It is only a mug of strongly brewed tea, but, after the morning I have had, it feels like the nectar of the gods. On the fourth day of my coast-to-coast walk across northern England, I had so far trudged through seven miles of waterlogged fields, edging slowly past cows and taking detours to avoid getting stuck in the mud. I only ever seemed to be walking uphill. No one else was mad enough to risk the Northumberland countryside on this freezing November day besides the cows and sheep. But suddenly a stone cottage popped up. I was intrigued: this was the first house I had come across that lay on the path. A hardy-looking woman stood in the garden amid the torrent of sleet that was lashing down on us both, topping up a bird feeder. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she asks, as I limp the last few steps towards her home.
Inside, I ditch my mud-splattered boots, anorak and waterproof trousers. My host introduces herself as Joan Johnson; her husband, Tony, puts the kettle on and ushers me into their kitchen, which is only fractionally warmer than the outside. They have lived here for 23 years, Tony explains, and I am far from the first walker they have comforted. In the summer, this 84-mile trail – roughly following the route of Hadrian’s Wall, which starts east of Newcastle and ends west of Carlisle – is popular with tourists. “We get people stopping six times a day, asking for water,” he says. “Or they want to use the toilet. Some of them are real townies. We say to them ‘why don’t you just go behind the wall?’” There have been octogenarian ramblers, naked hikers and nocturnal orienteers bouncing past with their head torches at two in the morning. The Johnsons once let a scout troop from Germany camp in their garden. But they rarely see a walker at this time of year. Why on earth, they want to know, am I here?
It’s a fair question. Walking the length of a nearly 2,000-year-old wall built by the Romans is not how most journalists have chosen to cover Britain’s forthcoming general election. For starters, most of the constituencies this route passes through, eight in total, are safe seats (none is likely to change hands between different political parties at the election). Then there’s the walking bit: even in the nicest weather, I’m more of a five-miles-to-a-country-pub man than an endurance rambler. At my sluggish pace this trail would take seven days, starting (counterintuitively) at Wallsend, a town which was once the heart of industry in the north-east of England. I would wind up at the isolated Cumbrian village of Bowness, which winks at Scotland across a narrow inlet of sea called the Solway firth.
Yet as I hugged my tea closer for warmth, I still thought it was a good idea. Journalists tend to focus on marginal constituencies, but most Britons live in safe seats. People like the Johnsons still have opinions. Having watched the past three years of Brexit negotiations and chaos in Britain’s Parliament, Joan Johnson is despondent about the state of politics. “The problem is,” she told me in her cosy kitchen, “I don’t know whether we’ve got enough oomph.”
But I also had a personal reason to walk Hadrian’s Wall. I grew up in the Northumbrian village of Corbridge, once a Roman settlement and now the sort of place, with its stone cottages and picturesque market square, that could feature in an Agatha Christie TV drama. Though I moved away for university and then work, Northumberland – where my mother and sisters still live – has long been my refuge from the Westminster bubble. I wanted to go home to find out what the people I grew up with thought about politics at this time of national crisis.
For much of the past year protesters armed with placards and megaphones had demonstrated outside Parliament, mostly against the result of the country’s referendum on leaving the European Union in 2016, when 52% of voters opted for Brexit. At times, the mood in London seemed febrile. I knew from my childhood that Northumbrians share a wariness of authority and an aversion to pomposity. Know-alls from the city are often the butt of jokes up here. But their scepticism always seemed good-humoured to me. People in my village would joke that they needed to watch their words around a journalist from London, but they didn't mean it. Still, I was nervous about going home. With Britain so divided, would that Northumbrian spirit persist or would I find something darker? Would the place where I grew up be as torn apart by Brexit as the rest of the country?
On a misty morning four days before I arrived at the Johnsons, I had started my walk at the Wallsend Memorial Hall. The building shares a busy crossroads in the centre of town with a pawnbroker, a discount store promising “top quality brands at low, low prices” and a pub offering four shots of Jagermeister for £6. Inside, it looks like the 1920s again. Keith Palmer, a 62-year-old ex-welder who now volunteers here, gives me a tour of the ballroom, with its heavy wooden doors, crimson walls and grand piano. “It’s a proper sprung floor,” he says, with evident pride.
Palmer says that “The Mem”, as the hall is known by locals, was built to honour “all the lads from the [shipyards] who volunteered to go to the first world war”. But these days, the hall commemorates something else, too: a time when the River Tyne and its surrounding areas, like Wallsend, were thriving. For much of the past two centuries, Britain’s regions had an unwritten bargain: the north provided the goods and the south sold them. In the north-east, this chiefly meant mining coal and building ships, which were still the region’s main industrial activities in the 1970s. The Tyne had a vast shipbuilding industry, launching vessels that towered over workers’ terraced houses.
