You may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet on my social media channels over the past couple of weeks.
The truth is: I’ve been embarrassed as hell.
Ten days ago, I laced up my hiking boots, stuffed my backpack full of energy bars, pulled on my rain jacket, and began to walk.
It was supposed to be an easy, enjoyable stroll across the width of the United Kingdom. I’d be following the length of Hadrian’s Wall over the space of six days, stopping in at pubs for meals and bunkhouses for sleep, and celebrating my six year travelversary along the way.
Hadrian’s Wall Path is the easiest of the National Trails in Britain, and almost everyone who starts the walk finishes it.
I thought I was doing everything right.
I bought highly-rated hiking shoes specifically for the walk. All over the internet, women were gushing about how these shoes were the most comfortable they’d ever owned for long-distance hikes.
One of the downsides to living in Portugal is the lack of options when it comes to outdoor gear. So even though the insides of the shoes felt weirdly hard and uncomfortable, like I was stomping on a picnic table as I walked around the store, I bought them. They were the only waterproof shoes I could find in Lisbon, and I spent two months attempting to soften them up.
I bought a new backpack for the hike, and thermal underwear, and a fleece, and a rain jacket, and a walking guide. I spent the months leading up to the hike walking long distances in Lisbon and climbing a volcano in the Congo.
Prior to this trip, the furthest I’d ever walked was around 25 kilometres. On our first day on Hadrian’s Wall, we expected to rack up 26 kilometres, but totalled a whopping 32 after detours.
Forty-five thousand steps.
It was 20 miles on an entirely paved surface, which acted like a meat tenderiser on the soles of my feet.
My toes were throbbing by the end of the day, but I was hit by a walker’s high and confessed to Dave that I could see myself walking the Camino de Santiago one day. That I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Maybe I could walk across Russia!!!!
I was infatuated with walking and couldn’t wait to see what the second day would bring.
Day two gave us a 33 kilometre walk that we’d originally expected to be 26. While it was on grass paths rather than tarmac, the damage had already been done on day one. From the first step I took, my soles were aching.
The final two hours of the day were excruciating. I felt nauseated from the exertion. When I sat down to rest, the vibrant green grass started spinning around me, and I could feel my pulse in my head. I broke down in tears at one point.
But I’m stubborn and there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to make it. I contemplated crawling to the finish line.
By the time we reached our bunkhouse, I had eight weeping blisters and one of my toenails had turned black. My ankle was so bruised from my shoes that I couldn’t even take them off without yelping.
“Unpopular opinion:” I announced to Dave that evening. “Hiking shoes do more harm than good.”
Day three was a short one: just 15 predicted kilometres that ended up being 22, with the added bonus of a howling gale and sideways rain. At one point, I burst into delirious tears of laughter because I couldn’t comprehend how it was possible for my feet to be in so much pain. By the end of the day, I was walking with my heels out of my shoes because fuck those fucking shoes.
I got to my bunkhouse and my black toenail was now dangling from my skin at a right angle, like a baby tooth that was ready to be pulled. Blister count: 11.
I suspected my shoes to be the painful culprit, and this was confirmed when I slipped on my flip-flops and literally skipped my way to the local pub that evening. I jogged. I jumped. I ran. I felt no pain. It wasn’t that my feet were sore, it was that the shoes were agonising.
I was in desperate need of a new pair of shoes — almost anything would do — but I was in a village that consisted of one pub, a hostel, and a couple of farms.
As I sat in the pub at the end of day three, surrounded by laughing hikers who looked like they were nowhere near an 8 on the pain scale, I realised everyone else was finding it easy.
I had toyed with the idea of quitting the day before, but walking has a way of getting under your skin. Each evening, I would swear I was over it and dropping out, but by the time the sun was rising, I was motivated to walk another day.
This day would be another long one. Twenty-six kilometres that would undoubtedly end up being more like 30 once you factor in the detours. My feet were feeling better and I was already at the half-way mark of the walk, so I knew I could make it to the end. Pain is transient. This too shall pass.
I carefully wrapped my bleeding toes with band-aids, stuffed a wad of sheep’s wool into the bottom of my shoes, and took a double dose of painkillers. Squeezing my throbbing feet into my Death Shoes had me wincing and I wasn’t even standing yet. Jesus Christ, my ankles were bruised.
I stood up and whimpered. I took a step but couldn’t complete it, my foot hovering inches from the ground. My ankles were so sore that I couldn’t walk without my knees buckling. It took me five minutes to make the fifty metres to breakfast that morning.
So, I quit.
I had to, really.
Even Dave said it would be foolish to continue.
Even if I was determined to walk through the pain as best I could, I couldn’t see myself managing thirty kilometres before nightfall. I could either wear the shoes and end up even more broken, or I could opt for flip-flops and end up with no skin left between my toes.
I wanted to murder my shoes.
Dave continued the walk and made it to the sea three days later. He told me those days were some of the best of any hike he’d done. I holed up in nearby Carlisle and tended to my feet and pride.
I’ve spent the past ten days unsuccessfully attempting to overcome my shame and embarrassment. It’s rare for something like this to beat me. I love physical challenges and leaving comfort zones and didn’t I scale a freaking volcano last month?
Why couldn’t I do it?
