“And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green?” – William Blake
Well, they were wrapped in Smart Wool socks and snuggled in Gore-Tex shoes but, yes, as a matter of fact they did. But it wasn’t all that long ago.
On the first Sunday in October, I set out on foot from St. Bees on the northwest coast of England to walk the breadth of this fine country, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, a trek of 192 miles.
Why, you might ask would a man celebrate his 65th birthday with a punishing 14-day march over rugged mountains and barren moors, up and down 29,000 feet of rocky paths and heathered fields when dinner and a movie would do just fine?
I’d like to say it was the challenge of a lifetime, but the fact is that as men get closer to death they do really screwy things. Some guys jump out of planes or race sports cars or take up kite surfing. Hell, I know a man who celebrated turning 65 by getting married again! No, a man’s mind after 60 is never to be trusted.
But, I love to hike and writer Alfred Wainwright’s *Coast to Coast Walk* along England’s wild and pristine footpaths has intrigued me for years. Designed to engage nature and avoid civilization, the path cuts across the spectacular and mountainous Lake District, through the forests and forded streams of the Yorkshire Dales and finally across the bleak and barren knolls of the North York Moors. Three national parks, two weeks, one backpack, a guide book with compass, map and Swiss Army knife – everything a rambler needs for a fortnight of freedom on foot.
It was drizzling through sunshine early in the morning of October 2nd when, following tradition, I dipped my foot in the Irish Sea, snatched a good luck pebble from the beach and climbed up the 300-foot sandstone cliffs at St. Bees. One foot in front of the other, I was on a milestone mission.
By two o’clock, I had scaled St. Bees Head, dipped down to Fleswick Bay, inspected an ancient lighthouse, clamoured over the first of several hundred stiles, mastered a kissing gate into a field of sheep, passed through the village of Sandwith, took a photo of the Dog and Partridge Pub, crossed a dozen farmers’ fences and arrived to my great surprise … back in St. Bees. The “Mile Zero Coast To Coast” sign I had sneered at six hours earlier, was laughing at me now. Learning the hard way that English national parks do not allow markers or signs, I abandoned the path and took the long, low road to Ennerside Bridge.
Everything went into a dryer; hot socks revived my legs and a pint of Wainwright’s Ale restored my spirits for now. Reaching the Fox & Hounds Pub by dark, my legs were tingling and everything on me, including my backpack, was drenched. I had trained for 16 and 18 miles, but not the extreme elevation of the Lake District, where peaks hit two and three thousand feet.
Out early after a sumptuous full English breakfast – if the terrain doesn’t kill me, the cholesterol will – I scaled the roller coaster trail that hugs the edge of a beautiful, black lake known as Ennerdale Water. I looked forward to sitting for a spell on Robin Hood’s Chair, but it turned out to be a large, lush outcropping that’s embedded in the side of the lake.
The wrap around scenery was dreamy and dramatic – glistening green hills dotted with black-faced sheep and crisscrossed with fast-running streams. Rocky paths disappeared up and over mountain peaks, ancient stone walls surrounding pastures that fell out of sight into valleys below.
I was as much lost in their woods as I was in their words – stiles, dubs, becks, folds and duckboards – but I found the River Liza and never let her out of my sight.
The sun peeked through briefly and I saw Scafell Pike in the distance, England’s highest peak at 3,210 feet. Thank God, the path circles that one!
It was ugly and unorthodox but by plodding ever east by my compass, I stumbled upon the hamlet of Seatoller where I took tea. From there, it was a hike through Johnny Wood, past Nook Farm and The Flock Inn (I love the English names) and into Rosthwaite for the night. A pint, a pie and an intense study of tomorrow’s ordinance map was becoming my evening’s routine.
The next day begins beautifully – country paths and stone walls, waterfalls and folds full of sheep. Climbing Greenup Hill was tough but stunning. Towering cliffs loomed in the distance – Lining Crag, Greenup Edge, Eagle Crag. I scaled them all and three more to boot, but I got lost again and had to follow two experienced hikers into Grasmere, their first two attempts to make this trek thwarted by weather.
This trek being far more difficult than I anticipated – longer, higher, harder with lousy weather – I was soaked in sweat and a little disoriented when I went to the post office and got a bus schedule. I gotta get out of here!
I drowned my sorrow with an extra pint of Bass at The Red Lion and visited both William Wordsworth’s house and his grave behind St. Oswald’s church. “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” Okay, so he got lost a lot too.
But the next morning, the sun came out and a grizzled, old hiker at breakfast at the Chestnut Inn seemed genuinely disappointed when I told him I was quitting the walk.
“I could never do it, but you, you’re still young.”
And then I remembered why I was here – to prove 65 was not so old.
I returned to the path making the rocky ascent up Grisedale Pass to Grisedale Tarn in under two hours. At Ruthwaite Lodge, a boarded-up hiker’s hut, I knew I could not get lost. Striding eventually through the gorgeous valley into Patterdale with the sailboats on Ullswater Lake bobbing in the background, I thought I might just finish the walk.
With the Lake District and the gale force winds behind me – everything from the weather to the sign markers to my attitude improved. Gradually, the focus of the walk switched from the place to the people. Ian Moseley, the innkeeper of Old Water View in Patterdale, insisted I try the ales brewed especially for this gorgeous B&B, and as we poured over maps highlighting better, drier paths and lower alternate routes I knew I’d met a fellow walker I would most certainly see again.
The 16-mile route to Shap was rugged and long but waiting for me at the Brookfield House was dear, sweet Margaret who served me tea and scones by the fire and actually washed and dried my sweat-soaked clothes.
