Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Six: Gilsland to Lanercost
Distance: 15.22 km
I’d like to begin this entry with a word about the weather. We walked the Wall during the first week of September and we went into it knowing that the weather would be what meteorologists refer to as changeable. ‘Changeable’ is certainly an apt description of the weather we experienced though ‘unpredictable’, ‘random’ and ‘insane’ are perhaps more thematically appropriate. Day six began with what would become one of the recurring motifs of the second half of the walk: jacket switching. One minute it would be brilliant sunshine, then there would be bitter cold and howling gales. Occasionally, the sky would darken and rain would pelt us just long enough to force a stoppage and a change of clothes. These meteorological mind-games resulted in my playing chicken with the weather and refusing to put on my raincoat on the grounds that the rain simply would not last. I am happy to say that I won more games than I lost.
Having spent two consecutive nights at Saughy Rigg, it was nice to return to the somewhat nomadic existence we had enjoyed during the opening stages of the walk. There is something quite exciting about setting off in the morning without really knowing what to expect of your point of arrival. Moving from B&B to B&B rather than working from a fixed base did lend a degree of adventure to the holiday that was neatly cushioned by the fact that we knew that the B&Bs we had been booked into were of a certain quality. As with our unexpected discovery of the Errington Arms, I suspect that a good deal of pleasure might be had by simply setting off and stopping at whichever B&B came to hand but, as with pre-planned stopping points, there is something to be said for the security that comes from having a clear destination. Swings and roundabouts as they say…
Heading off from Gilsland, we decided to make a stop at Birdoswald Fort. Administered by English Heritage rather than the people who run Vindolanda, Birdoswald Fort is much less impressive than the Roman Army Museum and I couldn’t help but feel that I had just paid for seeing a similar load of rocks to the ones I had been seeing for free along the wall. A cup of okayish coffee and a bottle of ginger beer rapidly consumed, we pushed on across country towards Lanercost.
One could, I imagine, refer to Lanercost as a town or a village but I suspect that ‘resort’ might be closer to the mark as Lanercost seems to be nothing more than a few houses, a tearoom and a few B+Bs huddled alongside a ruined priory and a few footpaths and bridleways.
Clearly a new addition to the landscape, the Lanercost Tea Room is a light and modern adjunct to the abbey that boasts delicious (if somewhat pricy) food. The Sheep had a panini and I had a bowl of vegetable soup, which was delicious despite the fact that it reminded me of my mother’s tendency to boil a load of vegetables in a pot until they turned into a brown sludge that she would consume over the period of a week in an effort to lose weight. That may make the soup sound disgusting but this soup genuinely wasn’t.
Fed and watered, we combed the map for sources of entertainment as we knew that it was way too early to check into our B&B. Short of anything better to do, we decided to visit the Lanercost priory and were genuinely surprised by the elegant poise of its ruins. The priory visited, we decided to make our way across country to the village of ‘Cumcatch’ on the grounds that we a) had absolutely nothing else to do and b) thought it might make for some amusing photos. Yes, we are that immature. Worried about walking down country roads without adequate verges, we decided to cut across country and follow a footpath but the footpath we decided to follow turned out to be in a terrible state of disrepair as part of it had fallen into a river and other parts of it required us to clamber over fallen trees in order to progress. Between the mud and the uneven footing, we made very slow progress along the footpath and soon decided to turn back. As we slid and climbed our way back to Lanercost, I was struck by the tendency of British body politic to bemoan the fact that the British people are growing increasingly a) fat, b) ignorant of life outside the city and c) dependent upon the car. Surely there can be no more elegant a solution to all three problems than a well kept network of public footpaths that lure people out of their cars and cities and into the countryside? The Sheep and I wanted to visit Cumcatch and yet the state of the local footpaths meant that, lacking a car, we could not safely make that journey. A little more joined up thinking would, at this point, be useful.
Given that there were no other places to have dinner within walking distance, we decided to spend the evening at our B&B, Abbey Mill. According to rumour, Abbey Mill is currently enjoying its second lease of life after the couple operating it abandoned their attempt to run it alongside their full-time jobs. Our arrival at Abbey Mill was not particularly auspicious as the door was locked and the reception was decidedly chilly. At Saughy Rigg Farm, the proprietor’s first instinct was to invite us in and offer us a drink. At Abbey Mill, the proprietor’s first instinct was to tell us to wait outside in the rain while he went off and checked which room we had been allotted. We were then ordered to take off our boots.
Abbey Mill is made up of a lovely pair of buildings by the side of a stream. It is also immaculately clean. In fact, it is so immaculately clean that we felt slightly uncomfortable messing up the bed or sitting on the sofas in the lounge. Many popular accounts of British B&Bs stress the weirdness of staying in someone’s house and many travellers will tell of evenings and mornings spent in the presence of someone who clearly does not approve either of them or the life they lead. While Abbey Mill is not prone to this sort of snobbery, it is difficult to avoid reaching the conclusion that its proprietors have a similarly ambivalent set of attitudes towards their guests. Indeed, considering the intensely-ordered guest information pack and the impersonal cleanliness of the rooms, it seems to me that the owners of Abbey Mill see their guests as monstrous chaotic incursions into otherwise pristine and well-ordered lives. Staying at Abbey Mill, I felt like I was an imposition and I have never felt that way about any other B&B I have stayed in.
The sense of imposition also flows from the fact that you can pre-book dinner as there are no other places to eat in Lanercost. This means that, if you call up 24 hours ahead of time, you can coax the owners into cooking for you. This is a very odd arrangement and our experience was made doubly odd by the fact that we had to share our dinner with another couple who, evidently, had only called up a couple of hours beforehand. It seemed to me that, not wishing to go and do any more shopping, the operators of Abbey Mill decided to stretch our two-person dinner to four and so dinner was made up of a small bowl of vegetable soup, half a cod fillet, a small amount of vegetables and a rather stodgy pudding covered in golden syrup. For £20 per head this was clearly unacceptable both in terms or price and quality. £20 is what you would expect to pay in a restaurant and the food we had was definitely not of restaurant quality. The fact that the proprietors decided to milk their guests for an extra £40 by halving the (already not particularly generous) portion sizes speaks of the sort of greed and laziness that can only come from seeing your guests as an unwelcome imposition on your time. Should you find yourself in Lanercost, I would recommend avoiding Abbey Mill like the plague, The Keelman’s Lodge was not a particularly nice place to stay but at least we did not leave it wondering why the people running it had decided to open a B&B. Abbey Mill is proof that running a good B&B is as much a question of temperament as it is of business accumen
Breakfast at Abbey Mill was not much better but I can only blame myself for that as we had to pre-order breakfast and I went for the huevos rancheros on the grounds that it was such a ludicrous thing to serve in a British B&B that surely it must be a particular speciality. Unfortunately, the store-bought tortilla, overcooked eggs, flavourless cheese and hideous salsa suggested otherwise. The Sheep fared a little better with soft-boiled eggs, but the eggs seemed cheap and the toast was insufficient and plasticky to boot.
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