Hadrian’s Coast – Beyond the National Trail

As the third edition of his guide to the Hadrian’s Wall Path comes out, complete with Cicerone’s first 1:25K National Trail mapping booklet, author Mark Richards reflects on what’s new this time around and especially his new ‘Hadrian’s Coast’ route from Maryport to Bowness-on-Solway and the virtues of walking with the wind and the sun behind you.

Since 1991, when I enthusiastically accepted the call from Walt Unsworth, founding father of Cicerone Press, to devise a walking route along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman frontier has been a big part of my life. The ‘Wall Walk’, as I called it, was my last hand-scribed guide, showing the over-arching influence of Alfred Wainwright on my early creative work.

I have had great pleasure exploring many other landscapes, notably the Lakeland fells. But once the Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail was negotiated and opened in 2003 it became essential that I re-visited the Roman Wall with new intent. That guide has been updated each season since publication in 2004, but the time had clearly come to completely refresh the presentation to keep pace with the expectations of walkers – so in autumn 2014 I embarked on the task.

The route of the National Trail heading east to Limestone Corner

The first flaw I wished to rectify was that most, if not all, published descriptions fell into the trap of describing the frontier westbound, from Wallsend. True the original Wall was constructed from the Tyne so the earliest romantic travellers were influenced by the order of the numbers attributed to the milecastles and turrets at the birth of frontier studies. But walking tour companies quickly learned that the best way to take their clients on the new National Trail was eastbound!

The prevailing weather, wind and rain, comes from behind and the sun, rather than beaming in your face, rises over your shoulder to illuminate the landscape before you: it is no surprise that the majority of classic views of Hadrian’s Wall are eastward perspectives.

Secondly, I wanted to look beyond the tight definition of the mural line, and if practical, open up a bigger vision of the frontier for walkers. Stretching east to the Roman North Sea port of Arbeia (South Shields) on Hadrian’s Cycleway and west to explore what I’ve called Hadrian’s Coast. So with Maryport, beautifully served by public transport (buses and trains) and boasting an important Roman fort and museum I had a ready-made new western seaboard start point. From the railway station through the town to the harbour and so up the hill to the Senhouse Museum and the extensive banks of Aluana Roman fort, it’s a great start to the magnificent frontier adventure – an adventure that in its fullest expression ventures 134 miles, all the way to South Shields.

Milecastle 39 at Castle Nick

The coast path north from Maryport is a low-running tarmac cycleway to Allonby. Thereafter what passes as path weaves on through the wild dunes above high-tide mark, wonderfully exposed to the Solway’s bracing sea air, with Criffel a sturdy presence across the grey choppy water. Silloth comes as a pleasant surprise – a Victorian resort cast up on a lonely beach. The wide front street is composed of Criffel granite cobbles, a roadstone that will survive an eternity here!

The far older community of Skinburness, near the mouth of the anciently described Moricambe inlet, marked the first great change as I sought a firm route to Abbeytown. The salt marshes are a mighty challenge (at any season) even with gaiters. Although the Cumbria Coast Path is tentatively waymarked along its fringe, bridges are missing and the water table high. So I found two consistently dry-footed lines by minor roads and field-paths. One a definite short-cut from Beckfoot, the other, via Seaville, a leisurely stroll over the plain. Tarmac is largely unavoidable beyond Abbeytown by Newton Arlosh and Kirkbride, but the quiet agricultural nature of the area ensures swift progress through a landscape charged with history and it is soothingly rural.

At Bowness-on-Solway the line of Hadrian’s Wall introduces a new spice despite the lack of a tangible Wall at this point. Long ‘borrowed’, the tooled masonry has been spread out like peanut butter in all manner of nearby structures, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from any other chunk of less-historic rock.

Developing a keen eye for wallstone out of its original place becomes a habit while walking the Wall and there is no denying the thrill of Drumburgh Castle, a grandiose bastle farmhouse built entirely of Septimius Severus’ great wallstone.

The thing to remember when walking in the Cumbrian sector of Hadrian’s Wall Country, is that Hadrian’s original grand design was modified to a turf bank all bar a mile west from Gilsland because of the absence of handy stone or limestone for mortar. Indeed, in more recent centuries the Solway Plain has been distinguished by its timber clay ‘dabbin’ buildings.

Crossing the Burgh Marshes posed a further hazard to the linear-minded structural engineers. Regular inundations, notably the Spring high tides, must have meant that a wooden palisade was erected. Naturally there is no lingering evidence, nor any hint of associated watch-towers. Almost 1900 years of radical change have seen to that. Drumburgh Castle had a watching platform, still in place at the top of its rebuilt western gable-end. In this case, the watchfulness was for cattle-thieving Border Reivers not restless Caledones from the north. Both were serious threats so there’s been a long tradition here of keen-eyed lookouts.

The second really practical value of orientating the new edition eastbound, is the natural way it runs through the guide. So, as with my earlier guides, I do include a westbound route description for those who insist on walking head on into the wind and rain, but heading east, as one flicks through the book, all the natural geographical succession falls into place. It makes so much sense and the walking journey ends with tip top public transport at your immediate disposal.

The main purpose of any good guide is to entertain and be as near as possible the complete ‘on the spot’ reference. So, along with the small-scale mapping in the guide, a complete trail map booklet is also included, tucked into the back cover flap. Many walkers will be quite content to hold this map in their hands while walking – I’m no different – then consult the guide for fuller information only when stopping for a break or the night before to consider what lies in store. I’ve also included a lot more practical information this time, including the full breadth of accommodation providers, in response to guidebook users’ evolving requirements.

Walwick House (composed of Wall stone)

The one loss from the new edition has been my beloved linescape drawings. In that respect this is a book that any competent outdoor writer, with a love of heritage and knowledge of the Wall, might have prepared. Yet knowing that I have chalked up a quarter of a century’s connection to the area, I hope readers will feel and share my passion and enthusiasm for the grand old frontier.

Seven years hence I hope to be invited to compile another new edition for the 1900th anniversary of the Wall’s beginnings, when the colossal task began in line with Emperor Hadrian’s inspired decree. The Roman year began in spring, the time when they might expeditiously march to war. Hence the Mars, the god war, gave his name to the month of March. So in that historic month in 2022 I hope another landmark guide will be published. First let’s see how the third edition performs and I’ll continue to do whatever I need to do for next season, and the season after, and the season after, to keep it up-to-date, fit for purpose, and most of all inspirational.

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