Pennine Way Stage 16: Greenhead to Once Brewed

Published 2 December 2015

Walking along the Pennine Way at Cawfield Crags
Walking along the Pennine Way at Cawfield Crags.

“Only six and a half miles to do tomorrow. Shall we have a lie in?” Catherine suggested, as we supped bottles of local ale in the Greenhead Hotel.

I thought for a moment, before deciding, why on earth not? There was no real need to get up early. We had a few bits and bats we could eat for breakfast so we didn’t need to rush over to the hotel at 8am to get some food, and the short distance to Once Brewed hostel could be easily achieved in a few hours. This would leave us with plenty of time to poke around Roman remains, stop off at a pub for lunch and still arrive at our evening’s accommodation before the sun set. It may be a walking trip, but we were on holiday after all. So why not spend a little time resting and relaxing?

And so we did. Rather than our normal routine of hitting the road by nine – half past if the B&B only did later breakfasts – it was well after ten by the time we returned to the Pennine Way, which seemed frankly wrong. But then, that’s the whole point of a lie in.

The ruins of Thirlwall Castle near Greenhead on the Pennine Way.
The ruins of Thirlwall Castle.

Back outside and it was time to discover the history of the area. And what better place to start a tour of the remains of Roman Britain than Thirwell Castle, which is a 12th century castle that was – cunningly – home to the Thirwell family. And I know what you’re thinking. That’s not very Roman is it? Well that’s where you’d be wrong, for after it was built the castle was strengthened using stones nabbed from nearby Hadrian’s Wall. Well, it’s a connection.

The castle began to fall into disrepair in the 18th century, and suffered several major collapses of masonry, including one in 1982. These days it’s maintained by the Northumberland National Park Authority, has been made safe, and is open to the public to wander around, which is exactly what we did. The extent of the decay is such that it’s hard to imagine what the place was like originally. Here was a building where people lived. Children were no doubt born, and ran around this place, but now it was just a pile of stones.

Back outside the castle walls, we returned to the Vallum, following it to Walltown Quarry, which is now a country park complete with the obligatory picnic area, car park and lake. Again, this may not sound very Roman, but stick with it. Opened in 1877, the quarry was opened to extract whinstone, a hard, very durable rock used for building roads. As the road network expanded, demand for whinstone grew and Walltown’s output was even used to build the M6 motorway around Penrith.

The Romans never quarried whinstone – it was far too hard to extract in that era and it was only until after the industrial revolution that the technology became available to extract it. However, just because they couldn’t quarry it didn’t mean that the Romans didn’t make use of it. The whinstone ridge was used to help make Hadrian’s Wall an even stronger barrier. But centuries later that also caused a problem. Hadrian’s Wall got in the way of quarrying.

Walltown Quarry and a glimpse of Hadrian's Wall, and a big lake in the foreground.
Walltown Quarry and a glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall.

Although it had been raided for building materials for centuries after the Romans left Britain, by the Victorian era there was increasing concern over damage to Hadrian’s Wall, so much so that in 1834 there was a move to buy up sections of land in order to protect it. Awareness of the issue had been growing steadily when the quarry opened some forty years later. An attempt to extend Walltown Quarry in the 1950s was successfully defeated, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Walltown finally closed its doors, and after many more years, opened up into the country park it is now.

There were already a few people pottering around Walltown as we arrived at the car park. A bus stop opposite the public toilets informed us that the local bus service was numbered “AD122 bus” – a nod to the year that construction of Hadrian’s Wall is believed to have commenced. Near it, an information panel with a map of the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, seemed slightly confused as it offered not one, but two arrows claiming “You are here.” Apparently we could either have been at Walltown, or at Bowness-on-Solway on the Cumbrian coast. We looked around, just to check we couldn’t see the sea and therefore hadn’t got hopelessly lost since we’d left Greenhead, and were extremely reassured to discover that our navigational skills weren’t quite that bad.

Map of the Hadrian's Wall National Trail, showing two different 'You Are Here' arrows and locations.
I am here? But where am I?

From the car park it was clear to see where a huge chunk of the whinstone had been removed, just a metre or so short of a section of wall, which ran behind the quarrying line. This was to be our first encounter with Hadrian’s Wall; a landmark we’d spend most of the day with. Naturally we headed over to take a look.

