All things light and beautiful
Jill Hocking celebrates the joys of a long walk from one side of northern England to the other
IT is when we take a breather by the rocky shores of Innominate Tarn that we feel the spirit of walking writer Alf Wainwright most keenly. Mossy rocks, heather and tussocky grass fringe the scoop of still water under the summit of Haystacks; wide green valleys, their fields stitched together with stone walls, rise to rumpled fells splashed with fox-red bracken. My partner Andrew and I are in the Lake District, on Wainwright’s walk across the north of England from coast to coast.
Innominate Tarn was one of Wainwright’s favourite spots. The Lancastrian lad first visited the Lake District in 1930, immediately falling for its craggy heights and sylvan valleys. Wainwright spent every spare minute tramping Lakeland, returning home to meticulously reproduce the landscape in pen and ink. His Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells — maps, drawings and text in minute, perfect script — have sold two million copies. (He called the books his love letter to the fells.)
Photos show a bespectacled middleaged man, out in all weathers, decked out in collar and tie, and perennially puffing on a pipe. Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path stretches 320km from the Cumbrian village of St Bees to Robin Hoods Bay on the North Sea.
The fell-walking cartographer clearly knew his stuff when he blazed his trail across northern England. He avoided towns (except Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria and Richmond in Yorkshire) and laced together three of England’s most celebrated national parks — the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors — using public footpaths, bridleways and minor roads. Wainwright’s pictorial guidebook, A Coast to Coast Walk , was first published in 1973.
We choose October for our hike and the weather gods are on our side. There is sun and cloud in equal measure but little rain. We see northern England in the rosy-hued moods of autumn.
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast is England’s most popular long-distance ramble. It is not the Himalayas but neither is it a cakewalk. We are moderately fit (but also not long for our Seniors’ Cards), so for three months beforehand we ratchet up our fitness program. On the Coast to Coast we hike for 18 days, averaging about 20km each day.
Accommodation options are as numerous as the walkers silhouetted along Lakeland’s mountain ridges. There are plenty of hotels, B & Bs, youth hostels and camping fields.
Several companies offer guided walks with luggage transfer and accommodation; we organise our own itinerary and lodgings and choose Brigantes Walking Holidays to carry our luggage.
Brigantes works a treat. Every morning a friendly driver collects our bags from our digs and ferries them to our next stop. With our heavy luggage taken care of, we carry light day packs containing wet weather gear (used three times), water, first-aid kit, food and cameras.
Wainwright bequeathed certain rituals for his walk: you wet your boots in the Irish Sea, pluck a stone from the beach, carry it across England and hurl it into the North Sea at Robin Hoods Bay.
On a breezy October day, gulls wheeling around us, with light hearts and a couple of pebbles in our backpacks, we climb the red sea cliffs at St Bees Head. The Irish Sea shimmers in the sun and the Isle of Man floats in hazy outline to the west. Six hours, 15km and many stiles later we are munching lemon cake and sipping tea at Chapel Nook B & B in the workaday village of Cleator.
The main draw of this walk is the natural beauty of the landscape. In the Lakes our spirits lift when we gaze up at the mountains nudging banks of clouds, edged in grey and mauve. Borrowdale, Wainwright’s heaven on earth’’, is a deep green quilt of fields. Stone farmhouses are hunkered down, at one with the landscape. Humpback bridges span skipping becks and black-faced sheep graze in fields seamed by stone walls. We might well be hiking through the pages of a Beatrix Potter storybook.
In the Yorkshire Dales we take a flagstone path across river meadows by the Swale. The autumn leaves are turning; bracken lights up the hills in a palette of yellow, gold and carmine.
There’s a freedom and sense of wide open space on the North York Moors. The scars from mining lead, alum and slate have healed and from the dismantled ironstone railway track we drink in long, dreamy views across a rolling blanket of heather to tranquil Arcadian dales. Tedium is not a problem. A longdistance walk allows an intoxicating pause from the pressures of life. There’s a comfortable rhythm to each day. All we need worry about is putting our best foot forward until we reach our destination. It is exhilarating to be in the open air; the autumn loveliness of the countryside is balm to sore feet and weary muscles.
There is beauty in the broad canvas but also in the small things. We find tiny, hidden corners: clear streams chuckling alongside delicate moorland mosses, scraps of purple heather among the mass of russet, sheep enclosures in perfect circles of stone. A flame robin darts across our path and we hear the sweet trill of the chaffinch.
