Fred Elder, Coast to Coast Walk – First Half

194 Miles Across England in 10 Walking Days

The Coast to Coast Walk, a formidable trek, begins in St. Bees, Cumbria, and ends at Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire.  The walk was popularized in a book by Alfred Wainwright, appropriately named Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk and passes through three National Parks (The Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales, The North York Moors).  It is not an official walking path recognized by Great Britain, but the route recommended by Wainwright passes over public right-of-way.  As such, many parts of the path have no sign posts and hikers are often unsure of the proper route. 

In a previous life, my friend Ardith had walked part of the eastern portion of the trail and suggested we walk the entire trail. I felt it would be an interesting adventure. 

We decided to carry our own gear and clothes in backpacks, but spend the nights in B&B’s along the route.  We needed to complete the hike in a shorter time than recommended as we wanted to walk in August (reportedly the best weather time) but needed to be back in time to begin our respective academic years.  Ardith made B&B reservations, we loaded our backpacks and headed for the airport.  The following is the account of our various days.

Day 0 -1 We flew from Chicago O’Hare to Manchester, England, with our only “route guide” being a copy of Wainwright’s book.

Day 0 – We arrived in Manchester at 8:00 AM amidst the chaos of the Commonwealth Games.  Because train service is relatively poor in northern England, we opted to take a taxi to St. Bees. We managed to find a taxi, clambered in and sleepily (after the overnight flight) wound our way through rain and mist along narrow lanes bordered by pastures of sheep to St. Bees.  Awakened from our drowsy stupor by our arrival at the Tomlin Guest House (at right), we checked in and, feeling decidedly jet-lagged, walked to the village to eat. Still in the rain, an ominous foreshadowing of the days to come, we returned to the Guest House, collapsed into bed at 4:00 PM, and  slept soundly until the next morning. 

Day 1, 15 miles  – Our first walking day.  We awoke to sunshine – hooray!  Alas, sunshine was to be a rarity for the entirety of our walk.  After a hearty English breakfast of eggs, sausage, fried mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, cereal and toast washed down with a strong English tea, we were off to the post office to mail our “airplane clothes” and bags to Scarborough, our final destination.  We then walked down to the coast for the ritual dipping of the toes in the Irish Sea as suggested by Wainwright, picked up a rock to carry the entire way (another Wainwright suggestion) made our way up to the clifftop, 300 feet above the sea, and started walking the muddy trail. (Above, the start of the walk) 

The views of Fleswick Bay from the sea cliff were spectacular. Other hikers were also beginning their Coast to Coast walks and the general attitude was one of exhilaration.  We saw sheep of various shapes and sizes and soon learned that Wainwright’s directives regarding the route lacked in precision, sometimes only noting a particular tree as a landmark.  We passed through the quiet villages of Sandwith, Cleator, Dent (steep descent into town) and wound through a valley to Ennerdale, where we met Ms. Sherwen, the proprietor of Ehen Garth, our overnight B&B.  The evening meal found us at Shepherds Arms, the only open pub, where we imbibed in hearty pub fare, a sizeable portion of traditional Shepard’s Pie with a large chunk of homemade bread.  So far, so good.

Day 2, 15.5 miles – Breakfast at 7:15 found us gazing out at steadily falling rain.  We togged up in rain gear and set forth.  Whoops – a forgotten water bottle, remembered on the outskirts of Ennerdale, meant Ardith waited in a phone booth (the only dry spot) while I retrieved the water bottle.  We were then on our way again, feeling elated to again be headed east.  We elected to walk around the north side of Ennerdale Water, a pristine, glacial lake, but after some distance, this path proved impassable; we thus backtracked and chose a better path. Such improvisation would be repeatedly demanded in this summer of the greatest rainfall in a century. The second path then led us to a forest road, which was quite nice despite the rain.  However, the harvesting of trees in the forest created innumerable “paths,” making it unclear where the Coast to Coast path really lay. 

