Mike Vouri: On Hadrian’s Wall: Bowness-on-Solway
- Written by Mike Vouri
July 17 Bowness on Solway
We made it.
Our journey along the Hadrian’s Wall path ended at about noon, following a final push into a west wind that plastered our clothing to our bodies and pelted us with raindrops that stung like pea gravel. It was only the second rainstorm in 10 days and 101 miles, and did little to dampen the exultation I felt at having completed a formidable task. It was much like finishing basic training.
We finally made it via clear signage to a Roman-style open pavilion on a “bank” or cliff ledge over the beach on the fringe of Bowness, once a fort called Maia. Mike indulges in a selfie while Jerry eats his lunch.
I can’t speak for Jerry. While I was bouncing around taking selfies with the modest trail terminus pavilion in the background, he had found a spot on a bench and was eating lunch.
That morning, we left Janice and Caleb’s BNB in Easton at about 8:45 after outstanding ham and cheese omelets, anticipating that she would give us a ride back to the wall path where she had picked us up the day before. Instead, the couple stood at the screen door and waved good-bye. Apprehension must have been written on our faces, because Janice quickly responded.
Jan and Caleb, proprietors of the Midtown Farm bed and breakfast in Easton, Cumbria see us off on the final leg of our hike on the Hadrian’s Wall.
“Turn right at the end of the drive, the path is about 400 yards down the road. You’ll see it,” she said. Then, sizing up the overcast skies, she added, “It’s a perfect day for hiking, boys! Good luck!”
That was not the first time we started out on the path with this exhortation. Sure enough, about a block away was the old railway berm that once carried a line from Carlisle to Bowness along a straight-edged road that bordered the Solway marshes. A National Trails sign reading “Hadrian’s Wall Path” was planted at the corner. We were home, as it were.
Easton gives onto open farmland, where the only remnants of Hadrian’s Wall is the occasional masonry scatter lying under a straight-edge line of brush.
The Quaint Mazes on the Wanton Green
The distance between Easton and Bowness is four miles according to the road signs, but it was more like six because the trail leaves the road and winds through farm fields and country lanes. Along the way, we made a few wrong turns owing to directional signs hidden by brush and the perpetual challenge of reconciling maps with three-dimensional reality.
A mile post on the road between Easton and Drumburgh says there’s only four miles to go to the end of the trail at Bowness, but it was more like six cross country. The Solway Firth is in the background.
There were also crossroads where we relied on my compass and the British National Trails app. Once downloaded, the app guides you via satellite with a little red dot that follows a route line. We had come to rely on this after all our missteps, but it is not failsafe, as the dot is broad-brush and cannot winnow to nameless country lanes and muddy cross-trails with no signs.
For example, just as we had done the day before, we started down the wrong road. Despite the app and compass, the route didn’t seem right, so we resorted to guesswork and picked our way along. At one point we trespassed through a conventional farm field gate. It was a boggy pasture with tall grass and sucking mud that pulled at our boots. The app drifted into the ether and was no help at all over the next quarter mile. Later I stumbled upon a piece written in 1883 by an English country walker, wherein he offers this line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
"The nine men's morris is filled up with mud: And the quaint maizes on the wanton green, For lack of tread, are undistinguishable."
We finally exited, and after a mile of asphalt road entered the village of Glasson. Another pub, the Highland Laddie, had a “For Sale” sign on it. This was the second closure along the trail after Burgh-by-Sands, and the third overall of the hike. I thought of the trekkers we met in front of the deserted Greyhound Public House at Burgh the day before who assured us that the closure “was of no consequence,” as they would soon have a meal at the Highland Laddie. Their cheerful bounce must have come to a screeching halt. On a long-distance hike, energy bars will only get you so far.
