I HAVE had many alarm clocks over the years and, given time, I can learn to sleep through any of them. But a faceful of blinding solar emanations is always difficult to sleep through, which how I came to be up and about and haring for a bus on the third and final day of my mid-August trip. I made it to the bus stop with just minutes to spare and mentally thanked the great, glowing orb in the sky.
There were only three passengers on the bus as it left Carlisle and, despite people getting on and off at various stops, there were still only three passengers when it arrived at Bowness-on-Solway. And also at every point in between. This was sufficiently unlikely that I was just starting to wonder if maybe I hadn’t woken up after all but was still abed in my hotel room, merely dreaming of a bus trip, when the bus reached its destination. As it pulled up, the driver helpfully shouted out where we were in case I’d fallen asleep on the bus to dream about dreaming a bus trip.
The King’s Arms
As the bus roared off into the distance — it wasn’t going fast, it just had a noisy engine — I found myself standing in Bowness-on-Solway’s main street, beside the pub at which my walk had ended the previous day.
Following the Footpath
The obvious route would have been to head straight down this road and out of the village but footpath signs were trying to lead me astray and I decided to let them. The signs directed me northwards, which was intriguing, as there really wasn’t very far north I could go without swimming. Sure enough, they took me to the banks of the Solway Firth where I could stare out over mud and quicksand to one of Scotland’s flatter-looking bits. I thought this was lovely, even without mountains.
Hadrian’s Wall Path
As well as being a pleasant viewpoint, the Edwardian promenade on which I now stood also marked the start of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, which follows the course of the famous wall as it stretches across the country. Not only that but it marked it in style.
In addition to its mosaic, the gateway to the path housed some information displays about both the wall and the promenade. As I passed through it, an American couple were reading the Wall information and were themselves displaying the customary awe and incomprehension that Americans show to anything older than about a hundred years (this is similar, but not identical to, the shock and bafflement of the English when faced with a distance exceeding one hundred miles).
Cumbria Coastal Path
On a similar note, while the Edwardian inhabitants of Bowness-on-Solway made a perfectly lovely riverside promenade, they also made it very short indeed. No sooner had I started out along it than it had ended and I was back on Bowness’s main road, heading out of the village. At this point I was theoretically following both the Cumbria Coastal Path (marked, as usual, by almost no signs anywhere) and the Hadrian’s Wall Path, although the line of the actual wall was slightly further inland than the road. Indeed the road ran close enough to the shoreline to be subject to flooding when tides are particularly high.
Hadrian’s Wall (Vallium Aelium in Latin) was begun in 122 on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire between 117 and 138. At a length of 80 Roman miles (equal to 73 statute miles), the wall stretched from the Solway Firth to the River Tyne. It was built in stone up to 6 m high and backed by a ditch and a road. Forts and towers punctuated its lines at regular intervals and, as a marker of the far-flung edge of empire, it was impressive.
Its actual purpose — defensive line, customs frontier or simply making a statement — continue to be hotly disputed as Hadrian neglected to publish a user manual.
At the end of the tidal road lay the village of Port Carlisle. Originally a fishing village named Fisher’s Cross, it was transformed into small but busy port in 1819 when a harbour and quayside were constructed.
Carlisle Navigation Canal
The harbour was augmented four years later with a sea lock connecting to the newly dug Carlisle Navigation Canal, which meant the goods could now be carried to and from Carlisle without a dependency on the tide. The canal had eight locks and sufficient breadth and depth to carry seagoing vessels of up to a hundred tons, which were drawn using horses.
Initially a roaring success, the canal began to falter as railways extended into the area, sucking business away from the canals. With railways seen as the transport of the future and canals as embarrassingly old fashioned, a decision was made in 1853 to close and fill in the canal so that a railway could be built on its alignment instead.
Port Carlisle Railway
Much like the canal, the railway thrived until it didn’t, with Port Carlisle losing trade to the newly opened port at Silloth. To add insult to injury the building of the Solway Viaduct close to Bowness disrupted the river flow and caused Port Carlisle’s harbour to silt up. The port was doomed and so was its railway, the latter being closed in 1932.
Close by to where I took the photo above I passed this sign:
Although the sign bore a marked similarity to the tourist-gouging obscenity that stands at Land’s End, this one was not guarded by hawk-eyed attendants demanding cash for photos. Instead, it had an honesty box with the words ‘thank you’ written above it. And, while it did have an attendant — namely the landowner who had made it — he was sitting quietly with his feet up, watching the world go by. After I had taken my photo, he greeted me cheerily and I probably lost twenty minutes just standing and chatting thereafter.