After passing two bridges washed out by high water, we finally found an intact bridge that allowed us to cross the raging River Liza, whose waters were within a foot of the bridge. We no longer had protection from trees and were exposed to the elements. It was raining heavily, foggy and quite windy!  We walked a few hundred yards and encountered the next obstacle, namely, a raging torrent of water descending down a hillside, a stream that Wainwright’s book had described as a trickling brook.  It appeared impossible to cross.  We turned back and walked to a lonely stone youth hostel we had spotted earlier (Right, Black Sail Hut).  Inside, dripping wet, we asked for directions.  Much to our dismay, we were told that the path indeed crossed the raging torrent that had caused us to retreat. 

So, we returned to the wind, rain and fog, and to the raging torrent, which seemed no less formidable.  We walked upstream looking for a more favorable place to cross.  It only looked more dangerous.  We returned to the original crossing, where the sight of an abandoned orange backpack on a rock midstream was less than encouraging. Left with no other choice, we plunged in, wading across water above Fred’s knees, struggling to keep our balance.  With great relief, we reached the other side.

The day’s adventures, however, were far from over.  Next we had to hike up the steep incline to Gap Loft Beck to search for the trail we had been forced to leave when we braved Wainwright’s trickling brook, now a torrent.  The ascent on slick pasture grass was somewhat surreal as ghostly shadows of sheep appeared in the foggy mist.  We were soon on all fours, hanging on to what seemed like the face of a cliff, to avoid being swept off by strong winds. The path we were in search of eluded us, however.  Due to the dense fog and the progression of the day, we decided to return to the Hut for shelter and spend the night on the floor (necessitating re-crossing the treacherous stream), a better alternative than being lost in the weather all night.  As we began our retreat, with Ardith mostly sliding downhill on her backside, we miraculously encountered the path we had earlier sought and missed; it had been transformed into a small stream.  

Finally, back on track, we trudged on, cairn by cairn, to an old tramway.  We were much reassured when we caught sight of two humans at a turn to the left. From there, we walked down, down, down on slippery slate to Honister mines and then on a road to the hamlet of Seatoller, where we asked some helpful people for directions to our accommodation. We must have looked terribly bedraggled at that point. They phoned our B&B, and the Castle Lodge (B&B) proprietress came to pick us up and finish the trip to Rosthwaite, in the heart of the Lake District, where we spent the night.  We were totally knackered, as one would say in British parlance, not to mention wet and cold.  After hot showers we dragged ourselves off to the Riverside Bar to eat, where we encountered many other walkers, some with bandaged body parts, who were relating tales of their crossing of the infamous “trickling brook.”

Day 3, 14 miles – Breakfast was relatively late at 8:30. Wet mist again enveloped our world and mud and muck comprised our walking path.  We started off along a beck (brook), followed by a strenuous  rocky climb, clambering over boulders in wind and rain to a pass named Greenup Gap.  Other challenging terrain awaited us, however, as we navigated stones in a stream, encountered a knee-deep bog, and took to our backsides down a steep and somewhat rocky incline on our way to Grasmere.  The idyllic sheep leisurely grazing roundabout afforded us little comfort. 

We walked into Grasmere and realized the day was too far gone to make it on foot to our next overnight, so we were forced to do the final bit via taxi to our accommodation in Patterdale.  While waiting for the taxi, the weather brightened a bit, so we walked about in Grasmere and visited Wordsworth’s grave (at left).  The taxi ride was a welcome break as we could actually look at the scenery rather than where our feet were going.  We saw marvelous stone fences snaking up hills along sheer inclines. 

Our night’s B&B was Ullswater View, where our room was reportedly Wainwright’s favorite room, Place Fell, a tiny slope-roofed room.  We ate heartily at the White Lion and then found the public phone, where we waited a bit for our turn, and chatted with others also waiting. We then returned to our room, and, after mending Ardith’s yellow rain pants with duct tape, something that would become a daily routine, were soon fast asleep.

Day 4, 17 miles – The day began with another substantial English breakfast during which a fellow guest provided a travelogue of our walk ahead to Shap.  Since the weather was clearing, we gladly removed our rain gear, although Ardith retained her rain pants, now adorned with  a good deal of gray duct tape.  The path consisted of a steep uphill climb, but the path was pretty good and we could see people up high ahead.  After the steep ascent, the path led downward again and then back up to Kidsty Pike (above), followed by a very steep and rocky descent that became grass-covered as we approached Hawes Water, a natural lake. On this route we saw the impressive Roman Road, actually built by the Romans, stretching off into the distance and enjoyed great views from Kidsty Pike. 

