Thomas P. Ogden

Day 13 - Greenhead to Bellingham

Pennine Way Day 13, via Hadrian’s Wall, Winshield Crags and Once Brewed.

I packed up early from the garden in Greenhead, but the sweet old lady was up by the time I was leaving and waved me off from the porch, opening the front door to wish me ‘good luck!’. I waved back and walked down the hill back into the village. As I consulted my map for the correct path leading north to Thirlwall Castle and Hadrian’s Wall, a man in a somewhat incongruous ten-gallon hat came over to point me right. In that same half-geordie, half-Scottish brogue which seemed to me the nicest thing about this place, he told me he’d always wanted to do the Pennine Way, and wished me well. Walking alone for days, these little encouragements really cheered me up and having received two before I’d even got going from Greenhead, I had a spring in my step.

Thirlwall Castle was built from stone taken from the Wall and the nearby fort of Carovan. It sounds like historical vandalism but in the violent borderlands of the Middle Ages, keeping alive against the best efforts of marauding mobs was clearly more important than preserving heritage. The Way meets and follows the Hadrian’s Wall Path here, another National Trail tracing the length of this World Heritage Site. Eager to see the Wall, I got a march on past the few morning dog-walkers.

I’ve visited the Wall before on a family outing, but it was just as exciting to see again up close. Not only did it represent a significant marker on my journey (‘I set off from Derbyshire, and I’m all the way up here!’), but it’s such an impressive work of engineering. Augmenting the already towering northern face of the Whin Sill—that same lump of Dolerite that we met at the Low and High Force waterfalls, where the Tees falls off its southern edge—the barricade stretches 117 km (80 Roman miles) across the width of Britain. And once you’ve applied a little imagination to picture the original five metres of stone that stood up from the foot of the ramparts, the forts and turrets, the ten thousand troops in service, even the emperor himself striding across the land inspecting the merciless wastes to the north, it can’t fail to enthrall.

This time, alas, I knew I’d need to be disciplined in limiting the time I had to enjoy views and explore forts, and plough through the 10 km to Steel Rigg relatively quickly. I was tackling two of the recommended day sections in one go, so a good early pace was essential. But stomping up and down the steep undulations of the Sill was unexpectedly sapping, and I was contending with a painful right knee. Since Middleton, I’d had to chomp Ibuprofen as soon as I woke to reduce the soreness enough to get it moving, but the big steps here were agony and I was beginning to worry again if it would stop me getting to Scotland.

The morning went on, and I passed energetic bunches of youngsters brought out on half-term excurstions by their parents, gleefully disobeying the ‘Please don’t walk on the wall’ signs. I considered it myself—who doesn’t like balancing on a wall? Through the Aesica fort, and along Crawfield Crags, I passed some English Heritage workers painstakingly fixing a bit. I suppose you still can’t be too careful with the Scots. Up on Windshields Crags (A), I reached the highest point of the Sill. Here I paused to look north and get my first glimpse of my final opponent, the superboss: The Cheviot. That dark, whalebacked hill stood out menacingly on the horizon. ‘See you in a couple of days.’

I descended to Once Brewed, gazing north the whole time as I reached the final section of wall I’d cover. ‘A fascinating and threatening place, it must’ve seemed like the end of the world to the Romans,’ says the Guide, and I wouldn’t disagree.

Before Vercovium, the Pennine Way departs from the Hadrian’s Wall Path and heads north between Greenlee and Broomlee Loughs. By this point, it felt like I’d done a day’s walking, but I wasn’t even half way. At least these marshy fields were less work for my knee. Here I entered my first proper covered section, Wark Forest. The dark woods enclosing the path certainly made a change from the exposed moorlands I’d gotten used to. I entered a clearing, with a stone the Guide told me marked the spot legend has it a local chieftain was slain by one of King Arthur’s chums, or something like that. ‘The desolation of the place may cause you to hasten on your way.’ No doubt.

Finally leaving the forest for grassy moorland, the route became a bit difficult to follow, but I managed to find the concealed waterfall I was looking for at Warks Burn (B). Through a couple of farms, I caught up to, and walked a short way with, a couple who were taking the Way in sections. I marched on to the grandly- and amusingly-named Shitlington Hall, and then a while later stopped at the end of a large field with no exit in the barbed wire. I stood confused as the sheep smirked at my stupidity. I grumpily retraced my steps and found the sign I’d missed, hidden behind a parked old Mercedes at the farm. Shitlington indeed. Trudging up a hill to the relay tower that was my next target, I embarrassedly greeted and passed the couple again.

The long walk on boring tarmac into Bellingham reintroduced me to every ache and pain in my legs and feet, but the final stretch through the quaint town, along the bank of the North Tyne in the evening light, raised my mood.

I found the farm I was looking for, which offered camping, and took a shower. The facilities here were great! I could use a cozy room in a converted barn, with a basic kitchen and a lovely potbelly stove in the corner to warm by. This would beat lying in a cold, wet tent. Bellingham had a Co-op, from which I bought a big bag of stuffed pasta, a huge apple pie with a tub of double cream, and a couple of cans of bitter.

On returning, I found other guests at the farm: a group of friends, in their 40s or 50s perhaps, who’d started at Kirk Yetholm a few days before and were walking the Way southbound. They set out to find a pub, but left sitting by the fire was a chap silently sipping tea. I joined him once I’d eaten, being careful not to disturb his peace, and we slowly got to talking. A German professor of East Asian languages, he was on a cycling holiday around the north of England, which he talked of fondly. He’d been at Durham for many years, he explained, and loved the landscapes here. He talked about the joy of exploring slowly, taking time to stop and enjoy views, as opposed to trying to get countryside ‘done’. Often feeling I would like more time to stop in places along my journey, I appreciated this sentiment. Now and then I prompted him with questions about his travels in Japan and Korea, and he seemed happy enough to talk while I was happy to listen. He had a quiet temper of the kind I would like to age into.

When the others returned, we talked more jovially about walking and other adventures, and I must admit to feeling a little proud when they roundly commended me on making it so far. The atomsphere by that potbelly stove was really pleasant. When I went to bed, booming snores resounded around me, but after all that walking I was soon out cold myself.

Greenhead to Bellingham Profile

Day Distance Ascent Duration Roman Forts
13 34.3 km 920 m 10 h 4