Day 4 of my walk across England was a curious day, filled with pleasant surprises and strange encounters.
It was also the day we had to make a deadline.
That night we would be staying in the village of Greenhead, which was only 8 miles away. Sounds like a nice, leisurely stroll, right? Unfortunately, that would turn Day 5 into a 20-mile death march.
So, in order to balance out the mileage, we would be walking right past that night’s accommodations in Greenhead and continue another four miles down the path to the village of Banks, where a bus would be picking us up at precisely 4:30pm to take us back to Greenhead. It would also return us to Banks in the morning so we wouldn’t miss out on a single step along the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
With that 4:30 deadline in mind, several slow walkers conferred over maps and breakfast cereal, deciding it would be best to start down the trail early. You know, in case of wrong turns, twisted ankles, or pagan abductions.
Oh, and by “several slow walkers” I really mean Martin and me.
The steep climb from Winshields Farm Camp back to the wall path was invigorating, and it felt good to be ahead of the pack, even if I did feel a slight tinge of guilt over not helping take down tents.
Martin and I were determined not to miss that bus.
At the summit above the farm, I stopped for a breather and to take pictures of the countryside. Nearby sheep were mocking me with their nimble footwork on the rocky crags.
It was a minute, maybe two, of snapping photos and admiring the view, and then I turned back around to continue on the trail.
And Martin was gone!
It was deja vu all over again.
I was perplexed for a moment, and then I thought maybe he had simply picked up the pace and was over the next rise.
But he wasn’t. It was just me and the sheep.
For a brief second, I contemplated if, in my sleep deprived state, I had left camp with an imaginary Martin, and the real one was still munching on Rice Krispies and not at all worried about buses and deadlines.
I finally decided that he had found his second, third, and fourth winds, and was currently racing down the path ahead of me, filled with the spirit of a whole legion of Roman Centurions.
Not long after, as I was balancing my camera on a rock to get a self-portrait next to the wall, I saw another walker in the distance behind me.
It was Martin.
The real Martin, or a second imaginary Martin?
It turns out he had gone through a gate in the wall, lured there by some mischievous sheep no doubt, and had been walking along on the other side of the wall until the path dropped away and he realized he would have to turn around and go back.
Getting lost is a discouraging way to start one’s day.
After that, we just walked quietly through the rural countryside, taking pleasure in the view, while taking pains to avoid the sheep poop.
For the most part, the scenery was unchanging over the first five or six miles. Pleasant, rolling hills, with the wall in various states of deconstruction, lulled us into a bit of a stupor. We were skirting the edge of Northumberland National Park, and it was all very beautiful, if not exactly memorable.
There were still a few rugged spots, but nothing like the roller coaster terrain of Day 3.
Somewhere along there, the other walkers caught up with us and we fell in with our usual crowd of Sherry, Steve, Arjan, Richard, Catherine, Jo, and Ellie. We were making good time, and that deadline no longer loomed over us.
But very soon, I would encounter a mysterious stranger.
I saw him near a stretch of the wall. Bent over and leaning on a stick, he waved his arms in the air, making some sort of strange gesture with his hands. He was mouthing some words, trying to communicate with us from a distance.
As we got closer, we finally understood what he was trying to say.
“Take my picture!”
It was Rajiv, a friend of mine from my college days. I had forgotten that he was on the walk, as he had mistakenly thought it was some sort of footrace and had been sprinting down the path each day. Something must’ve been seriously wrong for him to be stuck at the back with the slow walkers.
Apparently, he just wanted to walk for a spell with his old college buddy. To reminisce over old times, and to express gratitude for the invitation I extended to him last year to come along on this journey.
The truth, I think, is that he just couldn’t believe how incredibly slow I was moving and wanted to study the phenomenon first-hand.
Either way, we walked along for several miles, exchanging cameras at the most scenic spots. Rajiv snapped this photo of me on top of a stile. It’s my second-favorite image of the trip.
As lunchtime approached, we found ourselves staring up at Thirlwall Castle, built in the 14th-century with stones from Hadrian’s Wall. The castle turned out to be a perfect picnic spot, so we parked ourselves next to its walls to eat our sack lunch and watch other walkers go by. I tried to imagine the Thirlwall family of the 1300’s, living in their hilltop stronghold and watching for border raids from the north.
After Thirlwall, we only had about four miles to go to reach the pick-up point. It was around 1pm. Even if I had crawled the rest of the way, that 4:30 deadline would no longer be a worry.
Rajiv must’ve thought I was doing exactly that – crawling. Because he got further and further ahead of me until I couldn’t see him anymore. I would spot him again from time to time, as he had a knack for getting lost and then reappearing suddenly out of the trees to ask if I knew which way to go.
With just a few miles left, I met up with Clair and Neil, a couple from London who frequently walked hand-in-hand and took every kissing gate quite literally. Ahh, young love.
But Clair and Neil were also great fun to walk and talk with, taking my mind off any aches and pains that were developing. I still laugh over Neil’s impression of Ricky Gervais delivering the catchphrase from Extras, “Are you havin’ a laugh?”
We walked together until we reached Birdoswald Roman Fort, one of several museums along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. Clair and Neil stopped for a coffee, but I was most interested in whatever cold beverages were for sale in the cafe.
I bought a lemonade for immediate consumption, a bottled water for the last few miles, and a can of Coke to celebrate the end of the day’s walk. Somewhat parched, I downed half the Fentimans Victorian Lemonade before realizing it was alcoholic. When you’re thirsty, taste matters little, so I kept guzzling.
That lemonade actually rejuvenated me and put a spring in my step. I pretty much bounced the rest of the way down the path. I arrived at the bus pick-up point with almost an hour to spare and parked myself on top a section of the wall. 2000 years later, it makes a good bench.
Most of the group had been there for several hours and were taking naps or reading. One of the older walkers, a 64-year-old named Bill who could walk circles around anyone half his age, tried lifting my pack after I took it off. He said, “Oof, Phil, whatcha got in there? Stones from the wall!?” I knew my pack was overloaded, but he told me it was at least twice as heavy as it should be.
His secret: Bring two pairs of clothing items, then rinse the dirties out as soon as you arrive at your destination, letting them dry overnight and the next day. Also, don’t carry netbooks, neck pillows, and souvenirs.
The bus arrived promptly at 4:30 to take us back to Greenhead Hostel, a Methodist Church built in 1886 and converted to a youth hostel in the 70’s. A very comfortable place, again with a room full of bunkbeds and snorers. I was getting used to them, and slept a little better than the previous three nights.
For dinner, we walked across the street to the pub at the Greenhead Hotel, where I think I ordered, “Give me a big plate of anything!” They brought me a deliciously cheesy lasagna with salad and chips that tasted like heaven.
That’s the end of Day 4. If you read this horribly long-winded account, then I admire your patience. I’ll be combining Days 5 and 6 into one post because, quite honestly, there just wasn’t much to write about concerning the walk itself.
Day 4 saw the end of the classic English countryside, and of the wall itself, as we would move through the farms and suburbs near the city of Carlisle. We still had two days and 30 miles to walk, but we were leaving behind that sense of isolation and history found along the mid-section of the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
Coming Soon: Days 5 and 6 – All good things must come to an end.