We were excited to reach Hawes Water, envisioning a level, scenic lake-shore path.  It was anything but that. Instead, the path along the lake was muddy and narrow, passing through very tall weeds, and forced us to continuously clamber up and down.  Finally, we arrived at the end of Hawes Water, where we set off across fields on a seemingly unending journey to Shap, with little assurance that we were even on the right route.  Very weary, we were encouraged when Shap Abbey (dating from 1191) came into view, but we were, alas, still not to Shap.  After plodding upward and onward, we finally arrived in Shap and wearily trod down the one street to our B&B, Fell House.  Up the street was the Greyhound, a pub, where we enjoyed huge bowls of lamb stew. We then returned to the B&B, where what was becoming a routine foot massage ensued before falling into an exhausted sleep. The Lake District was now behind us.

Day 5, 19 miles – Today was to be a long walk, but Kirkby Stephen, our next destination, promised us our day of resting and washing clothes.  Breakfast was at 8:00.  The walk out of Shap was easy, crossing a railroad and a major pedestrian walkway across the M6 highway.  After that, the way consisted mostly of fields mixed with a couple of roads, some lush pastures, grazing cows and sheep, prehistoric remains (an archaeological site), and the old stone Smardale Bridge (at left).  A rock outcropping provided our lunch venue. The path led us up and down most of the way to Kirkby Stephen, with a long stretch of downhill into Kirkby Stephen itself.  Our room for two nights and our day of rest were at the Lockholme House, a B&B. We were delighted to have a day to recover. After cleaning up, we limped up the street to a pub, where we discovered the delights of sticky toffee pudding, and Ardith, the joy of Thwaites ale!

Day 6, Rest Day – Breakfast at 8:00.  Our first mission was the launderette. While the mud of almost 80 miles was being washed away, we indulged in the rare luxury of an internet café and caught up on email.  For once, it was not raining. We also purchased post cards, a detailed map, a rain protector for the map, and more duct tape.  We toured the parish church of St. Stephen, had lunch at a so-called tearoom, and walked along the River Eden, where a cricket game was underway.  Ardith spent time on the phone rescheduling accommodations, due to an earlier oversight.  We enjoyed an evening meal at the King’s Arm, which concluded with Bannoffee pie, a very sweet dessert with bananas and toffee.  Well fed, we returned to our room at Lockholme House (Above), where we packed CLEAN CLOTHES!  Then we watched some TV news and nodded off to sleep. Tomorrow we would be back on the trail!

This is more or less the first half of the walking adventure.  If you look on Wikipedia, you will find the claim that the entire walk is 182 miles.  The Wainwright book we used said it was 194 miles and our feet would attest to this longer distance.  The second half of the trip comes in the next installment.  Although the second half was a bit drier, it was still England and our feet were already the worse for wear, but our spirit of determination was not thwarted.

Below is a preview of trail’s end at Robin Hood’s Bay.  Yes, we finally did make it.

Ardith and Fred, August 22, 2002 – Robin Hood’s Bay

  1. Gene C. 9 months ago

    It’s really a shame you wasted a life in engineering as you are a wonderful travel writer. Your fabulous images assure me no way in hell I’d do this. I met Ardith at one reunion and she seemed sensible. I spent a very cold two days in Cape Wrath in August, north west tip of the isle.

    You’re a brave man.

    Thanks for the adventure as I remained dry and warm.

  2. glenna park 9 months ago

    Fred, I loved your telling of the long walk with Ardith. I,too, met her at a reunion and had no idea that either one of you had such a sense of adventure. I enjoy reading about other’s adventures and can feel the damp cold with the green pastures of grazing sheep. You tell a good story and I am looking forward to the next installment. Also I am looking forward to more adventures from you two! By the way, Ardith should frame her duct taped yellow rain pants as a memento of an incredible vacation!

  3. Larry Statham 9 months ago

    Looking forward to more of your story. I was reminded of a cold rainy, muddy trek on mules ten days in Baja California 30 years ago. You described strength, stamina and focus to complete your trek. Great writing skills put me right there beside you on the trail.

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