1. It was the Best of Times, it was the Blurst of Times
This is Sam and me at the beginning of the coast to coast walk in St. Bees, a minor village on the west coast of Cumbria. Above us is a profile map of the route, an abstract squiggle to most, but for those who’ve walked the 192 mile route across England it is an unforgettable reminder of the ups and downs the path brings. I squiggled all over this photo from the comfort of a Youth Hostel bed at the Whitby priory having *almost finished the epic walk. It speaks of my state of mind at the end of this journey: there were a number of challenging parts to this trip that nearly scuppered us completely, on the other hand, there were apparently only three vaguely remembered ‘stupidly good views’ and no other positive moments of note? Surely there was more to it than that? Surely we didn’t just suffer for 192 miles walking for nothing? Surely?
2. The Route
The route that Alfred Wainwright put together takes you across the entirety of the Lake District, the Pennines, the Vale of York, and lastly, the North York Moors. Although well trodden and very well known, Alf’s Coast to Coast route is not a national path and is therefore not signposted particularly consistently. Navigational skills are in fact required. Cicerone do make a booklet with excerpts of the pertinent segments of the 10 or-so OS maps that cover the journey.
3. Humble Beginnings
In the beginning there were four. Harvey and Tom had joined Sam and me for the first couple of days of the walk, walking from St. Bees to Grasmere (Grazmere?/Grarsemere?). We had caught the train at the crack of dawn up to Leeds, where we denied a pint at 8.54am and were told to return in six minutes. Wetherspoons: I actually think I’m surprised. We then took the beautiful journey from Leeds to Carlisle and then the rickety one from Carlisle to St. Bees. We arrived in St.Bees by 3pm and were eager to crack on. We dipped our toes in the very edge of the wild and foreboding Irish Sea (even paddling would have been genuinely life threatening) and set off.
From St.Bees the path takes you along high red sandstone cliffs, leading towards the lighthouse which marks the most western tip of Cumbria. The elements had treated us to beautiful blue skies with one hand but whipped us with a hard wind with the other. I followed the others, filled with anticipation.
These first foot steps of an adventure fill me with thoughts of excitement as well as doubt. I wondered, privately, whether fate would break our stride; whether my ankle would hold out, or whether I’d be able keep up with the others. At the same time I was glad to finally be there on the path, having looked forward to it for so long. I have learned to appreciate that these steps are, in one respect, among the hardest of all: it’s easy to dream of adventures, and equally easy to put them off, ‘until next summer’, ‘until I have the savings’, ‘until I have the time’, ‘until x,y, and z’. A plethora of practicalities stand between us and the realisation of our ambitions. Indeed, finding yourself making first step on your adventure symbolises that half the battle is already won. The worries of everyday life can’t stop you now, from the beginning of the journey to its end, your only challenge is keep moving towards your goal, one foot in front of the other. Here we were, we’d finally made it, we’d planned, prepared, planned some more and at last set off on a grand adventure.
4. Three Pieces of Advice
- Do bring Sudocrem, or some such like, for alleviating chafing after a long day’s hike.
- Do bring a small bottle of hot sauce to pep up bland trail meals.
- Do not allow hot sauce to get on hands prior to applying sudocrem.
Enough said? Enough said.
The Trials and Tribulations of Day Two
We had wild camped just on the edge of the Lake District on our first night. Where once the hills had loomed in the distance, the morning light of our second day had revealed the hills right before us. We were to head past England’s most remote youth hostel at Black Sail (which we visited back in May). We even caught up with the Warden there: James, who is a man of legendary levels of safeness. We will meet again, James! From there, we climbed up and out of the Ennerdale valley, to Honister pass, bypassing the standard stop at Rosthwaite and heading instead up Greenup Gill, past the memorial for Gordon Hallworth, towards Grasmere, where we’d say goodbye to Tom and Harvey and say hello to Chris, who was to join us for the remainder of the walk.
This was to be one of those hikes that would get the better of us. In the final hours of our walk a dour rain had begun to fall our and energy levels had depleted in the content neglect of knowing there was not much further to go. We did have plenty of food with us, mostly in the form of the solid rocket boosters that are PB+J wraps (which will get you up a mountain if you can stomach them). We dodged then waded, pathless, through the bog at the top of Greenup Edge, whereby we caught our first glimpse of Chris, or at least what we thought might be Chris. A tiny speck in the valley beneath us, moving slowly along the path. I wolf-whistled, and the figure paused, scanned around the mountain side and continued moving. Had he heard us? We trudged down the path, (myself, certainly) growing increasingly grouchy in our eighteenth mile of the day. Eventually, and luckily, we found Chris, who had already scouted out a spot to camp, ‘it’s just up this small hill’, I nearly collapsed in protest at the thought.
I fell into my tent once I’d shonkily put it up, chowed down on some highly fragrant Chorizo and then promptly passed out.
