Coast to Coast Day 8: Keld to Reeth

Sometimes, when you’re walking a trail, you have a day that starts out as incredible then deteriorates to slogging along a tedious track. The walk from Keld to Reeth was an example of this. The first few hours were some of the best hiking I’ve done, with great views and curious ruins. Then we spent a few hours following a relatively boring track into town.

This was another day with a choice of routes. We took the high route, though the old lead-mining ruins. We heard from other hikers that the lower route along the Swaledale Valley was also pretty spectacular.

The route took us past into a series of valleys filled with the traces of lead-mining. It was obviously a grim and remote job, being some way from the nearest towns.

We stopped for lunch in the Blakethwaite ruins, by the side of the river. It was a fine place to linger for a break, since the day’s distance was only 11 miles.

The tone of the walk changed after we climbed out of this valley. We found ourself in an area where quarrying had stripped off the top soil. It was desolate, and one group of hikers we met had filmed videos of themselves pretending to be astronauts on the moon.

From there, it was a long slog along the track. Grouse hunters were out in force, despite the period of national mourning. There’s a long tension between walking and grouse-hunting, which reached a high-point at the Kinder trespass. Grouse-hunting seems an odd ‘sport’, with people paid to drive the animals towards the shooters, and others paid to reload the guns. Seeing the landscape taken over for such a vile activity is disappointing, and added to my frustration with the rather boring track.

We eventually made it to Reeth, which is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve seen. The central green is on a gentle slope with some amazing views, and the local ice-cream shop had an impressive vegan vanilla flavour. The town seems to have been hit by hard times, however, with a number of businesses for sale or even closed, despite there still being a few weeks to run of the season.

Coast to Coast Day 7: Kirkby Stephen to Keld

The 13-mile journey from Kirkby Stephen to Keld was an exciting one. It took us from the town up to the Nine Standards, a line of tall cairns; from there we crossed a boggy area before descending to Ravenseat Farm, and onward to Keld.

The guidebook made the marshy section sound imposing, describing it as looking like “a scene from the Somme, circa 1916”. It went on to talk about people getting swallowed by the murk, and someone who broke a wrist when their walking pole was taken by the bogs. It didn’t sound all that much fun. There is a choice of three routes on this section, dividing the path up by the time of year, and it was hard to get a grasp of which one was best.

But, before setting off, we visited the church in Kirkby Stephen, where there was an excellent 8th-century carving of Loki (disappointingly labelled as a devil by the superstitious peasants who ran that church). Kirkby Stephen also apparently has a flock of parrots but we didn’t see them.

The climb up to the Nine Standards was fairly easy, and the views from the top were epic. I’d seen them from a distance on the Pennine Way a few years ago, and it was good to be standing there.

The bogs were just tricky enough to be fun, forcing Dave and I to look for crossing points and occasionally leap over the mud. We mostly got through OK, although I managed to go in up to my shin. I could see how these might be tricky, and we met one person who’d had to quit the C2C the year before after pulling a muscle escaping the muck.

a scene from the Somme, circa 1916

From there we descended to a river that was followed to Ravenseat Farm. Not watching TV meant I missed the excitement of being at the Yorkshire Shepherdess‘s farm, although a selection of books and jigsaw puzzles were available at the drinks van. Sadly, vegan cream teas were not on offer.

Isn’t this a great view?

The day’s stage was relatively short, finishing at the Keld Lodge, where people were sat outside. Everyone who passed was encouraged to join for a drink and we all swapped stories about crossing the bogs. Dave and I stayed at Greenlands B&B, a little way out of town, where we were well looked after. The views from the patio across the valley were absolutely stunning, and the food was excellent.

Coast to Coast Day 6: Shap to Kirkby Stephen

One way I evaluate a day’s hiking is by seeing how many photos I took. Stage 6 of the Coast-to-Coast produced relatively few. According to the book, the hike was 20.5 miles, although I think that was a slight over-estimate. Despite the distance, the book described this as a ‘recovery day’, given the flatness and soft ground. Dave was convinced it was going to rain, but I insisted it wouldn’t. Fortunately I was correct.

The route included a number of historical sites – a couple of stone circles, and ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’, all of which we managed to miss. Otherwise, it was a fairly standard countryside hike – better than a day indoors, but suffering in comparison to the stunning views the day before.

Personally, I struggled with the day. I was wearing the wrong socks and had still not adjusted my new rucksack correctly. The walking was a slog and it was probably a good thing we didn’t have any hills. It was only the last mile or two when I finally felt comfortable.

At various points along the path we saw signs asking people not to pee along the route. And I can understand the sentiment here – nobody wants to be confronted by other people using the great outdoors as a toilet. But, at the same time, I’m not sure what the alternative is here. The route is a 7-10 hour hike with no facilities. Any adequate hydration is going to mean people need to stop at some point. I’m really not sure what the signs are meant to achieve.

