All things light and beau­ti­ful

Jill Hock­ing cel­e­brates the joys of a long walk from one side of north­ern Eng­land to the other

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Adventure Holidays -

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.

Check­list

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

Pic­tures: Andrew Lecky

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