Hadrian's Wall
“It’s like being in an open prison!” said Norwest Fellwalking Club member Peter Dickinson not about the coronavirus emergency but back on 4th March 2001.

We have been here before of course – the foot and mouth outbreak near the start of the millennium when massive restrictions were enforced to prevent the spread of virulent disease. Foot and mouth is a highly infectious disease mainly affecting sheep and cattle. For a period of 7 ½ months access to the countryside was severely restricted to walkers, climbers and mountain bikers in an effort to control the epizootic. In the first few months all access to public rights of way across farmland was banned completely.
It had started in Essex with the first reported case on 19th February but owing to modern farming practices in which livestock is transported all over the country it quickly spread to – well all over the country.

As soon as the potential scale of the epidemic was realised the government imposed what seemed to be draconian measures in an effort to bring it under control. Once a case was identified not only was the infected animal slaughtered but the whole herd/flock was killed with it. In addition in a controversial policy known as “contiguous culling” all livestock within a 3 kilometre radius of the infected farm was to be slaughtered too. The official view was that the risk of spreading the disease was not worth taking. (Imagine a policy of contiguous culling applied to the coronavirus outbreak!) The animals were killed on the site and then disposed of either by cremation or buried in quicklime. One of the worst affected areas was the north west of England and I well remember seeing distance columns of smoke rising from the funeral pyres of sheep and cattle. By the end of the outbreak it is estimated that 6 million animals were killed in a epizootic of over 2,000 cases.

The cost was enormous not just in monetary terms but to the well-being of the farmers directly affected. For many the management of a dairy herd or flock of sheep represented not just a life’s work but the endeavour of several generations and to see it go up in smoke was deeply wounding and suffered in social isolation.
Against this the inconvenience of countryside users like myself was small beer but I remember it as a deeply frustrating time. As Peter said, “like being in an open prison.” With typical adaptability the secretary of the Norwest Fellwalking club David Johnstone organised a series of outings to cities in striking distance of the club’s base in Preston and South Ribble until the restrictions were lifted thereby giving the programme some continuity.

Now we’re in a situation where everyone apart from NHS personnel and key workers is in an open prison – or perhaps more accurately “under house arrest”. What we have been asked to do to prevent the spread of coronavirus is against our nature – to maintain our social distance even from our families, not to gather in groups, not to socialise. Yet nearly everyone understands the reasons for these unprecedented measures – to save lives. If there are too many cases our hospitals will not be able to cope and many people will die as a consequence. Not being able to take exercise far from home is small beer against a person’s life. The main thing to remember is that the countryside will still be there when the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

One place I am resolved to re-visit when I can will be Hadrian’s Wall. In 2004 not long after the Hadrian’s Wall Long Distance Path was opened I walked the length of the wall from Wallsend near Newcastle to Bowness on Solway to the west of Carlisle. One of my overnights was in a farmhouse B&B at Walton in East Cumbria. At breakfast I commented on how clean the farmyard was and how quiet and then the penny dropped…my hosts had lost their herd three years previously during the foot and mouth crisis.

Fact file

Start: Steel Rigg National Park Car Park NE47 7AN

Distance: 3 miles

Time: 2 hours

Grade: Moderate - a few ups and downs.

Map: OS OL43 Hadrian's Wall


Map by kind permission Johnston Press 

Directions. Hadrian's Wall was built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD122 to mark the limits of his empire and as a defensive measure against the less biddable tribes to the north. It was 73 miles long and took 6 years to build. The intervening years have taken their toll on the wall with little to be seen for long stretches on either end - but the bit in the middle from (near) Chollerford to Greenhead has become iconically famous and the section from Steel Rigg to Housesteads is the best bit of all - in my opinion.

At the rear of the car park go through a gate and following a sign for Hadrian's Wall join the footpath that takes you alongside it.


Basically that's all there is to it! From this point keep on the path as takes you on a roller coaster with fabulous views of a big country.


A mile into the walk you arrive at Sycamore Gap


with its much photographed tree which featured in the 1991 Hollywood film "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves". Beyond it the path scales Highshield Crags to reward you a bird's eye view of Crag Lough


an attractive lake. In another 1 ½ miles


you reach Housesteads site of a large Roman fort.


Follow the signs for the information centre. From here you can catch the 122 bus back to Twice Brewed close to your starting point.