Hadrian’s Wall

Something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while was to walk the whole country widthways. The place to do it, apparently, is along the Hadrian’s Wall Path, which stretches a mere 84 miles across the country and which crucially, runs close to it being at its most narrow point.

Last week, taking a full 6 days, me and a friend walked from Wallsend on the East Coast, all the way to the West Coast of Bowness-On-Solway.  Apart from the monsoon in Newcastle on the Monday, my car breaking down repeatedly, and the severe leg cramps that followed, great fun!

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Hadrian’s Wall Day IV

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After packing my tent away in a record 10 minutes and then shoehorning the resulting bundle into an ever decreasing gap in my Tardis-like car boot, first I managed to lose my phone, then had problems with my ignition, which meant despite best intentions, arriving at our scheduled starting point, Banks Turret, just after 10 am, before walking the 10 miles back to Cawfields.

We keep seeing the same people who are also walking Hadrian’s Wall this week. Every approaching silhouette of another familiar walker on a hillside, suddenly appearing, or disappearing from view, usually draws a remark or look, expressing a certain renewed conviction for everyone involved-knowing that no one had yet given up.

For this week only, this was the club we’d chosen to be a part of. Every gate opened, blister dressed, and mile completed, has been entirely shared. Next week, it will be another disparate group.

Checked into the Howard’s Arms in Front Street, Brampton-a place where apparently Charles Dickens once slept. Every room was named after a Dickens character. My room was called Fagin’s. Read what you like into that!

During the night, I listened to the chimes from the town clock every hour into the early hours. Lovely town. 57 miles walked so far. 27 miles left and 2 days remaining. “

Hadrian’s Wall Day III

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Drove to Winsheilds Farm camp site at Bardon Mill, Hexham to check in. Then drove to Cawfields and walked the 10 miles back to Brocolitia.

Magnificent scenery, shifting gear through an ever increasing set of vistas culminating in the highest point, Green Slack (345m). It seems this section was easily the most popular part of the entire walk judging by the amount of hikers we came across.  At times there was literally a traffic jam of people bunched up together wanting to ascend or descend a particular path, especially when an American woman had a full-on vertigo attack and nobody could get past her.

In the evening, set up my slightly lop-sided Coleman Cobra tent-without realising fully the consequences of a camp site being entirely on a slope, resulting in me constantly sliding down to the bottom of the tent and then having to pull myself back up, throughout the night! Maybe, I should have attached some industrial strength velcro to the floor? On top of the continuous sliding, it was so windy, I didn’t dare interfere with the orientation of the tent in case it billowed out like a parachute and took off, leaving me pinned against the hill.

Anyway, due to the general discomfort, couldn’t sleep for more then a couple of hours. The daylight couldn’t come soon enough. 47 miles walked so far. 37 to go.

Holdstone Hill and the story of Jesus appearing in a spaceship….

A couple of weeks ago, me and Ben were returning to a nearby car park-having just climbed the highest cliff face in England, known as the Great Hangman. It must have taken us nearly 3 hours to climb it and get back down again. Afterwards, we decided to take a short cut over Holdstone Hill which is even higher then the Great Hangman and stands at 349m above sea level.

Once we got to the summit we saw that there was a cairn, and beside this cairn, sat a woman, all on her own, in a seemingly, deep, meditative pose with her legs crossed. It was certainly an unusual sight.

Anyway, we both said a greeting but because she didn’t seem to want to talk and looked happy in her own company, we proceeded to clamber each in turn, rather noisily onto the top of this pile of stones to have our photographs taken, proving that we had climbed that too.

I was just looking up on Google the name of this mountain, to find out it’s actual height, when I finally realised what the woman was actually doing. According to the Aertherius Society, they believe that Jesus once appeared in a spaceship on Holdstone Down, so they view it as a really holy mountain.

Aertherians believe that Jesus appeared to George King, their founder on the 23rd July 1958, which is why every year on that same day, hundreds of people gather at that precise spot to charge a special battery with spiritual energy to be released when the Aertherians decide the World is in most dire need of it.

And there we were, clambering all over the mountain, laughing and having our picture taken disturbing this poor woman’s deeply meditave state and attempt to rid the World of all its problems and unify all the disharmony through thought alone.

I just wanted to say, if everyone has a truly awful year and everything seems to go wrong for them-that might just be down to me and Ben being so incredibly disrespectful and making such a huge noise on the top of this mountain, obviously disturbing the fragile balance in Universal karma. Sorry!!!

