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 17, 2023: I slept wonderfully last night and woke up ready to get going. I had a big breakfast during which I met and talked to a couple of other hikers. They were Canadian men, both from Winnipeg, both a good bit older than me but both also far more experienced hikers than I am. One of them, retired in his mid-60s, had done a number of trails in Chile and Portugal. They were quite friendly, but I was worried that they’d ask if I wanted to join them today, which is something I really don’t want to do much of on this trip. Like, one of my readers who lives in Scotland has made tentative plans to pop down to join me for a day at some point, but that’s a one-off, I know them in that way you know Internet people, and so it seems different to me. What I don’t want to be in the business of doing is pairing up with hikers for extended periods simply because we’re staying in the same places or whatever.
My reluctance to do this is not an anti-social impulse as much as it’s about not wanting to have to force myself to keep up with stronger hikers (having to drag along weaker hikers is not nearly as likely). I just want to hike my hike, at least this time out. Maybe next year I’ll do another hike like this one or, if I love this one, maybe one day I’ll do the Coast to Coast again and do it with someone else, but I really am trying to use this time to think and reflect as I enter a new phase of my life and I won’t do much of that if I’m forcing myself to keep up with someone or chatting a lot or whatever.
Thankfully the Canadian guys did not make the suggestion. They did, however, hang around the beach in St. Bee’s, where the trail begins and offered to take my photo in front of the sign, after which they took off up the bluff overlooking the sea. I hung around for a few moments more just soaking it all in, got into a brief conversation with a local dog walker about how public parking lots which require you to pay with your cell phone are a sign that everything is going to hell (his view), and then I headed off.
I won’t give a granular play-by-play of the day’s hike but basically it starts off circling around the perimeter of St. Bee’s Head, cuts inland through some farm country and a couple of little villages, ascends Dent Fell, the first fell of the Coast to Coast (“fell” is a derivation of the old Norse word “fjäll” which means any mountain that ascends above the tree line and is a word still used in this part of England), dives deep into the dale on the other side of that fell, and then follows the dale, which is extremely steep-sided, into the town of Ennerdale Bridge. In all it was about 14.5 miles and it entailed 3,271 feet in aggregate elevation gain. I finished in a little under six hours, not counting a brief lunch break.
The fell was a tough climb but nothing like what you’d find out west in the U.S. or even in parts of West Virginia where I’ve hiked before. I was happy how easy it was on my legs and that, while I had to stop to catch my breath a few times, I had none of the sort of struggles I had last February when, just barely post-COVID, I hiked with my friend Ethan in the Bay Area. That being said, I did run into the Canadians right at the base of the fell. They had taken a different, longer route to get there and we arrived at the same time. I told them to go ahead and I’m glad I did as they went straight the hell up way, way faster than I ever would’ve. I didn’t see them the rest of the day. I assume they got into Ennerdale a good half hour before me.
I checked into my BnB, took a loooooooong hot shower, rinsed out my socks, base layer, and underwear with hot water, hung it all up to dry, put on fresh, dry civilian clothes and went downstairs and had a beer. It was a genuinely good Lake Country bitter, but after a day of hiking it could’ve been a Natty Light and I would’ve thought it was delicious. A bit later I had dinner. The place I’m staying is said to have a pretty good Sunday roast so that’s what I did and I did not regret it. I cannot imagine doing all of that today, let alone the harder fell hikes I have ahead of me over the next week, and climbing into a damn tent someplace, all stinky and crap. I guess that’s not an issue for hardcore outdoors people, but I’m not one of those. I’ve really taken to hiking but I’ll always be someone who likes to clean up and sink into a warm bed at night.
There were two negative things today.
First, the hot spot that began developing on my right heel during my last training hike came back again and now I know it’s gonna be a recurring problem. It’s basically a blister now, though not a particularly gnarly one and it doesn’t really hurt. It will eventually, though, so I suppose I’ll just cover it with moleskin tomorrow, keep my boots tied tightly, and hope for the best.
Second, and more significantly: A wave of moderate melancholy started to wash over me as I was sitting down at dinner. There was no specific trigger for it and I could not tell you what I was sad about, but I know this strain of sadness very well. It’s specific to my being in a new place in the evening. It could be a new hotel, a new city, or someone else’s house. When I was a kid I’d get it when we’d go RV’ing and we’d check into a new campground. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It normally does not hit if I’m with someone, but it can and it has. If I’m traveling alone it’s more likely than not. It always hits around sunset. It’s made worse if I’m watching other people, particularly families, particularly if someone, usually a kid, seems unhappy or if I get a vibe that not everything is great. It always goes away by the morning. Indeed, it’s often replaced by the excitement of traveling or being someplace new the next morning. It’s night and day, literally. It’s akin to homesickness I suppose, exacerbated by my being tired after a day of traveling, but it’s not homesickness as such. I really cannot explain it or put my finger on what it’s all about. I’ve never examined the feeling. I just feel it and wait for it to go away.
