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 24, 2023: Today was absolutely miserable. There was constant hard rain driven by a nearly constant 40-50 mph wind. The terrain went through peat bogs that could suck your boots off — mine stayed on, thankfully — and which made finding the trail close to impossible at times. While the Grasmere to Glenridding hike was more dangerous, today’s conditions were the worst I’ve experienced of any kind in any situation ever, hiking or otherwise.
All that being said, I did see something cool and I did reach a milestone. First, the milestone:
Given that I chose to do this in 16 days, and today was my eighth day of walking, I’m halfway done both in terms of miles and in terms of days. And honestly, being through half the days feels like the bigger accomplishment. The miles just happen. You keep putting one foot in front of the other and you cover the distance almost without thinking about it.
The days are much more difficult.
You have to wake up. You have to remember where you are, which is a lot harder than you might think it would be. You have to talk yourself into keeping going and, on some days, you really don’t want to. You have to check the weather, repack your bag and backpack, double and triple check your route for the day, get down to breakfast on time, have your bag at the front door for the transport driver on time, and then get moving. Once you’re moving, it’s all pretty easy — it’s just that put one foot in front of the other thing — but getting to the part where you get moving is a lot.
But again: today’s was different. Today the moving was much more difficult.
The route from Kirkby Stephen to Keld is, on paper, simple enough. You walk out of town, go up the 2,200-foot fell to the Nine Standards — more on those down below in the photos — and then take one of three routes down the other side of the fell to the tiny village of Keld. In all it’s about 13 miles.
The conditions of the trail and the weather made it much more difficult than that, however. All three routes down from Nine Standards take you through those massive peat bogs I mentioned above. Which route you take depends on the season and the weather as, the wetter it is, the more miserable and even perilous the bogs are. Given all the rain we’ve had here, and given how late in the season it is, the “easiest” route down was the only option. That route has you beeline due south from the summit to a paved road and then you walk six miles to Keld rather than navigate southeast down through the bogs to be deposited closer to the village. Today even the beeline route was horrible.
The trail is simply not marked in any real way and it’s not, like other unmarked trails, practically visible because people have not really trampled in one spot. They’re all over it out of sheer survival and thus it all just looks like an undifferentiated hillside of shrubbery and pits of muck. One step may have you on solid ground and the next may have you sinking up to your knee in a boggy morass. Yes, per the maps and GPS wayfinding there is technically a trail there, but because of the wind and rain, pulling out your phone, your GPS, or a paper map was not something you wanted to do very often on this day. You don’t want your phone getting soaked in the rain or risk dropping it into the bog. A map would get soaked or, if you had it in plastic, it’d be difficult to read. Even a waterproof GPS device was tough because devoting one hand to it means not having both hands on trekking poles which was an extremely risky proposition today.
I decided to go with the GPS and it worked, but it was super slow going and by the time I was down to the road my boots, socks, and feet were soaked due to plunging into bogs. My legs were soaked through my rain pants. My torso was the driest because of my jacket, but that’s really only a relative thing. The six mile walk to Keld was on blacktop, yes, but it’s a high road that follows a ridge line and the wind and the rain picked up even more once I got on it. It felt like being lashed to a ship’s mast in a hurricane. It finally stopped when I was within a mile of Keld, allowing me to get a few cool photos, but I nonetheless squished the entire way.
As I write this now I am in my room at the modest but comfortable Keld Lodge. I have put my wet clothes in the drying room (likelihood of my boots being dry by the morning: 25%). I have taken the longest, hottest shower I’ve ever taken in my life. I have made myself a cup of tea. I feel human again. In a little while I will go downstairs and get a pint of Black Sheep Best Bitter and have a nice hot meal and will feel even more human. Then, tomorrow, I will walk through the Swaledale Valley to the village of Reeth. As of now, it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it.
But yeah, I am halfway there. And I’m still going. I’m not gonna stop until I can throw my rock from St. Bees into the North Sea.