It turned out that he’d built the sign to supplement his retirement and was staying on hand to change the lettering should any party of walkers require it. He told me of his encounters with Cumbria Council’s officials, brought about by someone’s complaint on the sign’s very first day. The complaint had specifically been that he had erected an advertising hoarding, which requires planning permission, but the council’s enforcement officer considered this nonsense — what could it possibly be advertising? Also, she noted, he’s made it removable and in fact takes it down and puts it away when he’s not there. This makes it a temporary structure (on his own land), for which planning consent is not required; basically, so long as you can take it down when you’re told to then it’s probably fine.
Towards the end of our chat, his spiel moved into some slightly psychological territory, as he told me about the generosity of others in a gentle bid to make me volunteer some cash. Most days that would decide me against coughing up but the rest of the chat had been genial and I had decided from the outset to stick a couple of quid in the box if only because he was subtle and had left it a voluntary thing. By contrast, the fee-charging mentality at Land’s End really annoys me — it costs about a tenner for a photo with their sign, after most visitors have already paid £6 to park their cars.
A Leafy Path
Leaving sign and harbour behind, I passed the old sea lock (now heavily silted up) and found myself on a leafy path running parallel with the road. This was delightful as it curved gently through the trees and it took me a while to realise that this was part of the old railway/canal alignment.
I thoroughly enjoyed ambling along the old alignment and was slightly disappointed when it ended at a road. But signposts directed me across the road not along it and my route continued along a long, straight farm track. It was muddy, and I had to dodge a tractor at one point, but it was impressively straight. Far more so than the old railway had been. And the reason for this was of course that the Romans had made it. The farm track was following the course of the Roman road beside the Vallum, as the earthen rampart and ditch behind Hadrian’s Wall is known.
Yes, the Latin word ‘vallum’ is the source of our English word ‘wall’. Yes, it’s slightly perverse that we’re now calling the bit of Hadrian’s Wall that isn’t a wall ‘the Vallum’. Especially since the Latin word originally meant a palisade, which arguably is indeed a wall. But I didn’t choose the terminology and we’re stuck with it.
The farm track led me to the small hamlet of Glasson, which grew up along the alignment of the Vallum and got a slight boost when first the canal and then railway ran directly past its doorstep.
Canal / Railway Bridge
The hamlet had a railway station, positioned next to an overbridge but today only the bridge remains. The bridge isn’t much to look at but it is a listed structure, being one of the original canal bridges constructed in 1823 (though its height was increased for the railway).
The bridge is on the road north out of Glasson but I was actually heading south, at least until a footpath sign directed me across some fields. The first field contained a number of cows that neglected to spare so much as a first glance, let alone a second. I was far less interesting than delicious grass.
I, like the cows, kept my attention firmly on the ground but in my case it was because the ground itself was anything but firm. Some careful squelching around the boggiest field portions followed and I was pleased when the path in the last field essentially turned into stepping stones. Beyond the field was another dusty farm track, this time running parallel with the old railway alignment that ran between Carlisle and Silloth. This led me north again to spit me back onto the coast road in the middle of Drumburgh.
Drumburgh (pronounced ‘drum-bruff’) occupies the site of the Roman fort of Coggabata and its modern name derives from a mixture of Cumbric and Old English meaning ‘the ridge near the fort’.
Drumbrugh used to guard a wath or tidal-ford over the Solway and a licence to crenellate was granted to landowner Robert le Brun in 1307, who built his tower on the site of a former Roman one. This was, in turn, replaced with a new pele tower in 1518 by Lord Dacre and contemporaries noted the result was not really a castle or a tower but rather “a house of strength”.
Further modified in the late seventeenth century, Drumburgh Castle still stands today, its windows glaring sullenly across the Solway to Scotland.
Drumburgh Castle wasn’t making its patriotic stand alone either; one of the other houses was proudly flying the Flag of St George. This caught my eye as, sporting fixtures aside, it’s rare to see such blatant patriotism in England. Across the Solway, on the other hand, Scottish Saltires are not nearly so uncommon.
I was about ready for a break at this point and was delighted to see a sign promising refreshments. Following it led me to one of the village’s back lanes, where a squat, brick structure proclaimed itself ‘La’al Bite’.
A la’al (i.e. little) bite sounded ideal and so I headed inside. What I found there was not exactly what I expected. There was a coffee machine, a freezer with ice creams and a fridge containing bottles of water. What there was not was any staff; there was only an honesty box attached to one wall.
