The magic of hiking

I actually didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into when I decided in Januari 2023 to walk the Hadrian’s Wall Path solo. Hillwalktours, the organization that would arrange the B&Bs for my 9-day (“moderate”) journey and would take care of my luggage transport, informed me that they needed six weeks to arrange everything, that the season didn’t start until March, and that my journey could begin on the 8th of that month in Whitley Bay on the English east coast, not far from the official starting point of the path: “Wall’s End”. And so on March 7th, I took the ferry to Newcastle on Tyne.

Once I had booked, I realized that walking for nine days straight from east to west and for six to eight hours a day in hilly terrain required some physical preparation. Although I walk a lot, I never walked such distances, let alone every day. From conversations and YouTube videos, it also became clear to me that my walking equipment had to be completely and fundamentally renewed. I knew that it rained a lot in England, but I had not realized, in my enthusiasm, that it could still be quite cold at that altitude in early March and that anything could be expected in terms of weather (frost, snow, and hard winds), what was indeed the case. So, there was still much to do if I wanted to start the journey top fit and well-equipped and be prepared for everything.

In any case, I had decided that the journey had to be “pleasant” and “comfortable,” at my own pace and cadence, without forcing anything. I told myself that if my legs didn’t want to walk anymore due to fatigue or bad weather, then I would take a taxi to the nearest B&B. I also reminded myself that I had nothing to prove to anyone, not even to myself, which was not true, of course, but hey, the excuse took away the tension. Some self-deception can sometimes be useful. With “pleasure” as my compass, I also felt that I had to take some safety measures, such as first aid supplies, a headlamp if I got lost in the dark (and it’s dark there), a whistle to attract attention (if I would fall into a ravine), an iWatch with which I could make a call if my iPhone failed, an extra power bank, etc. In short, the imagination of this city person was working at full speed to think about what could go wrong. And the things I bought were of course more like amulets than they were really necessary; but whether useful or not, it gave me peace of mind. Pleasure has its price.

What worried me, however, was that even though I had been doing all kinds of stretching and strengthening exercises daily for my entire life, my body suddenly began to show signs of trouble during training for walking. I pulled a muscle in my back, had some trouble with a tendon band in my knee, my feet became very tired in my new walking shoes, I felt something strange in my left thigh (?), got a cold, and I was worried about my ankle, which I had twisted a year earlier. However, something in me kept up with the training, and after a while, walking became better and better, the pains and worries disappeared, and I finally started the journey with self-confidence.

Sometimes I wondered if the journey was a way to escape from all the troubles in the world, the madness surrounding the war in Ukraine, the many geopolitical tensions in the world, the looming financial crisis, the hopelessness around the climate problems, the politicization of everything and the resulting growing division among people. In short, a flight from the sad state in which the earth and humanity currently find themselves. I justified my journey by saying that I wanted to think about these things quietly while walking. However, it was surprising that I never got around to it. When you walk through nature, life slows down within a few days and – for those who want to see it – a dimension of existence is revealed in the light of which all the hasty, worldly fuss that occupies us and causes so much concern is not much more than the result of a mental mind and ego problem that, despite countless pointless attempts, can never be solved from the same state of mind. It is as if the polarization virus that is raging through people’s minds cannot penetrate that dimension of consciousness that is experienced while walking. Due to the slowing down, the walker sees after some time how things work and then effortlessly frees himself from it. A hiking course would therefore be the ideal therapy for many people that are too absorbed by all these problems, especially politicians. Furthermore, you also don’t have time to think, especially not on the Hadrian Wall Path. Not only because the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful and captures your attention, but also because you have to be very careful where you place your feet at all times due to all the holes and stones on the path in order to avoid injury. So you constantly live in the simplicity of the here and now. This all of ofcourse does not mean that there are no problems in the world, on the contrary. However, the cause of these problems lies at a different level than where many, trapped in their polarizing mindset, think they can find the solutions, but inevitably make things even more worse.

I deliberately chose to do a solo hike this time. First of all, because you have to deal with everything on your own, but also because you experience more of what is happening around you and can take as much time for it as you want, what is especially the case when you are also a birdwatcher. And that was necessary this time, because the higher purpose of my journey, as I told myself, was to find the “England of my dreams”. I had only partially found this in London, where I had been many times for longer periods of time; that city is simply too international. However, I have tasted something of what England was and is in Kent, Devon and Cornwall and around Bath, Stonehenge, Oxford and Cambridge. But only this trip to Northumberland and Cumbria showed me the England that I have always imagined in my fantasies; the unspoiled nature, the beautiful landscape, the magical starry sky, the villages, the weather, the pubs, and above all, the remarkable hospitality and friendliness of the people in that area.

As far as the latter is concerned, I was lucky because I started hiking so early in the year. In almost all B&Bs where the season had just started and tourism was still waiting, I was the only guest (and the first hiker of the year), so they still had all the time for me and I was able to have many conversations about how they live there, the surroundings, the path, their plans, their view of the world and of course their investment in their “castle”: the B&B. I felt safe, welcome, and completely at home throughout the journey through the deserted landscape and the often beautiful B&Bs.

Looking back, the entire journey went very smoothly without any injuries, incidents, or taxis, much to my satisfaction. However, I did slip once in a muddy puddle, which was not a pleasant sight. Everything was often slippery and muddy. Two times I lost my way on the otherwise well-marked path because I had missed a turn due to bad sight by the rain. But you eventually realize this after a few kilometers and have to turn back. I managed to handle my slight fear of heights, a result of my overactive imagination, while walking along the crags, and was very careful during the slippery steep descents. My not very popular Nordish walking stick was absolutely of some help there.

I hardly saw anyone on the path itself, except for a few visitors at the sites with remains of Roman forts along the Wall in the weekend. Only towards the end of my hike did I come across some solo hikers walking the path from west to east to avoid the strong headwinds. The most interesting encounter was with a man who had parked his white Toyota 4Runner on a country road that crosses the Wall somewhere, probably for a short break and a nice view. He happened to see me carefully descending a high and steep rock staircase. After I made it to the bottom, we spoke briefly. He was a man in his fifties, dressed in smoke-blue knickerbockers, moss-green knee socks, matte Oxford blacks, a reddish-brown Harris Tweed jacket, and a kind of bear-hat in fox colors. He asked where I came from and we started chatting. He said that I looked younger than he initially thought when he saw me descend “like an old man”, but that I still had to be very careful to avoid injuries in this deserted area. He himself was traveling towards nearby Scotland. To my regret, I forgot to ask him where he came from and why he was dressed so unusually. In retrospect, I realized that this strange figure in that classic outfit had in fact, together with all the timeless beauty I had already experienced, completed the picture of the England of my childhood dreams, because he reflected the Andrew (my second name) in me, in other words the English countryman.

Lastly, something about the Wall itself; there is not much left of it physically. However, in people’s imaginations, that Wall still exists and silently shapes to a considerable extent the cultural-, social-, and economic life in that area. This is the case with many things that seem to be lost in our lives; in fact, they continue invisibly and often unnoticed in the ethereal realm, determining our lives and future to a great extent without us realizing it. If you don’t see it, just start hiking.