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 18, 2023:
Weather is all about expectations, I suppose. If, like me this time yesterday, you expected sideways rain for eight straight hours, but only got like two hours in the morning and then two hours in the late afternoon, with some actually sunny but cold and blustery weather in the middle, you’re probably feeling pretty good about things. That’s how I’ve decided to think of it anyway after what can only be described as a wonderful day, even if I ended it soaked to the bone.
The morning started badly, though the bad was limited to the time before I left the BnB. I think something I had eaten the night before disagreed with me because I woke up nauseous. I felt like I was gonna barf. It was only worse when the guy brought me my breakfast. I had ordered scrambled eggs, sausage and toast the night before — no one needs a full English every day — and when it came the eggs were severely underdone and swimming in eggy water. I took one small bite of the sausage and I had to chew it for like eight hours. It was not helping. I was actually scanning the room for exits in case I had to hurl. I pushed the food away, made some apologies and asked if I could just have some more toast and maybe some corn flakes and yogurt. Normally I’d not eat anything if I felt like that but I knew I had to walk close to 15 miles with massive elevation gains today. I managed to get it all down and keep it down. I actually began to feel a bit better as I left the BnB. Maybe I just needed the fresh air, even if the fresh air was accompanied by a driving rain.
I began following the road to Ennerdale Water, which is a big, long glacial lake around which I’d be walking most of the morning. When I got to the start of the lake I saw two guys there looking at a map and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the two Canadian guys, Guy and Greg, from the morning at St. Bees yesterday. They had stayed at a different place than me but since we all ended up there at once we decided to walk together. I know what I said yesterday about wanting to walk alone, but between that weird anxiety I had the night before and not feeling too well in the morning the idea of some company was appealing. Guy and Greg are about the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and they were totally agreeable.
Someone I spoke with before leaving said that the trail for the usual route around the lake, to the south, might’ve been flooded due to the rain and that maybe the north side would be better but we decided to stick with the map, confident that we had sufficient rain gear. It ended up being OK, though there were what I call, without any hyperbole, waterfall-like deluges of water coming down from the mountains and into the lake that we had to cross. It was a bit dicey at times but none of us splashed in and got washed away. I’ve never been the fastest hiker and I’m certainly not the strongest climber, but one thing I’ve always been pretty good at is crossing creeks and rivers and things, as I seem to have a good sense of what rocks you can step on, how deep the water is, and stuff like that. Being able to cut though all of that gave me a much-needed confidence boost. Before too long I realized that my morning nausea was completely gone and the residual anxiety I had been feeling from the night before had completely dissipated. The rain was still terrible, but I was feeling pretty great.
The rain stopped not long after we reached the far end of the lake. From there the route cuts through some Forestry England land (public forest land) where they are in the process of replacing old, tapped-out commercial pine growing operations with native deciduous trees and doing things like reintroducing beavers and stuff. That all follows a well-maintained forest road for a few miles that rises a good bit but not so steeply that it gives you any trouble. Finally, after a very long time, you reach the end of a valley and find Black Sail Hut, which is a former shepherd’s hut that was turned into a youth hostel a very long time ago. As in, the kind where young people are brought to experience nature, not a commercial lodging. It is open to anyone now and is a good place to stop and have lunch, dry off, and because it has a stocked kitchen, you can make yourself a cup of tea or get some cakes they leave out. It’s mostly unattended during the day but they leave an honor box for you to pay whatever you think is fair. As it had cleared up by then we put away our rain jackets and rain pants, had lunch, and began our climb out of the valley and a couple thousand feet up a steep fell.
Before I get to the fell, allow me to note how insane the wayfinding is on the Coast to Coast. Alfred Wainwright, who created this hike, was a famously imprecise writer who would never tell you something straight if he could tell you something in oblique and/or poetic language. I have a copy of his original book on the Coast to Coast and it’s a wonderful read but as a guide book it’s not exactly user friendly. For some reason, however, the people who have written the couple of modern guidebooks everyone uses now still sorta channel their inner Wainwright. They actually say things like “at the end of the path turn toward where [Whatever] Cottage used to be” and “The path to the right is the obvious path. Don’t take that one.” It’s just high comedy all the way down. I mention that because when we left the hostel we started walking down the obvious path before we realized, about 100 yards into it, it was the wrong path. We then took the non-obvious path up Loft Beck.