I was quite taken with this reliance on customers’ decency, and I dutifully paid the listed price for an ice cream, which I sat and ate outside in the sun. A squirrel sat nearby and watched me eat it, no doubt waiting to inspect the bench afterwards just in case I’d dropped anything interesting. The squirrel was going to be unlucky; my ice cream is never for sharing.
Brugh by Sands
A Long, Straight Road
Once suitably refreshed, it was time to continue onto Burgh by Sands. This involved a road running straight as an arrow beside the Vallum and the disused alignment of the railway. This was great for the first quarter of a mile but after that it all got a bit samey. It was still pleasant, what with the Solway and the sunshine, but, well, there were two miles of it.
Entering Burgh by Sands
Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime but was really forty minutes, the road came to trees and houses and the village of Burgh by Sands. Similarly to Drumburgh, the ‘burgh’ is pronounced ‘bruff’ and derives from OE burh, here meaning ‘fort’. The fort in question was Aballava (meaning ‘orchard’), which, like its neighbour Coggabata, guarded the southern end of tidal routes across the Solway Firth.
Edward I Statue
Burgh by Sands has another claim to fame, sort of, in that it’s very nearly where King Edward I died. The ‘Hammer of the Scots’ actually kicked the bucket out in the marshes to the north, while on his way to do some more Scot-hammering. In particular, he was intending to defeat Robert the Bruce who had declared himself King of Scotland and refused to accept Edward as his overlord (a position Edward had demanded while adjudicating a Scottish succession crisis).
A formidable warrior who had conquered and subjugated Wales but enjoyed mixed fortunes in Scotland, Edward I’s campaign took a decided turn for the worse when, in 1307, he developed a fatal bout of dysentery.
He died in Burgh Marsh — in the arms of his servants, who were trying to help him sit up to eat — and his body lay in the village church prior to its journey south to Westminster. A statue to him stands in Burgh by Sands and I found it reassuringly familiar because I’d seen it a lot; its photo graces the cover of the Ordnance Survey map I was using.
Hammer of the Scots
Edward is a bit of a problematic figure if you’re English. The Scots and Welsh tend to have a more straightforward view, one that isn’t favourable at all.
On the one hand, he brought order to a troubled England, held an inquest into abuses of power by his officials, reorganised the legal system and established the Commons as a meaningful element of Parliament with an actual vote (prior to 1275, the Commons, if summoned at all, had been there just to listen to the Lords). So far, so excellent.
But then, there is the other hand. And a giant mutant claw of a hand it is too. An unusually tall man with a short fuse, he terrified those about him with his temper. He conquered and subjugated Wales and Scotland and funded his wars by bleeding dry England’s Jews, who were considered his personal property. He forced the Jews to wear yellow badges on their clothing — does this sound horribly familiar? — had three hundred of them executed on a pretext and eventually, when they had no more money he could plunder, he had them expelled from the country, confiscating any property they had left.
In many ways he was a monster. And yet he was also a hopeless romantic, erecting a memorial cross at every point his wife’s body rested on its journey from Lincoln to Westminster.
Close by the statue of Edward was a pub, which pleased me greatly as I felt it was time to stop for lunch. A plate of pub food and a glass of gin and tonic proved powerfully restorative and I emerged, blinking, into the sunshine with a spring in my step and a plan for where to head next.
The map had given me various options: NCN 72 headed straight down the road through the village. The Hadrian’s Wall Path started off on the road but then angled off north-eastwards on its own route. The Cumbria Coastal Path was, as usual, not letting anyone know where it was.
I chose to shun all these options (except possibly the latter, after all how would I know?). While NCN 72 and the Hadrian’s Wall Path headed east, I struck out to the north on a narrow country lane that soon led to a farm track. Somewhere ahead lay the Solway Firth, beyond the boggy fields of Burgh Marsh.
Edward I Monument
The reason I was heading north was because the statue in Burgh by Sands was not the only memorial to Edward I. There was also a monument on Burgh Marsh itself, marking the place where he died. I had decided to take a detour and find it. This proved fairly straightforward; I followed the track to a series of fields, the only difficulty being that some of the stiles were overgrown. Beyond the fields lay Burgh Marsh itself, a flat and boggy expanse of grass upon which stood the monument in splendid isolation.
