From the Irish Sea to the North Sea, the Wainwright Coast-to-Coast walk is an unofficial and mostly unsignposted footpath in Northern England, covering nearly 200 miles of jaw-dropping (and often grueling) scenery. This was my 14-day adventure in May-June of 2018. The Epilogue is followed by the chronological posts along the route.
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EPILOGUE – July 2018
Up on Blakey Ridge, as steep as it is breathtaking, the old Lion Inn sits like a citadel, a remote outpost for weary hikers. Plodding into the courtyard, I slipped my backpack off with a theatrical grunt, letting my poles clatter to the ground, and said to a man having a pint of beer at a picnic table: “I don’t know why I’m doing this!”
As if on cue, the stranger leapt to his feet and blurted back: “Neither do I!”
“Aaayyyeeeeeee“ – his Scottish accent echoing against the inn’s stone walls.
He had driven here to meet friends, covering in three hours a distance that would take us 14 days on this 200-mile coast-to-coast walk.
We shared a laugh, half in earnest and half in jest, because we both knew good reasons often breed insanity. Not to suggest the beloved Wainwright trail is crazy hard; the world is filled with more daring challenges. Still, it can be surprisingly arduous, especially if the weather turns sour, especially for those who have never long-distance trekked before, like me.
This was day 13, crossing the North York Moors National Park toward Robin Hood’s Bay. You could almost smell the salty North Sea. Fatigue is refueled by adrenaline as the finish nears, the sheer magnificence of scenery inspiring each step forward.
The Lion Inn, the halfway mark of this day’s long 20-mile walk, was a splendid location to reflect on the journey, soaking in the present before it becomes memory.
Why am I doing this?
The lure of the great outdoors? Northern England is indeed enchanting, the trail varying one day to the next, from slippery fells to humid pinewood forests, flowery fields to shimmering tarns, squeezing through stiles and crossing countless wooden gates into enclosed pastures – sheep and rock walls everywhere; moorland, stony summits, bucolic dales, slate-roofed hamlets … It has all been mesmerizing, even for a city guy, gobsmacked by street scenes as much as by natural wonders. But that wasn’t the answer.
To get fit and lose weight? Fat chance. English cuisine used to be an oxymoron, but no longer. The food along the way is simply stupendous, even (or especially) for vegetarians at the ubiquitous inns and pubs, where muddy boots and paws are welcome.
Because I have blood cancer? Because I wanted a physical adventure, five years after being paralyzed with Guillain-Barré syndrome? Because I hoped to shoot great pictures? Because I yearned for a spiritual experience?
All noble causes, but again, not exactly.
I am doing this because, as comedian Steven Wright wryly said: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”
Simple as that.
REAL TIME POSTS
May 20, 2018
From the Irish Sea headed east, inland across fields of heather and purple bells, pastures of sheep and grazing cattle, through enchanting woods of conifer and pine, winding up atop a plateau and back down steep inclines to scraggly valleys of sedge brush and babbling brooks, day 1 of the Coast-to-Coast walk, 15 miles to Ennerdale Bridge in northern England, is a site to behold.
Every step counts. One wrong footfall can end the long walk abruptly. Day 2 of the C2C journey, 15 hilly miles from Ennerdale to Rosthwaite, was a mix of tricky terrain - strewn rocks in the fells, sharp slippery slabs of shale, boulders and climbs to negotiate... You must look down at your feet as much as up at the magnificent scenery. Still, stop, breathe in the clean crisp air, listen to the water rushing down the mountain, consider your luck.
Unless you have a GPS gizmo, compass savvy or divine guidance, it’s easy to get lost along Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, the least signposted trail in Britain (because it’s unofficial, albeit highly popular). Day 3 began with a wrong turn out of Rosthwaite. Up a clearing we went, into a humid forested hill, scooting tangled branches and mossy stones, covering a half mile in 30 sweaty minutes, a footpath for sure, only one that headed north, as we soon discovered, not east to Grasmere, our next target 9 miles away. I scrambled down and met an elderly couple out for a short hike. They were amused by our waywardness, the woman saying in her gentle motherly way: it matters not, just enjoy wherever you are.
Words of wisdom for another day of dramatic climbs, first a constant slope up the flanks of a valleys then up a rocky ridge so steep it loomed over us like the temple of Zeus; two thousand feet high, far above the melting water flows but still amid bleating sheep, we hoisted ourselves up on hands and knees against gnarly rocks tinseled with tufts of wool.
Whoever said England is flat is invited to try the Wainwright Coast to Coast trail. Starting from the west, the stunning Lake District serves up altitude - mountain after mountain for the first four days of the 14–day excursion, gifts that keep on giving over some 60 miles. Granted, it’s not like attacking the Matahorn: there is no mountaineering involved, just grueling ascents and descents on often rocky, wet terrain that’ll have your legs burning, lungs heaving and pride tingling when you raise a cold pint at the end of day.
The views from high above never fail to awe, and the marshy plateaus are images of serenity, with shimmering lakes, stone walls extending down the dales, and windswept moors speckled white with Cotton Grass in the springtime, when everything is lush.
The exertion was tough (and perhaps underestimated) but we thanked our luck with every step as sunshine and cooling breezes prevailed each day - which is unusual.
The next 8 days are tamer in elevation, but we will have gone up and down the equivalent of Mt Everest by the end of the 200-mile journey, at the shores of the North Sea in the east.
