Four Days, Three Generations, Two Pairs of Wellies, and One Really Long Wall

A Tom Travels post! Enjoy! – Deanna

Never one to miss the opportunity to travel, my father’s September arrival in England provided a unique opportunity to visit some of the less-renowned sites of England. Although there are plenty of churches, castles and other ruins in Yorkshire, I jumped at the chance of visiting Hadrian’s Wall with my father. Of course, I had just returned from back-to-back business trips, one of which included being immersed into week-long German wine festival, so a little sacrifice would be required on my part. As Deanna was essentially on her own with a two-year old during my business trips I felt the need to relieve her of the burden of watching our daughter. Our trip to Hadrian’s Wall would become an intergenerational vacation full of father-daughter and grandpa-granddaughter bonding time.

Day One:

From Harrogate we set out for the Cumbrian market town of Penrith. The red-brick town oozes with history, including English Heritage castles of Penrith and Brougham. The hills around Penrith are also stocked with neolithic monuments like Mayburg Henge and King Arthur’s Round Table (not actually King Arthur’s Round Table). Six miles to the northeast is Long Meg and her Daughters, a neolithic circle consisting of 69 stones. Long Meg, the tallest of the stones, stands at height of 12 feet with three carved symbols. Getting to Long Meg can be a bit of a haul, so make sure you have your directions worked out. On the way back through Little Salkeld from Long Meg, make sure to stop at the Little Salkeld Watermill for lunch. The working mill offers fantastic organic vegetarian courses like the Watermill Rarebit or the Miller’s Lunch.A short bit from Penrith is Carlisle, which is a Roman fort town and the capital of Cumbria. Carlisle is by far the most urbanized city in Cumbria with food and shopping to match. The jewels of the city though are its Castle and Cathedral. The Castle, which boasts a Norman Keep over 900 years old, was built on the site of a Roman fort. Over the centuries the Castle has been renovated to accommodate the defensive necessities required to protect the town. Although at time a little drab, the Castle’s ramparts provide an unparalleled view of the city and the Cumbrian Military museum provides an overview of the County’s contributions to the defense of Great Britain.A £2 donation will allow you to gain access to Carlisle’s amazing red sandstone Cathedral. Although lacking the stature of the larger Minsters in York and Durham, the interior of Carlisle Cathedral is a sight to behold. Notable features of the Cathedral include the Brougham Triptych, St. Wilfred’s Chapel, and the resplendent royal blue barrel-vaulted ceiling of the choir. A reasonable lunch can be had next door at the Prior’s Kitchen.
Day Two:Although we technically straddled Hadrian’s Wall in downtown Carlisle, day two would be our official first day on the Wall. After a short detour out to Bowness-on-Soloway, the western termination point for the Wall, we headed east to Brampton. Between Brampton and Greenhead lie some of the best examples of Roman mile-castles and signal tours. Also in the region is Birdoswald Roman Fort, an English Heritage site, which includes a museum outlining how the Wall was constructed. Don’t miss the interactive map, which allows you to view the scope of Roman involvement in the region.Following a quick lunch, we made our way to Walltown Crags, one of the best locations to view Hadrian’s Wall as it sneaks along the whin sill. Also nearby is the Roman Army Museum, which includes a 3D movie. The crag can be reached from a Northumberland National Park car park or from a layabout roughly ⅔ of a mile from the museum. Simply follow the brown English Heritage signs and park in the lay about.After a morning of rain and blustery wind, the weather soon turned against us when we reached Vindolanda, a Roman town site roughly three miles from the wall. Vindolanda, a privately owned attraction, is highly recommended as an interpretive center for Roman history of the wall region. A well-designed museum at the site provides a fantastic overview of daily life among the Roman citizenry.

Unfortunately, the museum was a good half-mile from the parking lot. I bundled Maggie up as best I could and charged off into the rain. Once inside, Maggie was intrigued by the exhibit of leather Roman shoes. I’m guessing the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree in this regard. (The “tree” is my sister. Tragically, I haven’t bought non-utilitarian shoes in over a year. – Deanna) After examining the Vindolanda tablets the sun emerged, prompting us to examine Vindolanda as quickly as possible. Despite wearing a pair of Wellies, Maggie deftly maneuvered around puddle after puddle. A thorough explanation that her Wellies were in fact waterproof and could be used to walk in puddles produced the following result:

For those looking for accommodation in the region, I would recommend the Burnhead Bed and Breakfast, located outside of Haltwhistle. Aware that we were traveling with a child, the owners went out of their way to check out books from the local library for our daughter. The B&B also has the added benefit of actually having Hadrian’s Wall run through their property. Cawfields’s Roman Fort and the Milecastle Inn are both within easy walking distance.

