In October 2004, I spent an exhilarating nine days walking part way across northern England on the Coast to Coast footpath which encompassed spectacular scenery, surprising ruggedness and that totally unpredictable British weather. Here is my story.
Several years ago, I saw a magazine article about the Thames path. "What a great idea, I want to do that." A year later my wife, Cathryn, and I were in southwest England when I stumbled on a copy of Alfred Wainwright's Coast to Coast book in a used bookstore. "Wow, this walk looks even better than the Thames path," and snatched it up for an inexpensive two pounds. I read the whole book and was mesmerized not only by the route descriptions but also the scenic drawings.
The next year, spring 2004, I cut my teeth on UK walking by taking an Irish “culture” class, six days of hillwalking, while Cathryn was in an Irish language class. This was at Oideas Gael, a small college in Glen Columcille amid some of the most severe weather to ever hit Ireland in April. The walking was brutal, but I was hooked!
We returned home to Sonoma wine country in California and I immediately started making plans for a C2C walk in the fall. I found a friend and mentor in Richard Hayward of British Footpaths in Washington State. He provided invaluable advice, the best of which was “travel light, best keep to 8 pounds”. He sent me OS maps and his C2C guide which was a good supplement to Wainwright’s book. The Ramblers website and Sherpa chat room were also very helpful.
I am a retired thermodynamics engineer, now working 2 days a week in a wine tasting room, pouring wine and chatting with tourists. This fun job gives me the flexibility to travel frequently with Cathryn, mostly alternating between the British Isles and Asia. I am used to walking in the mountains of California, some long hikes when I was younger, but now mostly day hikes since my days of packing a tent are over. The anticipation of walking a long distance path in England with B&B overnights, was quite exciting. The whole idea seemed revolutionary to this American.
My Coast to Coast Walk Oct 2004
Planning and Preparation
As a novice at long distance walking and a senior at 66 years old, I was worried about how my endurance would hold up and how my gear would work out under the inevitable rain, wind and cold in October. Since Cathryn is allergic to walking long distances, a big decision was to walk on my own which I find comfortable and even enjoy. My plan was to walk for two thirds of the 180 mile path (to Richmond) with a 12 pound pack, staying at B&Bs and eating in the pubs.
Training for the walk followed the pattern I established preparing for hillwalking in Ireland, working out at the gym 3 times per week and walking in the local hills and along the coast twice a week for about 6 miles each walk. Before flying to England, I walked several 12 milers with a loaded pack. I had a new 48 liter backpack and well broken-in hiking boots (waterproof Adidas) which served me well. The less said about my jacket the better, just that next time I’ll have a new one.
The C2C path starts at St. Bees on the Irish Sea coast and ends at Robin's Hood Bay on the North Sea, about 180 miles. Since I had a limited time to be away from home, I plan to end my walk at Richmond, 120 miles. So my adventure starts.
I prebooked train tickets from London to Carlisle and from Darlington back to London, but chose not to book accommodations since I was told there would be no problem in October. Sorry Richard, you were wrong! I was worried about the effects of jet lag on my first day of walking to Ennerdale Bridge from St. Bees, so I planned to shorten that first day by starting the walk from Cleator. Wainwright says Cleator is where “the industrial coast is left behind”, so I didn’t feel like I would miss much. Only about six miles.
After an overnight flight from San Francisco to Heathrow and tubing into London, the Flying Scot train took me north to Carlisle where I savored a much appreciated cappuccino from the cart on the train platform. On the local to Whitehaven, where I planned to stay overnight, I met two British ladies going to St. Bees for the walk. Perhaps I’ll see them tomorrow on the path. The TIC (Tourist Information Center) in Whitehaven was quite helpful. They gave me the bus schedule to Cleator and booked me into Lismore House. Sirlion steak and ale at Wetherspoons, then early to bed, sleeping a solid ten hours. I definitely needed it!
Day 1: Oct 13 Whitehaven to Ennerdale Bridge (10 miles)
I enjoyed a full English breakfast in the B&B sun room overlooking the harbor where the American John Paul Jones invaded by stealth to steal ship supplies during the American Revolutionary War. It was almost a clear day! I toured the lighthouse, splashed water in the harbor, browsed a used bookstore and invaded a Gregg’s bakery before taking the bus to Cleator where I jumped onto the C2C path.
