A Coast to Coast Walk in England
England is a country that is mad about walking and the
Coast-to-Coast is the maddest walk of all.
This September, I am going to lace up my hiking boots and host an eight-day walk in Devon with The Wayfarers, the premier English walking company. Dartmoor & Exmoor with Everett Potter will run from September 26 to October 3, 2010.
But a few years ago, I joined them on the
Coast-to-Coast Walk of England, from the Lake District through
Yorkshire and down to the sea at Whitby.
It began with me 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.
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.
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.
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.