Only a few weeks before the trip, I had read in the New York Times about hard times in rural Cumbria. Here it was. No pub owner could afford to stay in business, even with hikers passing by. Most hikers won’t drink, as (from my own experience) there is nothing worse than quaffing a pint and being mush-headed on the trail. And the long-time villagers are moving away, their homes purchased by commuters who prefer home to a pub following an hour in traffic.
Colin Smithsong, who owns The Bush public house and restaurant where we had dined the night before, said this is why many establishments have abandoned the traditional long-handled pulls that bring ale up from casks stored in the basement. The ale only remains fresh for about four days, and they cannot finish off a cask before it spoils. Not so in Bowness, though, as we were soon to learn. Located at the start/finish of the wall path, the lone pub there, The King’s Arms, does such a cracking business among hikers that they have a wall passport-stamping station at one end of the bar.
(I am pleased report that at the time of this writing (two years on), the Greyhound and the Highland Laddie have re-opened.)
A Kiosk Full of Lightning
Across from the pub adjacent to the trailhead, we noticed what appeared to be a telephone booth. The British call them boxes or kiosks. Although painted the traditional red, this one was a more modern design with plate glass and aluminum on a concrete pad rather than the classic domed shed with a sectional glass door and crown that we have come to identify with England. On closer inspection we realized that the booth had been converted into, of all things, an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) station. The bright yellow and circular machine was mounted on the back wall, calibrated, charged and ready for use. Etched on the glass door was a human figure clutching a lightning bolt, as if to erase any doubts of its purpose.
At first we recognized this as a phone booth, but then saw that it was actually an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) station. England’s Community Heartbeat Trust has saved hundreds such kiosks from the junk pile—and many lives—throughout England.
For awhile there, I wondered if the box had been strategically placed near the end of the wall path to rescue, or at the very least, assure weary hikers. Then I later learned that the Community Heartbeat Trust came up with this novel idea as cell phones have driven the kiosks to extinction. As a result, they have not only saved hundreds of kiosks from the junk pile, but a considerable number of lives throughout England as well.
I am pleased to report that we gave the kiosk a pass.
The Long Dead Works of Man
We emerged from the last of the farm country onto a stretch of trail that traced the firth, or river mouth, revealing a concrete and brick abutment that once served as an offshore wharf for the long-extinct Port Carlisle ship canal basin. As we had come to learn, the Roman wall, forts and watchtowers are not the only human works that had come and gone over the centuries.
All that is left of the Port Carlisle ship basin on Solway Firth is this ruin of a 19th century wharf. In 1823 a canal with eight locks was completed, allowing sailing ships to be towed more than 11 miles from the Solway to Carlisle.
In 1823 a canal with eight locks was completed, allowing sailing ships to be towed more than 11 miles from the Solway to Carlisle. These ships carried passengers and the region’s produce to Liverpool, Ireland and points beyond. By 1853 the canal was filled in and supplanted by trains that crossed the marshes and disembarked passengers and freight on the wharf. Many of those passengers were Scandinavians crossing England via Newcastle and bound for America.
Another gargantuan rail project followed further west with the mile-long Solway Junction Viaduct that crossed the estuary from Bowness to Annan on the Scotland shore. Built in 1869 to accommodate the anticipated economic growth of a direct rail connection, the line ran until 1920. But it was never a fail-safe structure because ice floes from the frozen upper reaches of the river wiped out the cast-iron piers, leaving the rail line hanging in midair. Consequently freight traffic dried up and passenger service was spotty at best, so the viaduct was no longer economically feasible. Even more calamitous, the once bustling Port Carlisle upriver died because no accommodation was made for a draw bridge!
This life preserver station on the firth is not for show, as the tide bores can carry away beach walkers.
The viaduct was relegated to a massive steampunk footpath, mainly for thirsty Scots crossing to England on Sunday in search of open pubs. As you may imagine, the return journey, tiptoeing from tie to tie, was only slightly less precarious than risking quicksand or tidal surges on the estuary floor. However, this daredevil means of getting a drink was finally dismantled in 1935. All that is left are the jetties on the opposite shore and a few rusted iron supports.
