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 23, 2023: Most mornings I wake up at around 6am or so. Breakfast isn’t until 8 at most places so I take the time to read up on the trail for the day. In this I want basic, objective information like, is there a section that has been damaged or is rough going because of recent weather or whether there is anything of particular interest along the way. Today, for the first time since I’ve been here, I went to the AllTrails website and read some reviews that recent walkers have left. This one was near the top for Orton to Kirkby Stephen, which I walked today:
“Wide open vistas on a mostly grassy trail. Unbelievable amount of sheep and sheep shit though.”
Honestly, I can’t think of a less helpful review than “unbelievable amount of sheep and sheep shit. That’s like reading a review of the Grand Canyon and finding “FYI: it’s a big hole that stretches for miles” or one for Niagara Falls and that says “a lotta water.”
I dunno, maybe I should pay attention to the sheep shit warnings. Yesterday, while coming into Orton, a couple of dog walkers were heading out from the village toward me. We were on the most nondescript little patch of grass you could imagine and, as we did the smile/nod/tip-your-cap thing walkers passing each other tend to do, I lost my footing for a moment and almost fell on my ass. The guy asked me if I was alright and I just sorta laughed and said yeah. Based on my gear I’m obviously a Coast to Coaster and he said “you made it over all them mountains; don’t break your arse slipping on poo.” Which, once he said it, I looked down and realized I had, in fact, slipped on sheep shit.
I actually find myself talking to the sheep if I’m by myself when I pass them. My comments to them break down into three categories:
- If they’re just standing near the trail looking at me, I say “Hi, ma’am” or “Hi, mate.”
- If they bolt when I come by, I say something like “oh relax” or “take it easy, buddy”
- If they’re either blocking the trail for too long or casually walking up a cliffside while I’m struggling, I say “fuck you, dude.”
Yes, I’m probably going slowly insane.
Before I got going today I needed to stop at the post office in Orton to mail some things home. The post office is actually just a counter in the village shop — the closest real post office is in a town about seven miles away — but the counter is only open certain days of the week and yesterday wasn’t one of them. It is open Saturday at 9am, I was told, so I waited around after breakfast this morning for that. Here’s how I killed time:
It was the one where Lisa gets a pony and homer has to take a job as the Kwik-E-Mart to help pay for it. I haven’t watched a Simpsons episode for years. I still laughed.
I left the hotel and started walking down the street toward the shop at about five minutes to nine. A man walking down the other side of the road said “you the American with the parcels to post?” I wasn’t aware this was town news, but it apparently was. I said yes. He said “he’s waiting for, ye. Got there early for ye.” I waved a thank you but found it really, really weird that the 11 second conversation I had with the lady in the shop yesterday about how I’d have to come back tomorrow to send some packages had become A Thing.
I got to the shop and a nice older man was at the post office counter. “You must be the American with the parcels.” This was clearly the biggest thing that has happened in Orton in some time. I told him yes. I handed him the packages. There is a LOT of paperwork involved in sending packages to the U.S., apparently, because I was in there for quite some time as he filled out little stickers and entered things into a computer. It also required some conversation:
Guy: “The postal code: is it ‘OH43206’ or do you keep the ‘OH’ and the ‘43206’ separate?”
Me: “Separate. The ‘OH’ is the state, Ohio, and our postal codes are just the five-digit number.”
Woman behind the shop counter: “Are you from Ohio?”
Woman: “Is that where they have the tornados?”
Me: “Sometimes. There are states that have more of them, but yes, we get tornados there.”
Woman: “That’s simply terrifying.”
Me: “You get used to it I guess. When you hear the sirens go off, though, it can be jarring.”
Woman: “They run sirens when you get a tornado?”
Woman: “Who runs them? The fire brigade?”
Me: “I honestly have no idea. The county I suppose? The weather service says if tornados have been spotted and then someone turns on the sirens.”
Woman: “I’d die if I heard sirens go off like that.”
Me: “Where I live they go off ever Wednesday at noon when they test them.”
Woman: “What if there’s a tornado at noon on Wednesday? Everybody would ignore it!”
Thankfully the guy at the mail counter saved me by finishing up with my packages. I paid for those and then asked the woman at the shop counter if the girl from yesterday had put in my order for a sandwich to take with me. She had. The woman produced a lovely sandwich for my day on the trails, and I was off. I made a mental note to try to find a tornado-themed postcard or greeting card when I get home and mail it to the Orton village shop, thanking the woman for the delicious sandwich.
Today’s walk was fairly uneventful. A little over 12 miles of rolling countryside over a mostly grass track. A few hills, a few dales, a lot of stone walls, some stone barns, a neat old bridge, a cool old 19th century railroad viaduct, and a lot of sheep. It was another day in which I was able to just sort of turn my brain off an rack up the miles. I like days like those. Especially when it doesn’t rain which, for the third straight day, it did not, thank God.
As I approached the village of Kirkby Stephen I encountered two groups of people. The first was about six or seven young boys with two adults. It sort of looked like a scouting situation, though no one had any uniforms on. It was obviously a “let’s show the boys some nature” kind of thing. As the adults were looking at a map, the boys were taking turns trying to jump over a big gorse bush or heather or whatever the hell the bushes on the moors are. It wasn’t huge but none of them could quite get over it in one jump. Just as I passed a space next to it cleared, so I bolted to my left where they were, planted my trekking polls and leapt over the bush. One of the boys yelled “no fair, you have poles!” I said “get some poles?” and went on. I’m sure they thought I was the biggest doofus ever.
