By Tom Davids
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils. . .” by William Wordsworth, who walked some 175,000 miles in his lifetime, mostly in the Lake District, England
One of my favorite books for dreaming is “Classic Walks of the World” edited by Walt Unsworth. The book features 17 walks that include such favorites as the Milford Trail in New Zealand, the John Muir Trail in California, the Cordillera Blanca Trek in Peru, and the trek to the base of Mount Everest in Nepal.
It also reviews a famous walk in England, the Pennine Way, but it does not include the “classic” walk that my wife Veralyn and I just completed—the Coast-to-Coast Walk from St. Bee’s on the west coast (Irish Sea) to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast (North Sea).
This is not an “official” trail, but a combination of public footpaths and country roads. The total distance of the Coast-to-Coast Trail is 190 miles, but we reduced the hiking mileage to 120 miles by driving across the less scenic farming areas while hiking through three national parks—the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors.
For the active walker, England is just short of paradise, with a lifetime of destinations. Post a map of England on the wall, close your eyes, and point to any part of the map, and you’re likely to be only a stone’s throw from a public pathway.
England and Wales alone—not including Scotland—offer some 135,000 miles of public footpaths, bridle ways (for walkers, horseback riders, and bicyclists). Our Coast-to-Coast walk generally followed the route pioneered by A.W. Wainwright, first published in book form in 1973. After walking the Pennine Way (252 miles), Wainwright set out to plot a long walk “. . .partly because the growing popularity of the Pennine Way indicates that many people of all ages welcome the challenge of a long-distance walk and partly because I want to encourage in others the ambition to devise with the aid of maps their own cross-country marathons and not be merely followers of other people’s routes. . .”
After plotting his Coast-to-Coast walk from St. Bee’s Head to Robin Hood’s Bay, Wainwright concluded, “Surely there cannot be a finer itinerary for a long-distance walk! For sustained beauty, variety, and interest, it puts the Pennine Way to shame.”
Not having hiked the Pennine Way, I’m in no position to judge, but I do agree that the Coast-to-Coast Walk is one of great beauty, variety, and interest.
Since Wainwright first published his guide in 1973, many British and foreign hikers have hiked all or a good portion of the Coast-to-Coast trail. They have experienced the exhilaration of crossing the high ridges; expansive views, now brilliantly clear and then shrouded in fog; windswept moors; soggy peat bogs; deep forests; rushing rivers; and manicured farmlands. They have hiked through England’s diverse culture, walked in the shadow of Wordsworth and Herriott, viewing the ruins of a 12th century abbey, old castles, old Roman roads, and sturdy stone walls (fences stretching in all directions. And when the hiking day is done, the Coasters retire to the comfort and good cheer of the pubs, village inns, or bed and breakfast at stone farmhouses. This is long-distance hiking at its best.
Anyone wishing to hike the Coast-to-Coast Walk can obtain a vast amount of material to plan the trip. Wainwright’s “A Coast-to-Coast Walk” is the best place to start. Since it was published in 1973, the guide was reissued with minor changes in 1995 and 1998. It features interesting pencil drawings of national features and map segments of the route and is meant to be used in conjunction with Ordinance Survey Maps. These maps, plotted on a scale of 1 inch to 1 mile, show a tremendous amount of detail, including the placement of farm buildings. The maps are indispensable as you plot your course from Rosthwaite to Grasmere, or to any other villages along the trail.
Rather than describe this walk in detail, I will reflect on some interesting aspects of hiking this trail. Our trip was a package arranged by Wilderness Travel of Berkeley. The trip was 16 days, which included 12 days of hiking. Each day we walked about six hours and averaged about 11 miles. The cumulative elevation gain was 16,300 feet, or about 3 miles. Our most aggressive hiking day was an ascent—and descent—of 2,300 feet. We had two fine guides—Hugh Westacott (this was his 24th Coast-to-Coast hike) and Peter Goddard (a veteran of 15 trips).
