Monday, 1 September 2014

Hadrian's Wall Path #4: Steel Rigg to Banks Turret 31/08/14

Self at Steel Rigg
Five hours on the trail without feeling any need for sunblock last weekend, followed by an August bank holiday Monday that is regarded as having been the coldest and wettest in over 50 years suggest that the End of Summer is upon us and that is the surely the cue for me to go on my late summer jollies. So it's time to get Kirklees out of my system for a week and refocus my attention to the far north once again, time to get the services of my Parental taxi service and head out for seven days staying in Cumwhinton, at the top of the Eden Valley, just shy of Carlisle, to make my attempt on the last three legs of the Hadrian's Wall Path, resuming in the high lands atop the Whin Sill and heading for the Irish Sea coast. So cast away from your mind the environs of Huddersfield and Dewsbury, and the views across to the Colne valley and the Emley Moor transmitter, and return your view to the sights from May time, and say Hello again to the A69 and the Military Road, Hello to Northunbria National park and the escarpments of Dolerite, and Hello once more to tramping through 2,000 years of history, in the footsteps of the Romans, and Britons of all ages.

Hadrian's Wall Path #4: Steel Rigg to Banks Turret  13.1 miles

Winshields Crag
I've no real idea what the weather is going to be doing as we ride back out to Steel Rigg, so I clad myself light with the possibility of weather coming on, and I get my start at 9.55am, walking to the Steel Rigg viewpoint with my parents to view the many crags or the Whin Sill, stretching to the east as far as Sewingshields Crag, which gets my memory back on track before bidding them farewell with a promise of seeing them again in 6 hours time. Heading out alongside the Clayton Wall and over the road, the ascent starts immediately, feeling like a bit of a cheat as the highest point on the trail is the first objective of the day and I have started most of the way up it already. It's not half a mile up to the top but it's slow going over moorland turf as the blood gets pumping, focusing attention of the distant horizons to Wark forest and the North Pennines, with the cloud cover being high and broken despite the chilling wind, and the only feature obscured is the summit of Cross Fell, way off the south, still holding onto its own weather system on an otherwise promising day. 20 minutes in and the top of the trail is attained, 345m up at the top of Winshields Crag, with consolidated wall rising alongside much of the path, offering a viewpoint to get the brain excited, showing the route travelled over the previous days on the Northumberland moors and drawing attention to the many rises and fall along the Whin Sill to come as the day progresses, as well as getting a look down to the Twice Brewed Inn alongside the arrow straight Military road to the south and to the many farmsteads eking out a living in the rough land to the north. Departing the trig point the junction down to Windshields Farm is passed (having not had its D blown away by the wind, as the guide book would waggishly have it), following a robust field wall along the escarpment line, before dropping to the cleft of Lodhams Slack before rising again, setting the pattern for the early part of today's trail. The elevated platform stretches onward, declining slightly to meet the rubble base of Milecastle 41, still hidden away beneath the turf, and my pace overtakes an old couple out on a morning stroll, whilst a much younger pair burn me off as we pass the declivity at Caw Gap and the rise to Turret 41A is made. A look back along the consolidated wall already has it looking like I have had a good day on the roller-coaster and I know that there is much more to come, as I progress along to the curve at Thorney Doors, where the wall still stands 14 course high, and an excellent view of the Vallum trenches far below stands out against the turf, almost looking more structurally impressive from this elevated viewpoint.