When I awoke, glad that our most arduous day was behind us, outside my tent I could hear footsteps. I unzipped the door to see Sam pacing. I asked him for the time, to which he answered ‘it’s about half-past bleeeuurrrghh’, Sam had spewed a great stream of steaming brown chunder mid sentence. I slowly zipped up my tent door.
6. In Sickness and in Health
We reached Grasmere early that morning and gathered around a cafe table in the rain. Harvey and Tom were about to depart on a bus and Sam was still very unwell. Sam considered calling it a day and heading for home too. I, however, wouldn’t have it. we’d planned to do this trip for months and I knew it would have eaten away at Sam if he had returned home so early in the trip. We instead booked ourselves into the youth hostel where we could wait for Sam’s sickness to pass. I must admit I was worried about him, and hoped that I’d done the right thing in urging him not to go home.
Tom and Harvey had said their goodbyes and Chris, Sam and I headed to the hostel. We soon found ourselves plonked in a pleasingly over-warm lounge, blearily lazing about, no doubt making the place look bad. Sam caught up with some much needed sleep whilst Chris and I explored the mish mash of books on the bookshelf. I learned a lot about the history of the Silk Road that day. Then, as the evening drew in, a feeling of impending doom came over me. ‘Uh-oh’, I thought to myself. ‘Nausea!’, I exclaimed. Chris concurred that this was indeed a word of Greek origin (as we were mid talk about words derived from Latin and Greek, of which he is an expert), ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m feeling nauseous!’. Chris kindly reassured me and attempted to distract me but it was no-dice. This was happening.
I had suffered the same fate as Sam, some mystery bug had got the better of both of us. We were to spend another night in Grasmere, this time waiting for me to recover.
7. On the Road Again
After having been stuck in Grasmere purgatory for 2 days, 3 for Chris, it was a welcome feeling to be on the trail again. As I look back in my memory, this day’s walking for me was my favourite of all. We hiked up-and-over towards Patterdale, and then made the reasonably steady ascent to Kidsty Pike, the highest point of our trip standing at 780m, not huge but still not to be sniffed at.
The Lake’s were at their best this day, more beautiful than I’ve ever seen them before. One thing you notice here is that you can spend hours looking upon the same hillsides, and then as you reach a summit, your vista is in seconds completely transformed, each time as if you’ve found a new world. As you reach the top of Kidsty, and catch sight of the land that lies beyond it, your horizons are suddenly incredibly distant as the rugged, edged hills of Cumbria relent into the porous limestone plateaus that stretch all the way to Nine Standards Rigg beyond Kirkby Stephen some 30 miles away. It was bloody lovely, it was. But we couldn’t hang about, night was drawing in and we needed find a good spot to camp, so we sloshed our way down the hill towards Haweswater and set about looking a spot to pitch-up.
8. Five Star Wild Camping
What’s this? A walled grove of trees with a stone firepit? I had ran up ahead to have a quick look to see if there was a decent place to pitch up for the night. Within 30 seconds I’d gestured back with a thumbs up to the others. Sometimes a wild camp spot can end up being a bit of a ‘this will have to do’ situation; with uneven ground, not very out of sight, trespassing etc. But this wasn’t the case here. This was five star wild camping, every criteria for a great spot was met and more. Ok maybe there were a lot of midges now I think of it, but I’m willing to look past this.
9. Honesty and Generosity
The occasional trove of goodies such as this appear throughout the journey. They are great and I like them very much. Thanks Thomas Richardson! This particular box of goodies can be found on the eastern side of Naddle Bridge a few miles from Shap.
10. From Swaledale’s to Texel’s
One of the greatest joys of walking long distance is seeing the landscape around you gradually changing. Having hiked out of the Lake District along the shores of Haweswater reservoir we found ourselves in a completely different environment. Most noticeably, the land was much flatter, and much drier and dotted with lots of natural springs bubbling out of limestone cracks. There were other differences too, for example, we began to notice that Sheep had changed from the haggard and ugly Swaledale’s you find psyching you out halfway up any given fell, chewing gormlessly as you pant your way slowly up the hillside, and given way to much more daft looking Texel Sheep with their squashed faces that look quite cheerful in their ignorance of what’s in store for them.
We’d passed by Shap which was teeming with people taking part in one of these self-flagellating uber-marathons that have added cargo nets, walls, and spike pits (probably). We spent a good while watching them, a good way to pass time as we rested up. For it was to be one of those days where the pit-stops were all made in record time, each lasting longer than the last. Tiredness was again playing its part, and towards the end of the day and we wound up camping where our legs finally gave in. Luckily this happened to be on the high side of a broad valley overlooking the northern end of the Yorkshire Dales which were draped in the orange light of the setting sun and followed by the silver light of a full moon.
Stay tuned for the next part of our Coast to Coast adventure…..