Trails and trials of the writer who walks
If you don’t know what a vallum* is, it’s time you headed off for Hadrian’s Wall and genned up a bit. But I don’t blame the foreign couple I met during my walk along the wall for thinking it might be the name of a place, and there might even be a pub there. I used to think ‘Shakehole’ ** was a place name not all that long ago. Years before my ‘shakehole’ mistake, I was in the Netherlands map-reading while my partner drove, and trying to locate on the map a place called ‘Wegomlegging’ because we kept seeing it on the road signs. The word turned out to mean ‘diversion’.
Here is my lengthening shadow muscling in on the photo at Housesteads, a major fortress ruin. I had left Housesteads and walked for a full two hours, having passed no habitation beyond a farmhouse or two, when I met the young couple going in the opposite direction.
It was already tea-time, and I was about six miles from my intended destination: a village with the wholly appropriate name of Wall (but I learned that local pronounciation rhymes it with doll) which I had picked out from the map because it showed a campsite, a pub and a public convenience. What more could a girl want?
The couple, hand in hand, approached from the Wall direction (as in Wall the village, not wall The Wall). Out for a long evening stroll, I thought, as the only place to go was back to Wall.
“Excuse me,” he said, with an accent that was possibly German. “Can you tell us how far to the nearest pub or somewhere we can stay the night?” What a leap of faith! They had taken a taxi to Wall from their accommodation at Hexham and set out along The Wall (too many walls in this text) late in the afternoon with a vague plan that they would find an inn along the route. Cast them back a couple of millenia, there would have been facilities every mile if they didn’t mind sharing a building the size of my garage with a cohort of soldiers plus their animals and concubines (I hear that the north east has the ideal climate for growing concubines).
I got my OS Explorer map out of its case (the nearest pub wasn’t even on the same side of the map as Wall) and showed them how far it was to Once Brewed, where the Twice Brewed pub/hotel is located next door to the youth hostel – like buses: wait all day then along come two at once. It probably looked a lot nearer on their linear tourist map, but I’d left there more than two hours earlier (okay, they both had longer legs than me) and the sun was already setting.
That was when the young lady pointed at my map and said “What about this place? Vallum?”, presumably mistaking the symbolic fortress foundations for a cosy village centred around a duck pond and a pub. Her boyfriend frowned and looked towards the A69 which runs fairly parallel to The Wall at that point.
“Could we get a bus?” I resisted the urge to laugh. Yes, buses do exist in the English countryside, and so does thyme broomrape but rarely do either coincide with where I happen to be. To be fair to Arriva, they have a 685 between Newcastle and Carlisle that is hourly until about six and if I’d had a smartphone with me, I would have looked it up for them rather than condemn them to the obligatory half hour wait that we all go through before deciding to walk to the next stop, only to witness the last bus whizzing past.
I still wonder if they ever got to Once Brewed in daylight, but when I looked back, they were strolling along, still holding hands. Oh, the blind faith of young love.
*A vallum is a large mound of earth used as a fortification. Usually only the ditch remains visible. The vallum runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall to its south. Theory has it that the vallum existed between Newcastle and Carlisle before the wall was built.
** A shakehole is a smooth hole, like a well. It’s usually found in limestone regions where it has been eroded by wind and rain puddles (the rain is often acid). Sometimes it’s connected to subterranean water courses. Shakeholes can be deep and dangerous but also have their own mini climates that lead to an interesting diversity of plant and small animal life.