Milecastle 42
The path along Cawfields Crag slips down towards Milecastle 42, which appears suddenly, as your attention is focused on the steep crag remnant above the former quarry, and it stands at an angle that could be described as jaunty, but was deliberately placed by the Romans just uphill from the natural depression where the burn crosses the wall line to exercise great control over the local population using the border post, showing some political viewpoints never change. It's well preserved, as are the crossings point on the Vallum, and it's worth taking the detour up to the top of the crag to get the look back to it from the west, as the wall rising to the top stops abruptly as the Cawfields quarry site gouged the Dolerite away from under the wall, an exercise in historical vandalism that ended in 1944, leaving the site to be reclaimed by man and nature, creating a quiet pool that is a fine spot to stop for elevenses and to note that the day is coming on much hotter than I had expected it to. Meeting the road and the crossing of Haltwhistle Burn has me back on a previously walked path, visited back in 2011 in my casual walking days, when I did Walltown to Cawfields in 2 hours on a glum July day, I'm not going to be testing myself against that pace, not least because I'm travelling in the opposite direction, but I'm looking to get a different perspective as this day is a whole lot brighter. Rise along the field boundary past the guest house and you could be left feeling cheated as you appear to have entered some rather dull pastures as both the Wall and the Whin Sill disappear, but a peer over the wall will have you getting sight of the North ditch, still present to keep you in antiquities as you make the rise to Great Chesters farm, the front yard of which contains the remains of Aesica fort. The boundary walls still stand on most sides, and a few notable Roman remains endure within, notably the only altar in situ along the entire length of the wall, a crude carving of a soldier with shield on a nearby stone, and the arch of the strongroom fenced off in the middle of the enclosure, also several remnants of rooms remain along the western wall and a curious double ditch stretches around that boundary. Altogether a remarkable bunch of survivals when you consider that farm animals are free to roam amongst it all, and I depart via the west gate, trying to not startle the cows as I re-engage the rubble wall and press on up to Cockmount farm, then passing through one of the few forest plantations which have dropped on the wall line. A point of interest beyond is the Roman mile post from the ancient military way reused as a gatepost, and that's the most significant remnant for a while as the track becomes strewn with bracken, obscuring the sites of Turret 43b and Milecastle 44 as field wall sits on the wall line until moorland grass and a ladder stile indicate the return of the Whin Sill as the Dolerite rears up once again.

Turret 44b
Beyond the first rise, having suddenly gained elevation, we enter the Nine Nicks of Thirwall, and the terrain becomes a roller-coaster ride once more, falling and rising sharply as the rubble rigg slips around the contours of the multiple gaps, and despite having been this way before, any familiarity of the geography has waned so much that I am surprised by running up on Turret 44b after having topped Mucklebank Crag. The view today is the one I had hoped for three years ago, with the turret standing its lonely watch above the Walltown Gap as the wall angles around it, I'll still vouch for it as the most dramatically placed of all the turrets, especially when bathed in sunshine. I'll drop down via the flagstoned path to the bottom of the gap, but don't ascend to the top of Walltown Crag, instead favouring the lower path that keeps away from the high edge, as this is the one place where the edge doesn't feel safe, enclosed by a fence of only a single string of barbed wire, and catching a breeze across there with a sheer drop to one side of you is an alarming feeling. I'll resume on the wall line as the high edge drops and the consolidated wall resumes, gaining my only view down to Walltown Lough before rising to turret 45a, offering another dramatic aspect to north and south, and the day must be clearing up as Cross Fell is now showing its whole face to the world, and I'll press on taking the slightly more elevated path on the crags, away from the wall itself, in order to get some better shots of the wall, including the view that is seen on the cover of my impression of OL43. The consolidated wall ends abruptly at Walltown Quarry, another huge gash dug into the edge of the Whin Sill, which claimed many tons of hard and resistant Dolerite until as recently as 1983, and since nature has started to reclaim the bare rock at the base, complete with obligatory lake. It's a good spot for a short stroll, judging by the number of people coming up the angled path from the quarry base, with one very North-Eastern family wondering if they are 'nearly there yet?'. Drop to the bowl of the quarry, finding a spot to grab lunch and startle the ducks hiding in the shade of the picnic table, and to try to send a message to my parents to give them my 1pm progress update, but no connections can be made out here, so I'll have to get the hurry up to get 7 miles down in 3 hours, so there will again be no opportunity to visit the Roman Army museum at Magna, just south of the wall, a fort site that has an English name, Carvoran, that seems just as Latin as its original one.