Roger on the Spot
As we hiked into town we met Roger, a spry fellow in his 80s who earned a few bob maintaining an official-looking directional sign pointing the way to Bowness (one mile), Wallsend, Rome and your hometown. This is done with a complete alphabet of insertable letters and numbers in his garage, located across the road from the path. We bit. Roger dashed across the street, sorted through his stash and returned with a footstool. He removed “Albany,” and proceeded to slide the San Juan County seat into the slot.
Mike Vouri and Jerry McElyea strike a pose near the hike’s end under a Hadrian’s Wall path signpost, customized by its owner, Roger (in right photo), to indicate miles to your hometown…for a few bob, of course.
“Uh oh, boys, the name is too long,” Roger said.
“That’s an easy fix,” I replied. “There’s no ‘u’ in Harbor in the United States.”
“That’s right, you colonials can’t spell!”
He quickly adjusted his work, and we struck a pose below “Friday Harbor 4,480.” He snapped our photo, and we dropped coins in the donation box and were on our way. A little later at our BNB, two fellow hikers who came after us asked if we were the people from Austin. Roger had had a busy day.
At first we thought Roger’s signpost might be the end of our hike, as it is a knock-off of those at Wallsend and Vindolanda. But we had another mile of hard road to walk through whipping wind and scattered showers. We finally made it via clear signage to a Roman-style open pavilion on a “bank” or cliff ledge over the beach.
A replica of a Roman mosaic found by archaeologists is embedded in the floor of the Bowness end-of-trail trail pavilion. The work was done by local school children.
A mosaic duplicating one found in the subsumed Roman fort, Maia (translated as “The Larger”), depicts seabirds, and a tryptic historical wayside fills the back wall. The box with the Hadrian’s Wall Path stamp inside is situated on the “start” side of the pavilion. We entered by the “finish” side, and our access to the box was impeded by a ginger-haired local woman in her early 40s who was reviewing notes for an upcoming meeting. She snapped her binder shut and leaned back on the wayside, green eyes sparkling.
“So you made it?”
Bowness-on-Solway and Stolen Bells
The main drag and the only pub in Bowness on Solway.
As it turns out, there is much about Bowness on Solway that harkens to the good old days despite the modest economic largess brought by wall hikers. Bowness began life as the second-largest vicus, or village, built outside the walls of the fort. Over the centuries, the village eventually covered the fort in its entirety. Bowness today has fewer than a hundred houses clustered about a single main street that runs north to south, with a boulevard branching off to the medieval St. Michael’s Church (another built with stones from the wall). The church and our BNB, which once served as the rectory, stand atop the fort’s granary.
The bells in St. Michael’s church tower were pinched by a Scots raiding party in 1626. But the tide roared in on the firth and the bells were lost.The people of Bowness, in turn, raided two churches in Scotland. Those bells remain in Bowness today.
The bells in the church tower bear a legacy to rival any of the Border Reiver tales. Around 1626 a Scots raiding party pinched St. Michael’s original bells, but as they were crossing the Bowness-Annan wath, the tide roared in and the bells were lost. The Bowness parishioners did not take this lying down. They made a minus-tide raid of their own, stealing bells from two separate churches. By tradition, each time a new vicar of the Scots churches is installed, he must write a letter to his Bowness counterpart requesting return of the bells. Four centuries and counting, the bells remain in St. Michaels.
Bowness draws its name from the “bow” in the headland where the firth meets the sea, and is derived from the Old English boga, bow and naess. Or the Old Norse bogi and nes. Much as in the San Juan Islands on the far side of the world, the people who lived in the village and other communities on both shores of the Solway Firth once made a living by fishing and farming.
