First, a brief history lesson: Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 AD. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne to the Irish Sea dividing the Romans and the Ancient Britons, including the Picts. It is the largest remaining Roman artefact anywhere, running a total of 135km.
Following the success of their 100km Thames Path Challenge a year ago, Sam, Helen and Paula embarked upon the Hadrian’s Wall Path. Here, Sam ponders the journey and what they learned during its course.
Our Thames Path Challenge in 2015 gave us a tremendous sense of achievement. Pushing yourself to the limit and achieving what you set out to do is an incredible feeling. So, the next logical step, after re-growing the toenails we’d lost between us and undergoing foot surgery, was to extend that limit. We’d done 100km, bring on 135km.
Our journey began before we got to the start line. First, there was the mental preparation. Shortly after agreeing the challenge, it started to dawn on us what we’d let ourselves in for. The walk is across open countryside – it is hilly, with rough terrain, it’s open to the elements and has very limited facilities of any kind along the way. Our previous walking experiences were all on hard, flat ground – we’d no similar experience to call on!
Then there were the logistical considerations. Our starting point, or ‘trailhead’, Bowness-on-Solway, was a long way from home. We’d need accommodation during the walk. We could only walk in daylight hours, but how would we know where we’d be by dusk? How would we eat? We would be walking for around 11 hours a day and there were no café’s en-route. So, we’d have to carry what we needed. Extra weight would hinder our progress, so we had to pack accordingly. And the small villages in which we’d planned to stay wouldn’t have started serving breakfast by the time we needed to leave each day.
While Helen, Paula and I embarked upon the journey together, we had different goals. Having had recent foot surgery, my aim was to walk for 5-hours a day. I felt that was a comfortable limit, which would not cause me irreparable damage. This would mean I wouldn’t complete the full walk in the 3.5 days we had allocated ourselves but this was less important to me. Being hardcore adrenaline junkies however, Helen and Paula were totally driven to complete the walk. The plan was that I would do my 5-hours, then arrange for a taxi to collect me from wherever we had reached at that time, while Helen and Paula would continue until dusk and reach the hotel by foot.
Day 1 – Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle
We made the 3-hour train journey from Euston to Carlisle, headed for the first hotel to dump our belongings, then backtracked via taxi to the trailhead to begin. We decided to start at Bowness-on-Solway as the land was quite flat so thought this would ease us in gently to the unchartered terrain. We decided that rather than looking at the task ahead as a gargantuan mission, we would approach it in stages; we gave ourselves hourly and daily targets to make it seem more achievable.
This part of the walk was surprisingly devoid of any roman sites or artefacts. There was no wall to speak of; however, there were some churches at Beaumont and Burgh by Sands which the Normans built from left over stones from the wall. Burgh by Sands also has a monument to Edward 1st who died of dysentery whilst waiting to cross the Solway Firth. The views south towards the Hills of the Lake District and the views over to Scotland are stunning. These views were ample motivation, however the walking authority that maintains the trail have introduced passports, which you can get stamped at 7 stamping stations across the trail – we were surprisingly spurred by these.
Day 2 – Carlisle to Steel Rigg
On our second day, we set off from Carlisle, again the scenery was quite flat and dull but it began to improve as the day progressed. We took a 20-minute detour from our planned route to collect the second ever-coveted stamp for our passport. I discarded my 5-hour plan and managed 7-hours before Gary, a local taxi driver, collected me and delivered me to our hotel. Helen and Paula aimed to continue until the hotel at Steel Rigg but night was falling. They crossed some fellow walkers who told them that the hardest bit of their day was coming up – it involved a scramble across a ridge, so shortly after this encounter they had to admit defeat and call Gary to collect them. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner and bed that night!