I was soon climbing Dent Fell with sheets of rain followed by the sun. It was a great view as I put a rock on the cairn. After circumnavigating a forest steeply downhill, I sat next to a lovely valley stream and ate a Gregg’s pasty for lunch. Then I had an exquisite sunny walk along Kirk Beck through Nannycatch, a small, beautiful, hidden dale with strange native sheep, footbridges and no roads. What a delightful place! I reached Ennerdale Bridge in time for hot tea at Bridge End B&B, then a walk down to the lake in time to catch a beautiful view of the clouds setting over the mountains. I was feeling good, jet lag wasn’t bothering me, but now wished I hadn’t missed the cliff walk out of St. Bees.
At the B&B, I saw the two Yorkshire ladies that I had spoken to on the train and we had dinner at the Shepherd Arms Pub. The Jenning’s Bitters was smooth and the company stimulating. We agreed to walk together the next day.
Day 2: Thurs Oct 14 Ennerdale Bridge to Stonethwaite
The weather had cleared this morning and was sunny along Ennerdale Lake’s rocky shore and mossy glens. After leaving the lake behind, we came to the very remote Black Sail Hut. The youth hostel was open for tea making and made a good lunch break for us. Earlier, Mary had taught me to save the sausages from the B&B breakfasts to eat for lunch. This seems to be a common practice given the huge breakfasts and since there is usually no place to eat during the day’s walk. Alison had poignant memories of staying at Black Sail 35 years ago when she was a bit younger.
Following the trail up Loft Beck, the C2C path over the mountain, we slowly realized we were on a sheep trod leading away from the beck. Heavy fog and a slight rain greeted us. We made a decision to scramble straight up to the left to find the path again, very difficult through heavy brush on steep terrain. All this in what was now miserable rain and cold which lasted for 3 hours across the mountain to Rosthwaite. At the top, the weather cleared just enough for a magical bird’s eye view of Buttermere Water. Mary was trying out new equipment for a Himalayan trek in Nepal; the rough terrain and weather gave her gear a good workout.
The ladies had a 5 pm bus to catch at Seatoller, going to Keswick for a theater break and rest day. We made it with only ten minutes to spare and, after a fond but hasty farewell, I walked on to my B&B at Stonethwaite. My Ennerdale B&B host had kindly booked it for me. I was soaking wet, but had everything dried in the tumbler. It was too late to book dinner at the Langstrath Hotel but I was able to eat off a simple menu in the bar. Artichoke soup, bread and Hawks Head ale were absolutely wonderful. I spent the evening swapping stories with a local fellow sporting a long, white beard. There is no direct road to Grasmere, the closest large town so to get supplies he makes the walk a couple of times a week. Ten hard miles each way. I'll be going there tomorrow.
Day 3: Friday Oct 15 Stonethwaite to Grasmere
I hooked up with Alan, a surgeon staying at the B&B, for a sunny walk to Grasmere. We climbed up the Borrowdale valley, another scenic, hidden gem, possibly the most beautiful valley in England, but well traveled by walkers. Fall colors were in their glory, reds and yellows, rusts and browns, along the beck and on the enclosing fells. A shepherd on the far side was calling to his flock of sheep. Once out of the valley, it took both our skills to find our way over the rocks, bogs and streams, up over the pass of Greenup Edge, and crossing into the next valley.
Alan went on ahead as I sat on a large boulder to eat lunch. Following Easedale Gill until it becomes a river, it was an easy walk into Grasmere, a welcome bit of civilization. I had time for a cappuccino and a bit of sightseeing, Wordsworth and all. I luckily found lodging at the Fairy Glen B&B (they had a cancellation), and followed what has become a routine, tea, then coffee, then a shower and changing into my pub clothes, then setting my walking clothes out to dry.
At the Red Lion Pub, I had a fabulous vegetable soup with bread and Theakston’s Best Bitters. It’s great fun to try a different ale each night! And the soups are so big and filling that with bread is all I seem to need. I called several lodgings in Patterdale, but they were all full. I will try the TIC in Glenridding (near Patterdale) tomorrow. As has become a pattern, writing and reading ended the night.
Day 4: Sat Oct 16 Grasmere to Patterdale