In early August 2022 I decided that, as a 50th birthday present to myself, I was going to walk across the whole of England, from the Cumbrian Village of Saint Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, following the path of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. I began a journal of the preparation and, hopefully, completion of that trip at around the same time. As it’s getting very long I decided to start posting individual entries, but all entires will still be available in the massive, original post as well.
September 20, 2023: First off, an update: I spoke with the woman at the front desk this morning and she told me the unclaimed bag from the night before was for someone who had broken off their hike and headed home, but who couldn’t contact the transport company before it got dropped here. It’s being delivered to them today. So: all is safe and clear on that front. Phew.
Second off: I have sustained my first Coast to Coast injury. It did not occur while hiking. I slammed the middle finger of my left hand under the windowsill of my room last night. I don’t think I broke it but I suppose it’s possible I did. For what it’s worth it isn’t swollen, it just hurts. I can grip my trekking poles, I can bend it, and I can type with it just fine, but it hurts if I have to manipulate anything in any sort of complicated way. Like, you go through a lot of gates with latches on the C2C and I can’t really unlatch the gates with my left hand unless I take my middle finger out of the equation. Otherwise it didn’t interfere with anything today, which as I explain below, was a hard fucking day, so I’m choosing to ignore it. Kind of a dumb thing to do, but I suppose there are worse ways to get hurt on a trip like this.
As for that, I woke up to this forecast for the day:
I was sure that post-10AM stuff had to be a mistake. It was absolutely dreadful all night, with the wind-driven rain pelting the windows. It did not look at all promising when I first looked outside:
The woman at the front desk said she had to drive through flooded roads to get to work this morning. She said this is bad rain even by Lake District standards. More like what they might get in late November, not in September. Whether that meant the trails would be bad as well was uncertain. As today’s hike was to be the shortest of the trip — only about eight miles — I decided I could afford to leave later and hope that the clearing weather would make the going easier. If I started out and ran into the same sort of trouble as yesterday I’d just turn back. I packed up my things and went down for a later breakfast.
Down in the dining room a young woman I had seen on the trail yesterday who likewise turned back at the swamped bridge was eating by herself. She’s also doing the Coast to Coast solo. I asked her if she was hiking again today and she said she wasn’t. She booked the hotel for another night and would try again on Thursday. She had not booked ahead like most Coast to Coasters do — she’s camping some and staying in hostels some, though yesterday’s rain was so bad she wanted to be in a hotel — so she could afford to be flexible.
A couple who were clearly hikers came in a few minutes later. They appeared stressed and concerned. After I ate I decided to wait out the weather in the sitting room I hung out in last night. The woman from the front desk suggested I talk to the couple as, according to her, I had superior information on the weather and maybe speaking to them might help them decide what to do. I told them my plans and what I thought, but I didn’t see them all day so I get the feeling they called off their day.
I got on the trail at about 9:45 as the worst of the rain seemed to be subsiding. It was still a steady downpour, however, and the first time the trail came to a beck crossing it was mostly swamped. But just mostly. There was a clear path over some large rocks. It looked a little dangerous, but as I was considering what to do I looked up and saw someone with a lime green pack cover on the other side. It was the young woman from the dining room who had obviously changed her mind about hiking. I gave the crossing another look, found a route that seemed stable and made my way across. She waited as I did so. When I got over she told me that she gets anxious in the evenings and early mornings and though it took her a bit to talk herself into hiking today she did so. Also: she’s a lawyer — from Bristol — who just quit her job because it was making her miserable and she’s on a sort of find-herself trip. I didn’t want to weird her out so I didn’t say “ME TOO ON BOTH COUNTS!” but my inner monologue screamed it. Her name is Nina and we, not surprisingly, had a lot to talk about throughout the day.
About a half mile farther along we ran into four people I had already encountered: the New Zealand couple, Richard and Frances (I remembered her name!) and . . . the two cribbage players who I had last seen trying to cross the raging beck at the swamped bridge yesterday. The guys Richard had sorta snapped at. Turns out that they made it across that torrent only to find a worse one another mile along and had to come back. Re-crossing the swamped bridge was harder than crossing it the first time, they said. They too got a bus to Grasmere. I guess it all worked out.
The six of us mostly stayed together up Seat Sandal, the day’s fell. Normally this is one of the easier, more pleasant walks of the C2C, and it’s the shortest of all at only a little over eight miles. But today it was absolutely treacherous.
The torrential rain of the past few days had swollen every beck and flooded about 85% of the trail. What would normally be easy and casual crossings became legitimately dangerous. There was never one we couldn’t make it over, but it was pretty harrowing. Frances fell hard crossing one, landing on some rocks on her stomach and I was concerned she had broken a rib or something but she said she was fine. All of us figured out pretty early that if there was a choice between trying to keep our feet dry and trying to stay steady, steady was the better option. This meant that we waded across the becks in rushing knee-high water and lived with the soaked boots and squishy socks the remainder of the day. Even then, “steady” was a relative term. Many of the crossings had strong currents. At a couple we did the thing where one of us crossed, stuck out our trekking pole to the people behind us and helped steady them as they crossed.
Though it had thankfully stopped raining by the time we got to the top of Seat Sandal, the wind picked up. It was a sustained 40 mph with frequent gusts. That put the kibosh on two of my plans for the day.
The first one: to stop and eat my lunch at Grisedale Tarn, the mountaintop lake just beyond the peak of Seat Sandal with a majestic view of the valley below. It was just too cold and windy to stop there for long, but I got some photos.
