A Hexham weekend - comprising a Wall, 2-Star Romans, Earl Grey Tea, a Confusing Bridge and a (non) Reflective Slug

Ken’s booking of accomodation at The Station Inn in Hexham from Friday to Monday encouraged 15 EFOG members to travel to Northumberland from 10th-13th August, 2018

I travelled with Kathy and Brian by car, together with Jinan and Fozi, and thus met the others, who had either gone by train or by car, when we arrived in the late afternoon. We all ate together – save Phil who was staying in separate accommodation – in the 2-Star hotel.

The evening meal, I thought, was fine, and the room adequate – if a bit loose on electrical fittings and with a blind that wouldn’t go either up nor down from its halfway position, and itself in a position overlooking a quite busy road. The accomodation was a little basic, but at the price was quite acceptable, the staff were pleasant and helpful and the food was good. It is very close to the railway station, near bus-stops, near to the town centre attractions, and there is car-parking nearby.

hexham hadswall 180811 1126artAfter a decent breakfast, with a variety of choice from or with cereal through to full-Northumbrian, most of us elected to travel by the AD122 bus route to the Roman fort at Housesteads. The AD122 – although a local service-bus route, also serves as a hop-on-hop-off route for destinations along a route which follows that of Hadrian’s Wall. As a normal service bus, English National bus-passes were accepted – a free bonus to those that had them.

Housesteads is a Roman Fort (auxiliary fort, actually) built in AD124 – thus just two years after the bus route was established. Apparently the only Roman there now are possibly Italian visitors. Most of the group paid their money or showed their National Trust cards to visit the remains, but I have been there before and wanted to ensure that I had enough time and energy to walk near the wall itself and visit Sycamore Gap. Eleanor and Marilyn decided to come with me, but found the going tough and turned back in a short while, so I continued alone. The day was just about perfect for walking, neither too hot or cold, too windy or wet, and there is some choice of path, either right next to the wall, which is rather undulating, or slightly away following the somewhat more sensible and easier track, well established by those early Romans and well trodden probably ever since.

hexham sycgap 180811 1251artI looked back occasionally to see if the large and fast EFOG group was catching me up, but never a sign. There were, however, plenty of other walkers, either going in the same or the opposite direction, so it wasn’t lonely. In fact I chatted to a family-and-friends group about their accompanying dog, and they invited me to walk along with them. Very nice people, and a good dog, too. We were all going to Sycamore Gap, but the dog probably didn’t care. It is a lovely walk, with grand and sometimes dramatic views ahead, behind, towards Scotland and into Northumberland.

At Sycamore Gap, I waited for the others. And waited, and waited. Then, a lone Kathy appeared – by herself – so we sat watching the tree, other walkers, a couple of horse-riders, an annoyed cattle, and a bloke who spoilt the view because he was fat and was on a mobile phone. Pacing – like what people do when they are on mobile phones in an iconic place or a railway station. After quite a few Roman numerals time, Lynne appeared, then – distantly- and somewhat pronely, Madeleine, then a gradual descending of other EFOG members.

hexham vindola 180811 1546artEventually assembled, we made our way a bit further along the ridge and then down to the Sill Visitor Centre. This was about 3.5 miles walking distance from Housesteads. Even though I trogged around all the car parks, I couldn’t find those other group members who had gone to Vindolanda and explained by phone that were there just as we arrived. However, in my tiredness I hadn’t cottoned on that the Sill and Vindolanda are two separate places. Still…

Having refreshed ourselves at the (expensive) cafe, we caught the AD122 one stop to Vindolanda, paid our entrance fees or showed our passes and went in. The other group had left there by that time, by the way. Vindolanda, despite its confusing name, is another Roman auxiliary fort and village, comprising extensive and still-to-be-uncovered remains and a museum. There is a lot to see, both the remains themselves and in the excellent museum. There is also a delightful glen, complete with a reconstruction of a temple dedicated to nymphs. We didn’t see any of those, however.

hexham temple 180811 16344artAnd so back on the last AD122 of the day, to Hexham, and straight away to a somewhat (or at least I thought) depressing ex-cinema Wetherspoons for a meal.

