I’ve been for a walk.
A long walk: the Coast to Coast. Opinions vary as to its actual length, because it isn’t an official National Trail. It’s a network of footpaths and rights of way, stretching across northern England from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, developed by Alfred Wainwright in 1973. The routes you can take vary depending on a number of things – whether you choose high-level or low-level options, what time of year it is, how far off the trail you happen to be staying on particular nights – and so, while most estimates put the trail at about 190 miles, we actually walked about 215.
We’ve been thinking about doing the Coast to Coast for a few years now. Back in 2014, we did the Hadrian’s Wall long-distance path, and the Coast to Coast seemed the next logical step. We’d heard that it was a lot tougher than Hadrian’s Wall – it’s much longer, and across wilder countryside – so decided to leave it until the Dude was a bit older. Then this year, with the lockdown making travel outside the UK complicated and increasing demand for holidays within the UK as a result, we decided the time was right. After all, we reasoned, we’d spent so much time cooped up in south Lincolnshire that we needed to get out. And given that we couldn’t decide on just one destination, why not walk across the whole country?
Why not, indeed? It’s only a walk. Wainwright himself described it as ‘a country walk of the sort that enthusiasts for the hills and open spaces indulge in every weekend’, although he did add that ‘It’s a bit longer than most, that’s all.’ You dip your boots in the sea at St Bees, then put one foot in front of the other – many times – and before you know it you’re celebrating at Robin Hood’s Bay with the sea surging round your ankles. Easy!
The Coast to Coast crosses three national parks – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors – and has a total ascent of just under seven thousand metres. The quickest crossing on record was made by Damian Hall in 39 hours, 18 minutes and 40 seconds, in May this year. Most people take between twelve and sixteen days, but at one point, we met a woman who was doing the crossing with her two children – both under ten – in stages of about five miles a day, fitting the stages into weekends and school holidays whenever the lockdown had allowed. They’d started in January, she said, and expected to be finished by October.
Our walk took us fifteen days, including a rest day in Richmond, the biggest town on the route. We stayed in B&Bs, youth hostels and pubs, and had our luggage transferred from place to place by the fabulous Sherpa Van Company, who I would highly recommend. We could have camped, and carried our own stuff, but given that we’ve just emerged from the toughest school year on record, the lure of proper beds and dry socks was far too great.
The received wisdom about the Coast to Coast is that if you can make it through the first five days, you’ll be fine. The first five days take you through the Lake District, and contain the biggest hills, breaking you in gently on the first day with Dent Fell at 352m and culminating four days later with Kidsty Pike at 780m. This period coincided with the hottest weather of our crossing and the climbing was exhausting. We started out with three litres of water each, but had to ration our drinks carefully, as there were very few places to stop and refuel: nowhere until we got to Ennerdale Bridge on the first day, and only one place – the snack bar at Honister Slate Mine – late on the second. Honister came just after the climb up Loft Beck, which runs up between Brandreth and Great Gable, and by then all three of us were hot, exhausted and desperate for a drink.
And then there’s the pain, especially in the first few days. Pain in your calves as you drive yourself uphill, every fibre screaming. Pain in your knees and hips on the downhill stretches. And most of all, pain in your toes, which seems to happen no matter how well-worn your boots are and how much extra room you’ve allowed. You imagine them in the dark like squashed eyeless creatures desperate for air, every step hurting. You are caught between being desperate to take your boots off and dreading what you’re going to find when you finally peel off your socks. We had to make an emergency purchase of new walking boots for the Dude, who split the sole of one of his boots on the second day, and there were many Compeed stops and necessary breaks to paddle in streams.
The pain is worth it. Miles and miles of hills, stretching off in every direction, green shading into distant blue. Curious sheep and silent water. Skylarks and swallows. By the fourth day the ascents were getting easier and I was settling into the rhythm of what Rebecca Solnit describes in her book Wanderlust as ‘the mind at three miles an hour’.
There are tough bits. Some of these you anticipate, like the big climbs, and the endless walk along Haweswater, and negotiating the way down from Hartley Fell, which is notoriously boggy. Some are unexpected: the switchback of the North York Moors, the driving rain that hit us on our penultimate day, and the tangle of footpaths in the Vale of Mowbray. On longer days (our longest day was 25 miles) the last few miles are agonising, especially, if they’re on the road. Wainwright describes the last quarter of a mile along the road into Keld as ‘the longest quarter of a mile in England’. He’s only partly right. There are many long quarter-miles as you go along.
There are also landmarks. Crossing the M6, and leaving the Lake District for the gentler hills of Yorkshire. Climbing up to the mysterious Nine Standards, a series of cairns that mark the Pennine watershed. Reaching Keld, the halfway point. Passing into the Vale of Mowbray, going under the A1, and emerging onto the North York Moors. And then seeing the sea, in the distance at Whitby, for the first time since we left St Bees all those miles ago.
And there are all the chance encounters along the way: the people you chat to, the places you stop at, the things you see. The sound of Bob Dylan playing from someone’s stereo in Moor Row on the first day, giving us a lift just when we needed it. A group of eager young people near Grisedale Tarn, all wearing matching crocheted frog hats. Bolshy sheep and keen-eyed collies. The very welcome tuck shop at Danby Wiske and the excellent Joiners Shop cafe at Ingleby Cross. Jo the tame crow at Graculus Sculptures in Reeth, and Bob the sheepdog and his owner, who accompanied us between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale. All the brilliant hosts at the places we stayed at, including those who washed our clothes and brought us coffee and reassured us that the next day would be easier.
The last day gives you a bit of everything: rolling moors, woodland paths, waterfalls, steam trains at Grosmont, the first glimpse of Whitby Abbey. You feel like stout Cortez, standing on a peak in Darien and looking out at the Pacific. Little knots of walkers are drawn together, like iron filings to a magnet, as they approach the coast. You reach the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, and then it’s the last few miles: through the fields, past allotments, into streets of solid Victorian guesthouses, and down the hill, passing holidaymakers and ice-cream shops and overflowing pubs, to the slipway, where you dip your boots in the sea again, elated, hardly believing you’ve made it.
It’s a hard walk. This is partly because of its unofficial status: there are some points where navigation is tricky, and where landowners haven’t bothered to maintain footpaths properly. But mostly, it’s because of the distances involved and the fact that there aren’t always convenient places to stop for a break, particularly in the early stages in the Lake District and when you’re crossing the North York Moors. There are some ascents where you need to scramble, and while I like a scramble, I know not everyone does. There’s also the relentlessness of knowing, each morning, that you have to get up and walk: the demands are mental, as well as physical. If you’re new to multi-day, long-distance walking, I’d recommend Hadrian’s Wall, or the Pembrokeshire Coast, both of which feel less remote and better supported. On the way back to Whitby, where we stayed for our final night, our taxi driver told us about people she’d picked up who’d tried, done a few days, and found they couldn’t cope.
But: it’s brilliant. There’s that sense of testing yourself against the landscape, of digging in and pushing yourself on, and the feeling of proper physical tiredness, as opposed to the brain-fogged exhaustion of the last year. We made it, the Husband and the Dude and me, and now we’re at home washing socks and trying to decide where the next adventure will be.