I’ve read memoirs by hikers and walkers who wrote about how they pushed through the pain when their toenails were falling off and their feet falling apart, and I beat myself up over why I hadn’t been able to find the strength to do the same. I thought I was strong.
I’d like to give you some kickass tips for dealing with failure here. To tell you about the lessons I learned and how you can apply them to your own life. To share my newfound belief that admitting defeat and giving up is sometimes far harder and more impressive than sticking with something you’ve committed to. But that would feel disingenuous.
I’m still sad and I’m still embarrassed that I failed to walk one of the easiest long-distance hikes in the U.K. And even though I think I’d have been able to complete it had I not had the Worst Shoes Ever slowly destroying my feet, it doesn’t make me feel better.
So rather than lying and pretending I’ve gained wisdom from my failures, I’m admitting that the only thing I learned was that if your shoes don’t feel like they’re made for you, they’re not the right ones.
This isn’t the end of me and Hadrian’s Stupid Bloody Wall.
I’m stubborn and I’m determined, so I’m going to face it down again to show myself that I can do it.
This time next year, I’m going to lace up my different-and-very-comfortable hiking boots, stuff my backpack full of energy bars, pull on my rain jacket, and begin to walk.
This time next year, I’m going to be celebrating walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall.
My Advice for Walking Hadrian’s Wall
I learned a lot from my painful time on the wall, so I want to give some advice if you’re contemplating tackling it yourself.
Carefully consider whether you want to walk east or west. I walked to the west and I believe that was my biggest mistake — I wish I’d hiked from the west instead. When you walk from east to west, it’s generally a prettier walk. Rather than spending your last day walking through the suburbs of Newcastle, you’ll instead finish by walking through countryside to the sea in Solway. Most people walk in this direction, so I decided to as well, without giving it much thought.
I recommend walking east instead. I found that trekking through Newcastle on that first day destroyed my feet because I had to walk 30 km on entirely paved surfaces. Pavement acts as a meat tenderiser to the feet when you walk, so you’re going to be starting with the toughest day, and it might set you up for failure if you end up blistered and sore. Additionally, the prevailing winds will be at your back if you’re walking to the east, which makes the hiking easier. Having walked through a day of sideways rain where the wind was in my face, let me say, you’ll totally be grateful for this if you encounter any bad weather.
If you’re going to walk to the west, consider a pre-walk to Newcastle: If you’re going to walk Hadrian’s Wall and you’re going to walk to the west, you’ll likely spend the night before in Newcastle. Because the walk starts 8km to the east of the city, you’ll have to take the train out to Wallsend that morning and then trek your way back through the city.
If I could have done anything differently, I’d have taken to train to Wallsend and walked into Newcastle the afternoon before starting my hike. It would have been an easy stroll of 8 km to get started, and would have made that first day so much easier by cutting the distance on paved surfaces down to two thirds of what it could be.
You should definitely buy the Trailblazer guide. This guidebook is one of the best I’ve ever encountered for hiking, and I can’t stop singing its praises. It covers absolutely everything you’d need to know about walking Hadrian’s Wall, and the hand-drawn maps are incredible. It’s worth buying for the maps alone, which are highly detailed, easy to follow, and good for morale. I view this book as an essential for walking Hadrian’s Wall.
Prepare for longer walks than anticipated. There’s little accommodation on the wall itself, so you’ll often have to come off the trail to get to your bunkhouse for the night. Be aware of this when planning your walk — I found it easy to be like, “oh, well, it’s just another mile — no big deal”, but ended up regretting this when I was walking and could have done without said extra mile. Also, take into account nearby food options. It was devastating to come off a long trek and still need to walk half a kilometre to the nearest pub for dinner.
I recommend planning out your walk before you start booking accommodation, so that you can try to get an even spread of walking distances across the week and ensure you’re not getting too far off the trail. This was our chosen route:
Day 1: Wallsend to Heddon-on-the-Wall, 31km
Day 2: Heddon-on-the-Wall to Green Carts Farm, 33km
Day 3: Green Carts Farm to Once Brewed, 22km
Day 4: Once Brewed to Walton, 29km
Day 5: Walton to Carlisle, 20km
Day 6: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway, 24km
And here’s where I chose to stay on the walk, along with my thoughts about each place:
Bentinck Apartments, Newcastle: One of the cheapest hotel rooms in Newcastle that still received good reviews. Recommended!
Hadrian’s Barn: A lovely property, close to the wall and with lovely owners. As an added bonus, they can cook dinner for you in the evening, so you don’t have to walk any further!
Green Carts Farm: A good option if you’re not going to be staying here over Friday or Saturday nights. Got a bit chilly in the night but the beds were comfortable.
Winshields Farm: This was my favourite place I stayed on the walk. The bunkhouse was modern and clean, there was a room to dry your clothes, and the nearby pub (Twice Brewed) had delicious food on offer.
Florries on the Wall: I didn’t stay here, but my boyfriend named it his favourite accommodation on the wall. The owner was friendly (he even offered to refund my stay when I didn’t make it), the food was fantastic, and the bunkhouse fabulous.
Warwick Lodge: One of the best budget options in Carlisle, Warwick Lodge is super-cosy rooms for tired hikers. It was the perfect way to finish off our hike, and we stayed a second night after Dave finished his final day on the wall.
How have you dealt with failure on your travels?
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