Long-distance Coast to Coast Walk crosses northern England
Stars and Stripes June 5, 2003
"So, how much walking have you actually done?”
“You must be mad!”
“You’ll have blisters before Grasmere!”
These were just some of the encouraging comments we received when my wife and I decided to tackle the Coast to Coast Walk in northern England.
This 190-mile trek is an unofficial walk — devised by the legendary writer and walker Alfred Wainwright — that crosses the whole country, from the Irish Sea at St. Bees to the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay. In a land known for its long-distance walks, it is arguably the longest and most impressive of them all.
Undaunted by the negative remarks, we got a ride to the starting point at St. Bees. Our plan was to continue the walk as long as we enjoyed it. No need for heroics or survival tactics. Just take it as it comes and enjoy the scenery.
The Coast to Coast crosses three of the country’s national parks — the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors — and passes some of the country’s most spectacular countryside.
There are sheer peaks with steep passes and icy mountain tarns and lakes. Shady woodland trails and moorland treks through the heather. Paths along trickling streams and roaring rivers; across meadows and farmers’ fields; through large market towns and pretty villages; over stone bridges and steppingstones; past monastic ruins, industrial relics and medieval castles. In fact, the Coast to Coast takes walkers through a slice of the landscape and history of northern England.
Emerging from our guesthouse after a full English breakfast — lots of calories for the long walk in front of us — we set off down to St. Bees beach where the walk begins.
A tradition of the Coast to Coast walk is to begin by dipping your boots in the Irish Sea, then dipping them in the North Sea two weeks later. So we clambered across the sands to start the walk in style. Ahead of us were 14 days of solid walking, with distances ranging from eight to 22 miles.
On the first day we followed the coastline around St. Bees Head, past the pebble beach of Fleswick Bay and the sheer cliffs of South Head. Beyond this the route turned inland, passing through the former mining towns of Sandwith, Moor Row and Cleator before reaching Dent, a steep hill and once a deer park.
From the summit we glimpsed many of the Lakeland fells in the distance, a promise of spectacular scenery to come and an encouragement to keep going.
We completed the first day’s walk around 4 p.m. and spent the night in a comfortable bed-and-breakfast on the edge of Ennerdale Bridge. In the lounge we watched a video of Wainwright — the man himself — walking the Coast to Coast, then we strolled down to the village pub for a beer and something to eat.
The pub was already full with Coast to Coasters, walkers we had passed or who had passed us throughout the day. We recognized several faces. And already there was many a tall tale about completing the walk in record time, missing signs, getting lost and those first blisters.
The following morning we woke early. This was to be our first encounter with the real Lake District.
We began by walking through the village and down to Ennerdale Water, a vast lake surrounded by colorful fells and mountains, and quiet due to its omission from most tourist itineraries. From the southern bank there were breathtaking views across to Red Pike, High Style and High Crag.
Once around the lake we walked through Ennerdale Forest and then up to Black Sail Hut, a former shepherd’s hut and now a very basic youth hostel surrounded by the sheer mountain peaks of Pillar, Great Gable and Haystacks.
A hosteler offered us a welcome mug of hot sweet tea before we ventured out again. There was a biting wind and driving rain as we clambered over the mountain pass. In clear weather, the views must be stunning, but our main thoughts were of getting to Stonethwaite in one piece.
As we followed the track down to the road and then into Rosthwaite, the rain and wind abated and we were able to find our overnight accommodation — a stylish bed-and-breakfast in an old stone cottage.
In the pub that night we met many of the same faces. After all, everyone was walking the same route every day and the choice of accommodation and pub for evening meals was not always large.
We already knew the woman from Birmingham who refused to walk one inch of the way. While her husband was doing the walk she was researching a book on accompanying a Coast to Coaster, with tips on good places to stay and eat. She drove along in a car and met up with him at the end of each day.
Then there was the family from Bolton, the couple from Australia and the group of young lads from Leeds, who were camping and claimed that you weren’t really doing the walk unless you stayed in a tent, or, perhaps, a youth hostel. Softies like us, in our comfortable guesthouses, didn’t count. Our attitude was that the walk itself was tough enough — you might as well enjoy a good night’s sleep in between.
Groups and cliques were already beginning to form and several of the walkers had already earned nicknames. In particular there was Son of Wainwright, the Birmingham woman’s husband, who had set off at a blistering pace. Unfortunately his sense of direction wasn’t very good and, as the walk went on, he started to get slower and slower — on one memorable day walking an extra mountain ridge due to losing his way.
The two days after Rosthwaite were among the highlights of the whole walk. Passing Eagle Crag and Helm Crag, we descended into Grasmere, where we found the early finishers were already gathered at a tea shop on the green. Still feeling relatively fresh, we took a detour to visit the Wordsworth House in the afternoon (an extra mile of walking) before buying some gingerbread at the shop and finding accommodation for the night. The next day included some more spectacular scenery as we passed Grisedale Tarn and walked on to Patterdale on Lake Ullswater.
And so the walk continues. A long section past Haweswater to Shap. From there on to Kirkby Stephen and into the Yorkshire Dales, passing Reeth and the ancient market town of Richmond (famous for its castle and museums). Then into the Yorkshire Moors, passing through Swaledale and Glaisdale and the North York Moors Railway terminus at Grosmont before finally circling down to the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay.
But did we manage to dip our boots in the waters of the North Sea?
I guess I have to be honest. We’d been unfortunate enough to pick a particularly bad spell of weather and in the end the constant rain and the dreaded blisters finally defeated us. We gave up near the halfway mark at Keld.
But we enjoyed walking nearly 100 miles along some of England’s most scenic paths. And one of these days we’ll be back to finish the rest!
Richard Moverley is a freelance writer living in England.
Coast to Coast hiking tips
Take a sturdy, well-broken- in pair of boots; thick socks; rain gear; compass; maps and guidebook. Consider also a whistle, survival equipment and emergency rations. Remember to let your accommodation hosts know your walking plans for the day.
The Coast to Coast is for experienced walkers and is designed to take two weeks. But you can easily choose a section for a day walk or do part of the trail over a few days.
Tourist Information, Market Street, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, CA17 4QN.; telephone (+44) (0) 176-83- 71199. Stocks guidebooks, accommodation guides and maps. Ask also about the Coast to Coast Packhorse, a minibus that delivers backpacks and tired walkers to pick-up points farther along the route.
Tourist Information, Friary Gardens, Victoria Road, Richmond, North Yorkshire DL10 4AJ; telephone (+44) (0) 1748-850252
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk, a Mermaid Book.
Accommodation guide: Available from Mrs. D Whitehead, East Stonesdale Farm, Keld, Richmond, North Yorkshire DL11 6LJ; telephone (+44) (0) 1748- 86374.
— Richard Moverley