The second plan it ended was diverting to the south and, rather than just walking down the valley to my ultimate destination in Glenridding, climbing up a second fell called St. Sunday’s Crag, which parallels the valley and gives one amazing views, weather permitting, of Ullswater, the massive lake on which Glenridding sits. The skies cooperated — it remained mostly clear and rain-free for the rest of the day — but those winds made the idea of going higher than the valley route absolute madness. There’s an even higher option on the north side of the valley, Helvellyn, which is England’s third-highest mountain, but I wouldn’t dare attempt that even in perfect conditions. It descends on a narrow spine of rock called Striding Edge that even Wainwright, who notoriously understated the difficulty of almost every climb on the C2C by saying things like “keep you head about you and you’ll be alright,” warned people away from if they aren’t comfortable balancing precariously in high places and said that absolutely no one should do it if it’s particularly windy. I can’t stand on a six foot ladder without sweating a little, so F to the No.
Not that I missed much in the way of beauty. Even with all of the trails mostly flooded and my hike taking place, for the most part, in several inches of water, it was absolutely spectacular. There were still some tricky crossings due to swollen becks, but they seemed far less daunting coming down the fell than going up. On the way down our impromptu hiking collective broke up, with Nina deciding to use her massive backpack as a windbreak and eat some lunch, Richard and Frances stopping for a rest at one point as well, and the cribbage guys, both very strong hikers, going on far ahead. Before they left, though, this exchange happened:
Cribbage guy to me: “I like your rain jacket. We had to buy new ones in Grasmere yesterday. Ours were shite. These are better but not much.”
Me: [thanks him, explains what kind it is, and what features I like about it]
Cribbage guy: “I’ll give you 250 quid for it right now.”
I did not even pay 250 American dollars for my jacket but there is no way I’m parting with it. As I said yesterday, there is no such thing as 100% waterproof, but of all my gear, the jacket has been the best at it.
I finished the day’s walk alone. It was the hardest day of hiking I’ve ever experienced, but it was incredibly rewarding. Partially for the views it afforded. Mostly because I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself and I fucking made it through. My feet were soaked, by body was tired, and I had taken more risks in six hours than I have in the past six years. But I fucking did it. I walked into the village of Glenridding on a cloud.
Leaving Grasmere for that.
The Microbus was pretty cool. Even cooler: the name of the house, per the placard on the side, is “Helm’s Deep.” It looked much more impressive in the movie.
Another swamped bridge, though this one was passable by clinging to the wall on the left, swinging your right leg around the far edge and then sorta falling onto a big rock just beyond. From there you could cross some substantial stepping stones in the rapids on the left. The sheep were no help. They just watched and judged.
Richard and Frances. Richard is asking one of the others if we’re gonna cross that. We crossed that. More amazing than that: some blue sky.
Almost to the pass at Seat Sandal.
You’re supposed to be able to walk right across that water, which is normally a calm little stream, but we went a long way around.
Another fun crossing. And by “fun” I mean “not fun at all.”
Just below the summit of Seat Sandal sits Grisedale Tarn. It looks sorta small here but it’s a 27 acre lake. Ideally you sit next to it and enjoy your lunch but the wind had other ideas.
A long look down the valley from Grisedale Tarn. To the left is Helvellyn Mountain, the one I wouldn’t even consider due to the perilous descent. On the right is St. Sunday’s Crag. Which while a bit of a tough climb up is said to give you spectacular views of Ullswater, the lake on whose shores I’m sleeping tonight. I did end up getting something approximating that view later, although from a much lower elevation.
Richard and the cribbage guys make their way down the valley. In the far, far distance you can see the Pennine Mountains. I’ll be there in a few days.
This was the trail for the rest of the day. Sometimes you could walk on the grass next to it to avoid the water. Most of the time you couldn’t.
The last gnarly crossing of the day. By now I’ve become pretty good at deciding which rocks are stable, which rocks are wobbly, and which places where you don’t bother with rocks at all.
By now I had left my companions, or they had left me. But I wasn’t alone.
Ullswater, the day’s destination, with the Village of Glenridding on its shores. Ullswater is about seven miles long and a little less than a mile across. It’s one of the larger lakes in the Lake District.
This is where I’m staying tonight. That’s Helvellyn behind it. That descending ridge is Striding Edge. I repeat: nope.
My final stop of the evening: the pub. Because it was too scary to stop and eat lunch until very late in the day I had it when I checked into the bnb and then, a few hours later, got myself a beer, a bowl of soup, and some chips and cheese here. It was all well-earned.
One more Lake District hike, and one more Lake District fell, tomorrow. The weather looks pretty nice right now, but we’ll see.
Other Coast to Coast Diary entries:
- Preparation: Coast to Coast planning, training, and general farting around
- Preparation: September 14, 2023: Hanging around Manchester
- Preparation: September 15, 2023: Another day hanging around Manchester
- Preparation: September 16, 2023: Traveling to St. Bees
- Walking Day 1: September 17, 2023: St. Bees to Ennerdale
- Walking Day 2: September 18, 2023: Ennerdale to Seatoller
- Walking Day 3: September 19, 2023: Seatoller to Grasmere
- Walking Day 4: September 20, 2023: Grasmere to Glenridding
- Walking Day 5: September 21, 2023: Glenridding to Shap
- Walking Day 6: September 22, 2023: Shap to Orton
- Walking Day 7: September 23, 2023: Orton to Kirkby Stephen
- Walking Day 8: September 24, 2023: Kirkby Stephen to Keld
- Walking Day 9: September 25, 2023: Keld to Reeth
- Walking Day 10: September 26, 2023: Reeth to Richmond
- Walking Day 11: September 27, 2023: Richmond to Danby Wiske
- Walking Day 12: September 28, 2023: Danby Wiske to Osmotherly
- Injury and The End: September 29, 2023: Back to Manchester and a visit to the NHS
- Finally: The entire Coast to Coast Diary — all 55,000 words of it — if you’re not into the whole brevity thing