The Road Less Traveled (Part 1)…

“Apart from better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths and public order, what have the Romans ever done for us?”…

An all too brief sojourn to the North of England last weekend revealed a great many things to me. Firstly, how unfit I am. Secondly, what a truly regimented and technically advanced bunch of folks the Romans were and finally how little I know about Britain before the BC/AD switch over (when one had to get a new bloody watch – thanks Jesus!).

As mentioned in previous posts, I feel like my eventual journey to a life off-grid (when I retire at fifty five which is one thousand, four hundred and eighty two working days from now) has started in earnest. I have (with the exception of the ego-less and anonymous WordPress) disconnected myself completely from the chaos all around. I have removed all apps from my phone (except this one and Spotify), ceased all current affairs programmes and daily news briefings (relinquishing my BBC TV licence in the process and using the one hundred and sixty six pounds a year more wisely), moving to a plant-based diet (with the odd fish thrown in for the essential oils) and getting back to nature (as frequently as I can) and becoming fitter, healthier and stronger (by exercising the mind, body and soul daily – via various and varied means).

My neighbour “B”, has waxed lyrical constantly over the last twelve months about the best holiday he ever had which was exactly one year ago. He and two others “walked the wall” from the aptly named Wallsend in Newcastle in the East to Carlisle in the West, a grand total of seventy three miles.

Being ex-British army, “B” is used to long trails over various terrains, and armed with a “basher” on his back, he and his comrades took the historical path following Hadrian’s Wall, a remarkable feat of engineering built by the Romans two thousand years earlier. Bedding down in woods each evening, taking in all of the breath taking scenery Northumbria had to offer and stopping off at tea rooms and ale houses on the way, it was clear his mission (which he chose to accept) left a marked imprint on him, something I wanted a slice of myself.

So last weekend, I booked a youth hostel (partly due to the potential inclement UK weather in August and the limited time we had) and headed North for a few days of bimbling, the Twice Brewed public house our nexus and convening point after a hard days trekking. 

It was clear that as soon as we got there, things were different. After dropping our bags off we took a “recky” to map out our routes for the next couple of days and after we had done that, an evening meal and a few local ales would send us off to sleep after a long week in work for the both of us. Sadly, one is never too far away from the chaos and new order of things these days. The pub was fully “pre-booked” for the whole weekend, putting a bit of a downer on two optimistic ramblers.

We once again took to the road and found ourselves a pub in the small village of Haltwhistle, which had the remarkable yet somewhat unbelievable claim of being in the dead centre of Britain. Nevertheless, a quick reveal on Apple Maps confirmed the fact, here we had a village which was just south of the old border between England and Scotland which was indeed at the land masses epicentre, much to our bemusement. 

The Covid plastic sheets that draped from the ceilings and bar area put this previously quaint old English pub in a different light, so after quick meal washed down with a pint of Black and Tan (Guinness) for me at least, we headed back to the hostel to crash for the night. 

Eager to get out there, we set off just after the crack of dawn and headed up the road to see our first glimpse Hadrian’s Wall, taking the first of our thirty thousand steps for the day, a little over fifteen miles. 

Although a life off-grid will eventually mean that I will need different types of energy solutions (renewable and recyclable) to provide the power to my gizmos, my fully pre-charged tech would allow me to capture some photographic (camera phone) and video evidence (drone) of our trip, something we could look back on with fondness in the years to come. 

As we reached the first trail post, we were reminded straight away that even trekkers have to abide by strict rules and regulations, a sign of “No Drones” clearly emblazoned on the gate post. We have a lot of freedom in the UK (especially when compared to other countries) but I grow so weary about what we can and cannot do, feeling somewhat physically and emotionally constricted and trapped at times, which actually has the opposite effect on me, as conformity brings out the rebel and pseudo-anarchistic side of my nature, as it did the previous Saturday in Liverpool when the wife and I went to a freedom demonstration in Liverpool. 

Our first stop on the wall was at Sycamore Gap, a natural dip on the ridge line made even more impressive by the presence of solitary and majestic Sycamore tree, arguably the most famous tree in England made even more famous in the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, where (if memory serves) Kevin Costner meets Morgan Freedman for the first time, clearly nowhere near Sherwood Forest in Nottingham a hundreds of miles south. 