Early morning, I stood on a rising hill, off the trail, before an old wooden gate enclosing a pasture and grazing sheep, a rustic barn to my left and green fields of the Lake District rolling beyond. I raised the camera to my eye and lingered, patient for composition, hoping for the sheep to turn just so, when I noticed a fellow hiker, an Englishwoman of about 60, standing by my side. She watched quietly, her partner (another woman about the same age) waiting a little ways off. I shot a few frames, then greeted her by asking with complicity, “Would you like my spot to take a picture?” She demurred and said, “Oh no, thank you,” and began swinging the gate open. “I’m going for a moment of comfort.” Good for you, I said, and thought: how wonderful, she chose this splendid location to rest her wary bones. She added: “It’s not that easy for us, you know.” I took this to mean ‘women of a certain age’ - it sure is a strenuous walk for anyone along the C2C walk. I said: “You have all my admiration,” and went on my way. It was many steps later that I realized, a little foolishly, that she had been talking about going to the loo.
The trail is full of wonders, but the small towns and villages that dot the northern English countryside along the Coast to Coast track, like Kirkby Stephen, are simply delightful.
Leaving behind the Lake District for the North Yorkshire Dales, the hills turn kinder, the fields glisten yellow with meadow buttercup and ox-eye daisy, and the constant parade of sheep becomes more varied, some with elongated faces like llama, others wooly like carefree bleating hipsters. Every which way, dry stone walls of incredible workmanship etch the land like lines of domino tiles awaiting the first push. On the high plateaus, the wind rumbles across the grassy moors, deafening and cold, and by sheer luck of unusual dry weather, keeps the bogs from swallowing us whole. It’s a delight to the senses. In Keld, the Coast to Coast trail marks its halfway point, 100 miles from either the Irish or North Seas. Nearby, along the rocky, meandering River Swale flanked by bucolic valleys, sits Muker - a quintessential English village of stone houses and mining history, where today wanderers and tourists can have midday tea and scones (with clotted cream and strawberry jam) amid ravishing beauty. There’s ample reason to cheer making it this far, but no hubris please, there’s still a long way ahead.
Dry (no mortar) stone walls are mesmerizing, by their grace, strength, age and ubiquitousness along the Coast to Coast walk. Most in northern England were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, when land was granted to common folk, and the need arose to contain stock and create boundaries. The stones usually came from within the property, dug up by clearing the fields for grazing. The rockier the terrain, the thicker the walls. It’s baffling, if not unfathomable, how such solid structures lining the landscape were built so artfully from grunt work.
Like generations before me, I succumbed to the charm of Richmond, a gem of a market town in North Yorkshire. Rather than walk a relatively plain 23 miles to Ingleby Cross, the next stop along the Coast to Coast trail (through fog and rain and soggy fields as it turned out), I chose to stay put, roam about the cobblestone streets, poke through twisted alleys and soak in the quaintness and history. Richmond grew around an imposing castle built by Alan of Brittany in the 11th-century to repel the Scots. Nowadays it remains an iconic structure open for visits and offers great views from the tower of the locality. This week, alas, a roving fair with rickety rides and carnival games vulgarized the town square, like cheap trinkets in a noble house. So be it, a little color. Everyone I met was so friendly and eager to chat. Like that councilman carting off yellow cutouts of bicycles that decorated the streets for the Tour de Yorkshire, a leg of a recent road race. Like Jefferson, who served me the most savory tomato and grilled pepper soup in his grocery
café, a place the size of a snooker table. Like the Turkish barber who was proud to let me photograph his shop as part of my global ongoing series. Like Edwina, who served me high tea at, well, Edwina’s, a local favorite bakery. What a fine way to take a break (and a few footsteps) from the 200-mile walk (which resumed today, I assure you).
Just another day for a nice stroll in North Yorkshire, across forests of silver birch, slippery terrain thick and rich brown like chocolate mousse, open moorland swaying with heather, hamlets graced with relic graveyards and climbs rewarded by magnificent vistas. Two days to go in the 200-mile Coast to Coast trek, from some hilltops we can see the North Sea.
One last day, one last mountain, one last moor, and a final 17-mile push along the coast to coast trail in North Yorkshire, heading to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea, and the completion of the 200-mile walking journey. My feet will hate me for weeks, but I’ll have stories to tell for some time.
With every stretch traveled, my posts have gotten plainer, eloquence worn down by fatigue. I’m knackered. My calves are popping, my knees are creaking and my blistered toes are suing me for damages. Walking northern England’s Coast to Coast from St-Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay, 200 miles in 14 days, is a euphoric adventure and a test of endurance. You point at a farm in the distance nestled in a kaleidoscope of green pastures, or at a range of mountains jagging the misty horizon, and you exclaim out loud in mock disbelief: “We have to walk all the way there?” Because it’s funny, because humor (or at least a lightness of being) carries you forward as much as muscle, because striding for 9 hours can be mind numbing, because distance no longer matters when you’re crossing a country.
At Grosmont, an aptly named village at the foot of a fat hill, we panted like ladened mules working our way up a hill so steep our noses scraped the pavement. A woman emerged from her yard. “You live here?” I snipped comically, implying: Are you crazy. “Oh no,” she said, “We’re just staying here.” I said: “Of course you’re staying here, because once you go in, you don’t want to go out!” She laughed. How many Coasters has she watched lumber by? “Yes, I know it’s a killer, but at least you can work off those fish and chips.” Cheeky woman, couldn’t she see my plumpness was entirely vegetarian?
It was our last day, our final push to picturesque Robin Hood’s Bay along the North Sea, where hills like a rollercoaster awaited us along the high cliff shore. We arrived disheveled from a long day of rain, through slick forest beds where the pungent scent of garlic flowers permeated the humid air, slogging across boggy moors that sank our feet to the ankles, dodging highway traffic where nature’s paths ended and started up again, into a viscous trail of gnarly roots, deep mud and slippery rocks, and yes, amidst extraordinary beauty, having succeeded out of stubbornness and joy.