Thirwall Castle
Leave Walltown Quarry and pass up the road, leaving the alignment south of the wall where we have been on the trail for many hours, rising into the field to descend away from the Whin Sill along the outer edge of the North Ditch once again, losing nearly 90m of elevation through fields of sheep and cattle, some of whom take no interest at all in moving out of your way, and I have no interest in fighting any cows, even those docile rust-coloured ones. Train sounds in the distance indicate the presence of a railway, and from my vantage point, I manage to see the Newcastle & Carlisle services passing in both directions before I drop into the trees above the path that snakes down to Holmhead farm, a notable guest house on the route, and crossing over Tipal Burn before rising through the farmsteads of Duffenfoot to find myself by Thirwall Castle, a medieval establishment in the 'hole in the wall', one almost entirely built of Roman stone and a major frontier post right through to the time of the Border Reivers. No time for a visit, sadly, pressing on alongside the burn before crossing Pow Charney Burn and rising over the old NER line to meet a line of colliery cottages a short way north of Greenhead, where we can say goodbye (or hello) to the Pennine Way as it follows the Vallum line eastward up the hill whilst our route takes us along the B6318, no longer in it's guise as the Military Road, towards Longbyre, where the wall line is regained where a stretch of wall rises from the roadside like a bridge abutment. Beyond the field walk to Wall End House, a confusing mass of earthworks fills the landscape, where the north ditch has retained the spoil dug out by the Roman engineers, making it all feel a bit more Iron Age, and the path drifts up close to the wall line as the north ditch has flooded from a nearby stream which eventually renders the ditch entirely superfluous to the defensive formation, and as we cross over before Chapel House Farm, that is the last engagement we will be making with an eastward flowing watercourse. Both wall and ditch disappear for the next couple of fields, and attention is drawn to the big house hiding in the landscape off to the north, the Gilsland Spa hotel, once a health resort to rival those at Bath and Harrogate, but ultimately done in by the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere.

Willowford Bridge Abutment
As the path meets another farm, and passes through the flowery front garden of the adjacent house, we cross the English watershed, and the rise through the next field returns the earthworks to the landscape and the path slips into the North Ditch for a stretch as it passes into the lower edge of Gilsland, passing over the road behind the pub where we lunched in 2011, the Samson, and the ditch slips downhill as the path moves over to the side of the railway, by the site of Gilsland station, dropping steeply downhill to the footbridge over Poltross Burn. Rising high above the burn is a ridiculously high railway bridge, with very high flood warning markers way above the waterline, and moving to the west bank arrives us in Cumbria, much later in the day than I had anticipated, and just above the river channel we find Milecastle 48, the most complete of all the way-stations along the wall, showing many of the internal divisions and illustrating how 30 Roman soldiers could have been stationed in such a small site, even some remains of the steps to the upper floor are in situ too suggest the scale of the building. Seeing as the railway embankment cuts right through the wall on the other side of the fence, the survival is remarkable, and apparently it was even more substantial before the NER built its line, and the path follows the railway line until a foot-crossing passes over it, and a long stretch of consolidated wall rises away up hill in front of the derelict Gilsland vicarage, a building that cries out for the Grand Designs treatment, one to add to the list, I guess. Pass some hardcore walkers pass the other way as I ascend away past the primary school beyond the rough land and another train passes by before I meet the road, beyond which another stretch of consolidated wall endures, stretching high above the River Irthing, passing Turret 48A and a farm track in the North ditch before we roll up at Willowford farm. The long wall continues downhill towards the river bank, a steep descent which concludes with the remains of the abutment of the Roman bridge which once spanned the Irthing, which archaeology suggests might have been an ancient structure and engineering marvel to rival the Pont du Gard aqueduct. The river has certainly changed since Roman times, being much wider 19 centuries ago, but the channel profile suggests that the Willowford bridge rose high above its heavily wooded banks, and once across the Millennium Footbridge, the necessity of the high level bridge is illustrated by the hard pull of 60m up the north-west bank of the Irthing.