Vertigo on Pen y Fan

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I’m back safely home, feeling a huge sense of achievement having climbed not just my first mountain, but actually two at once

I had arranged to meet Andrew and his nephew Isaac in Merthyr Tydfil at 9am, and then from there, we were going to drive the 15 minutes to the car park, where the walk starts. That was the plan.  However, I had been driving for about 30 minutes, when I was blocked by a road closed sign on the main road to Merthyr Tydfil. I dutifully followed the 2 road diversion signs I came across, which sent me confusingly back on the road I came from.  Either a sign was missing, or someone had mischievously put it in the wrong place, in the manner of Wacky Races.  Anyway, I must have wasted at least 40 minutes, driving around trying to find alternative routes, without any success. The only problem with living so close to mountains-as beautiful as they are, is you never have any mobile phone signal, so I couldn’t even ring up Andrew. I was beginning to see that the mountain climb wasn’t even going to happen. All that way, for nothing.

With much frustration, I sent a text message to Andrew explaining the problem, figuring sooner or later, even with poor reception, he would eventually receive the message if he was driving along. To my surprise, after about 10 minutes, I got a detailed list of towns in reply that I could aim for which would keep me on the B roads and get me to the destination. Hurrah!

We finally met up at about 10:15am, and followed each other to the car park. Andrew took a couple of wrong turns which made me feel a whole lot better about my poor sense of direction, since he had climbed this mountain fours times before! We arrived at the car park just before 11am, nearly 2 hours later then we intended. Not a good start.

After a short walk, we could see all four mountains in a horseshoe pattern facing us. The first mountain was Corn Du on the left so we headed for that. There are two main approaches. Andrew decided we were going to take the harder approach, because taking the easier route would have meant we might get our feet wet crossing a shallow stream.

We made steady progress. Occasionally, my foot would slip, or the rocks under my feet would move, but it was all going quite well, until we got to about 50 metres from the top. Near the top, on this particular approach, it becomes so steep, it’s almost vertical. I’m not kidding! No longer can you put one foot in front of the other, you have to use all four limbs, grabbing hold of clumps of grass, while taking even more care where you put your feet. With my higher centre of gravity ( 6 foot) I seemed to be finding this more difficult then the others. Both Andrew and Isaac are probably a bit over 5 foot.

Then something happened. I suddenly felt more dizzy then I’d ever felt. The whole World started spinning, and I really felt like being sick. My heart began racing. It was seriously pounding away-not just mildly increased.  I took off my waterproofs, and the camera round my neck and rested against a rock. Not that I could actually sit down. I just leant back, while still standing. At the time, I literally couldn’t go any further.

I used to be quite good with heights, but as you get older I’ve been told vertigo can develop.
Not realising I had a problem with heights-it had never happened before, I had repeatedly looked down below. We were over 700 metres high, at that point, so there were amazing views. Who wouldn’t have?

I know my racing heart wasn’t through lack of fitness. I know this from my running, and knowing how long it takes for my breathing to return to normal, and it’s only about 5 minutes. My heart was still pounding worryingly fast even after 10 minutes, despite not moving. It just wasn’t slowing down which was really alarming, no matter how long I rested. I couldn’t see any way out of this. Andrew kept me talking. He redeemed himself from choosing the harder route by staying with me, until I felt well enough to move on.

Then, suddenly, my giddiness went as quickly as it arrived, and within a minute my heart rate was back to normal and we got moving again.

After getting to the top of Corn Du (the second highest mountain in South Wales), the rest of the walk remained relatively incident free. The next summit was easy to get to, since you’ve done most of the hard work anyway. Corn Du leads directly up to Pen Y Fan.

When we got to the summit of Pen Y Fan which is the highest point in South Wales, the weather which had been switching between the sun and rain every few minutes, throughout the walk, became a sustained, horizontal monsoon, with ice cold hail smashing into our faces. Andrew was brave just getting his expensive camera out of his bag, which is the only reason I’ve even got a photograph of me on the summit. I certainly wasn’t going to attempt it.

Coming down off the two peaks was a little hard on my knees. Although, I fared better then Andrew which surprised me-given all the walking I’ve done in my life, who took the descent a lot slower. Isaac, of course, being so much younger always seemed about half a mile ahead.

Anyway, it was quite an adventure!

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Day trip to the Orkneys!

