Cycling the ‘Great Wall of Britain’

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 Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags near Greenhead, Englandaudience 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.
Hadrian’s CyclewayThe 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.


We were braced for bad weather, but got only a couple of cloudy days and a mere hour of rain. What I hadn’t mentally prepared for was cycling on the opposite side of the road, a challenge, particularly through roundabouts.
Ravenglass Roman bath house at west end of Hadrian’s CyclewayThe route begins without fanfare (some of the signage in the route’s first stretch is not yet up) in Ravenglass, a tiny coastal community and former Roman port on the western edge of the Lake District. The start is at the well-preserved ruins of the Glannaventa Roman bath house.
We left Ravenglass by a northern coastal trail during a tide so low that boats sat mud-locked on their keels. Bird-watchers were out in force. We cycled along one-lane roads in the country, where the air was filled with the smell of coal-burning stoves.
Lunch at a nuclear power plant brought us back to the present. The Sellafield Visitors Centre, a couple of miles off course, is an impressive public relations effort by owner British Nuclear Fuels Limited, which in 2003 hired the Science Museum in London to revamp the center’s exhibits. The cafe sold delicious meals at discount prices.
Hadrian’s Cycleway on shore of Irish SeaWe zipped through adorable St. Bees, where England’s famed Coast to Coast walking trail begins, to reach our hotel in Whitehaven. This working-class city recently transformed its waterfront area, adding a wide promenade, sculptures, and benches, all with artistic nautical details. During the first of what were to become daily pub stops, I learned not to block the telly after four agitated soccer fans screamed at me to sit down. Or maybe Americans have been unwelcome in Whitehaven since John Paul Jones led a naval raid on the city in 1778, marking the last recorded invasion of England.
We hugged the coast for another day, stopping in Maryport for a bite and a look in the Senhouse Roman Museum, which sits dramatically atop a cliff overlooking the Solway Firth, an arm of the Irish Sea. The private museum houses 17 Roman altars found in almost perfect condition in a nearby pit in 1870.
tea with scones, jam, and clotted creamShortly before reaching Silloth, our final seaside stay, we stopped at a tearoom called the Gincase for a pot of tea and scones, jam, and clotted cream. To mark our final night on the west coast, we toasted a vibrant sunset over the hills of Scotland.
Away from the coast and headed easterly into the countryside, we were surrounded by farms, sheep, horses, cows, and fields of corn. That’s when we discovered thrips, or corn flies. They are little black pests that travel in packs, plaster your clothing, and stick in your eyes. They drove us crazy.
We hit our first big city, Carlisle, during rush hour, which didn’t make for pleasant cycling. In the morning we toured Carlisle Cathedral (built in 1122), skipped the castle, and pedaled back to the buggy countryside. We labored uphill to the 13th-century market town of Brampton and sped downhill into a tranquil valley to reach Lanercost Priory, a well-tended 12th-century church and ruins built with materials pillaged from Hadrian’s Wall.
Finally we saw the wall in all its glory, casting long shadows in the late afternoon sun. We arrived too late to visit the Birdoswald Fort atop the hill, but we got our fill of all things Roman the next day.
Sign near east end of Hadrian’s CyclewayOur penultimate day of cycling was all about the wall. In hindsight, we should have spent more time in this region around Northumberland National Park, a land of green hills and valleys stretching to the Scottish border. We spent hours at forts and museums, the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, Vindolanda Roman Fort, and Corbridge Fort. But we ran out of time for Housesteads, the wall’s most intact fort, famous for its Roman-era communal toilets.
Walltown Crags was our favorite stop. We carefully crossed a dung-filled meadow, again eyed by dozens of sheep, and climbed to the top of the rock face where a ribbon of wall stretched as far as the eye could see. The only other people there were two Historic Building Services workers refortifying parts of the wall.
“We don’t add stones, only point them,” one of them said. “If we didn’t repair it, it wouldn’t be here, would it? You’d be selling pieces in America on eBay.”
Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum at east end of Hadrian’s CyclewayA parting gift of a brisk tailwind pushed us east on our final day. Riding along the Tyne River in busy downtown Newcastle returned us to the 21st century. It was tempting to end our ride here, but we felt compelled to reach the official finish, 11 miles east at the Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields. By the time we reached the replicated fort, it was closed for the day and the street was empty. I would have welcomed at least a few curious sheep.

IF YOU GO (A compilation of all the information you’ll need to plan your own trip.)  

Hadrian’s Wall information

There are many ways to wander the wall: by bicycle, vehicle, and on foot. The most substantial parts of the wall to see are in the central section. These run for about 1 mile between Banks Turret and Birdoswald and another mile between Steel Rigg and Housesteads and Steel Rigg. These are not complete sections, but they give the visitor the longest stretches of wall to walk alongside and view.

Hadrian’s Wall Heritage
011 44 1434 322 002
www.hadrians-wall.org

Cycling information and downloadable brochures
www.cycle-routes.org/hadrianscycleway
Order Cycleway map at www.sustransshop.co.uk

Walking trail information
www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall

Outfitters

Saddle Skedaddle
Ouseburn Building,
East Quayside,
Newcastle upon Tyne,
011 44 191 265 11 10
www.skedaddle.co.uk
Full-service bike touring company offers tours, and arranges bike rentals, accommodations, and luggage transportation. Prices vary depending on the package. We paid $220 each for weeklong bike rental and $450 to transfer four people and bicycles from the east to west coast.

