Hadrian’s Wall Day II – Birdoswald to Greenhead

Walking the Wall

On day two we were up and out bright and early. Breakfast didn’t delay us for long, consisting as it did of only a couple of glasses of water. However, the village of Gilsland wasn’t too far away and I’d done my research before we set-off: I knew that there was a cafe there which did an all day breakfast.

What’s more, I now knew, thanks to an information board I had read the previous day, that our walk to Gilsland would be shorter than I had expected. I’d discovered that a ‘new’ footbridge, built in 1999, not shown on my map or mentioned in my guidebook, would take us across the River Irthing without needing the diversion from the Wall which I had thought to be necessary.

So, we followed the substantial wall to Harrow Scar milecastle…

Harrow Scar milecastle 

….which has a terrific view of the Irthing…

The Irthing again 

The bridge…

The 'new' bridge over the Irthing 

…,which won a design award, took us across the river…

The Irthing 

To the remains of the eastern abutment of the old Roman bridge.

The bridge abutment 

This bridge carried both a military road and the Wall over the river. It must have been quite a sight. Whilst I was trying to picture the former grandeur of the bridge and the Wall hereabouts, and wondering about the patterns marked on this large flagstone…

A patterned stone

…the kids were happily crawling about in a small passage.

 Exploring the bridge abutment

I’ve walked several parts of the Wall before, but never this section between Birdoswald and Gilsland, and I have to say: it’s well worth a visit.

 The Wall rising to Willowford farm

Looking back to the Irthing 

More Wall 

Especially if it’s followed by a visit to the House of Meg tea room in Gilsland, where we had a sumptuous breakfast, not at all the dainty disappointment which the phrase ‘tea room’ might lead one to fear. The cafe doubles as a village shop, so we were able to stock up on a few snacks to keep us going too.

Poltross Burn milecastle sits on the outskirts of Gilsland.

Poltross Burn milecastle 

From there a sometimes boggy path follows the line of the Wall, which has disappeared again, although the ditch is still very evident. Ahead we could see the notched skyline of the Whin Sill rising above the ruins of Thirlwall castle.

Thirlwall Castle and the Whin Sill

So we went to investigate the castle. It’s 14th Century apparently, and like Lannercost Priory, partially built of stones ransacked from the Wall.

Thirlwall Castle 

Legend has it that a solid gold table, hidden down a well here when the castle was under attack, has never been recovered. Much to my amusement, the kids cast aspersions on the idea that somebody who owned a solid gold table would live in such a modest castle.

Thirlwall Castle 

We’d thought of dropping down to Greenhead from here, but given our early start and our unexpectedly shorter walk so far, it was still very early, so we crossed the Tipalt Burn…

Bridge over the Tipalt Burn 

…climbed steeply towards the Whin Sill…

Climbing the hill 

…tiptoed past this fella…

Caution, bull in field 

…and through the unremarkable former site of Carvoran, a Roman Fort, to the Roman Army Museum, where we spent a very happy afternoon whilst it rained outside. This is very much in the modern style of museum, more presentation than exhibits, but we enjoyed our Latin lesson, the Army recruitment speech and especially the 3D film (twice). Of the actual artefacts on display the one which sticks in my mind is the Roman Empire’s only known surviving helmet crest found at Vindolanda. It’s made from moss. We would see a wig there the following day, of the same materials. Apparently, it discouraged the midges. Astonishing to think that something made from moss could survive intact for almost two thousand years.

  Greenhead nestled in the hills

Finally we dropped back down to Greenhead, where we were booked into the hostel, once a Methodist chapel, then a YHA hostel, now operated by the Greenhead Hotel which is just across the street. It was very comfortable and great value (much cheaper for us than the YHA). We had the place entirely to ourselves, which we all found a little spooky, especially when we discovered that a ghost seemed to have turned on one of the showers. I was thoroughly ashamed of myself, flinching from my own shadow, and didn’t mention to the kids how I felt until they expressed much the same disquiet after we’d left. Subsequently, I’ve learnt that CJ and his son also had the place to themselves and they too were a little unnerved. Perhaps the place is haunted. Or perhaps we’re just not well adjusted to genuine solitude and quiet.