The journey started at Inverness Bus Station.
Once boarded, we had a 3 hour bus journey to John O’Groats ahead of us. The young girl with the microphone on the coach gave us lots of information on the way.
She told us about the Highland clearances, the 1863 Helmsdale gold rush, why all whisky distilleries are soot black (which they call angels breath), she pointed out Dunrobin castle which is the largest house in Scotland with it’s 189 rooms, the statue of the much hated Duke of Sutherland who realised he could make more money raising sheep then collecting rent, hence the clearances-that Caithness is the least populated county in the UK, where sheep outnumber people 10 to 1 & showed us where the last witch was burnt in the British Isles ( Janet Horne in 1727, Dornoch ).
She told us lots more, but that’s all I remember…it’s a beautiful route to John O groats, mostly coastal, and often round lots of winding cliff side turns.
John O Groats was a bit like Lands End. Lots of people jostling to pose for endless photographs in front of signs pointing in every direction imaginable with the estimated mileage printed besides it (including New Zealand straight down, through the Earth 12,875 miles apparently). There was an air of excitement which you could hear in the voices of some of the people you passed by. Maybe, a few had finally completed the Lands End-John O groats journey and it had taken weeks so they had something to celebrate.
We didn’t have to wait more then 15 minutes for our ferry the Pentland Venture to turn up. There were dozens of scratches, marks and dents on the side of the boat, presumably from bashing the ferry against the jetty as it came in to dock, which was a bit of a worry. The ferry was so overloaded, it was shocking just how many people they managed to fit on board. Even the owner of the boat looked a bit stressed looking at this huge waiting queue when the boat was already mostly full. In fact, it was so full, someone even came along trying to persuade anyone who wanted to, to go on another day instead. I swear our ferry sunk two inches in the water once everybody was on board!
Anyway, after the 40 minute crossing, and disembarking we boarded one of three coaches that all had different itineries. Before we went anywhere we were taken to Kirkwall for lunch. I walked to tescos to get some food, then walked down to the harbour before heading back to the High Street which looked like any typical small town High Street with its usual selection of banks, shops, pubs, a post office & even its own cathedral.
The coach driver (who came from Glasgow initially but spent much of his life living in the South of England) was a fantastic guide, and very funny. He told us that out of the 3 drivers he was the good looking one, so whenever we had to re-board our coach after being dropped off somewhere, if we were unsure at all which coach to get on, we had to remember that, so if we came across a driver who was particularly ugly (his words not mine) by no accounts should we get on because it was the wrong bus! Personally, I thought all the drivers looked exactly the same, as all drivers seem to with their sedentry lifestyle, slightly balding, all with beer guts… 🙂
He told us about Scapa Flow, the large body of water in the middle of the Island, which during both wars, the Royal Navy kept most of it’s fleet there because of the protection offered by the Islands.
Tragically, there is a British warship called the Royal Oak that was sunk by a German U-boat, with the loss of over 800 lives in the 2nd World war. It was so sad to think of that ship at the bottom of Scapa Flow which is a designated gravesite, because all 800 bodies (mostly 18-19 year olds) are still on board.
Almost the entire German fleet were also scuttled at Scapa Flow during the first World war, so there is so much wreckage lying on the sea bed, divers from all over the World visit the Orkneys to explore, but the grisly notion of all those dead sailors would put me off going anywhere near any of the wreckage.  At low tide, we could see several ships jutting out of the water.
The u-boat that sunk the Royal Oak skillfully navigated through the Islands defences. Churchill immediately ordered that the gaps into Scapa Flow be sealed, which was carried out by Italian prisoners of war. The gaps that were sealed up were called the Churchill Barriers, and they doubled up as roads, so suddenly most of the Islands were now connected following the war, which is how we were able to get from one island to the next so easily.
Skara Brae was an interesting site-supposedly 5,000 years old! The journey from the entrance building to the site feels like a quarter of a mile, and all along the route are paving slabs marked with historic events that took place the equivelant distance to the time in history when they took place. For instance, the first few steps outside of the entrance building contain slabs marked with the ‘first man lands on the moon’ ‘the first man in space’ ‘the first telephone’ etc. In fact, you’re only half way to the site when you come across a slab with the sign ‘the birth of Christ.’ There was still 3,000 years to go back in time until you reached the time when this village was built! Some of the houses were so well preserved. One of the houses you could still see the original stone furniture inside!
We also visited the Ring of Brodger, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Italian chappel built by the numerous Italian prisoners of war out of a Nissan hut, and miraculously painted, decorated and designed using the cheapest of materials they had access to. The statue at the front for instance, unbelievably was made out of chicken wire and concrete., but you’d never guess.
On the way back to John O’Groats, not only did we see a few puffins, we also saw a pod of dolphins.
Great day.