Palmer can still name all the old shipyards. “You had Smith’s dock, you had Willington Quay, you had Wallsend slipway, you had Swan’s, that’s where I served my time…” The list goes on. But these days you’d be lucky to see half a dozen boats, Palmer says. And nobody makes ships on the Tyne anymore, favouring cheaper yards in India and elsewhere. Part of the old Swan’s yard is now called “Swan’s Centre for Innovation” and offers office space with “flexible terms”.
Our conversation moves onto politics. “This Brexit thing they’ve had for three years and they’ve dragged their feet. You can talk about it all day... but you cannot do nothing about it. So that’s why I’m not really politically motivated,” Palmer says. Like most people around here, he used to vote Labour. Then he grew disillusioned. After an industrial accident a decade ago, he says he was refused funding to regain his welding qualifications. He saw companies on the Tyne plump for cheaper labour: first from Poland, then from Bulgaria. When he was offered the choice to leave the EU, in the 2016 referendum, he took it.
In places like Wallsend many people feel forgotten by politicians in London – taken for granted by Labour and ignored (or maltreated) by the Tories. In recent years, an invigorated Scottish Parliament north of the border has contributed to a sense that when politicians look up north, they focus either on Manchester and Liverpool or on Scotland, with its loud cries for independence. So this region, the “middleland” – as Rory Stewart, a politician with a fondness for walking and poetry, calls England's border counties of Northumberland and Cumbria – feels particularly neglected. Perhaps that explains why five of the eight constituencies I would pass through on my walk voted for Brexit. In Carlisle, for example, six in ten people voted to Leave.
Like many Geordies of his generation, Palmer still blames Margaret Thatcher – the former British prime minister who presided over the closure of mines and shipyards in the 1980s – for the region’s malaise. “She killed this river. She killed most of Britain, Thatcher.” But even though industrial towns like Wallsend have long been Labour’s heartland, up here few people have much time for Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s current leader. Palmer thinks working-class Labour voters in the north-east are unlikely to switch to the Tories. So the winners are likely to be small parties (Palmer will vote for the Brexit Party) and apathy.
Newcastle comes quickly and with it relative affluence. Since I left Northumberland to go to university, Newcastle has acquired a new swagger. Its redeveloped Quayside – once home to heavy industry – now teems with joggers and cyclists. Factories have given way to wine bars and a marina. An EU flag in the window of an apartment is a symbolic frontier to this swankier patch. A little farther along the trail, a sign attached to a riverside bollard reads: “Will trade racists for refugees”.
As I reach the city-centre I cut up to the upmarket suburb of Jesmond to meet the local MP for lunch. Nick Brown has represented the solidly Labour seat of Newcastle East since 1983 and has served three very different party leaders – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Corbyn – as chief whip. Now, at 69, and with a whomping majority of nearly 20,000 at the last election, he can afford to relax. Over poached eggs on toast, he answers questions directly and lets me talk freely to his campaign team.
I tell him about a coffee I had with Mary Glindon, the Labour MP for North Tyneside (a constituency which includes Wallsend), earlier that day. Glindon backed Remain in the EU referendum but most of her constituents voted to leave, so she is campaigning against a second referendum on Brexit. Yet Brown’s voters, in his neighbouring seat, backed Remain – so he pledges to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU if another referendum is called, something he supports.
As we polish up our food, Brown explains how this new divide has formed. When Brown first ran for this seat, activists from nearby coal-mining areas came to help convince middle-class people in Newcastle to vote for him. “Now it’s the other way round. The Newcastle seats are widely regarded as being reasonable Labour bets… we’re planning to export help to the people who, decades ago, came to help us.” North Tyneside, the industrial and ageing area where Palmer lives, is the old type of Labour seat. Newcastle East represents a younger and more diverse area, the newer type of Labour seat. This suggests the north-east is losing its distinctiveness and becoming more like the rest of Britain, with its call-centre workers and immigrant baristas. Though Palmer is right that little remains of the region’s industrial heyday, younger Geordies are proud of that heritage. They might do similar jobs to southerners, but they retain a distinctive outlook on life.
As the days go by, my legs begin to protest. Ibuprofen subdues them for a while, but they play up again as I leave behind the flat city paths for the undulating middle stretch of the wall. It is not difficult to notice Labour heartland slipping into Tory country. I pass an amateur rowing club – its crew out early, heaving their boats to the Tyne – then a rugby pitch, then a golf course. Urban sprawl gives way to farm buildings, hedgerows and Range Rovers. Pavement becomes path which becomes squelchy fields.
