Glory of Green
Stories from the Great Outdoors
Bubble baths, black skies and breath-taking views
Would you enjoy drinking beer in a bubble bath under a star specked sky? I certainly did. Every day spent hiking along Hadrian’s Wall in beautiful Northumberland National Park in northern England, ended in our own private hot tub – it didn’t exactly lessen the experience. Did you know that the Northumberland National Dark Sky Park is Europe’s largest area of protected night sky? Turn off the light in your hot tub, and you’ll see millions of stars on a clear night. I didn’t count them, but I’m in no doubt it’s correct. Bring swimsuits and hiking boots. It is going to be great!
The what and the why: The shortest ever history lesson about Hadrian’s wall
What a magnificent evidence of conflict, was the first thing that came to mind when we decided to walk along the wall. Hadrian’s Wall was begun in AD 122, by a Roman emperor called (drums please) Hadrian. The largest Roman artefact anywhere, it runs for 117,5 km across England. It went west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne, via Carlisle and Kirkandrews-on-Eden, to the shore of the Solway Firth, ending west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway.
The wall marked the northern edge of the Roman empire, and my personal guess is that they had some serious trouble with the local tribes before deciding to set up such a structure. Barbarians! Historians are however unsure about the actual threat of the local population, but the Roman fort we visited on one of our walks had a roman bath located inside the walls of the fort – and this was interpreted as a sign of unsafe conditions in the area. I know it’s not exactly the same – but haven’t we all seen Braveheart? We know what those ancient brits were like! Other explanations for the wall see it as a perfect control post for collecting taxes and as a monument of power. In this light it’s maybe better seen as a symbol of conflicting times. Be glad you are born in modern days.
The wall is in varying states of decay, as it has been robbed for much of the stones over the centuries, but in the area of Northumberland National Park, there are still large sections where you can hike along a heavy stone construction, interrupted by the remnants of milecastles, turrets and forts. For our kids – it was like entering a fairy tale world, expecting the Nazgul to come flying any moment.
Hiking the wall gives an outstanding opportunity to teach your self and your kids about the Roman empire and ancient Britain, but it’s also a gift for the imagination. Light shifting, fog coming and going, rainbows and unicorns in the horizon – or at least sheep and cows.
Cawfield Quarry to Sycamore Gap
One of my toes was still healing from a fracture (man, horses are heavy), and our general goal was just to get ourselves out there and see how far I could manage. Mind over matter.
Our first hike went along the path from Cawfield Quarry to Sycamore Gap and (somehow) back again. People generally flocked together at the highlights, but most of the time, we were blissfully alone with the black crows, the spectacular views and the feeling of walking on historical ground. Imagination wandering along with our feet.
At Sycamore Gap we stopped to pee and have a look at the famous old tree that stands majestically at the bottom of the gap. My husband’s knowledge of trivia came in handy when he recognised the landscape from the 1990ies classic, Robin Hood: Prince of thieves, and of course we had to set up the iPad the same night and educate our offspring in this essential piece of popular culture. Three quarters of the family had an instant crush on Christian Slater, while my husband made another connection – maid Marion is also starring in guilty pleasure series Grimm. There’s so much to learn in this world!
After stopping for a very Norwegian “rast”: the part of the trip where you dive into your backpack, bring out something to sit on, put on extra clothes, drink something hot and eat some sandwiches and chocolate (actually we have a special word in Norwegian for sandwiches that you bring with you: “matpakke” – it translates directly to something like food package), we turned our noses back towards the car.
Highly irregular is the only word that comes to mind when to describe our way back to the quarry however. I blame it on our adventurous Norwegian personalities, high on the freedom to move in this barren, windswept landscape – and determined to make a round trip out of it. You might get a better tip for how to get back on a different route if you ask the locals, but walking solely on direction is not exactly hard up there. I’ve only got one word of warning: Watch out for livestock.
Milecastle 35 to Housesteads Roman Fort
For our second trip along the wall, we parked on a field a few hundred meters before Milecastle 35 and started our walk through a small, but definitely enchanted, forest. My youngest, now updated on Kevin Costner’s universe from 1991, was living the life of an outlaw for the whole ten minutes it took us to pass it. The rest of the walk is again mainly windswept, grassy, hilly, barren and beautiful. Because of more grass and less stones, it’s an even easier hike than the one from the quarry to Sycamore Gap.
