Hadrian's Wall 1971

This is the story of my 1971 solo-walk of Hadrian's Wall that I completed when I was 15 years old. The 84 mile long Wall stretches from coast to coast and was constructed in the time of Hadrian after 122 AD to keep out the barbarians from the North.  In 1971 it was not a trail, was relatively unknown, and there was no continuous path or even a clear right-of-way in which to walk. I like to say that I was the *first* to walk it, which of course can't really be true, but I did invent my trip and did not see another hiker doing the same for the 6 days I walked it.

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This contemporary photo (not mine) shows how the construction of the Wall takes advantage of the landscape. Some portion may have been rebuilt since I walked it, as I don't recall many long intact sequences.

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In 1970 I was living in Palo Alto and was a Boy Scout. The picture above shows a scout displaying the Scout Salute while being awarded the "Order of the Arrow" after completing "The Ordeal". I did all of that stuff, I made my own buckskin indian outfit, and went on to reach "Brotherhood" status. It all sounds like a cult, but really it was all for fun. 

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Of course 14 year old boys know everything and invent their own versions of the Scout Salute. I spent the summer of 1970 on camp staff in the Sierra, learning to sail, getting hazed by the older guys, kissing my first girl, learning the difference between Budweiser and Coors, mastering opening a pop-top beer can with one hand, getting drunk for the first time (Gallo Spanada), and becoming comfortable with solo backpacking in remote places.

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In January 1971 my family moved to Wiltshire in England where I joined the local scouts. 

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In England I learned to hike and camp Brit style, where one keeps warm with scratchy wool sweaters, uses ponchos, and wears shorts so that legs quickly dry off between rain showers. I also learned that getting wet, even getting soaked, is just a natural thing, and is nothing to get excited about.

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"Camp" is just a common tent and trailer campground where the scouts sleep in two-man tents but where there is also one large tent with a heater and lots of hot tea and soup. Non-stop rain.

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In this trip to Wales I remember the peat as very springy underfoot. Map navigation in the fog is tough.

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My friend Doug with the American backpack flew out from Palo Alto to join the Wales hike.

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It is windy and cold. We also get mugged as we leave the local pub one night...but that's another story. Life in 70's England.

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OK, back to the Wall. Living in Wiltshire I became interested in the archeology of the man-made landscape; stone circles, white horses inscribed on the hills, old forts, the Ridgeway, roman roads. The idea that one can read the landscape for traces of older civilizations is just beyond fascinating to me. I found this archeological map of the Wall, and I probably also saw a photo, and I just knew that I was destined to go explore Hadrian's Wall.

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"Benevolent approval"- A.H. Dowson

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I take the train north to Newcastle with absolutely no advance information about anything I will need or encounter. There is no trail, I have no guidebooks, and I know nothing at all. But since I am now 15 years old, a year older than 14, of course I actually know everything and I am invincible. At the rail station I ask around and find my way to a YMCA. At the YMCA in the bunk area I meet two young lorry drivers who speak with such thick Scottish accents that I counnauwnderstaond wot they was saaying cept they kepp cawling each other cuunts. I think kip, dinner and breakfast all come in at under two quid.

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I start at the coast to see the North Sea, and then take a bus to the edge of town to start the actual walk. I remember that the bus fare collector paid for my fare out of his own pocket. Everyone wants me to succeed.

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I do not have to consult the map very much to follow the path of the Wall. Some of the roads actually run on top of it, and the ditch or "vallum" in the photo (right side of the road) is a clear and almost ever-present sign of the wall. This photo also shows that there is no path, and it is not so much fun to tromp in the rain through the wet weeds alongside the road with all the cars zooming by. I walk westward against gale force winds, where I have to lean deeply into the wind just to be able to move forward. I have a vinyl poncho that flaps wildly and starts to shred. I do not remember being particularly cold, but I do remember that the force of the horizontal wind-driven raindrops sting my face, and that my boots become so full of water that I must periodically pour out volumes. My chest area with my Marks and Sparks wool sweater stays dry enough, but my bare legs are always numb and wet. Not painfully numb, just completely lacking sensation.

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Along my journey I jump over many stone walls. Farmers are always hospitable and allow me to camp on their land. On two occasions the farmer's wives take in all of my wet items and send me off the next morning with dry clothes. One night I stay in a barn and sleep on hay, which seems really fantastic until I wake up during the night with a multitude of bites from some kind of insect. For three nights I have to inventively tie down my tube tent against stone walls, which despite the condensation performs well. I remember great satisfaction as the rain came down in buckets and I was inside my Ark, dry and protected. It is interesting to note that the very stones I tied up against had likely been pilfered from the nearby Wall. I carry a radio that has settings for LW (Long Wave), MW (Medium Wave), and SW (Short Wave). I listen to the BBC for weather reports and general drivel, and that is how I know that I am up against gale force winds; they are warning cars with trailers to stay off the roads. Like most kids I also listen to Radio Luxembourg, LW 208, that is where you get the better and hipper rock music: Rod Stewart and the Faces with the amazing Ron Wood , Brown Sugar, Get it On, and the great aggro skinhead song Double Barrel.  I have a classic SVEA 123 stove that I use for making black tea and Knorr soups. I don't remember much else about food except that I made a version of Birds Custard one night. It is an acquired taste.

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The best parts of the wall look like this, and on some portions one can walk on top. Note: barely any path.

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There are two areas with some restored ruins, and they are the only places I see other people. There is one youth hostel I stay at where I meet other hikers; I think the youth hostel exists because of some north-south Lake Country trail that overlaps Hadrian's Wall for a bit. They have a heated dry room where everything wet is deposited: tents, clothes, shoes. The smell of mildew when you walk in the door of the dry room is overpowering and nauseating.

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Forty-five years later, (Yikes, 45 years!!!) I go online and I discover that an actual Hadrian's Wall trail was established as a National Trail in 2003 and it was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the most important news above is that "Model Heather McCartney apologises for stripping naked at Aussie Cup Final but admits: "I've no regrets." So English.