The coast-to-coast walk is certainly a journey to remember. Forget the Inca Trail – the greatest trek that you never knew existed is right here on your doorstep. The English coast-to-coast route was invented by noted walker and writer Alfred Wainwright in 1973. It starts on the west coast – St Bees in Cumbria – takes in nearly 200 miles of contrasting, rugged, steep, bucolic, boggy English countryside through three national parks, and ends in Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. In the spirit of personal development, I’ve loaded up my backpack with camping accoutrement and set myself a ten-day target to do it in.
I’ve been warned that it won’t be easy. The terrain is tough in places with lots of ups and downs. And my ten-day aim is aggressive – Wainwright suggests 14 to 21 days. Yet heading up onto the red rocky cliffs of St Bees overlooking the Irish Sea, my face nipped by a cool breeze, having dipped my toe in the water and snatched a pebble to deposit on the other side, I remain confident. I mean, how hard can it actually be? Three hours in and I’m sweating buckets; the straps on my backpack are already starting to cut.
The walk begins up 90m-high red sandstone cliffs overlooking the sea before descending into the ruggedness of the Lake District. The first afternoon is testing, particularly the hour-long ascent up Dent Hill that feels like going straight up a mountain – which is pretty much what it is. This is followed by a descent to Ennerdale Water, a long, flat lake stretching for miles like a sheet of corrugated iron. There are no people here. It feels quite unearthly being utterly alone with unspoilt nature. If only my feet weren’t so sore.
I check my Henry Stedman – the authoritative guide to the trek – which tells me that it’s half an hour to the youth hostel I’m staying at. It’s three hours later that I’m finally lying on the top bunk at the Ennerdale Water YHA with my legs feeling like they’ve been sledgehammered. Sleep is peripatetic, broken frequently by a man who snores like a comedy bear. If I thought this was going to be a doddle, I was wrong.
The second day is flat out different to the first. When I wake there’s a sliver of sun in the sky and a cooling mist on the face. I’m revived by a full English breakfast – the first of eight I will have this trip – and bundle off into the wilderness. Going further into the Lake District things start to get distinctly wilder. The landscape is steep and wet. I come upon Honister slate mine, drenched in mizzle up in the hills before I’m trotting down into the beautiful valley of Borrowdale, where it suddenly changes again from ruggedness to tinkling charm. This is quintessential Lakes, with its slate-cottaged hamlets, wooded hills, quaint red telephone boxes and newly shorn sheep grazing in fields beside gamboling lambs.
Going further into the Lake District things start to get distinctly wilder
Speaking of lamb, the Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite has one of the most delectable slow roasted shoulders of lamb you’ll ever come upon – bliss it was in that dawn to be alive to eat one, as Wordsworth might have said. Wordsworth also wrote of the “unsurpassable beauty and variety” of the Lake District mountains and indeed contrasts are what this walk is all about. Both the terrain and weather are constantly changing. The Lake District in particular is filled with up and down cresting peaks and monumental valleys, spectacular tarns and rolling hills, wind, rain and sun all in one day. Walking to Grasmere, I feel like I’ve been put through a carwash. But it’s the next stage – 13 hours from Grasmere to the village of Shap – that promises to be particularly tough. The steep hills and the long, arduous route past Haweswater Reservoir are rocky and joint-wearing. The mist makes it hard to see. At some point I fall into a river. I lose my way on the mammoth 780m Kidsty Pike.
By the time I stagger into Shap, cursing like a bedraggled John Wayne, I’m empty. Margaret, the owner at the B&B, described as intimidating in the guidebook (utterly inaccurate, I will say) tells me that it was a long walk. I agree. But the Lakes are now behind me, she says. It’s all plainer sailing now on. She’s wrong.
From the Lakes to Yorkshire
The experience of the walk is coloured by the conviviality of the people you pass. There’s nothing like a friendly hello or a jolly, crinkle-eyed smile as you’re walking along, decrepit with weariness, to motivate you. There are also the wine-soaked conversations at the end of the evening with fellow trekkers. I’ve met people from all over the world – Holland, Germany, the US, Switzerland, Australia – some coming here for the second or third time. They all say there’s something unique about this walk, landscapes you won’t find elsewhere, the contrasts and, of course, the country living. Just don’t do it with blisters.
As far as feet go, I think the worst is behind me because I’m now in God’s country, the Yorkshire Dales, where stony paths are replaced by heather and gorse. Sure, it misses some of the savagery of the Lakes but it most certainly has its own charm. The walk from Keld to Gunnerside is the most lovely stretch I’ve been through so far, bustling with wildlife, winding rivers and golden meadows.
But while the Dales is noted for its bucolic landscape it also has a dark underside – bogs. It gets tremendously muddy, I’m warned. Sure, I say. But at least it will be soft for the feet. I’m right. It’s soft. Very soft. Step after sinking soft step, in fact. The words: “If you’re going through hell keep going” repeat in my mind as I trudge through the muddy moor housing the Nine Standards prehistoric stones. At some point I plunge up to my waist. In a panic I wonder if I will end here, stuck in the mud like the Tollund Man, forever frozen. I don’t die but manage to revive myself with a cream tea and orange
juice at Ravenseat Farm a few hours later. On the subject of food, there’s some amazing stuff to be had on this walk. Visit the organic bakery in Reeth for exceptional coffee and cake. And whatever you do don’t miss Lord Stones, the only eating place on the way to Blakey Ridge in the moors. It has one of the nicest bacon sandwiches I’ve ever eaten in my life, dripping with butter, that will have you drooling, walk or no walk.
There are also some rather lovely churches en route. St Edmund at Marske is a particular little beauty while the one in Bolton-on-Swale has a memorial to Henry Jenkins – said to be 169 years old when he died –where you’ll find drinks and chocolate bars for the price of an honest donation when you’re really desperate.
My feet are bad but it’s the mind that starts to rebel
Having crossed the Yorkshire Dales, I enter my third national park – the North York Moors. It’s another contrast. The path is darker, more foreboding and the stages start to get grindingly long. My feet are bad but it’s the mind that starts to rebel here. Motivation suffers, particularly over the long final stretch towards the isolated Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge, trudging on a disused, gravel railway track. Feeling a little sorry for myself I decide to ditch my tent and lighten the load. It helps me through to my final destination, the village of Grosmont, the last stopping point before the sea.
That evening I stay in the relative unfettered luxury of the Periwinkle room at the Grosmont House bed and breakfast. I mull over the fact that I’m now only six hours from my final destination. I think about the 180-odd miles I’ve covered so far (not including retraced steps) and in a happy daze I fall asleep and my aches and pains seem to disappear entirely.
The next day begins with another steep climb, but today all is made beautiful by the presence of sun and a cloudless sky. From the top of the moors I get a view of Whitby Abbey lying ruined on the side of the coast, framed by huge clouds massing over the sea. Skirting down the final few miles by the cliffs I feel like an intrepid adventurer and wild man. I let out a victory cry as I rush into Robin Hood’s Bay, which is all tumbledown houses and tight cobbled lanes.
After being in solitary for so long it is a bit of a shock to be in the company of so many people once again. I feel a little self conscious in the city streets, me – nature man coming out of the fields – now with tourists and holidaymakers. The camaraderie and solitude of the wilds is now long gone. No one here to wave you a friendly hello. Once more into civilisation where you’re another face to the girl behind the chip counter. Some words of Wainwright come to me: “You are made to soar, to crash to earth, then to rise and soar again.” Sure. Life goes on.
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