We had our evening meal and breakfast in the Hotel, where there was plenty of company and chatter, and very pleasant they were too.

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Hadrian’s Wall Day II – Birdoswald to Greenhead

10 thoughts on “Hadrian’s Wall Day II – Birdoswald to Greenhead

  1. conrobin says:

    This is great stuff with the kids, especially as you seem to be careful not to overburden them; I’m afraid I made that mistake early on.

    I walked part of H’sW on the Pennine Way years ago and had a mental picture beforehand of a long level grassy path, and was completely bamboozled by the steep gradients. It is a precious part of our heritage.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      Thanks Conrad.
      I’m determined not to put them off! Hence the choice of route, the short days, light packs, some half-day walks with museums and/or forts afterwards, stops to play catch with the ball or the frisby, stops for sweets etc. etc.
      It seems to have worked – now I shall be on the lookout for another route which offers a similar diet of regular distractions and excuses to linger awhile.
      The Wall is fabulous. I’d gladly go back and do it all again.

  2. I found a guide book for the Wall walk in an Oxfam last week and was mulling over giving it as whirl sometime next year, loving this commentary on your wall walk and feeling inspired to give it a go!

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      I had a number of second-hand books to peruse before we set-off. Some very relevant, others less so: Tom Holland’s ‘Rubicon’ about the end of the Roman Republic, a travelogue about Roman Roads in Britain by JHB Peel, another about walking Roman Roads in Cunbria (can’t recall the author at present), an old revised edition (I think the 11th) of J. Collingwood-Bruce’s ‘Guide to the Roman Wall’ and Ian Smith’s ‘South Tynedale and Hadrian’s Wall’, which is the one I took with me. ‘Rubicon’ is an excellent read. Whilst we were walking the Wall, the kids and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ together, which is also very entertaining.

      As for walking the Wall – I loved it: go for it. But savour it, don’t try to sweat through the whole length in 2 days as some people we met were doing. What’s the point?

  3. My recollections of the Greenhead hostel are exactly the same! I stayed their with Charlie – a LEJOGer I had walked with that day from Alston. The hostel was bitterly cold – the showers were freezing and we were the only people staying. I wasn’t surprised. It had a clangy empty feel about the place – unloved.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      The other strange thing was that I had an uncanny feeling that I’d stayed there before, but I’m pretty sure that when I walked the Pennine Way it was closed and I can’t think when else I might have been there. Maybe I’m confusing it with the former hostel at Kirby Stephen, another old chapel, which I’ve stayed at on a few occasions. The only other place where I can remember feeling spooked like I did at Greenhead was years ago when I spent a night alone at Ben Alder cottage, which I’ve always put down to the power of suggestion. (Maybe I should lay-off the MR James.)

  4. What an excellent way to introduce the kids to muli-day walking. Despite the crowds at times, I have always enjoyed my day walks in this area and walking the length of the wall is on my ever increasing list of treks to do, so its nice to read how you all did.

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      Hi David,
      That was the intention. The question is: where next?
      I was expecting crowds, but away from the major attractions like Vindolanda or Housesteads, we didn’t meet them. I wouldn’t say that it was lonely, but it was mostly very quiet.
      I think we all have one of those expanding to do lists!

  5. A walk is always much better enjoyed after a full breakfast I find. I never realised there was so much stuff around the wall. I thought it was just the main forts but there seems to be something of interest every couple of miles

    1. beatingthebounds says:

      There’s a milecastle every Roman mile. The Wall is 73 miles, but 80 Roman miles, so that means a milecastle every seventy-three eightieths of a mile, and two turrets between each pair of milecastles. Of course, not all of them are still there, but, yes, we did find plenty of diversions to keep us occupied.

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