I was relieved to arrive at Kirkby Stephen, and in time to buy some bath salts at the chemist. I spent an hour soaking in the bath, reading No Country For Old Men, and trying to soothe my aches. We ate in the local curry house. I was excited to see a Scotch Bonnet curry on the menu, and a little disappointed that they seemed to have used Encona sauce rather than fresh chillis.

Coast to Coast Day 5: Patterdale to Shap

After a year’s break, my brother-in-law Dave and I continued our walk on the Coast-to-Coast trail earlier this month. We’d finished last year’s leg in Patterdale, which meant starting again with a massive hill.

The walk from Patterdale to Shap was 15 miles or so, and the last section of the walk based in the Lake District. The walk to Angle Tarn was worth the effort, with some stunning scenery. I was definitely fitter than the year before, but I compensated for that by poor packing, carrying too much in a badly-adjusted brand-new rucksack.

Kidsty Pike was the high point of the day, with a wonderful panoramic view.

From there we made a steep descent to Haweswater Reservoir. It was striking how close the reservoir was to running dry. The guidebook cautioned us that the waterside path was not gentle, rather it would have us “panting like a hippo on a treadmill”. We did see a red squirrel in the woods though.

After that, some pleasant woodland walking followed until we reached the ruins of Shap Abbey. The village was only a short way beyond that, and it was good to be able to take off the rucksack and rest.

The Yorkshire Three Peaks

I walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks trail last Saturday with a group of colleagues. The entire route took 14 hours and it was one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve taken.

My employer organises annual trips, either skiing, a city break or, this year, a hike. We picked the Yorkshire Three Peaks as it’s a circular trail and therefore easy to plan. In retrospect, a twenty-four mile hike was quite ambitious. We all gathered on a campsite near Whernside the night before and set off a little after half six the following morning. Out of thirteen walkers, ten finished the trail.

The Yorkshire Three Peaks is a popular route. Most people walk clockwise from Horton-on-Ribblesdale, but the route proposed for our group was anti-clockwise from our campsite, starting with an ascent of Ingleborough. This was actually a great decision, as we didn’t find ourselves part of a long procession around the peaks, but rather passed most of the other people walking that day.

I had a terrible night’s sleep the night before (which was also my birthday). One of the other campers on the site was a belligerent drunk, who spent the night shouting and swearing. I can’t have managed much more than three or four hours sleep. I was up about half four, having given up on rest, and slowly prepared my kit.

Normally, I do my long hikes solo, and at a slightly faster pace than is wise. Walking with other people slowed me down, which made the day more pleasant than I’d expected. Walking twenty-four miles was still hard work, but my feet certainly finished in better shape than they do after my solo hikes.

The climb up Ingleborough (723m) was busy, as we encountered a large number of charity walkers who had set off from the other side of the peak. Everyone was friendly, and the queue for photos at the trig point was brisk. We then made a slow descent to the town where Sally waited for us with a supply point. We were also bolstered by Alex’s huge bag of Kendal Mint cake.

Hill two was Pen-y-ghent (694m), which loomed as we approached. The climb up here is steep, requiring a little scrambling. I was nearly brained by a rock at this point, as one of our group had taken a higher path and dislodged some loose rocks. They clattered down without hitting anyone, but it was a shocking moment, as I’d not considered the ascent particularly dangerous.

Last time I climbed Pen-y-ghent it had been raining and the summit was cloaked in mist. This time the views were much better. On the way down we found ourselves battered by incredible winds. Pen-y-ghent means ‘hill of winds’ and it earned its name in our descent. We rested at the bottom of the hill where were saw skylarks who managed to hover completely still in the driving wind.

We passed the second supply point about three, but couldn’t find it despite mobile phones and walkie-talkies. Fortunately we had enough food and water to take us onto the next meeting point.

The walk from Pen-y-ghent to the base of Ingleborough (736m), the third hill, was the longest stretch of the journey. It took hours to cross the valley to Ribblehead with its famous viaduct. A couple of people dropped out of this stage, but the remaining ten went on to the final peak.

The walk from Ribblehead to the base of Whernside was further than I expected. Most walkers set off from specific points and were finishing elsewhere on the trail, so this stretch was now quiet, with a very different feel to the rest of the day. We passed the noisy drunk from the night before. Finally, we started the slow ascent up Whernside. On top of the ridge we could see the shadows stretching across the valley as the sun fell lower.

After twelve hours, we were about a kilometre short of Whernside, and it took another couple of hours to get down off that mountain. Still, peaking late is pretty much how I’m living my life. The whole group gathered near the trig point for a final photo, then hurried downhill as we were very late for dinner. As we descended, we passed one last group of walkers who were running even later than us.

One of the things I liked most about the 3 Peaks was it was a communal experience. Everyone you passed was going through similar things. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Coast to Coast Day 2: Ennersdale Bridge to Rosthwaite

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.

This was the descent. We came down about 500m on this slope.

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.

There are Coast-to-Coast signs in the Lake District section, but branding is inconsistent

Coast to Coast Day 1: St Bee’s Head to Ennerdale Bridge

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.