At last, as I reach the Northumberland National Park, sections of the wall itself begin to crop up. In the city, it had mostly been built over. On Newcastle’s West Road, there are kebab houses and sari shops where there were once centurions and milehouses. In Northumberland I pass long stretches of wall, although the imagination is still required to picture the small mounds of stone that remain as an intimidating frontier. Tony Johnson had described the trail as “pretty bogus”, since there is only “a tiny section of wall” still standing. To many Northumbrians over the centuries, the wall has been less an object of veneration than a handy source of building material, much of which ended up in the houses along the route. More remains of the vallum, a long trench that runs alongside the wall, into which walkers are in constant danger of slipping. Tony Johnson told me how he once rescued a missing octogenarian walker, unable to clamber out of the vallum. Out here, to borrow a phrase, you really could die in a ditch.
At the end of the blister-inducing fourth day of trudging through sludgy fields, Reuben Straker, a landowner and publican, joins me for a drink in his otherwise nearly empty pub, the Twice Brewed Inn, which sits on the western fringe of the National Park, 35 miles from Newcastle. His home-brewed beer is named, with a nod to the wall, Ale Caesar.
At my request, Straker has invited a handful of farmers to join us. As word spreads, more and more troop in. “Somebody said there was free beer going around,” says one, bustling through the door: “I ran.” A few minutes later, another arrives: “Now then, who’s paying?” Once the tab is sorted out, we talk about their farms. The most recent newcomer arrived 17 years ago. None lives more than ten miles in either direction of the wall; all are accustomed to a steady stream of walkers. “99% of them are great,” says one, who keeps sheep. “It’s just the 1%. We’ve had Americans ask ‘can we drive our car along the wall?’”
I nudge the conversation onto politics. Before coming up north, I wondered how big an issue Brexit would be. I remembered the 2017 general election, which ended up being about almost anything else. But most people I met on the walk brought up Brexit before I did. The crowd in the pub tonight is no different. “I voted to stay,” says a land agent, wearing an obligatory gilet. But, he adds, “I think we have to leave because that is what was decided.” “I voted to stay as well,” chips in a farmer. “I’m greedy and I want my [EU agricultural] subsidies. Now I think it’s gone that far that if we stay in Europe we would be treated like second-class citizens. So if we had a vote tomorrow, I’d vote to leave.”
But most, including Straker, were Leavers in 2016. They haven’t changed their minds and think that a second referendum on Brexit would be a terrible idea – in fact, in this rural stretch of the walk I met hardly anybody keen on a second referendum, regardless of how they voted in 2016. The farmers’ certainty makes me think of my friends in London and the hundreds of thousands who have marched through the capital to demand a People’s Vote. These farmers agree with the Londoners that Brexit has been an embarrassment, but not because it has revealed some kind of Little Englander mentality. They are ashamed that their country’s Parliament has yet to implement the result of the referendum. Too many of their countrymen, they reckon, lack the sort of pluck that comes with living out here and farming for a living. Britain is a relatively small country – only 300 miles separate London and Northumberland – but Brexit seems to have added to that distance.
The crowd in the pub tonight are all going to vote for the Conservatives, though some with more enthusiasm than others. “It’s the best of a bad lot,” grumbles one. The evening winds on, more pints are drunk. Someone starts to sing me a folk ballad. The bill arrives. Gulp.
The last few miles are the flattest but also the hardest. Six days of walking have taken their toll, but I walk the final stretch at a real clip, determined to get it over with, my headphones blasting 1980s pop music. Wide views across the Solway firth to Scotland provide a handy distraction.
At long last, I reach the finish point, in Bowness. A former Brexit Party candidate, Philip Walling, has agreed to meet me in the pub for a celebratory pint. “This man just walked the wall!” he booms excitedly to the two women behind the bar. They smile at me politely, offer brief congratulations, then return to work. “We get thousands,” says one.
As I gratefully unlace my boots for the final time and point my feet towards the open fire, I replay the last 84 miles. Not for the first time as a journalist, I was struck by the generosity of strangers. From the Johnsons letting me shelter from the rain to the many unattended food huts along the path, set up by people who trusted walkers to put change in their honesty box in return for sustenance. No one refused to talk to me; far more than I expected had been closely following Brexit developments. “Like a hawk,” one of the farmers had insisted. One woman in Gilsland, a village that straddles the border between Northumberland and Cumbria, rolled her eyes as her husband admitted to becoming addicted to BBC Parliament.
That none of the seats on the route I walked will change hands on December 12th does not mean nothing has changed in the “middleland”. I had expected hearty scepticism of Westminster, but I was taken aback that so many doubted the good faith of all politicians. Some held them in contempt. This was new to me and, as someone who believes most MPs go into politics for the right reasons, profoundly depressing. Yet it was hard to mount the case for the defence. Voters this far north – and in such safe seats – are right that Westminster does not spend much time talking about their needs. I understand why so many here backed Brexit, in large part because they felt ignored. The delays and endless debate since then have hardly persuaded them that they are now being listened to. If politicians want to reconnect with voters, they could do worse than start with this walk. But they should probably wait until summer.