The second group I encountered was a group of about 15 older people — all in their 70s at least and maybe a couple of spry 80s-somethings in the group. They all had on boots and little day packs. Some had poles, some did not. All had little guidebooks or maps. It was clearly a walking club of some kind, spending their Saturday climbing the fell, walking along the moor, and heading back into town. They were just a little ahead of me and I passed them but they were, in the aggregate, all pretty fast and it was sort of hard to shake them. At one point I walked off the path a bit to take a photo and they all passed me. Again, I caught up and passed, but again, they all did a pretty good job of staying close. And it wasn’t like they were trying hard to make time. They were all in conversation and casually looking around at stuff. I was finally able to lose them at one of those wall crossings where you have to climb up and over on some extended stones, as it takes a while for 15 people to navigate that.
Still, I was pretty impressed. I’m not the world’s fastest hiker but I’m 25 years younger than them and presumably in better shape. I’d guess, however, that all of them have been the sorts who have just walked everywhere their whole lives, in town and out in the country, and that that does a lot of good things for a person. The Coast to Coast notwithstanding, I’m never going to be any sort of extreme hiker or anything, but I’d certainly like to be like those folks are when I’m their age. It probably just takes a lot of walking rather then driving whenever possible and making a point to get out in the countryside and get some fresh air and put some miles on on as many Saturdays as you can. Seems like a good way to have a good healthy life.
I made it into Kirkby Stephen at around 3pm. It’s by no means a city, but it is a market town of a couple thousand people and has multiple pubs, a Costa coffee shop, an outdoors store, and even an Indian restaurant. It even has a couple of stoplights and I haven’t seen any of those since I left Manchester a week ago. It’s amazing how jarring it is to be in a town of even a little size after a week in, basically, the middle of nowhere.
Tomorrow I cross the Pennines and reach the halfway point of my walk. For now, some photos:
It was gloomy for much of the day but it never rained.
The lesser-known prequel to Dickens’ Bleak House. Or you can insert your favorite British food joke here.
Most of today’s route was a bridlepath in addition to being a walking path. I didn’t see anyone riding horses, but there had been some recently.
Everywhere I looked today could’ve been a Led Zeppelin album cover.
Most crossings feature gates of some kind. And those gates have any number of little latches, almost all of them different from anything you see in the U.S. and almost all of them more clever and efficient. If someone wanted to they could probably make a pretty weird coffee table book called “The Gate Latches of England” or something. I almost wish I had been cataloging them for the past week.
Sometimes, though, you get these little step-ups in which large stones extend from either side of the wall and you walk up, swing your leg over and then walk down again. I rather like the step-ups. Sometimes, if there are step-ups and gates at the same wall, I take the step-ups anyway because they’re fun.
I stopped along this wall to eat my tasty sandwich from the Orton village shop. Yes, I am still growing a beard. Yes, it has a lot of gray in it. Whatever.
As for the headwear: I simply can’t do my baseball cap or the little hiking cap I bought before I left as they both get sweaty too easily and then I’m either too hot or, more commonly in this cool weather, they never dry out and they’re just cold and damp all day. The company which handled my bookings and is transporting my luggage gave me a little welcome pack on day one that had a company-branded buff-style multi-function headband thing in it. I’d never used a buff before but I’m finding it to be absolutely perfect for my purposes. It goes on my head and stays on securely with no tying and no fuss. It soaks up sweat but it breathes so it never really gets damp. It’s got SPF-30 protection. It’s warm in the cold wind. I don’t much care for being a waking billboard for the transport company so I’ve been wearing it inside out, but I have no complaints. I fully plan on getting a non-branded one or three soon. They’re a godsend for a bald hiker. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I’m wearing it “beanie”-style, which you can see at the three-minute mark of that linked video. I’m nowhere near skeezey enough to wear it like a bandana or legionnaire style or whatever but all bets are off for next summer.
Lots of hills and dales today. Nothing extreme. Only gained about 1,600 feet on today’s walk, but it was a nice workout all the same. Indeed, while walking today it occurred to me that a similar walk to today’s only a week ago would’ve been a lot more work for me. I had it in my head for so long while preparing for this trip that I had to be fit and strong enough to make it over 192 miles before conking out. It, embarrassingly, never occurred to me that I’d be getting stronger as I walked as well. Obviously there is wear and tear happening — my knees are starting to bark a bit toward the end of each day’s walk so I can’t go on forever — but my leg and lung strength are building as I go.
Smardale Bridge. Dates back to sometime in the 18th century.
Smardale Gil Viaduct. It opened in 1861 and was in use until 1962. It was built by the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway to carry coke across the Pennine Mountains for the iron and steel furnaces in Cumbria.
The seniors walking group encountering a foal. It’s blurry because I tried to get the photo fast, before the horse bolted to go be with its mother, who was just out of frame.
I’ve been catching glimpses of the Pennines — the spine of England — for days, but now I’m right at their base.
Fletcher House, in Kirkby Stephen. My digs for the night. It’s a lovely and grand old place on the high street. There was tea, cakes, and biscuits when I arrived. There’s a well-appointed sitting room with big leather chairs. My room has a big comfy bed. And, even though every room has its own bathroom and shower, it also has a large hall bathroom with a huge clawfoot tub that any guest can use. The woman running the place said that the couple of other people staying here tonight had no interest in using it so I took advantage. I’m not a big bath guy — I maybe take two or three baths a year, if that — but I cannot tell you how great stretching out in a hot, hot bath felt on my weary muscles and bones.
The high street of Kirkby Stephen. For the first time in several days I had my choice of any number of places for dinner.
Tomorrow: over the mountains and on to Keld.
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