The monument was erected for the Earl of Lonsdale in 1803, replacing an earlier monument of 1685, which had collapsed by 1795. The original monument was raised for the Duke of Norfolk at a time when James II had just been crowned King of England (and also of Scotland as James VII) and James’s nephew, the Duke of Monmouth, was in armed rebellion against him. Like the King, Henry Howard (7th Duke of Norfolk) had only just inherited his title; he was also a descendant of Edward I.
According to my OS Map I could follow a footpath across the marsh from the monument to the farmhouse of Old Sandsfield at the mouth of the River Eden. This was all well and good but the marsh, while partially drained, was still just a boggy field with no sign of a path on the ground.
In the end, I figured I could do worse than just walk in the right direction, diverting round the squelchiest areas as necessary. Sooner or later, I’d reach open water, whether it be the shore of Solway Firth or the banks of the Eden, and then it would just be a case of following it along.
I therefore struck out northeast in what I thought was a straight line to Old Sandsfield and the River Eden, making my way past an old WW2 pillbox, some excitable cattle (they weren’t expecting a visitor and ran for their easily-startled lives) and various bits of bogginess that desperately wanted to be streams. There was only about half a mile of this but it was slow going and, at the end of it, I reached water and discovered what path I had actually taken through the marsh…
The Eden was known to the Romans as Ituna, from a Celtic word meaning ‘water’ or ‘rushing’. It rises in the Yorkshire Dales and flows some ninety miles before it reaches the Solway Firth. Carlisle lies nine meandering miles upstream and thus the remainder of my day’s walk would approximate the course of the river.
To begin with, it matched it exactly — a short path led me upstream along the Eden’s bank but this soon turned into an access track that led me onto a road. Before reaching the road, the track passed by the farmhouse of Holmes Mill and over the tiny tributary of Powburgh Beck. To cross the beck the path divided with a bridge for light traffic and a ford for heavy farm machinery. Not weighing seven tonnes, I took the bridge.
Having regained the road network, I now had a mile and a half of narrow country lanes to navigate, flanked by hedgerows and trees. Traffic was light — one cyclist and a woman on a horse — and I quickly covered the distance to the village of Beaumont, where I reconnected with the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
Beaumont, which is locally pronounced ‘bee-mont’, is a small village sitting on the course of Hadrian’s Wall. Its name is Norman French for ‘beautiful mount’, referring to its slight elevation compared to the surrounding marsh.
St Mary’s Church
In the centre of the village is a further elevation, a mound on which St Mary’s Church stands and which is actually the site of a Roman milefortlet. The church was built in 1296 although little of the original fabric remains thanks to extensive repairs and restorations down the centuries.
I sat on the church steps for a short while, having a rest and watching some chickens as they wandered about at the side of the road. The chickens had emerged from a farmyard opposite and seemed to be blessed with a surprising amount of road sense, keeping to the verge and in no way acting discomforted by passing cars. They were the anti-punchline to a non-joke: Why didn’t the chicken cross the road? Because it was on the other side.
Despite there being no one else about but the chickens my sitting on the church steps still managed to put me inconveniently in someone’s way when a woman emerged from the church and found her exit unexpectedly blocked. I took this as a sign that I should probably move on…
From Beaumont, the Hadrian’s Wall Path should have headed down the riverbank but the path had suffered erosion so I had to stick to the road. Half a mile to the south was Kirkandrews-on-Eden, another small village or possibly a hamlet. The traditional distinction between hamlet and village is whether a settlement has a church or not and Kirkandrews does not but, as its name suggests, it once did.
Originally named Kirkanders (back when Cumberland was in Scotland), the village had a church dedicated to St Andrew, of which nothing now remains. This is not a recent development, either: Kirkandrews has been sharing St Mary’s, Beaumont, since 1692. The missing church is thought to have been built on the site of one of the turrets of Hadrian’s Wall.
Kirkandrews is where the path parted company with the road network, initially following a gravel driveway and then heading out across further fields of incurious cows.
I crossed a small beck via Sourmilk Bridge, a pedestrian footbridge near to the presumed site of another turret (turrets were placed at ⅓ mile intervals between the milefortlets), which has yet to be located. I was surprised that an unassuming pedestrian footbridge had a name on it but it seems that it’s been called that for centuries, probably on account of how the beck looks when the water levels are high.
Having crossed the bridge and climbed some steps up a steep hillside, I followed the path through fields of corn until it conveyed me to the village of Grinsdale. Like Kirkandrews, Grinsdale had a church — St Kentigern’s, built in the twelfth century — which was abandoned and fell into ruin, forcing the parish to use St Marys, Beaumont. Unlike Kirkandrews, the church was rebuilt in 1743.
