Finally, the first official day of the walk had arrived.
I had awakened from my 12-hour slumber with a new energy and enthusiasm. The hotel’s full English Breakfast never tasted better, and I just couldn’t help but smile as my optimism for the day’s long walk grew.
Then I met fellow walker Martin. The popular Irish blogger had a case of the jitters and, as we started talking about what the first day would entail, I slowly came back down to earth.
I was still optimistic, just not unrealistically so. It would set the tone for the entire week of the walk, and probably saved me from the overly high expectations of that first morning.
A short train ride later, we were a part of the crowd at Wallsend, the eastern trailhead of the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
34 of us had gathered to walk for The Joseph Salmon Trust, and it was a heady feeling to see that large group chomping at the bit to head out on the 84-mile trail.
In ancient times, Wallsend was home to the Roman fort Segedunum, which protected the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall near the banks of the River Tyne. We walked past Segedunum as we started down the trail, and I couldn’t help but think of the song by Sting, “All This Time,” with its lyrics: “And their empire crumbled, ’til all that was left were the stones the workmen found.”
Sting was talking about this very spot in Wallsend, where he himself was born and raised.
It would be the last solid evidence of Hadrian’s Wall that we’d see for awhile.
The walk along the river was unremarkable until we arrived back in Newcastle. And then it was a little disheartening to be passing right by the very hotel I had just left that morning.
On a journey like this, it’s extremely gratifying to be able to look both behind and forward to see the definite progress of the trail. So, when you look up to see the bridges, buildings and landmarks that you’d been checking out just a few hours before, it plays tricks with your mind. You want to stop and check your map to see if you’ve been walking in circles.
We moved on through the city. The walkers were slowly starting to spread out as people became comfortable with their pace. Faces were becoming more familiar to me, especially those of my fellow slow walkers, with whom I would spend most of the week leisurely tromping through the countryside.
I like to think that we weren’t really slow. We were just enjoying the walk so much that we wanted it to last longer.
Soon after leaving the heart of Newcastle, our surroundings became greener and more rural. We saw farms and livestock. We were not stepping in poo yet, so those first cows and sheep were endearing.
Stopping for lunch, I learned a lesson. I had no lunch. Thinking that the mounds of eggs, sausage, and toast at breakfast would fuel me through the day, I hadn’t bothered to pick up anything to take on the trail.
But suddenly I was hungry. I made a brief plea to the Roman Gods for sustenance along their wall, when out of the sky dropped a chicken sandwich in plastic wrap.
Wow, talk about “Ask and you shall receive.”
It turned out to be a gift from fellow walker Clair, who was smart enough to bring extras.
It’s amazing how delicious a chicken sandwich can taste after walking 7 or 8 miles with a 30-pound pack on your back.
The rest of the day was spent walking through fields and trees, up steep dirt roads, and through picturesque English villages. The 15 miles wasn’t bad at all, surprising after the 5 miles of the pre-walk nearly did me in.
I spent those miles getting to know the other slow walkers. Some of them had done just minimal training for this walk. Throughout the 6-day walk, they suffered blisters, muscle spasms, and twisted ankles, but on that first day everyone finished strong. We were pushed along by the high of just being there, of finally starting this journey that we’d been talking about for up to a year.
I may have finished strong, but I learned another valuable lesson. 15 miles builds up a lot of thirst. More than the two liters I had with me.
By the time I strolled into our hostel in the town of Heddon-on-the-Wall, I had what the beer ads might describe as “a manly thirst.”
Now, I don’t drink beer. Can’t stand the stuff.
But when I entered the hostel and was handed a cold can of John Smith’s Bitter, I chugged it like a frat boy on spring break.
I can now safely say that I can’t stand the British stuff either. But it did quench my thirst.
That first night of the walk, we stayed at the Houghton North Farm Bunkhouse, a clean and comfortable hostel that was probably the nicest of the group accomodations we had booked during the week.
For dinner, we walked into town to The Swan Pub, where I was introduced to both Crabbie’s Ginger Beer and Yorkshire Pudding.
At first, I mistook the Yorkshire Pudding for a slightly burnt dinner roll. I was about to cut it in half and spread butter on it when a Brit walker patiently showed me how to smother it with gravy to eat with my roast beef and vegetables.
That overflowing plate of food was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten. Like the chicken sandwich earlier in the day, much of the savory goodness of that meal was due to extreme hunger after a long day of burning calories. Still, I’m now ready to fix a Yorkshire Pudding of my own, and to teach my kids how to eat it properly.
Walking back to the hostel in the cool night air, it felt good to be finished with that first day. It had mostly gone well, and I was relieved to know that I could walk 15 miles without falling apart.
Coming soon: Day 2 – The longest day ever! Plus, Freddy Krueger joins the walk.