Around 600 CE, Cistercian monks established this economy by draining the marshes to raise crops and cattle, and, as with Coast Salish fishers back home, trapping spawning salmon by employing seasonal stationary weirs. Two hundred years later, the Vikings introduced the Norse haaf net, a mobile technique where a single fisher wades into the firth at flood tide with a hand-held net affixed to a rectangular frame the length of an oar. He braces himself against the rush of water, dipping the net and trying to maintain balance when the fish are entrapped. These methods are still used seasonally on the firth, though the stocks are dwindling and the fisheries are heavily regulated by England’s Department of Fisheries. Unlike farming, which is also stressed, no one has made a living from haaf net fishing in years.
We saw quite a few local folks in the pub, many of whom had attended a funeral earlier at St. Michael’s for a woman associated with one of the farms. The mourners were in their Sunday best: black suits, spotless white shirts, black ties and elegant dresses. We had seen many of them on the street in front of the church earlier. Some had come from out of town, driving expensive, late-model cars.
By late evening, the pub was so loud you could not speak without turning hoarse, and the ambient noise reduced my hearing to a low roar. A couple not in their best duds, but equally inebriated, engaged us in a conversation about fishing and a score of other topics. They were about my age, he a balding, trim handyman and she also fit, graying and creased, a retired schoolteacher who now gardens. They said they escape each winter for warmer climes, lately West Africa. Neither of them has ever been to the United States, though they had met plenty of American hikers in the pub. They each had three full glasses of white wine while we were there, and I expect a few more before we arrived.
I checked out the Roman collections at the British Museum on a stop in London on the way home. Here is the Emperor Hadrian himself!
We also met a solo hiker from London who was interested in our views of England and eager to talk history. He offered to buy us another pint, but we politely turned him down. We had already had one and were too tired to endure the din of the pub any longer. My ears were still ringing in the morning when mourning doves cooed outside the window and dogs barked in the lobby. The women who run the BNB, which is also a popular tea room, have four cats and four dogs, the latter barking frantically every time someone walks in the door or steps outside. It felt like home.
One Final Bowness Note: A scan of the online community forum in bed that evening revealed a May 30 report that one Morgan Wylie completed the Hadrian’s Wall path, from Bowness to Wallsend, in 16 hours, seven minutes. He beat the former record of 16 hours, 25 minutes by running the entire distance.
Who are these people?
Epilogue: A Return For The Perfect Shot
July 18, Carlisle
We arrived at the Carlisle train station the next morning after catching a ride in from Bowness with a couple from London. I lingered with Jerry on the quay, as he was on his way to Glasgow, the first stop on a two-week tour of Scotland. Then Jerry had an idea.
Rather than spend my day wandering around the city, why not travel back along the wall, find the spot with the steps leading nowhere and take that photo I wanted so badly? He was referring to Mile Castle 42 at Cawfield Crags, about five days back on foot, which is the image most often depicted in stories and promotional pieces about the wall. It was built by the legion founded by Julius Caesar, is dramatically situated between two stretches of wall and can be photographed in full from the hill that was sliced in half when a quarry was excavated in the 19th century. I missed out on a photo when we passed though because a woman and a toddler were frozen halfway up the steps.
I returned to Cawfield Crags by bus and train to capture this shot of Mile Castle 42, covering five days of hiking in a mere 90 minutes.
Now I could take the train we’d seen and heard at crossings, and then transfer to the 122AD bus that we took from Chollerford to Housesteads Fort. With any luck it would drop me close by. We said our goodbyes, and at long last parted company.
I checked into my hotel, dropped my luggage, filled my daypack and set off on an entirely different experience. I bought a roundtrip ticket to Haltwhistle, about 23 miles away and situated on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, also know as the Tyne Valley Line. Built in the 1830s, the line today supports no fewer than 55 direct trains that daily make the 60-mile trip across England’s narrowest point in about 90 minutes. Incidentally, the name Haltwhistle has nothing to do with trains. In old English it roughly means “the place where two streams meet at the base of the hill.”
