Walking Hadrian’s Wall – Day Three: Harlow Hill to Chollerford
Distance: 18 km
Breakfast brought more culinary disappointments from The Keelman’s. My eggs were unseasoned and came with only minimal toast. Also, most B+Bs tend to give people a pot of coffee for the table. However, The Keelman’s serve you by the cup and so if, like me, you enjoy your coffee in the morning, you may find yourself having to pester the waitress a few times for more coffee. Given that we arrived at The Keelman’s completely knackered and starving hungry, my memories of the place may well have been etched by the twin (and not entirely disconnected) acids of bile and low blood sugar but, after two disappointing meals and a night spent on a bed that felt like a sack of flour, I was more than happy to leave Newburn behind and head out into the countryside.
The first part of the walk finds you marching along a very straight and very uniform military road. The B6318 runs pretty much all the way from Newcastle to Carlisle and its presence is felt throughout the walk. While the morning’s farmland made an interesting change to Newcastle’s decaying cityscape, I soon found the walking to be quite dull as kilometre after kilometre of near-identical fields sapped reserves of goodwill insufficiently replenished by our stay at The Keelman’s. The decision to press on past Newburn the previous evening turned out to be something of a double-edged sword as while it spread a long day’s walking over two more equal days, it also served to throw our meal-planning out of kilter.
We arrived at Vallum Farm at around 10:30 am. We had been planning to eat lunch there as we had heard that it had an award winning smokery and ice-cream parlour but 10:30 in the morning is way too early for either iced cream or smoked fish and so we decided to have a cup of something warm (not fish) before moving on. Thankfully, the Sheep decided to buy some of Vallum Farm’s gingerbread and it was, hands down, the best gingerbread that I have ever tasted; sweet, gingery, gooey and capable of remaining fresh for a couple of days despite containing nothing but wholesome ingredients, the gingerbread alone makes Vallum Farm an excellent place to stop for a snack or lunch.
Thankfully, this glitch in timing turned out to work quite well as, around lunchtime, we stumbled across a place called The Errington Arms. The Errington Arms, which is also a B+B, clearly has foodie pretensions as the menus are sizeable and elaborate. However, despite the imposing menus, the staff are delightful, the atmosphere is great and the food is both sensational and reasonably priced. A meal made all the more memorable by virtue of the fact that we simply stumbled across the pub by chance.
When you spend all day walking a route into unfamiliar country, places to stop and eat serve an important psychological purpose. Walking long-distance can be quite physically demanding and psychologically tough as conversation ebbs and niggles turn into aches. There are times when it is vitally important to know that there’s a great meal only an hour or so down the path. However, the downside of using pit stops as psychological anchors is that you wind up missing the opportunity to stumble across some genuinely delightful places such as The Errington Arms. Planning is all well and good but there are times when a bit of spontaneity goes a long way.
After lunch, the terrain got a lot more interesting as we got our first sight of the Vallum and the astonishingly bleak but undeniably beautiful countryside of Northumberland.
I am really glad that we decided to make this walk in late summer as the wide-open spaces of Northumberland are made all the more beautiful by howling gales and brooding clouds. We were walking into a rainstorm, but we didn’t care. It was pretty, and bleak and miles from anywhere.
The pounding bleakness was intercut by a number of topological oddities. At one point, a dark and intimidating forest intersected the path. Then we had to wade through what can only be called a very small swamp. Realising that the swamp was largely made-up of runoff from the nearby fields, we got a bit paranoid about an ugly smell that was hanging in the air. However, the paranoia rapidly lifted when we clambered over a fence and encountered three immense piles of shit: evidently, the smell was not coming from our mud-encrusted boots and trousers.
By end of afternoon, the rain was beginning to fall and we happily made a pit stop at St Oswald’s Hill Head Farm. Arriving at the farm, we saw a sign on which someone had scrawled ‘Don’t Bother!’ clearly, we should have taken their advice: St Oswald’s Hill Head Farm has one of those tearooms that plague the British countryside. Filled with ludicrously ugly and over-priced tat, it sells the worst coffee that I have ever tasted. The Sheep, being a creature of profoundly perverse hungers, decided to buy a chocolate peppermint slice and was rewarded with slab of mint-flavoured toxic waste set atop some nail filings and stale cake crumbs. Yummy. We were tired, we were cold and we were hungry. We left without finishing either the cake or the coffee.
A lengthy detour took us round a wood, through a lot of rain, along a road and into Chollerford. Chollerford is a very small village built around a huge weir. The weir and the riverside are dotted with hand-written signs informing us that both the weir and the river are on private property. These types of signs occasionally appear in the countryside and they always smack to me of small-mindedness. However, the sheer number of signs in Chollerford and their hand-written nature speaks not so much of small-mindedness as it does of mental illness. It’s not like anyone is going to break a river and besides, there really is something ridiculous about someone claiming to own a feature of the landscape.
The rainy walk through Chollerford to Chesters Fort ended with a wait in a English Heritage gift shop. Given the rain and the tiredness, the gift shop seemed a welcome place to stop. At this point, some minor consumerism may have taken hold (Inventory: Novels by Rosemary Sutcliffe, One. Hadrian’s Wall T-Shirts, One). The impulse to buy stuff was surprisingly strong and, I suspect, may have had something to do with the fact that there really was not very much worth buying anywhere between Tynemouth and Chollerford. The fact that the gift shop was manned by two geeks talking about a roleplaying game just made the experience that little bit sweeter.
At Chesters Fort we first encountered one of the more eccentric and unexpected elements of the Hadrian’s Wall experience: B+Bs running taxi services. This service makes a good deal of sense as people walking the wall might not want to do a full day’s walking and then make their way to a B+B that is off the beaten track. By ferrying their guests to and from various points on the wall, the B+Bs are able to tap into a wider customer base and give their customers a bit of flexibility in the process.
The B+B we were scheduled to stay at refers to itself as a hotel. Battlesteads is a recent winner of a ‘Britain’s Best Pub’ competition and boast that they are the greenest pub in the country. The greenness of the enterprise was evident in the fact that we were picked up in an electric smartcar driven by a game old chap with a filthy laugh who turned out to be one of proprietors.
After The Keelman’s Lodge, we arrived at Battlesteads expecting another disappointing evening. Our expectations shattered as we were let into a lovely little room equipped with fresh fruit, a jar of cookies and a large bottle of chilled water. From there the evening only got better as the restaurant at Battlesteads is truly a thing of beauty. Elegantly decorated and boasting an array of exquisitely cooked and locally sourced dishes, the food at Battlesteads is worth every penny. In fact, it is probably worth the trip up to Northumberland!
Spending the evening at Battlesteads we realised quite how important it is to allow yourself the time and space to unwind after a walk. Our extended peregrinations on the first day had clearly worn us out while a disappointing dinner and a disturbed sleep combined to ensure that we went into the second day without completely recovering from the rigours of the first. Though the beds at Battlesteads were far from ideal, they (along with the dinner) helped to replenish our reserves of good will and energy.
For those of you who may have stumbled across this post, here are all of the posts in the series:
Day One: Tynemouth
Day Two: Tynemouth to Harlow Hill
Day Three: Harlow Hill to Chollerford
Day Four: Chollerford to Saughy Rigg
Day Five: Saughy Rigg to Gilsland
Day Six: Gilsland to Lanercost
Day Seven: Lanercost to Carlisle
Day Eight: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway