A COAST-TO-COAST WALK
I was standing on a bed of quivering mud, the Irish Sea lapping away at my brand new Gore Tex hiking boots, at a point where the River Leven meets Morecambe Bay. Six other people in shorts and fleece and silly smiles stood there with me, engaged in the "boot dipping" that is the Coast-to-Coast walker’s ritual before setting off.
For the next six days, we seven walkers and our two leaders would encounter a memorable melange of moss-covered stone walls, fields of Swaledale Sheep and impeccably-kept villages. We would see cottage gardens filled with roses and dahlias, border collies yapping a greeting and grey Morris Minors parked next to slate-floored pubs. Over 85 miles up hills and down dales, we would walk.
Why tempt the weather gods in a country where "wet" is a way of life when you could get fresh breezes and sunshine in Vermont and California? Because on this walk through one of the most glorious landscapes in the world, you smell the roses in the cottage gardens and talk to the people who tend them. Chat with rural publicans about an upcoming darts tournament. Meet young families and weathered octogenarians devoting their Sundays to the pleasures of the path. You get views worthy of 18th century landscape paintings and historic country churches blessedly absent of visitors. In short, you take a walking holiday in the England countryside as you might take a golfing holiday on the Scottish links. Because, in country where over 35 percent of the inhabitants regularly set off on walks, you’re at the source of this passion. And you choose to walk the Coast-to-Coast as golfers would swoon at the chance to play 18 holes at the Old Course at St. Andrews — because it doesn’t get any better.
England is a country that is mad about walking and the Coast-to-Coast is the maddest walk of all. Devised in 1973 by Alfred Wainwright, the dean of British walkers, it’s a 190-mile country crossing that commences in St. Bees on the Irish Sea and goes across the Lake District and Yorkshire to the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay.
The problem is that based on a 12-mile a day pace, you need at least 16 days to complete the walk. That’s a lot of walking and a lot of time. Cut to The Wayfarers, the English company that perfected the art of English walking trips. They’ve put together a six-day version called "The Best of the Coast to Coast" that’s 85 miles long and uses van transfers in two strategic places to get you across the country in a shorter time. We’d spend two days in the Lake District and four days in Yorkshire. Let the purists balk: we would walk.
That first September morning, boots freshly dipped, we set out in the sunshine on a road with moss-covered stone walls to either side, sprigs of bright yellow gorse and fields of Herdwick sheep, grey beasts that aren’t very good to eat and have fairly useless wool but were championed by one of the Lake District’s most famous residents, Beatrix Potter. It was a landscape that is quintessentially English. We ascended a muddy path, the first of many. Soon we would become masters of mud, despite a week’s worth of unremitting sun.
We were led by Tony Witt, a leather-faced chap who’d been leading Wayfarers walks for years. He had a friendly, unassuming manner as well as calves of steel. The perennially cheery Kate Holroyd drove the accompanying white Peugeot station wagon, ferried our luggage, and showed up several times daily with tailgate delights like Robinson’s Lemon Barley Water and slabs of Kendall Mint Cake, the latter a clarion call for British dentistry.
By noon, I had already achieved the sense of peace and quiet that pervades this walk. Onward we walked, past thick stands of bracken in the shadows of moody Lake District mountains. We had 16 miles to accomplish that first day, a good long walk by anyone’s standards. I quickly learned that while there is a substantial difference between walking 12 miles and 14 miles, there’s an enormous one between 14 and 16 miles. It’s not simply two more miles. Factor in fatigue, terrain and weather, and two more miles might as well be 20.
The group, an affable bunch of middle-aged professionals, was cheery and encouraging. And why not, since you already have something in common: a love of walking, which has brought you on the Wayfarers most taxing trip. But over six days, you walk and talk side by side, two or three together, a rambling cocktail party sans alcohol, or drift off alone with your thoughts. Later, you have the camaraderie of sharing the day’s events at meals.
The day’s punctuation was either a picnic or a pub lunch, where the food was, well, rather English. Sausages and chips still reign and the gastronomic revolution that has transformed London has not tainted the food in northern villages. It didn’t matter. Walking up to 16 miles per day gives you a ferocious appetite. Even provincial English food is transformed if you use enough Coleman’s Mustard.
In the afternoon, we slipped through deep woods alongside the shore of Coniston Water, past stone farmhouses with battered old Land Rovers parked beside them. Under a darkening sky that William Blake might have painted, we arrived at the Skelwith Bridge Hotel at dusk. The 29-room hotel was creaky and comfortable, and my bags awaited me in my room.
My evening routine quickly developed: a meaningful stretching of the hamstrings, a really hot bath, a pair of pints of Old Peculier (or Riggswelter or Black Sheep or Thekston’s) and I was ready to eat some English roast beef or salmon and collapse into a deep sleep.
Mornings also brought a routine. Crowing roosters, complaints about blisters and muscles, tea and much sympathy. I set off this morning, as on every morning of the walk, full of the sheer joy of walking in one of the most spectacularly beautiful landscapes in the world.
And that’s why you do this walk. There are no major sites or important cathedrals or manor houses to visit. You walk because it’s a chance to see the English countryside and villages in all their variety. And even at two miles per hour, it’s so rich, so dense with history and visual beauty, that you may occasionally feel, as I did, that it was still too fast.
Day two, we paid attention to stiles, those architectural marvels that are a simple solution to climbing a stone wall or barbed wire fence. Some are no more than two-by-four constructions. Other look like ladders used to train RAF recruits. Still others require slithering through a narrow gap in a stone wall that make you recall what you ate for dinner the night before.
It rained that morning but soon let up. Thankfully. It would have been a different walk had we been tramping through slick mud, claustrophobic from dwelling under our rain jacket hoods, denied our vistas. I’m told it can be that way and you still walk, of course. But I was glad of the sunshine.
We walked the three miles from Skelwith Bridge to Ambleside, climbed an old Coffin Road, and walked through someone’s cottage garden, past delicate compositions of roses and dahlias and Virginia creeper, past kitchen doors and through muddy farmyards. In England, these paths have right-of-way which means you’re spending much of you time, even in remote grassy fields, walking through someone’s land.
Lunch in Troutbeck, a perfect village on a perfectly sunny day, summed up the walk. The clip-clop of horses hooves on the pavement, the profusion of roses the color of sunset climbing the stone walls of the post office, the vintage Rovers and Aston Martins at the Mortal Man, the hotel where we paused for lunch. Walking on foot through this story-book landscape seemed too fast by half. I couldn’t imagine doing it by car.
In the afternoon, we glimpsed stained glass church windows by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones and pushed tired limbs up hills past snow white thistledown. We talked of jobs and relationships and made jokes and pointed out sights that the other person, focusing on a muddy crossing or a steep descent, might not see.
Now I consider myself a good walker but I was humbled by the distances and the sore muscles and sheer fatigue. By day’s end, we had climbed stile after stile, done 14 miles and found ourselves at the remote Wild Boar Inn. Here I ate salmon roulade, scallops and Wensleydale cheese. More I can’t recall, I was too tired.
Day three brought us to James Herriot country, a 13 mile day that took on a satisfying rhythm of two to three miles an hour, a day of sheep and stiles and stone walls. We commenced a steep ascent of Garsdale Head, a stark and dramatic landscape, but the quiet was suddenly punctuated by the sound of gunfire. Over the crest of the moors came a shooting party in tweeds and Barbours with guns and grouse in hand, beagles at their feet, and it felt like we had trespassed onto a Merchant Ivory movie set.
"There’s a rather weary aura over the group," Kate observed as we filed silently into the Kings Arms in Askrigg. I had a shower that Rube Goldberg would have loved but also views of slate roofs, stone chimneys and the Yorkshire Dales.
That fourth day was memorable for Sunday hymns we heard while standing outside Aysgarth Church. At West Burton, I munched a Cumberland sausage, read the Sunday Times and then continued the 16 mile walk that turned into a slog as we ascended 1,100 feet to grand views of Yorkshire. Our "kindly descent," as Tony put it, lead to a surprise afternoon cream tea at Abbot’s Thorn in Carlton, a classic Wayfarers touch of comfort.
Of the 12-mile day five, I leave it to Tony, who explained, "Generally speaking, it’s downhill except when it’s uphill."
Our last day, we actually walked on Wainwright’s designated route for about one quarter mile. My legs trembled in his honor. There were more hills. More dales. More whimpers and whines from various companions. And then Whitby, the birthplace of Captain Cook and the town where Bram Stoker chose to have Dracula come ashore in the book of the same name. A town chockablock with shops and seaside amusements, where we washed our boots in the North Sea and Kate materialized like a sprite, handing us glasses of champagne.
"It’s very unusual for the entire group to complete it," said Tony. As we raised our glasses towards Denmark, I half expected my feet to let off steam.
IF YOU GO: "The Coast-to-Coast" is $3,395, based on double occupancy, and includes all meals and accommodation. The walk is usually done in May, June, August and September. Contact The Wayfarers: 800-249-4620
For those with more time and/or stamina, Distant Journeys offers a 130 mile version spread out over 16 days. The price is $3,275.
Mountain Travel Sobek also offers a 16 day version of the walk but aims to follow Wainwright’s 190 mile version as closely as possible. The price is $4,250, based on double occupancy.
(This story first appeared in Diversion)