Although the walk towards Sycamore Gap is probably the most photographed, this stretch also has some magnificent scenery. The fort itself is a huge structure, and a perfect moment to learn about the Roman ways of life. We all marvelled over the technological ingenuity that even led to hot floor in the baths – at a time when the people around them never really washed at all. Even more difficult to grasp, is the regression that entered the western cultures after the fall of the Roman empire. Who doesn’t like a hot bath?! Our private tub at the camp site suddenly got an entirely new dimension.
Allen Banks and Staward Gorge
At a tip from the lovely owners of Herding Hill Farm, we spent our last day hiking in ancient woodland along the river Allen. Here you can choose between a range of very well marked hiking routes of different length.
The leaf trees were dressed for Halloween – many of them like organic sculptures along the footpath. Forests that has been left without much disturbance usually exhibits unique ecological features. To us, they are so much more interesting to observe, than cultivated forests where every tree is the same – both in species and in height. We’re not very enlightened when it comes to birds, but we saw a lot of different feathers around – I imagine it would be a nice hike for someone a bit more educated in this respect. Pheasants were plentiful, though, together with deer and of course sheep, sheep, sheep (I found some statistic online claiming that the UK is home to 25% of Europe’s sheep flock).
We stopped at several points along the river – for stone skimming and later for lunch. The hike up and down the river valley makes a nice contrast to the wide, open hills around the wall, and is a reminder of how much of the landscape probably looked before humans started chopping down the forests. At points it felt truly wild and wonderful, while other stretches went along friendly farmed landscapes.
Humbling dark skies and faraway stars
We didn’t have time to visit any of the observatories in the Northumberland National Dark Sky Park this time, but we did experience the starry nights from our tub – this giant bowl of darkness with a myriad of glowing white stars is how night time on earth is supposed to be. You can even see the Milky Way. I know it from my life in Norway – from childhood memories of how the sky looked entirely different when we travelled from the city to the mountains, and from taking my own children out on a clear night at the cabin before they go to bed. It’s just as humbling every time.
The current focus on climate change and saving energy is a good reason for tuning down our light consumption at night, but did you know that light pollution may also affect human physiology and the functioning and survival of entire ecosystems of plants and animals? A sole focus on energy consumption can lead to “greener” light but will not target the problem of the light itself. It might even give us more of the blue light that increase the negative effects on our biological rhythm.
This family vividly remember watching BBCs Planet Earth II, where newly hatched baby turtles couldn’t find the sea due to light pollution. They are programmed to crawl towards the moon reflecting in the water, but instead they crawled into a trafficked road – towards the thousands of artificial lights from human activity. The scenes where gruelling and created at least one more wannabe activist in the world. My youngest daughter now knows that saving baby turtles is the most noble thing you can do with your adult life. Thanks to the likes of the Barbados Sea Turtle project, there might still turtles left to be saved.
The International Dark Sky Association works to protect the darkness, and you can learn a lot about the effects of light pollution on humans, other animals and plants from their website.
Where to stay
We stayed at Herding Hill Farm, right next to several highlights along the wall. You can find it on the map below. Our tiny wooden cottage was described as a wigwam with tub. Bring approximately the same as if you are going tenting, except the tent. There’re mattresses covered in tick plastic material, a small fridge, sink, toilet, table, water boiler, toaster and a microwave oven in the hut. The rest is up to you.
There are jewels to be found at this camp site. Apart from the possibility of having your own tub, they keep a range of funny animals – and the kids could join in on the feeding. They got to meet a couple of introverted alpakas, a hungry mini pig turned big pig, rabbits, hens, donkeys, a tiny horse and two diva goats that would rather starve than get their wool wet. We even got an egg that ended up in our pancakes. So nice!
Google maps took us everywhere, and parking was not a problem in November. It’s easy to find and keep on the path along the wall - see the maps below. They show how the hikes are done back and forth - I've left out the rather personal route we took back from Sycmore Gap. The terrain is hilly, as the wall follows the ridges, so be prepared for frequent but easy climbs and descends. We met a gang of seniors – they had no problem.
Our hike up along the Allan river was almost flat. The length is up to you. Find a tree to climb if you want to get high up. You need coins at the parking lot.
At the highlights you see people looking like they just stepped off the metro, but if you’re planning on staying out all day, good hiking boots and warm clothes that is suitable for wind and rain is recommended.
Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.