On our walk from Grasmere, Dave spotted a red squirrel. It was very accommodating, not running away until it was sure I had a clear photograph.
Despite the ominous clouds, the weather decided against rain, so we soon removed the waterproofs again. The day was similar to the others, in that we started in a valley, climbed our way out of it, then descended into another valley.
The initial route took us up past Great Tongue to Grisedale Tarn, where we had a choice of three paths. The easiest was a gentle stroll along the valley floor to Patterdale; the other two ran along either side of the valley. The book warned against the higher one if you had any vertigo. Given my dodgy balance that was out, but the other high route promised some of the best views of the trail.
Grisedale Tarn was beautiful. A farmer was rounding up his sheep, and the valley was filled with the noise of bleats, bells, and farmer’s calls. A few people had camped at the water’s edge, and were waking to this beautiful sight.
The climb took us onto a ridge that led to the Cape, an 841 meter peak. It was a simple day’s walking, but very satisfying. I was convinced that I could see the sea from the hilltops.
`From there it was a steep walk down to Patterdale Village, and the end of our first section of the Coast-to-Coast. The weather had not been great, but we’d been lucky with the views, and the rain could have been much worse. We stopped about a quarter of the way through the trail and will be resuming in May.
The area around Rosthwaite has the highest level of rain in the UK, and at breakfast on day 3 it looked like we were in for a damp day. We ate in the hotel, where I made do with whatever vegan items I could find, then we set off.
Wainwright suggested walking from Rosthwaite to Patterdale in a single day, along with some optional climbs, but that seems a lot. Like most people, we were going to break the day in two, which also had the advantage of allowing us to explore Grasmere, one of Rosy’s favourite places to go on holiday.
The day’s walking began following a river before a long, slow ascent. The highest point was only about 400m, but this still felt challenging. We followed the path higher up the valley until we reached Lining Crag, where the footpath seemed to become almost vertical. We checked the map, but this was definitely the way. The climb was not quite as steep as it looked from below, but was still hard work. I looked back to see some other walkers checking the map the same as I had, sure the path couldn’t be taking that route.
At the top of the climb we found ourselves in thick cloud and, once again, wandered off-trail. We’d talked about our mistake the day before, and realised that we had jumped to a conclusion. If we’d checked the compass on our phones, it would have been obvious we were going the wrong way. We retraced our steps, and found the path again, along with another walker who confirmed we were on the right path.
(I should add here that relying on phones for wayfinding was irresponsible and possibly dangerous. For the next section of the Coast-to-Coast I will be bringing both proper maps and an analogue compass)
Given the weather, we decided against taking the high route, simply following the downhill path through the valley. We found a pathbuilder’s hut where we sheltered for lunch, and were soon joined by half a dozen other walkers. Very cosy.
Grasmere was disappointing. After a quiet day, we crossed a road and suddenly found ourselves in a packed town. I don’t understand why, when so much of the lakes are peaceful, everyone crammed themselves into one town. It also had the feel of tourist towns everywhere, with some incredibly brusque and rude restaurants. We eventually found our way to Tweedies Bar and Lodge, which had excellent food, beer and hospitality.
For our evening meal, we were less lucky – several restaurants were closed, and we needed to book for the others. We resorted to the YHA, which promised vegan pizzas – but they were out of vegan cheese. Grasmere was a definite disappointment. You can’t even get a decent view of the lake. There are two good things about the town – the excellent gingerbread and the path out.
Day 2 of the Coast to Coast started with a calm, beautiful walk around the edge of Ennerdale Water. I imagine this can be busy in summer but for us, most of the time, there were no other people in sight. Shortly after the lake we had a choice of two routes, a low path and a high path. As the day’s total distance was just 14 miles, it made sense to take the uphill path and see the views.
Red Pike is 755 meters high, which was a long climb. I dragged myself up, lagging behind, resting frequently, counting paces. It was hard work, but we were rewarded with a great view.
It was here that we made a wayfinding error. Looking at a view, we managed to get ourselves turned around and followed the wrong ridge. At the end of the description of this section, our guidebook said, “Just make sure you don’t start the descent to Buttermere”, but we didn’t notice that at the time. As usual when you’re lost without realising, every bit of evidence seems to reassure you that you’re on track. We did ask some fell runners if there was a path down where we were headed and they told us there was.
Never ask fell runners if there is a path somewhere. They are hardy and limber, and their definition of a path is very different to that of normal people.
We followed a thin path down a steep slope, which included a little scrambling. This was brutal for my feet, and I didn’t trust my footing on the loose surface of the path, so descending took forever.
In the Buttermere valley there was a helicopter and teams of BASE jumpers. I thought it was some sort of competition, and only realised later that we were passing through a shooting location for Mission Impossible 7. Apparently, it was also a day when Tom Cruise was filming. So, it’s possible the footage of this sequence will include two hikers wandering down the wrong path.