My return was worked out to the minute. Catch the train from Carlisle at 11:14, then the 12:07 bus from Haltwhistle to the Mile Castle Inn on good old Route 6318. On arrival there, I would hike about a mile to the site, climb the stairs and snap my photo. The timetables meshed perfectly.
With ticket in hand, I checked the platform number, found a bench on the quay and sat down to await my train. Trouble was, I was facing the wrong way! My train awaited on a terminating track directly behind me, doors open. I finally took notice, stepped over, stuck my head through the door and asked, in dumb-tourist fashion, “Does this train go to Haltwhistle?” The dozen or so people in the car nodded in unison. As soon as I jumped aboard, the doors snapped shut. I had barely made it after loitering in front of the thing for more than 10 minutes. As the countryside slipped by, I tried to spot landmarks, but the train was moving too fast.
I disembarked at Haltwhistle Station, which was closed. Tickets were available at vending machines, and a convenience store was open across the street. It was the first such store I’d seen on the hike. You can’t find one in a village because, as Colin pointed out, there is no one around during the day to buy anything.snd then Walltown quarry park, where Jerry and I had donned and doffed rain gear and nearly entered the “Hadrian’s Garden Maze. Soon enough, we reached my stop at the Mile Castle Inn. According to my route map, we were just up the hill from Once Brewed and Vindolanda.
I was astonished to see Cawfield Crags about a mile up a macadam track that cut north from the highway and the pub. We had crossed that road before ascending the hills days before. Then I saw that I could skip the road and cut across a pasture through a gate, despite a warning sign for restive cattle. Having dealt with sheep and cows over the last few days with only one benign incident, I chose the pasture for time’s sake.
Bad decision. Several fat black bulls blocked the path at the foot of the hill, and one challenged me. No wonder no one else was in the field! What to do. I waded into a bog off the trail, mud and cattle dung up to my boot tops. By heaven, I was going to get that photo. Perhaps surprised that I chose that option (I am being anthropomorphic here), the bull allowed me to pass, which emboldened a couple who had chosen to follow me from the inn.
Upon reaching the steps, I charged to the top (I had not walked five miles of hilly trail this time), and discovered that while the mile castle was spectacular, it wasn’t the one I expected. There were no building foundations inside. Darn. I suddenly realized that I had been thinking of the equally famous Mile Castle 39, of which I had already shot two photos. When I found some shade and revisited those shots on my phone, I saw that the grass had overgrown the slabs indicating the rooms or cattle stalls. Still, it was worth the trip.
A Victorian-era footbridge spans the track at Haltwhistle station, built in 1839.
I barely caught my bus at the pub on the way back, but arrived at Haltwhistle in plenty of time for the train. Built in 1839, the station is a venerable place with an iron footbridge over the tracks to catch trains going in the opposite direction and vice versa. While awaiting my train, I struck up a conversation with a young woman who said she and her friends hiked the trail the week before in five days.
“But you don’t see any of the sites, do you?” she pointed out. “It’s more of an endurance test and social activity.” She wasn’t the first we had met to say that. We are talking at least 20 miles in a day! We were thrashed after 16...and caught a bus the following morning.
As the train zipped back to Carlisle, I tried without success to spot Jackie’s BNB in Gilsland, but I did see Thirlwall Castle and The Samson pub where we ate dinner and I had said, “God bless all here.” As the trucks clicked over the rails, I mused over the young woman’s comment and recalled our first marathon day, which set the tone for our hike. We did very little talking at all, focused on the scenery, the historical import and simply setting one foot in front of the other to get there. We were novices at long-distance hiking, but we each had enough wind and legs to make it to the end of the trail. And that’s all you can ask.
I returned to Carlisle in time for lunch at an Indian restaurant, took a long nap and had Souvlaki for dinner at a popular Greek place. I turned in early for my early departure by train to London’s Euston Station. I couldn’t believe it was over. But this time there is no Peggy Lee singing, “Is That All There Is?”
Not after 101 miles.