During the night it rained continually, and Sunday was much more overcast and potentially drizzly than Saturday had been. After a joint visit to the visitor centre part of lovely Hexham Abbey, and then to the interesting Hexham Gaol, groups and individuals decided to do differing things, and Jinan and I had decided that a bus-ride to Newcastle might be in order. We were joined by Madeleine and Eleanor and Marilyn. It is about an hour and a quarter journey on the Tyne Valley Ten bus, passing through pleasant countryside and villages, and an enjoyable ride.

newcstle grey 180812 1411artI don’t know Newcastle, only having glimpsed it from a train and a plane, so after checking return bus times I had to orientate myself for the walk from Eldon Square bus station to the Quays, which are by the river. Eldon Square is sort of the centre of things, with some fine buildings and a monument to the inventor of the tea – Earl Grey himself. I am not keen on the stuff, but it’s nice that the Romans put that great big monument there in his honour. There was an interesting looking arcade nearby, and Eleanor and I went in to look whilst the others went on ahead. The Central Arcade is (as it says in Wikipedia) 'an elegant Edwardian shopping arcade built in 1906 and designed by Oswald and Son, of Newcastle'. It really was attractive, although – being Sunday – just about empty of all life except for ourselves and a chap playing the Northumbrian pipes - except that I realised afterwards that they weren't Northumbrian pipe, but Scottish Small Pipes. I had a chat with the chap (interrupting his playing – but then he didn’t need to blow into the bag like someone playing the Scottish big pipes would), and finished by giving him a few pennies and asking if he could play “Bonny at Morn”, which he couldn’t. Maybe that was because it is a Northumbrian tune and he had the wrong pipes?...

newcstle arcade 180812 1415artThe others had re-joined us, and Eleanor had been directed to some fine tiling in Central Station. That wasn’t quite on my planned route, and a little way from where we were, but we went. I have to say, although the station is big and impressive enough, it didn’t quite do it or anything for me, and the tiles – although quite artistic – were rather poorly situated in a bar, dimly-lit and with football or something on a giant screen.

We ploughed past the cathedral, as time was getting on and hunger was threatening, and arrived at the Quays, where an outdoor market was established for the day. But food was more important at that time so we did the usual group thing of walking up and down with typical likes and dislikes until we ended up in a Greggs. Of course, you can’t go to Newcastle and not see the bridges, and there they were, in an appropriate place crossing the river that is just across the road from Greggs.

newcstle sage 180812 1542artWe half-crossed the Gateshead Millenium one, which lifts up in a confusing way to allow for the passage of ships, and then turned back because the route up to the Gateshead-side-of-the-Tyne reflective-slug sort of building over there looked a bit steep. Then we walked by the riverside, passing under a few bridges until we reached a very nice looking Wetherspoons, into which we didn’t go.

newcstle bridge 180812 1608artJinan said she’d like to visit the slug, so we crossed an old swing bridge into Gateshead, watched the Millenium bridge lifting in the distance, then trudged uphill to the slug (sorry – the Sage). The Sage is a concert venue, and we were just in time to find the bar had closed and the whole place would be closing in an hour, at 6pm. So we descended from the other end, crossed the Millenium Bridge fully this time, and – because of the impending time and bus-journey – I suggested that it might be in order to catch the 5.52 Route 10 bus back to Hexham. That entailed some fast uphill walking, but we made it with four minutes to spare. Madeleine had left us early, so arriving back at Hexham the four of us ate in the County Hotel.

Fozi had caught an early train on Monday, so after breakfast Kathy, Brian, Jinan and myself left for Brian’s drive back to London. We broke the journey near Newark to visit the Workhouse at Southwell which, built in 1824, influenced similar institutions across the country. These workhouses comprised of a strict and harsh regime for those that inhabited them, but this was designed so as to act as a deterrent to all but those most in need of taking advantage of the system. This may be construed as analogous to that of benefit payments now, perhaps?

Thanks to Ken for organising another good break.

Paul Ferris, 14th August 2018