Waking to laden skies and a thick drizzle, a perfectly presented full-English breakfast was just the thing to kick-start our fifth day of walking, a day that would see us return to civilisation (or Carlisle, as it's better known in these parts). Promising to return, we said a fond farewell to our luxury accommodation and to our hospitable landlady and stepped out into the gloom, spurred on by the promise of "the best coffee in the world" just a few miles down the road.
Having tackled a couple of hilly miles on tarmac, our mid-morning coffee break, and a chance to shelter from the persistent rain, couldn't come soon enough. We had been promised the best coffee in the world and, to be fair, we weren't disappointed. The Reading Room at Walton is a lovely quirky little tea room in a quintessentially English village. A very decent flat white, as close to the classic Italian cappuccino as you'll find in a land that seems to favour half litres of boiling hot coffee-flavoured milk, and a lavish selection of home-baking, it was with some reluctance that we eventually donned our damp jackets and stepped back out into the incessant drizzle.
From Walton we pressed on another few miles through undulating farmland. By the time we reached Crosby-on-Eden, we were very much looking forward to a rejuvenating pint at the first pub we had encountered all day, and the last before Carlisle. When we eventually caught sight of the promising exterior of the Stag Inn, it appeared like an oasis in the desert. Imagine our disappointment when we realised it was closed. A devastating blow at this stage in the late afternoon!
Putting our disappointment behind us, we trudged on through the affluent and picturesque suburban villages of Linstock and Rickerby. We had by now joined the path of the meandering River Eden and had to navigate a number of detours that were still in place following the devastating floods that had accompanied storms Desmond and Eva the previous winter. It was sobering to see the extent of the damage caused by the floods, with the high waterlines still clearly visible on the landscape, even four months after the event.
Before long we were negotiating the bustling streets of Carlisle - a bit of a culture shock after 5 days in the Cumbrian/Northumberland wilderness! We are heading towards the Cathedral and our lodgings for the night, the Carlisle city Hostel but, before checking in, we can't resist the temptation of a much needed pint (or two) and the inevitable wi-fi hit.
Before long our exertions of the day are nothing but a damp memory, and it is with high spirits and good humour that we brace ourselves, ready and looking forward to a well-earned night out in Carlisle!
From Windshields Farm it's a short steep climb back up to Windshield Crags and the Wall. The sky is heavy with low dark clouds, but for the moment it's dry. Today I have decided to adopt an innovative method of hydration, taking a swig from my hip flask every mile. This proves to be an exhilarating way to count down the miles until inevitably, at the ten-mile point, the flask runs dry!
From the roller coaster crags, the landscape again changes in favour of broad sweeping farm and moor land. At this time of year there is an abundance of spring lambs and it is fascinating to observe these delightful creatures at such close quarters. An incredible curiosity, tempered only by an startling vulnerability, as soon as we are within a few metres they scamper delightfully to the comfort and security of their attentive but forthright mothers. So taken am I by these defenceless creatures, I vow never to eat lamb again. My companions are less sentimental, and are delighted to see lamb on the menu in the pub this evening!
A constant drizzle interspersed with the occasional wintery downpour, our path is again punctuated by crags, quarries, mile castles and forts, including Aesica (modern day Great Chesters) where, in 1894 a hoard of jewellery, including an enamelled brooch shaped as a hare, a gilded bronze brooch, a silver collar with a pendant, a gold ring and a bronze ring with a Gnostic gem, was found, and the impressive Birdoswald Roman Fort, which includes a shop and visitor centre as well as the excavated remains of the fort itself. It is one of the best preserved of the 16 forts along Hadrian's Wall. In Roman times, it was known as Banna (Latin for "spur" or "tongue"), reflecting the geography of the site. It's a popular destination for Roman enthusiasts but, as we have a tight schedule to follow, we stop only long enough to enough to enjoy some of the complimentary mead on offer (really!) and to stamp our Path Passports to prove we've been here.
After another day of hiking in wet and muddy conditions, we are overwhelmed by the welcome we receive when we finally arrive at Quarryside B & B. We are immediately ushered into a pristine living room and served with with tea, coffee and fresh muffins. A real taste of luxury after four days of mud and grime!
Logistical arrangements are already in place for our evenings' transportation to the pub. Our taxi driver, a game old bird, delights us with her local anecdotes and football know-how. Our destination this evening is the Belted Will Inn, a traditional family run watering-hole which has been serving thirsty travellers since the 17th century.
So, another fantastic day's walking is rounded off with yet more fantastic hospitality.
Maybe it's the beer, maybe it's the fatigue after 4 day's walking, maybe it's because the end of our expedition is now in sight, but tonight we feel our friend's absence more than ever.
Wish you were here Jude.
In terms of scenery, landscape and Roman remains, this is by far the best day of walking so far. After the long, flat and wall-less stretches that we'd done yesterday, the spectacular series of roller-coaster crags, Roman wall that stretches as far as the eye can see and the well-preserved archaeology at numerous sites along the way, it's easy to see why this is the most popular stretch of Hadrian's wall.
Indeed, from our base at Green Carts farm, it isn't long before we find ourselves following our first real stretch of authentic Roman wall. Mile castles, turrets and disused quarries litter the way and the fort at Housesteads (Vercovicium), unlike that at Vindobala, provides a tangible insight into life on a Roman fort.
With the help of the well-maintained signs throughout the site, it is easy to visualise the barracks, hospital and even latrines that served the 1,000 men of the First Cohort of Tungrians, (an auxiliary unit raised in the Tonges area of what is now Belgium) who were once garrisoned here. These men appear to have earned the respect of the native celts, with one possible origin for the name of the Fort being "place of the able fighters" (although latin scholars, for obvious reasons, favour the alternative translation: "the settlement on the slope").
We spend 30 minutes or so wandering around the site and devouring our packed lunch before the weather on this exposed spot takes yet another turn for the worse.
Back on the path, things brighten up a bit as we make yet another steep descent to Sycamore Gap, an iconic image associated with the wall, made famous by the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. The 'gap" is in fact a nick in the Whin Sill, a meltwater channel, carved by the vast volumes of meltwater that flowed beneath the ice sheets that once covered this area.
From this captivating spot it isn't long before we descend the ridge towards Once/Twice Brewed, a well known and long standing resting place (from where our lodgings at Windshields farm are a convenient half kilometre stroll). The Twice Brewed Inn stands in the shadows of Steel Rigg, one of the most dramatic parts of the Wall and again we experience warm hospitality, a good pint and a healthy range of eating options.
The accommodation is yet again basic but comfortable, including rather invigorating shower facilities (see below). A hearty breakfast is prepared for us on site the next morning by the versatile barman from the previous evening.
A fantastic day's walking in some pretty adverse weather conditions, we are tired but enthused by what we have seen today. Boosted by the news that our sponsorship total continues to rise and with no serious injuries or blisters (yet) we are all looking forward to what promises to be another excellent day tomorrow.