And this is the way it was—
· Weather – We’ve all heard about England’s miserable weather, especially in the north, so we bought and brought all the “weatherproofs” recommended—Gortex jacket, pants, gaiters, and good waterproof boots. But I must admit—somewhat reluctantly for fear that you will doubt we were ever in England—that during our 16-day trip we had not a drop of rain. Some fog and haze, and a little spitting drizzle for about an hour, but no English rain. However, we were told not to expect such a blessing again—not in this millennium or the next—so be prepared for wind-driven rain and lots of wet, grassy fields.
· Trails – Walking paths (public pathways) are everywhere and well marked. They extend across the moors; through a farmer’s field and beside his home and barn, across the road and into the next field; between houses in the villages; and into the high country. But English trails are typically straight lines connecting two points; you won’t find many switchbacks, even over the steep areas. It seems that our familiar switchbacks are a more modern innovation unknown to the ancients who treaded across the English countryside.
· Ups and Downs – The high point on our hike was 3,118 feet elevation on top of Helvellyn Peak. While this was not high by California standards, most trails start from near sea level, so your final elevation is all gain. A typical day’s hike starts in a valley, climbs over a ridge, and drops down to the next valley. As mentioned, our cumulative gain was 16,300 feet, the equivalent of hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back again three times.
· Bogs – One of the interesting national features along the trail is bogs. Even in the high altitude areas of the Lake Country, you will encounter large areas of peat bogs. Walking across them is a challenge, since a misstep can send you in waist-deep. “Careful, chaps, a misstep here, and we will never see you again,” cautioned guide Hugh. One of our fellow hikers did misstep, and he continued the hike in a soggy and wet condition.
· Groundcover – The trail through the Lake District and over the moors is virtually treeless, except for a few short enchanting stretches along the River Esk and the Swale River. The common groundcover at higher altitudes resembles the sub-alpine terrain in the California Sierras.
On the eastern part of the Lake District, we hiked through and viewed vast areas of bracken, a large, coarse, weedy fern—pretty to look at with its dark green color, but an invasive weed that takes over large areas of pasture. The spread of bracken can be controlled by grazing cattle, but the ingested fern makes them sick, so the best control is thorough aerial spraying.
Hiking through the North York Moors National Park reveals the largest extent of heather moorland in all of England. The heather bloom is at its best in late summer, when tiny purple flowers create a magic colored carpet.
· Lakes – True to its name, the Lake District is rich with lakes. A hike to the several ridgelines reveals distant views of large lakes such as Derwent Water, Coniston Water, Windermere, Ulswater, Haweswater, and Thirlmere. The lakes posed a beautiful and inviting destination as we ambled to the pubs and villages below.
· Stone Fences, Gates, and Stiles – The linear miles of stone fences along the trail is amazing. We tried to picture the 6-foot plus walls being created one stone at a time, and the effort is almost unbelievable. Stone by stone, the adjacent fields were cleared, and the walls were created. Crossing the stone walls or occasional more conventional wire fence involves moving through an interesting variety of stiles and gates. The most interesting was the “kissing gate,” which moves on a short swing within an established perimeter. The story goes that the lad would swing the gate forward for his lady, whereupon she would enter the perimeter, move around the swing gate, push it back, and return his favor with a kiss. A nice story that produced a few kisses along the way.
· Sheep – I can’t recall any time along the entire walk when we did not see one or many sheep. In America, cattle graze the open range. In Northern England, it is sheep. Sheep watching became an extension of walking. One or two lambs typically accompany adult sheep, and the banter of “sheep talk” was especially lively as we hikers plodded through the flock. On the trial out of Grasmere up the Tongue Gill (you gotta love English names), we were treated to a view of shepherds and their sheep dogs herding a large flock of sheep from one pasture to another through a narrow sheep gate in a stone wall.
· Details and More – If you are interested in hiking the Coast-to-Coast Walk, order Wainwright’s “A Coast-to-Coast Walk” from the Penguin Group, 27 Wrights Lane, London W 8, England. You can also order on the Web from Adventurous traveler Bookstore at www.adventuroustraveler.com. Several organizations offer walking tours, including accommodations, transportation, and meals. For the more adventurous, a self-planned trip should be easy to do. “Stillwell’s National Trail Companion” offers information on where to stay along 39 lone-distance footpaths in Britain. The Lonely Planet Guide, “Walking in Britain,” is also a good resource. Both of these books can be ordered through the Adventurous Travelers Bookstore.