It is a pilgrimage that has gradually coalesced in my mind since Whitsun, the time of a fortuitous encounter at an ancient hilltop fortress on the Welsh border. That May dawn, awoken by a painful crick in the neck but energized by a cafetière of dark earthy Aceh mountain coffee, I had left my family sweetly asleep under canvas to scale the high mound that looms dramatically above the Llangollen valley to wander among the atmospheric ruins of Castell Dinas Brân, which crowns the summit. I had bided my time over a steep but rewarding climb, only to find my pleasant solitude rudely interrupted by a fellow early morning visitor, an older gentleman who, like me, bore the stubble of a couple of days away from home comforts. Little did I know as we exchanged our first words that this fellow would inspire not only a mediaeval-tinged ditty about the site, but a journey forged northwards to an equally exciting frontier post – Hadrian’s Wall.
Laurence Shelley is, among his other talents, a self-published writer, the author of Off-the-wall Walking, a quirky, engaging and frequently hilarious account of his attempt to hike the Hadrian’s Wall path coast to coast from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. That cloudy Whitsun morn, as we chatted like old friends, I quickly realized that I had found a kindred spirit – a fellow embracer of the chances, coincidences and serendipities that the tumbling dice of life throw up from the gaming table. Having dipped enjoyably into the copy of OTWW that Laurence had kindly sent me as a gift after our chance meeting, I knew that his book would accompany my pilgrimage to the Wall like a good wine accompanies a delicious feast.
Two months later, the family now safely ensconced in Korea for their summer holidays and my plans and preparations for the trip complete, I sally forth under a frowning August sky, excited to be on my way at last. As I cross the local park, a flock of Canada geese grazes beside the lake like great dinosaurs on a Silesian plain. A distant dog-walker reprimands her hound – or is it her young child? A little further on, a pernickety Jenny wren hops out onto the wooden bridge just in front of me in search of a tasty tidbit. To the left and to the right, regiments of Himalayan Balsam clog the brook waiting to be uprooted and left to rot on the banks – a wavy pink brushstroke across the morning’s green canvas. Down on the Bristol Road, I await the arrival of the Number 61, grazing on tart blackberries from the hedge, where cans of Red Bull and Strongbow gently rust.
Before long, my train is channeling unerringly north-eastwards between the towpath of the Worcester-Birmingham canal and a broad school playing field which hosts a multitude of bouncing crows. Quickly in and out of the dark unwashed armpit of New Street Station, we speed through Black Country dereliction and across the pock-marked Staffordshire plain. As the oddly-named Virgin Pendalino fills up, picturesque Cheshire canals gradually yield to the loneliness of the high Pennines, enveloped in a shroud of mist and fine drizzle. Meanwhile, the buffet service is suspended ‘for health and safety reasons’ as the carriage aisles become un-navigable due to excess passengers, their over-sized baggage, and their restless offspring. Typically, I hadn’t bargained for the beginning of the Edinburgh Festival and, without a reservation, I am more than a little fortunate to keep my seat all the way to Cumbria.
As we draw into Carlisle Station and I get up to leave my seat, I find my exit temporarily blocked by other passengers queuing to spill out onto the platform. As I wait for the human traffic to move, I happen to glance down at a book resting open upon the table of the gentleman in the seat in front, who has nodded off in the middle of reading it. I do a double take for what I see astonishes me! There in black and white is a line drawing of an attractive cottage in front of the backdrop of a ruined hilltop castle eyrie. The caption under the illustration reads: ‘The house of the ladies of Llangollen with Dinas Brân in the background, sketched by James Plumptre, 1792.’ Alighting giddily on the platform, something makes me turn and glance up at a plaque on the side of the railway carriage I have just left. The name of my train: ‘Virgin Warrior’.