A group of Icelanders decide to hike along the ancient remains of Hadrian’s Wall in England to connect to the deep history of ancient Romans, Britons and Viking. By Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson as told to MG correspondent M. Michael Brady
Last spring, longtime Mountain Gazette correspondent and Oslo area resident M. Michael Brady learned that Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson, a member of the Icelandic diaspora prominent in Norway (as well as in the USA and Canada), was planning a summer hike along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, just south of the Scottish border. As the hike is one of the classics of Europe that he has long wanted to do, but never has done, he asked Sævarsson to make notes and take photos that via an interview after his return could become a Dateline: Europe column. This is the result. As suits the venue of an activity that has been going on for a few centuries, the terminology is British. What we call a hike in North America is called a walk in Britain.
Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson: This story starts in the summer of 2014, when my wife Moa and I were surfing in Portugal. There we met an Englishman, Stuart McFayden, who upon learning that we are Icelanders with a penchant for rambling the outdoors, suggested that we “walk Hadrian’s Wall.”
Stuart’s suggestion was well aimed. For we Icelanders, Britain has a fascinating niche in our cultural history. The Icelandic Sagas remain the earliest documentation of the Viking Age, in which Vikings often interacted with the peoples of the British Isles. That all happened a Millennium or so after Roman Emperor Hadrain had the Wall built starting in 122 AD. The chance to tramp through the landscape prominent in the pre-history of our culture was irresistible.
That opportunity is relatively new. People have walked the many paths to, from and along the Wall for centuries. True long-distance walking of the Wall came in 2003, when the paths along it were joined and signposted to become the 15th National Trail of England and Wales. It stretches 84 miles from Wallsend on the East Coasts to Bowness-on-Solway on the West Coast. It’s mostly flat, starting and ending near sea level and reaching a high point of 1132 ft elevation near Whinshields Crags at its midpoint. Most of the Wall and the path run trough open country, but there are sections that pass through the cities and suburbs of Carlisle and Newcastle. Hadrian’s Wall now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ensures protection for it and the path.
Stuart’s suggestion also came at the right time. Moa and I had been thinking about activities that we might propose for the next quasi-annual gathering of our circle of thirty some friends, brought together by its women, who had first met in the 1980s, when they spent their summer vacations as seasonal workers at a small hotel in the village of Laugarvatn in southern Iceland. A happening in the UK was just the thing. In 2006, at full strength our circle had rented a castle in Scotland. Rambling the landscape near Scotland resonated well for 2015. Over the next few months, in corresponding with Stuart and visiting him once in London, we opted for a “Walk of the Wall” in July.
Planning the walk was easy, as a Net search brought up several companies that provide services for visitors to the Wall. At Stuart’s suggestion we contacted Hadrian’s Wall Ltd. (http://www.hadrianswall.ltd.uk/) a small local company headed by Gary Reed, a former Royal Marines Officer, outdoor life instructor, expedition leader, lecturer in geography and heritage studies, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s a native of Northumberland, the northernmost county of England through which the eastern part of the Wall runs. So for him, it’s home turf. And as we discovered later, he’s a convivial entertainer on all matters concerning the Wall and its surroundings.
We opted for a top-of-the-range four-day, part guided walk of a 50 mile stretch of the Wall. At a price of 475 British Pounds (about $743) per person, it included five overnight stays at country inns, baggage transfer between overnight stops, path pick-up and drop-off service at each inn, and one day of walking with Gary Reed as a guide. We booked for five couples and one pre-teen boy.
The eleven of us started our walk of the Wall with an overnight stay in Carlisle, a city with an urban area population of about 107,000, located ten miles south of the Scottish border. From there, we walked eastward for four days, to Walton, Newton, Saughy Rigg, and finally past the path highpoint to Chester’s Fort. From the walking point of view, covering 50 miles in four days is tame. Yet our walk had its memorable surprises.
At one point, we went astray and didn’t know which direction to go to get back on course. So we asked a local native passing by. He pointed out a direction that we then followed. After about two hours, we noticed that the river alongside the path seemed to be flowing in the wrong direction. Or were we going the wrong way? Out with the maps. The error was ours. We turned around and retraced our steps for another two hours. Fortunately, the day was long.
On a lunch break one day, we were joined by a friendly white horse. What does one do when an uninvited horse shows up at lunchtime? Talk to it; give it a nibble; this is England.
One of the benefits of walking the Wall is that the landscape it traverses has so many cultural history sites that visiting them all would take months. We had only four days. So we selected. Our two most memorable visits were to two museums dedicated to Roman themes. The Roman Army Museum near Walltown Quary is the place to go to gain an appreciation of how advanced the Romans were in armaments, then as now the underpinnings of military power.
The Chesterholm Museum in the village of Bardon Mill features artifacts excavated from nearby Vindolanda, a Roman fort just south of the Wall. Vindolanda is most famed for the 1978 archeological find there of what are now known as the Vindolanda Tablets dating from the first and second centuries AD. They are thin, post-card sized limewood sheets that bear writing of messages in carbon-based ink, the earliest known communication of their sort in Britain. Otherwise at Vindolanda we viewed the remains of a public bath and of buildings with toilets and heated floors, conveniences otherwise unknown in Europe until centuries thereafter.
By the time we parted with the other nine of our walk the Wall party, we realized that we had come to share Stuart’s enthusiasm for it. And like him, we now recommend it to others.
Frontiers of the Roman Empire, a transnational property including Hadrian’s Wall listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hadrian’s Wall Country, official visitor information.
National trails, the panoply organization of 15 national long-distance walking, cycling, and horse riding routes through England and Wales.
English Heritage, a Trust dedicated to enabling people to experience the story of England where it really happened.
Go North East, the largest bus company in North East England, whose route AD122 serves Hadrian’s Wall in summer.