THE COAST TO COAST WALKWALKING ACROSS ENGLAND
On the 12th of August, 2009 I set off from London for the precious seaside village of St Bees. I was an overweight 27 year old Essex boy, who drank to much, raved hard and knew nothing about hiking, setting up a tent, or how to use a compass. So why on earth did I think I could walk 192 miles across England in two weeks?
The Coast to Coast Path is a long distance walk across the width of England, through three national parks: The Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales and The North Yorkshire Moors. Devised in 1973 by the late Alfred Wainwright, the route is designed to be walked in 14 days, It starts in the Cumberland holiday village of St Bees and ends 192 miles East on the North Sea coastline, in the picturesque fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay.
As I said, I knew nothing about camping, my pack weighed as much as a house, going ultra lightweight I was not. My sleeping bag was tied on to the outside of the bag, exposed to the weather. I had bought a car camping sleeping pad, comfy as hell, but filled half of my bag, the stove was big and bulky, it was also practically useless because I forgot the windscreen. Food-wise was a packing disaster, I dreamed of scoffing bacon sarnies on top of the fells so I packed a frying pan, yes a bloody steal frying pan. And to top it off, thinking that I would have a life changing experience I bought a copy of ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.
I met my first Coaster on day one, ascending the cliff path out of St. Bees, Alex. Little did I know, but Alex would be my walking buddy for the next two weeks, and to be perfectly honest I’m not sure I would have made it past the first day if I hadn’t of met him. We climbed north along the cliff path before pointing our compasses west towards the Lake District. The three days in the Lakes were my biggest test in my life, I had been to the Lake District many times before, however I had only viewed the high peaks from the comfort of my car whilst stuffing my face with pasties and crisps.
The lake district seemed to show us mother-nature in her finest form. Ennerdale Waters, Great Gable, & Pillar, just some of the poetic names given to mountains and lakes we passed. In the evening the temperature dropped and the wind picked up, we would find ourselves either hunkered down in our tents, or if we were lucky, we’d be in a village pub, drinking many fine ales and drying ourselves out next to a roaring fire.
Our coaster group had started to grow, a new character had joined, his name was Sol. A newspaper journalist who was writing a story on his coast to coast adventure. He had a rough start when his friend bailed on him on the second day, and on his third day he was lost for eight hours on the high fells around Grasmere.
The daily assault of climbing up and down the Fells, the heavy downpours, and how ill prepared I was for this walk began to show on my feet, when two giant pus filled blisters started to form on my heels. Painkillers and moleskin band aids were my relief as my stride quickly turned into a hobble. I made the decision to lighten my load, goodbye frying pan, Good by On the Road, which I never read, I just hope the troop of scouts enjoyed their early Christmas presents.
Heading over the noisy M6 motorway towards Kirby Stephens we came across two more Coasters. A father and son team from Bristol, Fred and Andy. Fred a retired builder, Andy a music teacher. These two filthy mouthed lads would make up the final two in our coast to coast army.
Walking 20 miles in one day is just plain ridiculous, but it had to be done as there was no campsite until we hit the next town. Puffing and panting across the boggy moors towards the Yorkshire Dales I was close to my breaking point, my feet were on fire and one of my blisters had popped, sending pus trickling down my foot. By the time we reached the medieval town of Kirby Stephens, I couldn’t handle another night of camping, so I splashed the cash and got a room above a pub for the night.
Sitting on my bed, I gently tugged at my socks, the band aids had fused my foot to the sock, prying them apart was a painful situation, as it agitated the raw flesh of the popped blister. In the shower, five days of brown muck and grime trickled down the plug hole before I noticed my next foot issue, four black dead toenails. It wouldn’t be long until they fell off.
Bandaging my feet up, I hobbled downstairs to join the rest of the group who by the sounds of it were in about the same pain as me. We spent the next few hours drinking plenty of cider, eating large amounts of calories, and laughing at this ridiculous situation we had gotten ourselves in. All this wonderful banter was perfect medicine for our feet and I soon forgot all about my dead toenails.
Crossing into the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, we ambled into the quaint village of Keld later on that afternoon. Keld is a lovely place, one of the highlights on the coast to coast. The village is no more than a few houses, a small bed and breakfast, and a campsite which is nestled beside the River Swale. The nearby waterfalls echo off the valley walls, which in turn, made the most perfect white noise to drift into a deep sleep.
Slogging up and down fells with a full backpack or crossing twenty or so miles of boggy moorland in a day is nothing compared to the tedious road sections of the coast to coast. We had fifteen miles until we reached the final national park, the North Yorkshire Moors. The burning sensation on my feet from walking on tarmac became unbearable, we would walk on every patch of grass we saw, just to relieve the pain for a few minutes.
The worse thing about this monotonous part of the walk was the only pub had closed down a couple of years before. No cider to wet the pallet, no food to fill our hunger, just four very disappointed men in need of a pint of Old Rosie and a pie.
The sun was beaming down on us as we left the pocket size town of Osmotherley and hiked our way up to the North Yorkshire Moors. Once reaching the top we were greeted with an an abundance of thick, purple heather which carpets the flat tops of these moors. I had never heard of this national park before so it was a wonderful discovery.
Our camp for the night was in the beer garden of the Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge. This 16th Century Pub was a welcome sight after another 20 mile day, the last 3 miles I was fighting with my right ankle as it was starting to give under the strain. “Only a couple more days of this” I kept telling myself “then it will be over”. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it, quite the opposite, but the last few days I was wrestling both mentally and physically.
In the final miles, just like the start of the walk, Alfred Wainwright takes you along the edge of the coast, but this time heading south to the finish line. In the distance the fishing village of Robin Hoods Bay comes into view, the little fishing boats bobbing up and down in the North Sea, the ominous jet black cliffs are a stark contrast to the pretty toy like village which nestles beneath them.
I had my second wind, and found myself powering on despite all my aches and pains. We made our way down the steps towards the harbor, fighting the hoards of tourists that line the streets of this picturesque coastal village. Walking passed the Wainwright’s Pub with rapturous applause from the other Coasters who’d also completed the walk.
We made our way down to the waters edge. Hugging and cheering, we congratulated each other the only way we knew how, by drinking cider, until the early hours of the morning. Job well done.
I still can’t believe that I walked across the country, and to be honest there were times I didn’t think I was going to make it. It was the hardest adventure I’ve ever done. The Coast to Coast is a magnificent journey.
I never thought my home country had so much beauty at every turn, the scenery is so spectacular, especially in the national parks. I promise you, you’ll have an adventure of a lifetime.