Tyne Bridge Bike Hire
Newcastle Guildhall Visitor Information Center
Under Tyne Bridge
011 44 191 277 2441
www.tynebridgebikehire.co.uk
Budget-friendly Tyne Bridge rents bicycles (from a half-day on) and provides transfers, but does not lead tours, arrange accommodations or shuttle luggage. A bargain for the do-it-yourselfer. Weeklong bike rental $120 each (had we only known), transport fees vary

Sights along the way

Muncaster Castle
Ravenglass
011 44 1229 717614
http://www.muncaster.co.uk/
Adults $14, children $10, families $44
Self-guided tours of castle, gardens and amazing World Owl Center (www.owls.org)

Senhouse Roman Museum
The Battery
Maryport
011 44 1900 816168
www.senhousemuseum.co.uk
Adults $5, children $1.50
Houses 17 Roman altars found in almost perfect condition

Lanercost Priory
Lanercost
011 44 16977 3030
www.english-heritage.org.uk/lanercost
Adults $6, children $3, families $15
Closed mid-December through March
Ruins of 12th-century priory and adjacent 13th-century Church of St. Mary Magdalene

Birdoswald Roman Fort
Gilsland
011 44 16977 47602
www.english-heritage.org.uk/birdoswald
Adults $8.50, children $4.50, families, $19
Closed October through March
Along an excellent stretch of wall you can see remains of Roman fort, turret and milecastle

The Roman Army Museum
Greenhead
011 44 16977 47485
http://www.vindolanda.com/roman_army_museum.html
Adults $8.50, children $5, families $23
Closed mid-November to Mid-February
Artifacts give insight into the garrisons of Hadrian’s Wall. From here it’s a short walk to Walltown Crags

Vindolanda Roman Fort and Museum
Bardon Mill
011 44 1434 344277
www.vindolanda.com
Adults $10.50, children $6, families $29
Excavations are ongoing at the remains of this 3rd- and 4th-century Roman fort and civilian settlement. Museum display includes famed writing tablets.

Housesteads Roman Fort and Museum
Just west of Once Brewed
011 44 1434 344363
www.english-heritage.org.uk/housesteads
Adults $8.50, children $4.40
The most complete example of a Roman fort in Brain, with spectacular views of Hadrian’s Wall

Corbridge Roman Town and Museum
Corbridge
011 44 1434 632349
www.english-heritage.org.uk/corbridge
Adults $8.50, children $4.40
Walk along original “main street” in extensively excavated town from AD 80

Where to stay

Lodging options along the cycleway can be found at http://www.hadrians-wall.org. Our favorites were:

Nith View Guest House
1 Pine Terrace
Silloth on Solway
001 44 16973 32860
www.nithview-guesthouse.co.uk
Doubles from $110
Victorian home overlooks the sea and the Scottish hills

Greenhead Hotel and Hostel
Greenhead
001 44 16977 47411
www.greenhead-hotel.co.uk
Doubles $130
Dorm rooms in nearby hostel $27
Situated in tiny village, hotel and hostel share nice bar and restaurant and are near Hadrian’s Wall

Twice Brewed Inn
Military Road
Bardon Mill
001 44 1434 344534
www.twicebrewedinn.co.uk
Doubles $42 to $78
Situated in Northumbrian National Park, the inn is an ideal place from which to explore nearby stretches of Hadrian’s Wall

Where to eat

Dining options along the cycleway can be found at at http://www.hadrians-wall.org. Our favorites were:

The Ratty Arms
Ravenglass
011 191 1229 717676
rattyarms@aol.com
The best pub and eatery in town features such specialties as beef and Guinness ($13) and roasted lamb ($17)

The Gincase Farmhouse Tearoom, Craft Barn, and Farm Park
Mawbray Hayrigg (on the B5301)
011 191 16973 32020
www.gincase.co.uk
This country tearoom and petting farm is the place to stop for a ploughman’s lunch ($12), and cream tea ($8) — tea served with two just-baked scones, jam, and fresh Cumberland clotted cream

Twice Brewed Inn
Bardon Mill
Information above
If you don’t stay here, at least stop for a pint and a meal. Try the Northumbrian farmhouse sausages ($13) or the lentil pie ($12).

Oldfields Restaurant
9 Osborne Road
Jesmond, Newcastle
001 44 191 212 1210
www.oldfieldsrestaurants.com
Entrees $24 to $40
Award-winning urban restaurant specializes in organic and locally grown food.

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7 Responses to “Cycling the ‘Great Wall of Britain’”

  1. Wool Jersey Gal Says:

    I can’t wait to go. The pictures alone get me really excited. I plan on going in the Spring, and I will let you know how it goes!

  2. Jane Goody Says:

    After reading the article, I feel that I need more information on the topic. Can you suggest some more resources please?

    • didaniel Says:

      Hi Jane. Glad you’re intrigued by this wonderful route. If you follow the links in this posting and/or scroll to end, you’ll find pretty much every resource available about Hadrian’s Wall.

  3. Curt Harris Says:

    Just read about your Hadrian Wall trip in the Aug. 2009 issue of the Adventure Cyclist magazine and then followed up on your web site. Great writeup!

    I’d be interested in hearing your comments about camping along the way.

    Thanks.

    • didaniel Says:

      Alas, I hope the AC article doesn’t imply that we camped, because we did not. For some reason, I think AC chose not to give the “If You Go” nuts-and-bolts sidebar. It is here, at the end of this blog piece, however, not all the lodging but some. Usually we camp but we decided to lessen our load and hotel it. Things really start to close down in the country by early October, when we went, so sometimes finding lodging was a challenge.

  4. peterbreeze Says:

    Heading off to UK in 2 weeks, and plan to do the Wall, this is helps, thanks.

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