Like many people seeing Hadrian’s Wall for the first time, I felt slightly lacking in awe at it. In my mind, it was a tall, straight monster of a thing, not a little runt barely a few rows of bricks high. For some reason too, I’d envisioned the whole thing as being on a long, flat stretch of ground, whereas it was clear that it in real life, the wall had been built on undulating ground.

The Pennine Way – now heading along with a fellow National Trail, the Hadrian’s Wall Path – stuck close to the wall, bouncing up and down as it moved along. Here and there the wall showed a little more of its former glory, with a height higher than myself, although still some way from the 3m in height that it apparently once rose above the ground. Other times though, such as at another former quarry, it disappeared completely with next to nothing of it remaining. The lower – and sometimes non-existent – wall height did at least have one benefit, allowing the walker to get great views north, as well as south.

Such was the demand of whinstone, that there were several quarries in the area and we came across another closed site, two miles on from Walltown. Cawfields Quarry has again been opened up to the public, the only sign of its old life was a small hill that had essentially been half removed. It was a curious sight; like someone had just come down with a large knife and cut off half of it and taken it away. Which, in essence, I guess they had.

The remains of a hill that had been mostly quarried away at Cawfields Quarry
The remains of Cawfields Quarry.

Cawfields was also where we could grab some lunch so we headed off the short distance to the nearby Milecastle public house. It was ideal timing mainly because after having only had a light breakfast we were both ravenous, but also because it had just started raining. We had no idea when they would stop serving lunch, but it was half one so it seemed to be a good bet that we’d be able to get a bite to eat. Sure enough, a large sign outside informed us that the place served food until 3. With a skip and a jump, we went in.

The Milecastle was heaving, full of people making their way through large plates that were positively groaning with food. We looked at each other excitedly, ordered a pint at the bar and found a table from where we could study the large menu displayed on a blackboard on the wall. After swiftly agreeing, Catherine went up to order.

“The kitchen closed at half two,” came the blunt reply from the other side of the bar, in sharp contrast to the large sign outside.

Well, yes. But as it was 1:40 that was fine, surely? There was a blank and distinctly unhelpful stare from the other side of the bar. And then we saw a clock.


Back at the table, we looked at our watches completely baffled. And then it hit me.

“The clocks went forward last night, didn’t they?”

We hadn’t left the hostel at quarter past ten. Our lie-in had lasted an hour longer. And now, hungry and damp, our inability to remember that the weekend marked the change to British Summer Time meant our lunch would have to consist of a pint of ale and a packet of crisps; this after being told by the distinctly unhelpful bar staff that the only other food locally would be at the Twice Brewed Inn three miles up the road, right next to the hostel we were aiming for.

Standing outside The Milecastle Inn.
The Milecastle Inn – and a locked out Catherine who had managed to leave her gloves inslde after being hassled out by the staff.

Still, whilst hungry, at least we could relax and dry out in the warmth.

“Last orders please!” came a bored shout from behind the bar, and within minutes the staff at the Milecastle were doing their best to hustle us out of the building in a way that suggested they clearly couldn’t wait to get rid of everyone. We downed our drinks as fast as we could and went to the door. Barely had we set foot outside and it was slammed shut behind us; the sound of bolts being rapidly drawn, more than audible.

“Pub closing at 3pm on a Sunday. What decade are we in again?” I said as we headed back towards the road.

Catherine abruptly stopped.

“My gloves!” she cried.

On entering the pub we’d taken off our muddy walking boots and left them in the pub’s small porch. This would mean we wouldn’t trample dirt onto their carpet. Although, given the service there, part of me wished we hadn’t bothered. This naturally meant that we’d had to put our boots back on as we left the building. In doing so, Catherine had placed her rucksack on the floor, and had put her gloves on the porch’s window ledge for a moment whilst tying her laces. In the rush that the staff had created in order to boot us out into the cold, she’d neglected to pick them up again. Now they sat on the window ledge, plain for all to see, but completely inaccessible to us.

Given we’d had several cold days already, and were expecting some more, there was no way Catherine was going to leave her gloves on a pub’s window ledge, and we set about trying to retrieve them. Short of throwing a brick through a window – which we suspected wouldn’t go down particularly well – there were few options available to us. We needed to try and raise someone from inside the pub.