The Turf Wall
The wall line is met with another abutment supporting the remains above the farm track, and the path immediately slips into the midst of the site of Milecastle 49, seeming to be larger than its compatriots, maybe in its relationship to the Willowford bridge it needed a larger site for customs or garrison, nowadays at risk from the crumbling high banks of the Irthing, and it deserves a proper poke around but my schedule has slipped and I need to press on. I join the track that heads along the northern side of the wall, outside the ditch, which isn't the right way because I am too busy not paying attention, and once I've discovered my mistake I've gone too far to warrant turning back. The opposite side of the long stretch of consolidated wall is definitely appearing busy, and that's because we are approaching Birdoswald Fort (Roman Banna), the most notable surviving fort in Cumbria, already visited back in 2011 and notable for the size of its vicus, the civilian settlement, and the evidence of extensive use in the post-Roman period. I'll move up the road and past the odd medieval bread oven cut into the boundary wall, to drop in to the reception desk to snare stamp #5 for my HWP passport, and pause, as 3pm has already arrived, for emergency watering and to try to get word to my folks that I am still 3 miles distant from the finish line, but this age of instantaneous communication scuppers my attempts once again. So push on, to try for 3mph in the last hour of the day, moving westwards along the consolidated wall, passing Turret 49b and taking a look north to a fresh forest landscape that we will only be able to see for a short while, namely Spadeadam forest, home to the not entirely secret RAF base where the Blue Streak rocket was tested in the 1950s, one of the most successfully tested mid-range rockets ever built, foolishly cancelled by the British government when they figured it would be cheaper to buy from abroad. Focus attention back 18 centuries as the path drifts from the roadside and the stone wall line to find the remaining stretch of the original wall built in the early 2nd century AD, the sole extent stretch of the Turf Wall, which was the created as per the initial plan to stretch from the Irthing to the Solway Firth, along a stretch where building stone was in short supply, it's replacement with a later stone wall suggesting that the first plan was inadequate, but it was clearly a formidable structure when the enduring earthworks are examined, as two millennia of farming have failed to grind it back into the landscape.

Pike Hill Signal Station
The landscape rise gives us our first view to the south since Thirlwall as well, the profile of the North Pennines having changed completely, with Cold Fell standing at the apex of the ridge, and beyond we get our first appearance of the Northern Fells of Lakeland, and even a casual student like myself can immediately pick out Blencathra and Skiddaw as the distant high points (I'm pretty sure that Helvellyn makes a late appearance too). Passing from the bulk of the Turf Wall as it slips back to share an alignment with the stone wall, the path shifts for a while to reacquaint us with the Vallum, not visited up close since day 2, and the southern edge is passed as views into the valley of the Irthing emerge and idling cows to their level best to ignore your presence before we slip though Combcrag woods, home to a notable Roman Quarry that would deserve attention if it wasn't for my late running. Beyond the wood, we get deposited on the road, which seem profoundly insulting after having had so many fields to enjoy, but it might quicken the pace a bit, and also illustrate that the metalled surface consumed much of the wall alignment, so it comes as a bit of a surprise to find the base of Turret 51a intact by the roadside. Past Craig Cottage we get back onto the field edge, but still cleaving close enough to the road to note Turret 51b also remains next to Leahill Farm, whilst stiles slow my progress as attention wanders to distant Lakeland and the hazy emergence the Eastern Fells, before we are forced onto the road once again to get around the pair of farms which both call themselves Bankhead. Put the hammer down through the rises and falls of the last few fields, to roll up on the Pike Hill Signal station, one of the few surviving outposts erected solely for the purpose of signalling along the wall and to the encampments above the border line in Caledonia, its unique identity indicated by being built at the oblique angle to the wall and having much deeper foundations than the other turrets. It's here that I find my parents out to greet the intrepid wanderer, still having fun trying to get pictures on the iPad, and they will accompany me on to the car park by Banks Turret, a popular drop off for wall explorers, with me landing nearly half an hour late at 4.20pm, and all thoughts about the End of Summer slip away after a blisteringly hot afternoon, and my decision to travel without sunblock is going to feel regrettable within hours of getting back to base.

Next on the Slate: Getting down from the high lands and heading for the Big City.

1,000 Miles Cumulative Total: 1270.2 miles

(2014 total: 357 miles)
(Up Country Total: 1174.6 miles)
(Solo Total: 1054.7 miles)
(Declared Total: 1062 miles)

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