Soon we would cross the ultimate wall, built by the orders of Emperor Hadrian to mark the Northernmost limit of the Roman Empire, but first we had to traverse some tough terrain on the first long distance walk in Britain, The Pennine Way.
On Great Shunner’s Fell we ate our lunchtime sandwiches in company with brothers David and Kevin. David was retired, Kevin was unable to work because of mental health issues. They kept each other company on long walks, using their free bus passes to bring them out of Bradford to the majestic hills and huge skies of the Pennines. I suggested it must be rewarding to live in the official ‘curry capital of Great Britain’, but they both made faces of distaste. Bradford is what David calls ‘a conquered city’, referring to the numbers of Asian migrants who have arrived in his lifetime. It seemed an uncharitable sentiment, but he was clearly a charitable man, acting as guardian for his brother when the rest of their family had move away. We watched them stride off in single file over the empty moors, struck by their mutual dependence and their deep immersion in a wild but nourishing landscape.
That evening we stayed in the Highest Pub in Britain, the Tan Hill Inn, a converted mining building. The walls bore legends of a gun-wielding landlady who use to keep the tinkers in line, and visits from the ubiquitous Dick Turpin. A snow plough and caterpillar tractor were parked outside ready for the inevitable winter snow-ins and the clientele consisted of caravan nomads and the odd intrepid walker. It was here we heard our first Geordie accents, mingled with those of Yorkshire. The Tan Hill guards the boundary with Cumbria and Northumbria and in the pre-Norman years would have been part of Scotland.
When we left the next day it was the first full day of downpour since we departed London five weeks earlier. The wind howled and kept our umbrellas furled and Issy’s ‘splash-proof’ anorak gave the icy waters free passage to her skin. We trudged over tussocks which in other years would be deep bogs but were mercifully firm after the droughts of April. The birds were our only company, keening plovers guarding their chicks and infant grouse by the dozen dodging our feet to grow into twelve-bore fodder.
We finally found sanctuary in a farmhouse bed and breakfast where we interviewed Fiona and Simon who had made their careers in the coal industry in Leicestershire. We had passed through their homelands a few weeks earlier and they were able to shed some light on the questions of changing energy use and the impact of industrial upheavals over the last few decades. They were keen walkers and were traversing the entire Pennine Way. We were to bump into them a few days later on Hadrian’s Wall, but whereas they had tackled more lofty peaks in nasty weather we had descended from the high moors for a pleasant short-cut up the valleys of the Tees and Allen.
Crossing into Northumberland, our 14th county, we noticed immediately a change in the landscape. Aromatic conifers with fresh green tips gave the valleys a darker Northern tint and we were on the look-out for red squirrels, but Britain’s most endangered mammals kept well hidden.
In the old lead-mining village of Allenheads we met David from Castle Rock, Northern Ireland and his huge Labrador companion Jake. The two of them keep each other company on long walking tours, booking ahead to dog-friendly b’n’bs and sending Jake’s hefty bags of food, his bed and his favourite toy ahead each day by van. David told us that in his travels around the UK he found Northumbrians and Cumbrians to be the friendliest folk. He had no time for the South of England which he saw as overrun with hordes of distracted people living life at a frantic pace.
Just up the valley we discovered Allendale, a self-contained community which used to boast five pubs and rejoice in the nickname ‘alchy-dale’. They still have three great pubs which host an annual fair with a local strong-man competition. It was a tight-knit town though not obviously diverse an one lady confided that there were still members of the older generation who used the term ‘darkie’ in an innocence unthinkable elsewhere.
At the top of the Allen Valley we came out into open country where Hadrian’s Wall crossed a high ridge from East to West. Our thoughts turned to borders once more and it was here we met and interviewed two young women from Minnesota who were on their own walking tour along the wall. Laura was a beef farmer and Sonia was a budding politician, they were both Democrats and ashamed of the current White House occupant. We spoke about walls as symbols of power and hostility and also about Sonia’s work as a volunteer on Lesbos last year, one of the epicentres of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
A few more miles of England along the Roman Road the Via Puellarum- ‘the Maiden’s Way’ brought us to Bewcastle at sunset. This ancient hamlet once guarded the main route in and out of England. We slept that night in a tiny visitor centre, watched over by a Victorian church and an ornate Anglo-Saxon cross. Nearby there stood a medieval castle built out of a ruined Roman fort on the site of a ancient British stronghold devoted to a pagan god.
The next day we crossed into Scotland…