Nestling on the banks of the Eden, Grinsdale is a small place and my entry into it was abrupt: One moment I was walking through fields of corn on a path leading up to a wooden gate. I stepped through the gate and suddenly I was in a residential street. I was thirsty by now and had run out of water but I had no hope that Grinsdale would be large enough to have a shop. This was just as well, because it didn’t. But what it did have, unexpectedly, was this:
I have never been so happy to see what was basically a cupboard. A cupboard with a fridge inside it and an honesty box. I gleefully dropped the required coins into the latter and held up a bottle of fresh, cold water with such joy and reverence it was as if I’d found the Holy Grail.
The final three miles from Grinsdale to Carlisle were on a riverside path, following the south bank of the Eden. Which, as the river meandered, was actually the west bank in places. The path was narrow and leafy and quite a lot of it looked like this:
For much of this section, though Carlisle — a city of 75k people — was getting ever closer there was very little sign of it. The exceptions were right on the outskirts, when the A689 passed directly overhead on a bridge built in 2012 and the suburb of Belle Vue could be glimpsed from parts of the path.
About half a mile further upstream was a much older bridge, a disused railway viaduct with its ends sealed to deter casual trespassers. This was part of the southernmost stretch of the Waverley Route, which ran for 98 miles between Edinburgh and Carlisle.
Built between 1849 and 1862 and recommended for closure in Dr Richard Beeching’s infamous 1963 report, The Reshaping of British Railways, its axing was deferred initially by dissent within the government with the Scottish Office opposing the Minister of Transport (the tax-dodging road-builder Ernest Marples). A General Election in 1964 saw Marples and his Tory government out of power and Labour elected with a manifesto pledge to halt the railway cuts. Once in office, they immediately reneged on this promise and the new Minister for Transport, Barbara Castle, closed the line in 1969.
The most northerly 31 miles, between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, were reopened nine days ago as I write this and, while there are no immediate plans to extend it southwards, eventual restoration all the way to Carlisle has not been ruled out.
By now I was feeling pretty weary but here was not far left to go — just one mile upstream and a half mile walk into the city centre.
Sheepmount Hydrometry Station
I headed upstream and started to encounter other people, pensioners walking dogs and teenagers failing to find somewhere private to snog. I passed a somewhat unremarkable-looking hut at one point that had an information sign beside it. This turned out to be Sheepmount Hydrometry Station, the main flood forecasting station for the River Eden.
Using pressure transducers in river to measure depth and current metres to determine flow, the station is connected to a flood alleviation scheme, which incorporates walls, gates, embankments and pumping stations and was completed in 2010. And it is necessary.
During the 2005 floods that prompted its creation a flow rate of 1.5 million litres per second was measured in the Eden, which is enough water flow to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in under two seconds! The scheme was called into action even before it was finished, with flood defences being triggered in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Readings are taken automatically every fifteen minutes.
I passed under another railway bridge, this one still in use as part of the West Coast Main Line, and followed a looping meander of the river around until my leafy footpath suddenly turned into a car park. Here a road bridge carried me over the Eden and I walked my last half mile through a park and then past Carlisle Castle.
Over nine hundred years old, Carlisle Castle was built for King William II of England in a town that was then part of Scotland, though William aimed to fix that. Construction started in 1093 and, like every other fortification in this area, it used a site that the Romans had originally built a fort on. The Roman fort had been called Luguvalium and it is a derivative of this name, plus the Celtic prefix caer (meaning ‘fort’) that gives Carlisle its modern name.
William Rufus’s 1093 castle was a simple motte and bailey affair, intended to secure his northern borders. In 1122, his brother and successor, Henry I, had the castle rebuilt in stone and some walls constructed round Carlisle in a vain attempt to keep the Scots at bay. No sooner was Henry dead than David I of Scotland had captured the castle, setting the pattern for repeated capture and recapture over seven centuries. Its last actual battle was during the Jacobite rebellions against George II. Although the castle was seized by the Jacobites, George, or rather his son the Duke of Cumberland, took it back and ultimately saw victory.
Today, it is managed by English Heritage and open to the public, although part is used by the Territorial Army.
Only the western parts of the city walls remain, which incorporate the Citadel, a fortified structure built in 1810 on the site of a previous citadel from 1541. It housed the law courts and gaol and was the site of the city’s last public execution in 1867. Today, it houses Cumbria County Council.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,231½ miles