Day Three:

At Steel Rig

After a hearty English breakfast, we set off for Steel Rig and Sycamore Gap along the whin sill. Equally as stunning as Walltown Crags, the Steel Rig and Sycamore Gap trail head is located north of the Once Brewed Youth Hostel. From the car park to Sycamore Gap, the wall trail is roughly a mile one way and will take you past Roman signal and mile castles. At Sycamore Gap, you can take in stunning views of Crag Lough and a sycamore tree used as a location in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A trail running behind the whin sill, and marking the route of the old Roman road, makes for an easier route back to the car park.

Sycamore Gap

The remainder of the day was spent covering the Roman fort/town sites at Housteads, Chesters and Corbridge. All three Roman sites provide unique insights into Roman life on the wall. Housteads Fort offers dramatic views of the Northumberland countryside, while also preserving a set of Roman toilets. A museum offering an overview of the Fort has recently been closed for renovations and is expected to reopen in the Spring of 2012. Chester’s Fort best exemplifies a Roman Cavalry Fort, with views of the River Tyne and one of the best preserved Roman bathhouses in England. Although not actually on the wall, Corbridge Roman town developed from a Roman garrison fort to an actual town site. The remains of Roman temples, granaries and barrack houses provide insight into Roman cultural, political and economic roles in England.

Day Four:

Day four of our journey brought us the town of Durham. A picturesque town, Durham charm is similar to that of York but without the endless number of tourists. Be sure to walk through Durham’s medieval streets before taking in the town’s Norman Cathedral and Castle. Durham’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not to be missed. If you have the time be sure to walk to the top of the tower to take in the panoramic views of this ancient city. Beer lovers should be sure to take in the Durham Brewery, roughly six miles south in the town of Bowburn. In addition to offering tours, the Brewery sells a host of beers, which may fall traditionally outside of traditional English ales. Be sure to try Durham Brewery’s Temptation (Russian Stout), Bede’s Chalice (Belgian Tripel) and Evensong (Bitter).

Tips for Visiting the Wall:

English Heritage Pass: Most of the English Heritage sites along the wall cost roughly £5. Between Carlisle and Corbridge, the main historical portion of the wall, there are four English Heritage sites that require an entry fee. Stops at Carlisle Castle, and Lanercost Priory will set you back an additional £5 and £3.30 respectively. At £46, an English Heritage pass is a good investment if you plan to visit other parts of England. If you intend to stick only to the Hadrian’s Wall region you might want to refrain from purchasing one.

Parking: Be sure to take advantage of the numerous parking lots operated by Northumberland National Park. Car parks are generally placed within walking distance of trail heads. Fees are generally only a pound or two with day tickets that can be used at other locations along the wall. Car parks also provide the added benefit of personal and bike storage lockers for travelers.

Visiting Other Locations: Although Hadrian’s Wall is amazing, especially when you mix in the stark landscapes of Northumberland, it can get a little tedious. After visiting two forts even a novice historian will be able to identify a Roman barrack or gain storage building. To mix things up, make sure to incorporate side trips to other locations of historical or natural significance. The towns of Corbridge and Hexam are both very charming and deserve at least a few hours to explore.

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5 thoughts on “Four Days, Three Generations, Two Pairs of Wellies, and One Really Long Wall

  1. Sounds like something we would like to do. What would you suggest seeing if we were to spend a day at Hadrian’s Wall?

    • It’s three hours there and back by car, so it’s not quite a day trip. But we can find lots of interesting sights around here that are similar–look for Tom’s upcoming post about the local crags!

  2. Good man. I must spin this “take the kid away from mom for a bit” idea to the hubby. Imagine the break I’d get after a three month deployment!
    England is always a place I’ve enjoyed exploring but your post made me realize how much there is to see in the “untouristed” corners. Have a spare room?

    • A spare third floor and if needed, a spare cosleeper-slash-travel crib that Moira has not deigned to use. 😀 Come on out!

      • Rest assured, at least once during your tenure in Yorkshire, we shall pop over for a visit. (And by pop, I mean make the long-a** haul across Asia and continental Europe.) Have baby, will travel! 🙂

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