Day 3 – Steel Rigg to Heddon-on-the-Wall
Helen and Paula set off at 6am in the rain on day 3 from the point that Gary had collected them the night prior, I was to meet them at 10.30am once they’d made the treacherous scramble over Steel Rigg and continue the walk with them. We were spoilt throughout the day to the most beautiful scenery, stunning views and amazing vistas. We were truly in the middle of nowhere – no hint of civilisation could be seen across the undulating tough terrain, except those left by our ancestors in the form of roman ruins and forts. This was undoubtedly the toughest part of the walk, which also made completing it the most rewarding . In the early afternoon, we’d just walked down a steep descent, past a roman fort, when we realised we’d missed the stamping station! We coveted the stamps to such an extent that we walked back up the steep incline to get our stamps and were given a second reward in the form of a coffee stop. After another 7 hours, I was tired and hurting so decided again to leave the adrenaline junkies to it and arranged for Gary to collect and deliver me to our hotel. By now it was early evening and starting to get dark, a slight route miscalculation led Helen and Paula to believe the day’s finish line was 30-minutes away, however it was actually a couple of hours away. Gary and I turned around in the taxi and rescued them. We all went back to the hotel with the aim of getting a good night’s sleep before the final day, however the dubious karaoke singers from the pub downstairs had other ideas…
Final day – Heddon-on-the-Wall to Wallsend
We decided to relax a little on our final day so treated ourselves to a leisurely start, a hearty breakfast and a dissection of our journey so far. We agreed that to complete the path, we wouldn’t be able to revisit the portion of the path that we missed yesterday. So we all started together. After a couple of pretty villages, the route into Newcastle became increasingly populated as we got closer to civilisation. We walked through a variety of places including the beautiful waterfront where we stopped for lunch, then through some less salubrious areas as we got close to the finish. We’d made it. It was a hard challenge, Helen and Paula were disappointed not to have completed the whole trail, I half expect them to revisit it one day without me, but despite the challenges we encountered, we managed 35 hours of walking, across tough ground, in the British weather across 3.5 days. Hadrian’s Wall – done.
Our Five Key Insights
On returning from the walk – bloodied, blistered and bruised, I started to ponder what we’d learned on our journey and realised we could draw parallels between this personal mission and our working lives:
Insight One: Start with the end in mind. Think of the bigger picture, think about what you want to achieve and work back. The whole project might seem daunting, but breaking it down into achievable and measurable stages is less overwhelming for the project team and employees. Think about what success looks like. Is it delivering a better customer experience, saving money or increasing revenues? Be honest, put a stake in the ground and measure yourself against it.
Insight Two: What’s in it for me? Segment your audience and understand what each group wants. Because we understood each other’s goals, we came up with a plan which enabled each of us to achieve them. In technology projects, it’s important to understand what will help buy-in; while cost saving may motivate the upper echelons of an organisation, it’s unlikely to excite the whole organisation. A better work / life balance, improved systems, or the opportunity to earn more commission resonates better with individuals. Find out what those motivations are and build them into the communications and engagement plan accordingly to ensure buy-in to your initiative.
Insight Three: One place, one truth. During the walk, we had a detailed daily itinerary. If I was leaving the day’s walk earlier than Helen and Paula, we all had a plan so we knew exactly where to meet each other, what times to meet, where we were staying and where we were eating etc. In a project, the single version of truth is usually the intranet. Keep all the information that employees need to know about your project correct and updated, in one place that everyone can access. This improves communication, understanding and helps adoption.
Insight Four: It’s all about the beautiful game. The popularity of reward charts show that this works on our children, but we were surprised at how they motivated us. We wanted, no needed, to collect all 7 stickers and get the certificate at the end. Gamification has grabbed the attention of the Learning and Development industry because no matter your age, rewarding achievement works. We regularly prompt our customers to apply such techniques to engage staff with their technology programmes, whether a completion certificate, or pitching divisions against each other- it works.
Insight Five – Ask the Expert. Understand your challenge and the potential pitfalls. Research to the ‘nth’ degree and listen to experts. In hindsight, 3 days to complete the walk was impossible. Experienced country walkers had committed to 6 days; we thought our previous walking experience would stand us in good stead. We hadn’t appreciated how different the walk was to those previous experiences however. We had steep gradients, uneven ground and flooded land to deal with. In hindsight, we might have attempted the walk in reverse, tackling the steeper gradients when we had the most energy. When others have been through the pain, learn their lessons.
Can you think of more parallels between our personal experiences and working lives? We would love you to share your thoughts.