I sometimes feel like the area that I know the least is the one in which I live. Of course, I know all of the essential, day to day living stuff — the fastest way from A to B, the best supermarket for the weekly shop. where to get the cheapest coffee. But when it comes to the stuff that my corner of the world is known for, I really need to start brushing up on my local knowledge.
That’s why this year, I’m going to spend some time getting to know my area. So welcome to the first blog post in my new series ‘Exploring Northumberland’. It’s one of the most beautiful counties in the country, and it’s time that I finally took advantage of that.
When it came to finding a spot to visit for the first blog post of the series, the choice was clear. Sycamore Gap is one of the most iconic landmarks of the North East, and I couldn’t wait to finally see it in person! Read on to find out more about my experience of the National Trusts’ Sycamore Gap walking route.
What to pack
This is advertised as a three hour moderate walk, but I’d advise putting the full day aside to get the most out of it — there were so many gorgeous sites to stop and admire. We ended up staying for just under six hours. To have the best experience, make sure to take the following with you:
- Decent footwear: The terrain is very rugged at parts, so walking shoes would be ideal.
- Water: We ended up having two bottles each, so make sure to bring plenty.
- Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen: At least half of the walk is on higher ground and completely in the open, with little to no shade.
- Food: There are so many places to stop, so it’s the perfect area for a picnic.
- Blister plasters: Fortunately we didn’t end up needing them. But if you ended up getting a blister half way through and you forgot to pack them, you’d be kicking yourself!
Although Sycamore Gap feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s surprisingly easy to get to. It takes just under 50 minutes to get from central Newcastle to the route’s starting point (Housesteads Information Centre) via car, and around 20 minutes from the nearest town, Hexham. But fair warning that the parking is pretty pricey — our ticket cost £9 for a 6 hour stay. However, the walk is free (unless you want to pay entrance to the nearby Roman Fort), so it’s still a pretty cheap day out!
Going via public transport takes a while longer, but it could still be done in a day. If setting off from Newcastle, you’ll have to take a train or bus to Hexham. Fortunately, they set off pretty regularly. Once you’re in Hexham, there’s an hourly bus that takes you right to the entrance of the information centre. The bus journey should take you an hour and a half if you set off from Newcastle, and just 25 minutes if you set off from Hexham.
When you arrive, you’ll see a building at the end of the car park with an archway — go through here to start your walk. From here, there’s a steep walk up to the top of the hill. If you need some fuel for the journey, stop at the visitor’s centre to get a drink and a snack.
Don’t forget to keep to the right so you can get a good view of Housesteads Roman Fort. This historical landmark dates all the way back to 122 AD, and it’s considered to be the best preserved Roman fort in Britain.
Walking on Hadrian’s Wall
Once you get to the top of the hill, go through the gate to get to the next section of the walk — and get your first glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall! This is another local landmark that I hadn’t visited. In all honesty, you could’ve pointed at any stone wall and told me it was a part of Hadrian’s Wall and I would’ve believed you (yes, I am that gullible). Seeing it in the flesh for the first time was one of the best parts of the day!
There are two paths to take from here. You can opt for the lower one and walk beside Hadrian’s Wall, or the higher one and walk on it. We opted for the higher path, partly to see the fantastic views to the left, and partly just to say we walked on Hadrian’s Wall! If you choose the higher path like us, be careful with your footing — trip over on the rocky path and fall to the left, you’re a goner. Once you get to the end of the woods, there are some floating steps that lead you to the gate for the next, more strenuous section of the walk.
The steep hills
This section of walk is even more beautiful, and a lot sweatier too. Your elevated so high that you can see for miles on end. The views are breathtaking, and if you choose a quiet day to do the trip it’s incredibly peaceful. But there are lots of steep climbs and drops for this section, which is why walking boots are absolutely vital! If you don’t have any, Mountain Warehouse is your best bet for finding some reasonably priced ones.
After going over a few of these steep rises and falls in the terrain, you’ll find yourself at the end of the path. Don’t worry, the walk to Sycamore Gap gets a lot easier from this point forward! From here, head through the gate on the left towards the woods.
The woods and Crag Lough
If it’s a sunny day like it was when we visited, you’ll be glad to finally be able to shelter from the blistering heat. The temperature was only 12°C when we did the walk (which is actually a bit chilly for April), but the bright sunshine made it feel like it was the height of summer!
Once you get to the end of the woods, it won’t be long until you reach your destination. But there’s still some amazing sites to enjoy along the way too. On your left, you’ll see the breathtaking Crag Lough. This impressive lake was formed by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and it’s one of three Roman Wall Loughs. After you’ve walked through this section for roughly five minutes, you’ll be able to see the branches of the iconic sycamore reach up over the dip.
Reaching Sycamore Gap
After a total of eight years of living in the North East, and countless visits to the region, I finally got to see my first glimpse of the famous Sycamore Gap — and it didn’t disappoint. Make your way down the steep path slowly, and admire it head on. No doubt it’s a shot that you’ll have seen countless times, but seeing it right in front of you really is something else.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but the tree was once just one of many in the area. However, over the years the surrounding trees were removed one by one, and the lone sycamore that you see today was the only one left standing. It’s seen a lot through the centuries that it’s been around: the building of Hadrian’s Wall, the fall of Roman Britain, and of course, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner. Visiting Sycamore Gap really felt like seeing a slice of history.
Take some time to enjoy your picnic and admire the views here. They really are something special.
The journey back
You’ll probably want to stay and admire that view forever (I know I did), but you’ll have to make the journey back at some point. Walk downhill from the tree until you see a path to the left. Head up here and keep walking straight.
Fortunately, this section of the walk isn’t as steep as other sections. You can take it easy until you join back to the main path once you reach the road and the signpost. Here, you’ll join up with the entrance point to the forest and Crag Lough, so you should recognise your surroundings.
Joining back to the first route was only supposed to be for a short while. However, we missed the turning so were stuck on the harder steep route for the rest of the way back. For some reason, the journey back from here was so much more challenging than the journey to the gap, so don’t make the same mistake as us!
Once you get back to the car park, you’ll feel absolutely shattered. But you’ll have had an amazing experience too. Over the past few months, I’ve fallen head over heels for my home county, and this journey only made my love for Northumberland even stronger.
Have you done the Sycamore Gap walk? Did you love it as much as I did? Let me know in the comments below!