Last night there was a perfect storm leading up to that feeling. For one thing, I was exhausted. I also saw a forecast that says the weather is gonna be dreadful, even by Lake Country standards tomorrow and that makes me worry about my feet staying dry and my blister getting worse. There was a family eating dinner near me, with young daughter. She was watching a Bluey video while they waited for their food and someone at the next table over said something kinda rude about the volume and it upset the girl which in turn upset me. Then I started doing that thing when I remembered my kids being that age and it made me sad that my kids aren’t that age anymore and then I inexplicably felt guilty for being over here even though they’re both off at college. It was just a really dumb cycle of emotions, the sort of which I’ve felt before in these sorts of situations.
Thankfully, it mostly went away not long after it arrived. I’ll credit the two English guys who were sitting at the table next to mine. One was around my age, the other maybe in his 60s. The older one was teaching the younger one how to play cribbage. One of them asked me if I was interested in playing and I politely passed, but we began talking. They’re doing a half-Coast to Coast, going a little less than 100 miles. The older one had done it before, the younger had not. They told me they saw me at breakfast back in St. Bees this morning but I didn’t remember seeing them. We talked about the weather at first. but the older one said don’t worry about it because it’s always rainy here. The younger one dropped the line about there being no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Those are cliches but they made me feel better, as did their friendliness. As I’m back up in my room writing this and preparing for an early bedtime I feel pretty much back to normal.
Maybe I just needed to talk to someone. Maybe that stuff above about wanting “time to think and reflect” is just horseshit and I need other people more than I usually convince myself I do. For someone who has lived deep in his own head for most of his life, I’m increasingly thinking that I don’t know much about how my brain and my feelings work.
But like I said, things will all be better in the morning. Now some photos, and a bit more levity, from the day:
The first thing you’re supposed to do when you begin the Coast to Coast is to dip your boots in the Irish Sea. The last thing you’re supposed to do when you finish is to dip your boots in the North Sea. So I dipped my boots in the Irish Sea. But because it was low tide — and because the tides are super extreme in this part of the world — it added like half a mile to my walk today. Stupid traditions.
The second thing you’re supposed to do is to pick up a stone from the extremely stony St. Bees beach, put it in your pack, carry it with you the 192 miles to Robin Hood’s Bay, and chuck the stone into the North Sea. I wisely chose a smaller stone for this, even if you can’t tell because I didn’t bother to focus on the stone when I took this photo.
I took this photo standing next to the Coast to Coast starting line. The first part of the walk, which you begin before your breakfast even digests, forces you to climb this bitch. Personally I would’ve chosen a route that lets you ease into things, but no one asked me.
I saw a hell of a lot of sheep today. On the bluffs over the sea. In the green spaces in the little villages. On the fell. In the dale. Fucking sheep everywhere. The only thing that rivaled them in number were the huge, huge slugs all over the path. Like, 3-4″ slugs, just chilling out and thanking you for not stepping on them.
I also saw some cows, though far fewer than sheep or slugs. In England people generally have the right of way across farm fields — in the U.S. you’d get shot the moment you stepped on someone’s property I figure, but here the land is for everyone for limited purposes — and thus these trails go across people’s farms. I entered one field with a sign that said “Beware of the bull.” I did not see the bull, thankfully. Part of me wonders if English farmers don’t like hikers having the right of way and put signs like that up to fuck with us.
On a clear day you’re supposed to be able to see the Isle of Man, southern Scotland and, at times, the Irish coast from up here on the bluffs. This is all just theoretical, of course, as there are no clear days in northern England.
St Leonard’s church in the town of Cleator. It’s not as big as the church in St.Bees I talked about yesterday but it’s got just as much history. There are pre-Norman elements to it, mostly inside. There are pre-Reformation parts, during which it was a monastery. Inside those arches are some stone benches. They’re “new” as they only date back to the 19th century. There’s a sign on the gate welcoming Coast to Coast hikers and suggesting that the benches are a great place to eat their packed lunches and get out of the rain for a bit. So that’s what I did. Not another soul passed by while I was there so it was just me and the people in the graveyard. It was lovely.
The view from the top of Dent Fell, with a couple of cairns in the foreground and the Irish Sea, which by then the trail had long left behind, in the distance. Dent Fell is not particularly high — just under 1,200 feet. Still, it’s pretty damn steep. The photo doesn’t do justice to how steep it was, but my AllTrails app did:
There are much taller fells ahead of me over the next couple of days but they have more gradual ascents. And actually, the descent from Dent Fell was in a lot of ways more challenging. It was both steep and slippery. Thank God I have solid knees. Thank God I have trekking poles. If I didn’t I might’ve Westly-from-“Princess Bride” As-you-wished my way down the damn mountain.
Down on the other side of Dent Fell, and through the couple miles of narrow dale behind it, things flatten out and you walk into the village of Ennerdale Bridge, where I’m staying tonight. In the distance, though, you see what I have in store for me over the next couple of days.
Time for some sleep to both recharge both my physical and emotional batteries.