Loft Beck is about 2,000 feet high and it’s no joke. Dent Fell from Sunday was just over 1,100. That one was a straight grass track up the hill. Loft Beck is rocky and steep. The rocks are more like steps, actually, but they’re not anywhere nearly as helpful like steps are, because half the time they have become temporary water falls and when they do, like they did today, you really can’t stop because there’s nowhere to balance. I have to rest a lot when I do big climbs, and each time you rest on Loft Beck you either have to lean forward or risk falling back, and you don’t get a lot of great rest when leaning forward. It was here where I told Guy and Greg, who despite being in their mid-60s are like a couple of sherpas, to go on ahead as I didn’t want to hold them up. We said our goodbyes, as they’re staying elsewhere tonight and are on a far more accelerated schedule after today, so I doubt I’ll see them again. It was truly enjoyable hiking and talking with them today, however. So much so that I’m rethinking my “I really just wanna do this hike alone thing.” I still want to do it at my pace, and I don’t want to plan around anyone or have them plan around me, but if happenstance pairs me with someone else for a few miles here or there over the next two weeks I’ll be happy to join them.
All of that said, Guy and Greg going on ahead made my ascent of Loft Beck feel like a personal victory. I wasn’t being paced by anyone or losing my sense of the moment by worrying about falling behind. I put one foot in front of the other, rested precariously when I could, and just steadily made my way to the top. It was maybe my most satisfying physical accomplishment ever. It’s not as tall as some things I’ve climbed — Camelback and Mt. Tam are higher — but it was certainly harder and steeper and, again, I did it on my own. I was rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever experienced:
Yes, that’s actually my photo. It looks like a goddamn painting because the view looks like a goddamn painting. This is the view they put on guidebooks and stuff. I’ll be thinking about this view for the rest of my life. I’ll be thinking about this view in the moments before I die.
Not long after I took that photo I saw a couple who had been behind us for much of the day also ascending Loft Beck. They’re from New Zealand. A husband and wife, I’d say late 60s, but hard to tell. I waited for them to get up to where I was. They asked me what had happened to Guy and Greg and I told them they went on ahead. They asked if they could walk with me and I said sure, so we covered the final miles of the day together. Those miles take you back down the other side of Loft Beck, past the last operating slate mine in England, which is also a tourist attraction now, and then down a rocky descent into Borrowdale, where we are staying tonight. Wouldn’t you know it, of course, that an unexpected downburst hit us a mile or so from the hotel, coming on us so fast that we didn’t have time to get all our rain gear back out before we were soaked. Knowing that my hotel has a drying room in it — a sauna for your wet gear — I decided, fuck it, and just let myself get wet because I was exhausted.
As I write this, my clothes are drying down in the drying room, I have a very full stomach of a very fine and, dare I say it, fancy meal, and I’m happy to actually be in a proper hotel with a bit of refinement and comfort after a couple of nights in some quaint but bare bones BnBs. I may have climbed a steep, rocky fell today, but I’m a fancy boy at heart and sometimes you just need an olive plate, a modern gourmet meal, some good wine and some toffee cake for desert, with evening coffee and tea service in the lounge afterward.
Tomorrow starts with another tough fell, but it’s a much shorter day overall. It’ll end near Dove Cottage, where William Wordsworth lived for most of his life. I hope I’m there in time for a tour. I wanna see the room where Samuel Taylor Coleridge got blitzed on laudanum.
Some more photos:
This was after the morning weather had improved. It was raining so hard when we set off that I didn’t dare take my phone out.
Greg and Guy, my Canadian hiking companions for part of Day 1 and most of Day 2. If I can be half as nice and in half as good a shape as they are 15 years from now I’ll be lucky.
About a third of the way along the south coast of Ennerdale Water, the first lake you encounter upon entering the Lake District.
The far eastern end of Ennerdale Water, looking back to the west.
The River Liza, which feeds Ennerdale Water. The mountain to the left in the far distance is Loft Beck.
Black Sail Hut, the former shepherd’s hut that is now a hostel. When you leave it, don’t take the obvious trail.
Chris Brasher was an athlete and sports journalist who, among other things, founded the London Marathon. He apparently also liked to come up and party in Black Sail Hut in the Lake District. This memorial to him is what all people should aspire to have written about them when they die.
The top of Loft Beck was that first pic way up above. This is from near-ish the bottom looking up. That stream coming down is supposed to be the trail. A great deal of time you just have to walk up the stream because there aren’t a lot of great options.
This is the visitor’s center/cafe/whatever attached to the slate mine. I stopped in to get some water as mine was almost gone but I left with a white chocolate raspberry bar that was calling to me. My lord food tastes good when you’re deliriously exhausted.
My fancy dinner at my hotel tonight. It’s hard to see because it was a crap photo, but there’s a pretty delicious, crispy-skinned roast chicken breast in there. I sent the photo to Allison. She asked why the vegetables were on the other end of the table. The only answer I could come up with was “because England.”
And now I sleep the sleep of the dead.