In Whitsundale we stumble on a farmhouse selling tea and scones for 75p ($1.60). On most days we sample hedgerow blackberries. We chance on Norman churches and take pleasure in a sunburst of yellow dahlias in a cottage garden.
The splendour of the forests is an unexpected delight. Wainwright’s path takes us through Johnny Wood, a mossy oak woodland on the banks of the Derwent. Soft light leaks through a tunnel of larch and spruce trees on the approach to Richmond.
Farther east, in Eskdale, East Arncliffe Wood is a gem, birds twittering in the upper branches and the forest floor carpeted with fallen leaves.
Apart from one grubby hostel without locks on doors, the accommodation is marvellous. There are chintzy B & Bs with wonky ceilings and mind-your-head doorways and pubs where we down meals both gastronomic and greasy spoon (teetering stacks of chips a given, with the latter). Breakfasts are hearty trekking fuel.
The rustic Black Sail youth hostel, a 19th-century former shepherd’s bothy, sits in magnificent isolation, flanked by mountains at the head of Lakeland’s Ennerdale Valley. There’s room for 16 in basic dormitories but we don’t exactly rough it. There are eight guests on the night we stay so we have our own centrally heated room. Chefs Steve and Lorraine serve delicious hikers’ fare. We sit down to ramblers’ tales (everyone walks to Black Sail), leek and potato soup, fragrant chicken casserole and, for dessert, apple crumble, all washed down with Jennings Cocker Hoop golden ale.
Keld in Swaledale is the halfway point of the walk; from here the rivers run east. Keld Lodge, once a shooting lodge, is unfussy, cool and contemporary. After our 22km walk we stagger inside, dispatch our boots to the drying room, shower and collapse into a window seat in the lounge. Outside, Swaledale is a crumpled tableau of billiard-table green, daubed with bracken.
Keld Lodge uses local seasonal produce in its Conservatory Restaurant: we tuck into grouse in damson sauce, the birds courtesy of the gamekeepers at nearby Gunnerside Estate.
Hiking the Coast to Coast can be as solitary or social as you choose. Near Black Sail we meet a young Nebraskan archeologist who hives off the track to spend the night alone camping in the fells. I like to be close to nature,’’ he tells us. We chat to crusty peak baggers’’, wiry ramblers who’ve scaled the 214 Wainwrights’’ (all the fells in his Pictorial Guides) and walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back.
On Haystacks we see two poodles scampering on the path, shod in eggshellblue booties. The stony ground hurts their paws,’’ their owners from Leeds tell us. They’re inside on carpet all week.’’ We are gently patronised by hikers who are walking Wainwright’s trail at twice our speed. Taking your time is good. You’re doing it the right way,’’ they say, as they dose up on anti-inflammatories and charge past.
There are scary moments, too. One memorable day in the Lake District the BBC forecasts blanketing hill fog to 152m. This is bad news for us as we’re climbing to 600m. All morning, from Patterdale to Kidsty Pike, we hike in the embrace of the mist. We hear rutting deer and cautiously navigate with map and compass. On the map, the contour lines almost touch; there are no footprints on the muddy ground and no reassuring cairns of stones to mark our way. One missed step and we’re over the edge of Kidsty Pike. When the mist shreds, we spy a stony path weaving down the mountain, and below the comforting glint of our lunch stop, Haweswater.
We catch tantalising glimpses of the North Sea from the moors but it’s several days before our final sweep down the clifftop path to the old smugglers’ village, Robin Hoods Bay. Daytrippers wander the cobbled alleyways licking ice creams; keening gulls tussle for chips. We highfive on the beach, proud of our modest achievement, and follow Wainwright’s lead: with the red-roofed village stacked up behind us, we dip our boots into the grey North Sea and hurl our pebbles into the brine. Then it’s off to Wainwright’s Bar at the Bay Hotel where we raise a glass to a long walk across England.
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk is described as challenging, walkable by those of moderate fitness who are adequately prepared. Trains run from Manchester to Carlisle, stopping at St Bees. There are several buses daily from Robin Hoods Bay to Whitby. Intercity services from Whitby. The main walking season is from spring to autumn; the path can be crowded in summer. Book accommodation ahead, especially in summer. www.brigantesenglishwalks.com www.coasttocoastguides.co.uk www.ramblers.org.uk www.wainwright.org.uk www.visitbritain.com.au
Magnificent isolation: Black Sail youth hostel offers hearty hikers’ fare at the head of Lakeland’s Ennerdale Valley
Natural beauty: Quiet lane in Cumbria
No cakewalk: Marker post near Keld