We had a choice of routes out of the valley. There was a path to the slate mines that would return us to the official route as soon as possible. The alternative was slogging up the B5289, rejoining the Coast-to-Coast a mile or two before Rosthwaite. Without an OS map, I wasn’t eager to improvise, and risk adding yet more miles to our day. We settled on the somewhat tedious path up the road.
On the way downhill, we ran into the geologists again, so were able to ask them what slate was, and how come it could be mined at the top of these hills. It didn’t take too long to reach Rosthwaite. I was expecting a village, but it was just a small settlement around three hotels. We were very welcomed at the Scaffell hotel, and when I said I was vegan, the woman in charge was sure she could sort something out. “We could do you… Um…” After a moment, I let her off the hook, and said I would be OK for tomorrow with the snacks I’d brought with me.
I had a bath then joined Dave in the bar, which was filled with walkers. I felt a little hangry when we were forced to wait for a free table, but the food was great. Above the bar was a map of the trail, and the Mountain Rescue weather reports were on the noticeboard. The weather report promised a good day, but Dave was certain this would not be the case.
The traditional start of the Coast-to-Coast is for the walker to dip their boots in the Irish Sea; and then to take a pebble from the beach to be carried to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. Pick a small stone as it is a long journey.
The Coast to Coast route was originally devised by Alfred Wainwright for his 1973 book A Coast to Coast Walk. As the book’s title implies, it is only one possible route, and the trail has a number of options. As an unofficial trail, it is not always signposted, particularly in the Lake District.
The walk begins with a climb onto the cliffs of St Bee’s Head. This hill is tame compared to what lies ahead. The path follows the coast for a while before turning inland and heading east.
The lack of signposting makes it easier to get lost than on other trails. We’d decided not to bother with OS maps, choosing to rely on the Trailerblazer Guide. This was not a great idea, and we slid off the path a few times on day 1. We were doing a little better than the two Scottish women who carried just an overview of the trail. They told us that “Not all those who wander are lost”. We saw them a few times in the early afternoon, but I’ve no idea how well their day’s walking ended up.
One of the great things about the Coast to Coast is running into the same people each day. Right at the start we met Steve and Laura, two American geologists who we bumped into most days. There were other groups we’d greet each day. More than any other trail I’ve done, the Coast to Coast feels like a group of people sharing an experience – while, at the same time, still feeling wild and relaxed.
Day One brought our first proper hill, although it was a tiddler at 353 meters. It gave me quite a challenge and I dragged myself up it slowly. The way down was the steepest slope of the trail, providing a different but equally tough challenge. I’m blaming lockdown rather than age for my physical deterioration, but it is worrying.
Halfway through the day, the village postman called Dave with some bad news. He’d seen Mabel the cat at the side of the road, hit by a car. Dave called my sister to tell her, and I felt weirdly sad. I liked Mabel, despite him being a very reserved cat. While I was sad about him dying, there was little to say or think beyond that. But then we had a call a few minutes later to say that Mabel was sat outside sunning himself. It turned out to be a hare that the postman spotted. Still sad, but less personal.
The end of the day took us to Ennerdale Bridge. We stayed at Thorntrees, a lovely B&B which was in its last week of operation. We just about managed to get food at one of the village’s two pubs (assigned table 23, of course), finding ourselves sat next to Steve and Laura. I forced myself to eat the stodgiest bean burger of my life – the vegan food options on this trip were as woeful as the scenery was beautiful. I had a couple of pints of Wainwright’s then collapsed into bed exhausted.
I’ve wanted to do the Coast to Coast ever since I read Curtis and Emily’s accounts of the trail. Emily’s description of the walk and the community it generated was one of my biggest inspirations for getting into hiking. Based on the first four days, the Coast to Coast is the more fun than the four national trails I’ve walked on previously (Ridgeway, North and South Downs Ways and Pennine Way).
The biggest surprise was how hard I found the route. There were days that beat me up badly, where I struggled with getting up and down hills. I’m not sure if this was because the trail is harder, or if I am substantially weaker after lockdown. My balance and flexibility both seemed off too. I don’t remember even the Pennine Way being so hard.
The first challenge was getting to the start. We set off a five on a Friday, perfectly timed to hit the end of the week traffic jams. It took over six hours for us to drop a car off at our end point and reach our hotel in Workington. The weather was appalling too, with thick fog as we drove through some lakeland passes.
On the way up, we were so delayed that stopping for a proper meal was impossible, so we grabbed some fast food. I ordered a large chips, since in Brighton that’s just enough to be filling. Further north, for the same price, I was given a ball of carbs almost as big as my head.
Given the possibility of arriving late, I booked us into a chain hotel in Workington. The town was subject of a BBC news article the day we were there, about towns that needed levelling up. The main thing I noticed about the place was that it was spotless, with very little litter.
We ate breakfast in a Wetherspoons. As much as I loathe Tim Wetherspoon’s politics, he is a good publican. I can go into any Wetherspoons and be guaranteed a vegan meal with no fuss. This was also by far the best vegan meal of the trip. Once we’d finished our food we took a short drive to St Bee’s Head to start the walk.