We wandered round the building, trying to find a doorbell, a knocker, anything that would raise the alarm. Surely the pub must have delivery people trying to get in sometimes? But there was nothing. Likewise there was no sign of a phone number we could ring. All of which meant we had little choice but to stand outside in the rain shouting at the windows in the hope that someone would notice.

It took ten minutes but eventually someone showed up, glared at us and begrudging opened the door, allowing us just enough time to retrieve the offending gloves before it was swiftly slammed again in our faces.

“Such lovely people,” I muttered as we left, hoping there was nothing else left inside that we’d need to retrieve.

Pennine Way and Hadrian's Wall at Cawfield Crags
The Pennine Way and Hadrian’s Wall at Cawfield Crags

We continued along the undulating path alongside the wall, past the remains of a milecastle, one of the small forts that were built every mile along the wall. A Roman mile that is: a measurement slightly shorter than the modern imperial length.

Eighty milecastles were built, each manned by between 20 and 30 guards. As well as being a defensive position, each also acted as a crossing point across the frontier, and as a customs post. Each milecastle then had two turrets, positioned a third of a mile away on each side. Coupled with the turrets maintained by the next milecastle, the result was that there’d be lookout and monitoring facilities every third of a mile; more than enough to give a good view over a wide area.

That afternoon the Pennine Way would take us past Milecastles 42 and 41, according to a numbering system introduced in 1930, which runs with 1 in the east and 80 in the west. Little remained of Milecastle 42, besides some low walls, although this is far more than Milecastle 41, and – indeed – most other milecastles, which now are long gone. Looking at it, it was incredible to think how much effort had gone into building Hadrian’s Wall and its associated structures. Building the wall alone took six years, and whilst several attempts were made to push the Roman border further into what is now Scotland, it remained the northernmost part of the Roman Empire until the Romans left Britain in 410 AD.

It was hard not to wonder what it must have been like to be stationed up here, next to this cold, slightly bleak-looking moorland day in, day out. And as I did so, it began to rain again.

Thankfully we were only a short way from Once Brewed, which meant we were also only a short distance from actually obtaining something to eat and maybe even a warm drink. But in getting there, we’d get utterly drenched. The rain was coming down big style – almost hailstones – and the water bounced dramatically as it hit the tarmac.

The entrance to One Brewed YHA.
Once Brewed YHA as it was in 2010, prior to it being demolished and replaced by a new hostel and discovery centre called called The Sill.

Soaked to the bone, we staggered into Once Brewed YHA, desperately wanting to check in quickly, find our room and change swiftly into some dry clothes.

It wasn’t to be. For starters we were firmly stuck in a queue behind a family who seemed to be the slowest people in the world. Slow to answer every question posed to them; slow to fill in the registration forms; slow to move their backsides and get out of their way. We couldn’t even get some space to take off our waterproofs thanks to their several children taking up all the benches that lined the reception area. By the time they’d finally left we’d been stood wearily for ten minutes, and a huge puddle had formed on the floor underneath our feet.

We dragged ourselves down the hostel’s corridors and found our twin room, where we found a pair of beds that gave every impression that they’d been created by someone sawing a bunkbed in half. Horizontally of course. Quickly drying ourselves off, and loading up the hostel’s drying room with our clothes, we raced down the road to the Twice Brewed Inn.

The exterior of The Twice Brewed Inn.
The Twice Brewed Inn, or ‘Twicey’ as some apparently call it.

There are several stories behind the pub’s name, some referring to the strength of beer; that “once brewed” ale was too weak, whilst the beer brewed at the pub was “twice brewed” and thus stronger. A less alcoholic reason, given in a newspaper article, is that the name comes from “the unmistakable sight of Hadrian’s Wall snaking across the brows – or “brews” – of two hills where there is also a meeting of a pair of drovers’ roads.”

Naturally the inquisitive may wonder why, therefore, the hostel is known as “Once Brewed”. A plaque in the hostel’s reception answered that question for us. Someone cleverly decided that if there was a Twice Brewed, then there really needed to be a “Once Brewed” as well.

Well it made sense to someone I guess.

Still, the Twice Brewed – or Twicey as it seemed to be affectionately known – offered everything you’d want in a pub, which also meant that it offered everything we’d failed to get earlier in the day. A roaring fire, a menu positively groaning with great sounding options, and a bar loaded with local ales. Oh and the service was good too.

What else could we possibly need? And having barely eaten all day, it was certainly time to tuck in. Which we did with gusto.

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