This was first published in the Boston Globe on Jan. 27, 2008, but you’ll find links and a lot more photos in this version. Surprises in England: It really is as expensive (for Americans) as everyone says it is. Beware that most lodging prices are listed *per person.* I loved being in a foreign country where I spoke the language. I hated cycling on the “wrong” side of the road, especially in roundabouts! But I was impressed with the cycling infrastructure, both on roads and dedicated paths.
By Diane Daniel
GREENHEAD, England – “OK, you can stop staring now,” I called out between labored breaths. The sheep kept their eyes on me as I pushed a bike weighted with a week’s worth of gear up the steep path next to their pasture.
Sometimes, when you’re on a bicycle and the hill is vertical, you just have to get off and push. My husband and friends were too far ahead to witness my surrender. Instead, I had an audience of 50 or so sheep following my every move.
The reward for tackling one of the few punishing grades along the 175-mile Hadrian’s Cycleway was Walltown Crags, which gave us our most impressive view of the week of “the great wall of Britain.”
Begun in 122 AD by the Emperor Hadrian and his Roman soldiers, Hadrian’s Wall marked the army’s northern frontier in Britain for nearly 300 years. An engineering marvel of stone and turf that ran 73 1/2 miles from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, the wall Hadrian envisioned was to be 10 feet wide and 15 feet high, though those dimensions varied because of materials and manpower as the wall extended westward.
The wall was completed in about eight years and bustling civilian communities sprang up around it and its milecastles (fortlets) and garrisons to do business with the soldiers. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While only small parts of the wall are visible, ongoing excavation turns up new finds yearly.
We, however, assumed we would be cycling along the wall for days. Instead, we didn’t spot it until our fifth day, after 100 miles of riding. But the route is filled with archeological stops – forts, churches, museums, and ruins. Best of all, we were treated to an eclectic sampling of northern England, from its haunting coasts and sheep-speckled countryside to thriving cities.
The national cycleway, which opened in 2006, was routed using mostly country roads and bike paths. Save for a few spots, it is well signed. For walkers, there is the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail, opened in 2003.
It was early October when we met our friends in Newcastle, then paid for private transportation across the island to the Cumbrian coast. (Because of prevailing winds, most cyclists ride west to east.) My husband and I rented bikes, while our friends brought their tandem. We carried all our gear and winged it with lodging, but shuttle providers are available for those wanting baggage transfer and nightly reservations.