Hiking Hadrian’s Wall, Mad Cows and All

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The author hiking the Hadrian’s Wall footpath in Northern England.

During the seven days we spent hiking Hadrian’s Wall across the north of England, my wife and I embraced our many pastoral pleasures and encounters with the elements. Among them was a salient lesson in rural reality: Be wary of coming between cows and their calves. It was our close encounter of the bovine kind.

Liesbeth and I were walking through verdant pastureland and hearth-and-pub villages and up and down windswept crags opening onto the broad sky horizons. It was a balmy September in Cumbria and Northumberland. We were on a self-guided tour of the wall, which was constructed by the Romans in the second century A.D. to keep those wild Scots at bay and control movement across the borderlands. Built in the time of the Emperor Hadrian, the wall proved to be the westernmost extension of the Roman Empire. It stretched west from Newcastle upon Tyne to the Solway coast, covering some 76 miles and, it’s estimated, was initially 14 feet high by 10 feet wide. It took 16 years to complete.

Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail covers 84 miles and follows the historic line of Hadrian’s Wall, which, through the centuries, has been eroded naturally by time and weather and, no doubt, generations of local farmers helping themselves to stones for their houses, barns, and walls. Nevertheless, much of the engineering prowess and military glory that was Rome is still in evidence, including vestiges of fort towns, strategic sentry posts, and museums.

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We had opted for a “best of” Hadrian’s Wall trek, securing maps from Dutch adventure travel outfitter SNP, which also arranged for our lodging and the transportation of our baggage. (Another popular tour organizer is the British firm Contours Walking Holidays.) In the end, we walked 64 miles in seven days. We stayed in the villages of Brampton, Gilsland, and Bardon Mill (popular for its renowned hikers’ retreat, Once Brewed, and nearby pub, Twice Brewed). We’d flown from Boston to Edinburgh and arrived by train in Carlisle, where we began our hike.

We ventured through all manner of weather – soaked by rain one moment, dried by sun and wind the next – and through rambling pasture, by loughs and rivers, and up rugged ridges, including the famous Nine Nicks of Thirlwall. We were ever rewarded by the scintillating exposure, as well as by the cozy bed-and-breakfasts, hearty pub food, and ales and cider in the evening.

On our third day, as we headed toward evening at a sumptuous B&B in Gilsland called Hill on the Wall, we walked along a pasture path with cows fenced on one side and calves on the other. Up ahead was a gate. We were later told it was a time when the cows were being separated from their calves for production milking. Something – we were never sure what – set them off. The cows began bellowing, snorting, and pounding their hooves. The calves crowded in front of the gate. All that held back the furious mothers were a few strands of feeble wire on what barely passed as a fence. We contemplated the risk of pushing through the gate, felt the hot breath of those mad cows, and elected to backtrack and climb over a stone wall.

Who knows whether we were right not to stay on the path. But we did come away with another story to tell, and, of course, the chance to tell it.

All photos by Liesbeth Slosberg (except the photo of Liesbeth Slosberg). Click on any image to launch the gallery.

Steven Slosberg worked as a journalist for Connecticut newspapers for 35 years, including more than two decades as a columnist for The Day in New London. He also has written book reviews for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant and has published freelance stories in The Times, the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, and Connecticut Explored, among other publications. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and lives in Stonington, CT with his wife, Liesbeth.

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