After a few minutes contemplating a fly over with the drone (which didn’t take place due to the relatively high winds and the lightness of the device), we took some obligatory snaps and headed on in the direction of Newcastle and our destination for the morning, Housesteads, an old Roman village. 

The scenery as we passed over this historical site was breathtaking, the impressive wall still standing (albeit at a diminished height these days) sat behind quarried cliff faces, man-made lakes and deep dykes cut into the landscape where the terrain flattened out. 

As our path progressed, we stopped off at a small wood where “B” and his band of merry men (not Messrs Costner and Freedman) slept upon beds of soft lichens and mosses one year earlier, seeing a trap set by a would-be poacher to put in his pot at the close of day, empty for the time being. 

We made it to Housesteads, the first of three English Heritage sites we would visit over the weekend, and in my opinion the least impressive (although it was still a site to behold). To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, it was “a series of small walls” with pictorial and explanatory texts describing what housed the various functions and inhabitants in case the early morning imagination wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet. The beauty about our early morning trek was that there was no one on the path. We were alone, like solitary soldiers of yester-year, clocking off after a night shift at one of the many mile markers look out posts. 

After resting a while at the cafe with an English scone (clotted cream, strawberry preserve and a hot brew as bedfellows), we talked about how impressive a site like this must have been two millennia ago and how was it that a wall can still be standing after all this time, yet we needed to exchange our “broken” iPhones every two years. 

We retraced or our early morning steps back along the ridge line, save this time dodging fellow ramblers, trail runners and a large variety of their canine comrades whose numbers had grown exponentially over the last few hours. 

Our next stop was Vindolanda (pronounced Vindaloo-via by me as I couldn’t remember its name well after 13 miles trekking already on the clock). Again reminded that drones were not allowed, we took in some well earned lunch at the cafe, donned the now obligatory face mask to see the various treasures and findings the site owners had uncovered over recent years. 

The site itself was much more impressive than the last, with some of the staff recreating how pottery was made with a live kiln exhibition, which was followed up by a walk around the village, traipsing through gate houses, barracks, senior officer buildings and stables. A recreation of Hadrian’s Wall gave one a vision of how impressive this erection must have been back in the day, and with the dykes cut into one side how almost impenetrable and impregnable it must have been for the marauding Celts on the other side of it. 

As the sun started it’s journey back to the horizon (albeit in the west), we headed back to base camp to take some early evening refreshments. A look over our shoulder revealed an old tree, devoid of life but on the horizon the vivid and lively sycamore, a gap within a gap, photo of the day safely etched to the memory of the phone.

As the ale house next door was still fully booked (no cancellations but we managed to secure a Sunday roast slot the next day) we resigned ourselves to a few beers from the hostel bar (which of course had to be imbibed outside to to lockdown measures) and a house pizza rather than going back in the car to the “atmosphere-less” and “plasticated” public house a night earlier.

The ale at the hostel was supplied from the micro-brewery attached the to the Twice Brewed public house next door, we simply couldn’t resist the pull of one of the drinks on offer, wryly smiling as we ordered Ale, Caesar! in elevated voices (with a hint of a Graham Chapman lisp in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who played the amusingly named Biggus Dickus).

Imagine our amusement when the next round of drinks included two bottles of Holy Grail, which were allegedly tempered over burning witches and reminding us that our mothers were hamsters and our fathers smelt of elderberries..

As it turned out, our fifteen mile bimble and long working week had caught up on us anyway, so we took to the hostel bed a crashed out before twilight, replenishing our energy stocks for what was to come tomorrow.

As I lay there, my eyelids closing to the huge gravitational forces that they were now under, I was reminded (somehow or by something) of the poem by Robert Frost titled “The Road Less Traveled” and how poignant it was, on so many levels,

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”

That poem summed it up nicely. Adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall is the Military Road, which is busy when compared to the trail on the ridge (especially in the morning). Sure our trip to Homesteads would have been quicker if we took the Military Road, but as Frost penned, the road less traveled made all the difference…