Me, Dave and my Dad at the start of the trail

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.

A good view while sitting and resting

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.

A Mystery in the Hedgerow

Out for a walk the other day, I spotted a tired helium balloon at the edge of a field:

The balloon was deflating and could no longer carry its cargo. It was attached to a photo, but there was nothing on the back to identify where it came from.

I’m not sure who is in the picture or why the photo was attached to a balloon.. The white balloon and ribbon makes me think it might be an escaped wedding decoration. It feels like there ought to be something to do in response, but I can’t think what.

Trail Communities

It’s not the beer or the blisters, or even the rain that I remember most fondly from the 287 miles of the Pennine way. And it’s not the views, which were better entertainment than anything I’ve seen on TV. No, the thing I loved most were the conversations with strangers along the way.

I’m quite shy and wish I was better at talking to strangers. But when you meet someone on a quiet path through bleak moorland, there are obvious things to ask: where they’ve set out from, are they walking the whole trail, are the conditions ahead any good? Sometimes you’ll stop for a couple of minutes; if you’re going the same way, you might fall into step for a time. The Pennine way is a community, a network of meetings and messages stretching up the spine of England.

The first people we’d met, just out of Edale, had done the walk years before. Amazingly, they’d only seen 20 minutes of rain – which means I think they missed some of the essential experiences of the walk. It’s quite something to be soaked to the skin and know that I’d rather be tramping up that mountain than sitting dry in an office.

Some of the stopping points pass on the news of the day to everyone who passes. At a chuck wagon on the roof of the moors, we heard about someone who’d done a thirty mile stint that day; and about the Australian ahead of us. We finally met her at the end of an uphill slog out of Hebden Bridge’s valley, where she was sheltering in a bus stop. We spent the day walking together, chatting about life and the how we’d come to be walking. She’d chucked her job in favour of a series of adventures – after the trail would be a marathon in Iceland. We parted in the drizzle at the edge of a reservoir.

I’ve never been good at pub chat, but the Pennine Way is the banter equivalent of a stroll to the shops. The Tan Hill Inn, (the highest pub in the country), is like an inn from a fantasy novel. Over the evening, the entire dining room here merged into a single conversation between the different tables. We heard about the person walking North-South, forced to fill a carrier bag of snow, having run out of water on the first section. A couple had stopped in for a drink and ended up booking their wedding reception there.

In my metropolitan bubble, everyone I know voted the same way in the referendum. While politics didn’t come up that often, we learned that a walker we met a few days running had worked for a pro-Brexit think tank. But disagreements could be left aside. We met them at one pub that didn’t understand hospitality, refusing to sell our companion food since they’d arrived four minutes after the kitchen closed. We offered them our starters, sharing food with someone we might have found ourselves arguing with if we’d encountered them on social media.

The finest place was the last stop on the way. When I first booked the Hiker’s Way, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. On the phone, they didn’t sound best-pleased about having to cater for a vegan. But when we arrived we were welcomed with a cup of tea, our boots taken away to be cleaned.

The Hiker’s rest is different from the other stops as most people stay two nights, breaking up the final twenty-six mile section. On your first night, there’s a new-pupil feeling, with the returning guests seeming more established and experienced. The following night you’re the experienced one. And there were stories at the bar – about the lengths some hikers to go to reduce weight, about swimming the channel, and about the spine race, which takes place on the Pennine Way in Winter.

The guesthouses have their own communities too – if a walker is a bit of a handful then the message will go up the line ahead of them, letting other owners know that they might need their best diplomatic skills for this one.

Whenever I passed houses for sale, I’d dream of buying them, spending my days watching the world pass by, trying to stop walkers for a cup of tea. I’d see ruins and feel sure that I could patch them up, given time. The path took us through a garden where a man handed us freshly-fallen apples from his pocket, the most delicious fruit I’ve tasted. Another farm offered a shed of supplies, and a kettle for tea. In the guestbook, walkers told how their walk had been saved by this intervention. They even had a shower, which might not have been hotel standards but I could imagine some for whom this was a lifeline.

There are the guest books too. We followed the stories of some of the people who’d strode ahead of is, like Emily who was walking from Lizard Point to John O’Groats. It was only the third night’s conversation when we learned it was not her first time walking the length of the country. We saw traces of people we knew in the message books in the bothies. Reading the tales of winter journeys made us grateful for the wet but warm weather we grappled with.

Wainwright loathed the Pennine way so much he offered a pint to anyone who completed it, at great expense to him and later to his estate. The prize is still there, taken over by a local brewery, who also hand out certificates. I bet that brewery makes their money back with the additional pints that follow the free one. And the final book, full of the statements of the other walkers – looking back we could find some of these other companions, from the hitch-hiker we’d collected near the start through to people we’d met ages before. And we added our own entries.

Even though thousands upon thousands of people have walked the Pennine Way, it is still alive with stories, and you can’t walk the route without adding your own.