The path over the fells to Orton was “dead easy” as Ian had predicted and the Irish publican of The George Hotel gave me a lift after dinner out to Scar Side Farm for the night.
The 13-mile section to Kirby Stephen was easier than it looked on the map and from the Smardale Fell I thought I saw the mysterious Nine Standards Rigg in the distance – 12-foot high spooky statues atop a moor in the middle of nowhere.
Kirby Stephen might be the tidiest town in Britain, bustling with people, none too busy to give directions or suggest a good pub.
Sadly, I had to take the low route across the Pennine Hills, the backbone mountains of Britain, and missed the Nine Standards Rigg at the top.
“Swampy?” said the crusty gent in the pub. “If you see hats floating on the path, they would be coast-to-coasters!” Stone barns in steep valleys, rolling sheepfolds and white waterfalls – the walk into Keld defined the word “bucolic.”
I loved Keld – a stark hamlet of a dozen stone houses located on a bleak and barren moor with a tiny museum and a “Public Convenience” – because it was the halfway point across England. I celebrated with two pints of Black Sheep Rigg Welter, the best dark ale I’ve ever had, at the tiny, perfect pub in Keld Lodge.
Sheep – I’m staring at them, talking to them, dreaming of them. If I see one more sign in a shop that says “Thank Ewe,” seriously, I’m going to scream.
The 11-mile walk to the village of Reeth was glorious. The sun shone, I walked in shorts, I sat on a log for lunch and there was no getting lost, no need to gauge the compass or consult the guide book because I followed the River Swale all the way. And what a beautiful river it is – red-headed from the peat bogs, it rushes under bridges, gorges down chutes, the roar ringing in your ears for hours. The green scene of the river snaking through Swale Valley is breathtaking.
Reeth, the Yorkshire setting for the James Herriot series All Creatures Great And Small is a typically pretty ‘Dale town’ with a green common and a couple of pubs. At the Black Bull, I shared great conversation and a pizza with two Brits, cousins completing Wainwright’s walk, three sections each year.
And so it went, a lone walker by day, clinking pints with strangers in pubs at night. The evening’s camaraderie became the reward for the solitude of 20-mile days.
The last days seemed to fly by, the anticipation of making it to the North Sea building by the mile. From Reeth to Richmond was practically a stroll; a flat track through farms and knolls scaring up pheasants every mile or so. The trail from Engleby Cross to Great Broughton was hard and long, moor after muddy moor. Lost and in the middle of a fog, I stumbled upon the Lord Stone Café, where I got directions and a half mug of tea. The upscale Wainstones Hotel in Great Broughton offered me a hot bath and … a pants presser in the room.
The roller coaster tramp over the North York Moors continued, some green, others purple with thick heather and Scottish thistles. I passed a few grouse butts, overgrown stone blinds used in shooting the plump and squawky birds. Isolated and built into the side of a hill, I nearly fell onto the roof of The White Lion, a sprawling, cavernous pub, a thing of old English beauty. Beggar’s Bridge was a welcome sight as I walked to Glaisdale at dusk.
On my last day on the coast-to-coast walk, I’m feelin’ good and lookin’ for an ocean.
Today’s trek begins with me standing barefoot and banging on the door of The Arncliffe Arms to retrieve the shoes I left in their drying room the night before. Warm shoes and dry clothes, I’m counting my blessings and touching wood – no sprains, no bad falls, no pulls, calluses, not even a blister. As long as I ice my right knee at night, the body is holding up.
At Egton Bridge, I took a photo of a fly fisherman casting into a quiet pool on the River Esk. There were stepping stones across the Esk, “The Hermitage” cave and a tidy little trailer park to break up the day, but the high, hard slog to the end was not a victory lap.
At Grosmont, I fell into step with Magdalena, a young Austrian girl who was toughing it out after losing her walking poles crossing a stream waist high. It was War Weekend and the townsfolk were dressed in ’40s clothes and vintage uniforms celebrating victory over the Germans.
Grosmont to the coast was a tough uphill march on mostly moors and a few back roads. Then serendipity struck. I was standing atop Sleights Moor at 700 feet taking on water when the drizzle slowed and the clouds around me lifted like a curtain on a stage. The sun broke through and there it was, due east and dazzling, the towers of Whitby Abbey sitting in front of a twinkling sea. The North Sea. I’d be in Robin Hood’s Bay by sunset. I walked slower knowing it was imminently reachable and maybe … because I didn’t want the journey to end.
Hours later, I strutted, okay hobbled, triumphantly into Robin Hood’s Bay. I headed straight to the sea and the lawn of the Victoria Hotel, which takes in the whole sweep of the surrounding cliffs and the sandy bay below.
And there, leaning on the fence high above the smuggler’s village of Robin Hood’s Bay with 192 miles of England’s most savage and splendid landscape behind me, I pretty much broke down.
No whoops, hollers or high-fives, I just stood there quietly thinking “Damn, I actually did it!”
“But what did ya learn?” asked the gruff barkeep at The Bay Hotel where I collected my Coast To Coast certificate and a T-shirt showing the route.
“Never expect intelligent conversation from sheep,” I replied.
What I did learn is that with preparation (mine could have been much better,) patience (I had more at the end) and perseverance (here I gave myself an “A”) you can accomplish anything at almost any age. Age 65 may or may not be the new 50, but it sure as hell ain’t the old 65.
The people I met along the way from thick-accented Cumbrians to the cheerful Yorkies were the sweetest, most helpful Brits I have ever met. And to all the staff at Macs Adventure (www.macsadventure.com) thank you, you made a man’s birthday the milestone of his life.
If you’re a walker – and you should be – Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk is your pilgrimage. Do it while you still can. Go with a group and go in the summer, but go.