively easy. Perhaps even lazy!
But then it started to rain. We were used to rain showers, but this day’s rain wasn’t a shower–it was torrential. Because it was also our first day of significant hills, the group started to fracture into smaller groups after a bit, with a few folks electing to walk to the side of the steep inclines later in the day. This meant the water rushed at them from atop the rolling hills in the crags. This photo only captures a portion of the misery:
Phil, our only wall walking veteran, was behind Mike and me, and I had no idea where the other 9 of us were. I pulled up my hood, pulled the rain cover over my backpack, and continued along the wall in utter misery, as I quickly learned my “water resistant” hiking pants were not very resistant, and sheets of water poured down my legs and filled my socks and boots. I saw hikers coming toward me slip and fall down the crags I had to climb; I was glad I sprung for the hiking poles that were on sale at REI right before I left.
Eventually, the rain let up, and we broke off the wall path and headed south, completely fortuitously ending up at bunkhouse where we were slated to sleep, and all but Phil were waiting and wondering where the rest of our group was. About 20 minutes later, Phil came down and joined us (shorty after Whit had run back up the hill toward the wall to find him). Everyone was drenched and miserable, but we made our way just up the street to the Twice Brewed Inn pub for some dinner and spirits, and when we walked outside, a double rainbow greeted us.
Day 5 (Thursday) was physically harder, but it was my favorite day of the hike so far (and favorite of the entire hike, now that I have the benefit of hindsight). We climbed the steepest crags (even seeing an obelisk marking the highest point of the entire Wall path), saw numerous milecastles and an old Roman temple, and stopped for pictures in the most photographed area of the path–Sycamore Gap (where scenes from Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood” were shot).
The day ended at just under 14 miles (31,000 steps), and we stayed at Greencarts Farm for the night. After dinner, I won all the English equivalent of Chex mix that any of my opponents had in a very intense poker match.
Clearly, I paid attention at the Kenny Rogers concert a few weeks ago.
Day 6 (Friday) was to be the longest and most difficult day. We left the crags fairly early in the day, and we crossed fields and pastures as we paralleled the old Military Road leading to Newcastle.
We started early, encountered some rain, and stopped just after noon at Errington Arms pub for a meal (and whisky shots) before pressing on toward the Robin Hood pub, built in 1752 from stones “borrowed” from Hadrian’s Wall, and eventually The Three Tuns for dinner and more whisky before we reached our quarters for the evening at Houghton North Farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. When I sat down at the Three Tuns about 6:30pm, my legs, hips, and ankles were in agony. I had no desire to walk any further. We’d gone more than 20 miles–almost 44,000 steps. The next day would be our last day of the walk.
The final day (Saturday) meant more walking east along Military Road, but at some point, we were supposed to get into Newcastle upon Tyne, and that would mean we were near the end.
Seeing the river was the first sign of progress toward the end, and a few miles later, we entered the city, stopping for a meal about 1pm. More whisky was involved; my feet and legs were screaming.
Newcastle appears to be known for its numerous bridges, but the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (which tilts!) is its most famous.
We continued along the city sidewalks, and then Emperor Hadrian himself greeted us to tell us we were close.
We paused and regrouped for the last mile to the Segedunum fort–the end point. It was obviously going to be another 40,000+ step day.
Finally, we came to the fort and the stone that marked the eastern edge of Hadrian’s Wall. Jeff broadcast our walk’s conclusion live on Facebook. Brent placed Oren’s hat on the chunk of wall marking the end point (he’d carried it with him every day of the walk), and a couple guys placed wooden name tags bearing his name next to the cap.
I’ve seen on TV sometimes when people finish a marathon or Iron Man, they shed tears from joy or relief or something, but I’ve never experienced it personally as either a viewer or a participant. But after walking 100 miles over 7 days–nearly 40 of them the last 2 days–and seeing that chunk of stone with Oren’s cap on it, I’m pretty sure all of us wept; some, inconsolably. We were almost at our goal of $40,000 raised; we were all 12 together after having a few days where 1 or more of us was too injured to participate; we’d finished a quest that we’d discussed and planned and anticipated for over a year. Now it was over.
John had to catch a train to meet his family almost immediately; the rest of us checked into our hotel before meeting again for dinner and some drinks in Newcastle. At almost midnight that night, we reached $40,000–the amount needed to finance a Camp Kesem at the University of Maryland. We met our goal in both distance and dollars. The quest truly was finished.
And all of us are better men for having participated.
(all photos used for this post from the #dads4kesem instagram page)
If you supported us during this walk, we greatly and sincerely appreciate it! If you didn’t, it’s not too late–every $500 given above the $40k to set up the camp will go toward sending a child to camp there, so let the philanthropy continue! Here’s the link: dads4kesem.org.