The cats of Kirkby Stephen.
They say that if you can’t see the Nine Standards from down in Kirkby Stephen that you probably shouldn’t bother. Welp, despite the fact that the top of the fell was socked in even before the big rain began I bothered. I’m not sure it was the wisest thing I’ve ever done, especially considering that I could’ve just made a ten mile walk to Keld on the surface road and at least stood a chance at having dry boots, but I didn’t come over here to walk surface roads.
A dozen or so mountain rescue vehicles and a helicopter were staging at a parking area just before heading up the fell in earnest. I asked one of the guys if they had lost a hiker. He said no, it was just a training exercise. I told him that if they did lose hikers today that there was a fiver in it for him if he rescued me first. He gave me a wink and said “sure thing.” I’m glad I did not require rescuing today because I really don’t believe he would’ve held up his end of the bargain.
At this point I was far too committed to climbing up to the Nine Standards to go back but given how socked in they were, completing the climb up there was something less than fulfilling.
I made it up to the top. In the foreground is the the trig point that marks the watershed divide across England. From this point, rivers flow west toward the Irish Sea and east toward the North Sea.
On top of the trig point is a metal plaque that guides the eye toward distant viewpoints. None of which one could see on a day like today.
The Nine Standards themselves. Or at least six of them. It was hard to get all nine in frame while the wind was blowing and the rain was hitting me sideways. They’re around ten feet high, though some of them were as high as 14 feet in the past. They’re sort of crumbling.
Neither the provenance of nor the original purpose for the standards is known. Manuscripts mentioning them exist dating back to the 1500s. Some believe they were to mark the border between the ceremonial counties of Westmoreland and Yorkshire in the first couple hundred years after the Norman invasion. Sort of a territorial pissing match thing between dukedoms or whatever. Some go even further and say that it was a military rallying point that dates back to the Romans and that the structures were built to look like great massing soldiers lying in wait for those who might think about challenging them. I sorta doubt that as that doesn’t sound like a very Roman thing to do. Romans wouldn’t have wasted time with such trickery. They would have just walked the fuck up and annihilated your cute little tribe of ancient Briton warriors and would be home in time to have an orgy or whatever.
As you can tell, I was really happy to be there.
This was some of the better footing on the way back down from Nine Standards. At some points I had to taking a running jump several feet over deep bogs. At other points I had to feel my way around deep bogs, going as much as a hundred or two hundred yards off of what I guessed to be the trail and hoping like hell I could find my way back.
There are people who go on AllTrails or various other hiking apps and websites and complain about how poorly marked the Coast to Coast trail is or how it’s not well maintained. For the most part I dismiss these people — most of whom are Americans — because you can tell they don’t expect to find real wilderness in England and believe that the standards of, say, the United States national parks should be universal. That said: the trails off of Nine Standards Rigg are atrocious and dangerous and they really, really need to either improve them somehow or simply cut it out of the Coast to Coast altogether. Maybe make Nine Standards an out-and-back thing from Kirkby Stephen or whatever. I have no idea, but this whole hike sucked.
Things finally began to clear up after six miles of horrific rain and wind. The approach into Keld is beautiful.
Falls near the head of the River Swale, which I will be following all day tomorrow. The river is said to be the fastest flowing in England and can rise extraordinarily quickly. The brown color is from the peat in its upper sections. After trudging through said peat earlier in the day, I was happy to see the river beating the shit out of it.
Wain Wath Force, one of the many waterfalls on this section of the Swale. The word “force,” which is applied to a number of falls in northern England, comes from the Viking word for waterfall, “foss.”
I’m staying here, in Keld Lodge, tonight. It was once a youth hostel. You can tell that from the large number of small rooms it has. As I’m traveling alone, this is perfect for me. I’m finding the place quite comfortable.
A Black Sheep Bitter in the sitting room. Both the beer and the sitting was much needed after a day like today.
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