I think we were just over twenty years old. Our first trip out of the county was a distant memory. Those were the days when we heard of a challenge and then completed it the next weekend. Those were the days when we walked up mountains without maps in holey Dunlops and denim shorts. What was all this fuss about Snowdon? We did it quicker than those scout geeky types clad in gore-tex that we met in the car park. Wikipedia said that the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Challenge had a 12 hour time limit – nine hours and that’s on the back of a heavy night out in town and a city kebab for breakfast. National Three Peaks – done, in a Peugeot 205 for 35 quid per head and back in time for Sunday lunch with the aunt. Cycling, running, camping – it was all too easy. Now we were serious, hardened. Seasoned veterans. Time for a proper challenge.
What a smug little git I was. A bit of time on google led to the discovery that Hadrian’s wall footpath was only 84 miles long. Split in half it’s just two long walks and so could easily be done in couple of days. After all, everything else we had done was pretty easy really and it was time to attempt something really difficult, step it up a bit, break down barriers, that kind of thing. Plus I’d never been to Hadrian’s wall.
Five lads in two cars. Drive to the west end and park one of the cars in a village pub car `park. We’d be back later. Pile the other lads into the second cramped hatchback, select your mix CD and drive to Newcastle, stay in the Metro Inn, get an early night, early start and then hit the walk. Follow the path, just keep walking, stay at one of the hostels on the first night then carry on in the morning. Arrive back at the pub car park for a sunrise and clean pair of jeans. The plan was simple and the mood was one of elation. Invincible. Adventure beckoned.
30 pints of Guinness, circa twenty quid in the quiz machine and five ‘all meat’ pizzas later and it was three hours until the alarm went off so we could beat the traffic to the start of the wall.
The path’s first few miles were urban. Broken glass, derelict buildings and shopping trolleys were the main features. A woman’s handbag discarded by the waterside left me wondering…
The heavy boots, hard ground and hangover cooperated and created immediate blisters. Our bags were only carrying the bare essentials. I had read about the merits of lightweight expeditions in a couple of magazines and was therefore an expert. My bag rattled, twisted and pulled against my torso and as the hours progressed, wore constricting grooves into my body. The colossal bag contained nothing of any use. Ten miles in, crossing only our third muddy, boggy, field and one mate was already cooked. He was struggling and was slowing us down. We all knew it.
“Can’t leave him on his own. We’ll just hit that pub and get a taxi. You boys carry on.”
Five became three.
I don’t know where the daylight went but it seemed to immediately get dark. We were constantly doubting the route, had a pathetic torch that seemed to just make it more difficult to see, and it had been raining for hours. The path was uninspiring and we had decided, after wading through endless slurry and fiddling blindly with wet gate latches, that it would just be quicker to get to the road and stick to it.
As my feet were sliced with pain at each, squelching, dirty, aching footstep I was visited for the first time by my challenge angel. Many people talk about a reoccurring voice they hear, or a hallucination that they have when they are really pushing it. I suppose I’d never done anything so difficult before, and so had never needed a challenge angel. My angel came in the form of a song that whirled round my head endlessly. That song was Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine. The version of this song that creates just a thin layer of bright warmth between my soaked skin and my swampy boots contains no verses, no instrumentals, just the title line followed by the enthusiastic ‘whoooahh’ in an eternal loop. It was a bad time.
One mate really needed a shit but just refused to go in the woods. It was really eating him up and wasn’t going to go away. Marked on our OS map (the single useful item out of all the junk on my back) was a symbol for toilets – at an English Heritage tourist attraction. His call of nature was so vivid and desperate that when he found out what we all already knew – the toilet at the car park was locked, he caved in and decided to lay down a steamer on the only piece of well manicured lawn that we had seen for miles, just on the edge of the pay and display car park. Tomorrow’s heritage lovers would be left with no doubt – it was definitely not a dog poo.
We had made very little ground by the small hours and eventually woke up the warden of a YHA. He was cross and perplexed but let us in all the same. The lights were blinding. Laboriously unshouldering my sack of bloody useless crap, I unlaced and removed my boots and blood immediately seeped through my socks onto the floor. Embarrassed, I left the other boot on and walked lopsidedly to the communal showers and prepared for bed. I even set an early alarm because we were clearly going to finish the challenge in the morning.
The morning was defined by pale sunlight and a white, bleak, wild and windswept slog across the high points of the wall. Martyn’s ankle was melon swollen and he had walked the last ten miles into an icy wind with a straight leg. At the first pub we saw that was open for lunch I had already negotiated and ratified a ‘quick half’ for strength. We deserved it. The pub was warm and carpeted and as we entered Adam took one look at the table by the fire.
“If I sit there I won’t get up”.
We calculated that we were still on to make the distance in under 48 hours. We probably could reach Bowness on Solway. It would only be another twelve hours of limping across mud in complete darkness but there would be nobody to meet us and we would just be wet and cold and in Bowness on Solway sometime before dawn.
Adam did sit down and after a couple of pints we decided we probably weren’t going to be leaving that pub on foot. The other boys would meet us and it would probably be a good idea to collect the other car and head for Liverpool which was apparently a good night out.
Nine eventful hours later and we were in a packed bar, shouting at each other over the sound of the Beatles in the same clothes and boots, seeing off vodka pints. This isn’t a night out blog but for the record it was a bloody good night out. Too good. The darkness of Hadrian’s wall had killed off challenges. We were no longer cocky and smug about our prowess in the great outdoors. We had been properly defeated. Indeed, two of the mates never challenged again and it would be years before I put on a pair of walking boots.