During the recent bank holiday weekend, Katy and I travelled with our bicycles and panniers on the train from Newcastle to Haltwhistle to stay at the Bush Nook B&B, just beyond Gilsland. The B&B was very near to Hadrian's wall and lay just off Hadrian's cycleway. The accomodation was very pleasant: amazing breakfasts, hot tub, gorgeous countryside, friendly folk and dogs. The food at the nearby Samson Inn is also very good.
On the first day, after catching the train and having lunch in Haltwhistle, we cycled a scenic route to the B&B, passing through Banks and Low Row and cycling along the wall, past Birdoswald Roman fort. Apart from the long, straight stretch along the old Roman road behind the wall, the way was very hilly which was by turns slow & hard work and fast & fun. The countryside immediately after crossing the River Irthing was especially beautiful and there are two very attractive old farmhouses down there. The route we followed can be seen on the map below.
On day two, we cycled up to Butterburn and Gowany Knowe (another amazing farmhouse past Butterburn) before parking the bikes at Lampert farm and walking along the River Irthing up a ridge to Spy Rigg and Great Watch Hill. The views down onto the river were excellent. Spy Rigg is a rocky ridge surrounded by bogland. It's been a dry summer this year, but we spent a lot of time walking through ankle deep water on the flat areas. It must be very marshy in winter time. Thankfully no midges! We enjoyed clambering on the rocks at Spy Rigg and the long, clear view from the top. We paddled in the river near the farm before cycling back. Again, much of the route we followed can be seen on the map below.
On the third day, we packed up and headed for home, thinking that if we got fed up with cycling there were plenty of train stations along the way. It was a gorgeous sunny day. We were very pleased with Hadrian's cycleway, it goes along very small, quiet, scenic roads and paths and is very well sign-posted (we didn't need to consult the map at all on the way back to central Newcastle). There are several points where you get great views of the wall and several of the forts (e.g. Vindolanda and Housesteads). Some of the way is very tough, several long ~15% gradients, particularly the road from Bardon Mill up to the wall, but the corresponding downhill sections are very enjoyable. Overall there is a downward gradient from Carlisle to Newcastle, so going in that direction is probably easiest, and anyway, from Hexham onwards the cycleway takes you on flat paths along the River Tyne. You can see some of the route we took (and some of the gradient if you click through) below.
I enjoy this part of the world more every time I visit (for instance I visited a trailhound race in the area recently, some photos here). The Roman history is quite interesting, and it's curious to catch the odd glimpse of the wall and forts as you travel around. However, I think you can learn about that quite effectively from your own home. I'm more interested in enjoying the natural history: the landscape and wildlife. I guess they are connected because the Romans chose to build Hadrian's wall in this part of Britain because the strange geology (lots of steep, rocky ridges) made it ideal to defend. Much of the area is well-preserved and falls within the Northumberland national park.
I've uploaded some more photos from the trip to flickr.