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 19, 2023: I slept like a baby last night. The bed was huge and soft and wonderful and the sound of the rain outside my slightly open window served as the best white noise ever. I sat down for breakfast in the same fancy dining room where I had dinner last night. Here’s video of me ordering:
Actually I once again eschewed full English breakfast entirely but I loaded up on granola and yogurt, toast, fruit, croissants, coffee, orange juice, and pocketed an apple and a banana on my way out the door. Just night and day compared to yesterday. I felt fantastic.
It was absolutely pouring rain when I set out but unlike yesterday I didn’t care a bit. My clothes were dry, I was waterproofed from head to toe, and I just got on with it. When in England do as the English do. Well, some things they do. Like, I’m not gonna impose my murderous imperialist agenda across the world and then, decades after my global power has waned, try to make myself feel better by engaging in erroneous, toxic, and xenophobic self-mythologizing, but I will try to adhere to more mundane customs and habits. I’m an Anglophile but I have my limits.
I left my hotel, which was in Seatoller, and walked a mile and a half up the road to Rosthwaite, where the trail began. Like yesterday I ran into someone I knew just as I hit the trail: the couple from New Zealand, Richard and, um, crap, I forget his wife’s name but I wanna say . . Ellie? OK, doesn’t matter. I had talked to them yesterday and I like them a good deal so I was happy to be walking with them again.
Well, only so happy as one can be in some of the hardest driving rain you’ve ever been in and with extremely strong winds right in our faces. The trail at this point was more of a stream and there were few options to walk around the water flowing down it in our direction. The trail at this point followed a river called Langstrath Beck, which was very high and moving very fast. Or so we thought. Because a bit up the trail it joins a larger river called Greenup Gill which made Langstrath Beck look like a babbling brook. The guidebook says Greenup Gill becomes “one long torrent of white water and waterfalls” in heavy rain and it had been raining heavily for about 14 straight hours at this point. I’ve rafted Class V rapids in the Gauley River in West Virginia and Greenup Gill looked like the most intense parts of the Gauley. Maybe more so.
We kept hiking, eventually catching up with a couple from Michigan I had met the night before, making us a fivesome. The farther we went the worse the trail became, to the point where we were simply wading as opposed to hiking. In a couple of places some small becks that ran down the mountain — the sort of which you normally happily walk across on stepping stones — became more like rivers themselves. We were able to cross them but it took a lot more effort and care than usual. I have great boots and I put on my gaiters and my rain pants before setting off but at some point things become so wet that the notion of “waterproof” becomes non-operative. By the time we had gone about three miles my socks squished with each step.
Then we came across this:
This, by the way, is the trail. Those three little poles sticking out of the water form the sides of a bridge that’s supposed to go over the beck coming down the mountain. The bridge, however, was submerged under nearly three feet of water. The raging Class V+ Greenup Gill is just to the right of that stone and timber barrier. There are grates between the stone posts but the bottoms are open to let the water flow, as they’re there to stop debris like branches and things. If a person slipped and fell while attempting to ford this beck — which, let’s face it, was no longer a beck but a raging river of its own — they would, without question, plunge into Greenup Gill and they would almost certainly die. Again: this is not hyperbole. I have never encountered anything like this with the expectation of, you know, crossing it.
Here’s a look left up the hill, which gives you a better idea of the beck rushing down. That’s the couple from Michigan next to it. Again: this is supposed to be a cute little stream you hop across while thinking gaily of the gingerbread you’re gonna eat once you get to Grasmere:
Just after this photo was taken the two English guys who were playing Cribbage in the restaurant back in Ennerdale the other night arrived. One of them — who, I will grant is in amazing shape — decided he was going to give it a go. Acknowledging that there would be no room for error if he fell while wading across the swamped bridge, he went up the hill a bit and attempted to cross up there. Of course up there the rocks split it into two raging rivers. His companion watched him as he began.
Before those two had arrived the New Zealanders, the Michiganders and I had decided that it was far too dangerous to even attempt to cross and had began talking about our options. We all but determined to go back the way we came and either try to find a road route to Grasmere or take the bus or something, but we hadn’t left yet when cribbage guy began stepping out onto the stones. New Zealander Richard pointedly asked the guy’s friend if he thought that was a good idea. The friend said something half-confidently about how the dude knows what he’s doing but it did not seem like he believed it. Richard, ostensibly speaking to the four of us but clearly intending it for the ears of the cribbage guys, said “well, I didn’t come this far to watch someone die” and we all began walking back toward Rosthwaite. We encountered about a half dozen hikers as we made our way back, telling them about what was up ahead. When I showed them my photos they all said there was no way they were doing that and they fell in behind us, though some wanted to walk up to the spot and see it for themselves before turning back.
When our group of about ten finally made it back to Rosthwaite we looked on the map and saw that the only road route was about 19 miles (the hike cuts across the mountain the bus has to go around, natch). None of us were up for that after the seven or eight or we had already walked. There’s a frequent bus along that route, however, so after only about a 15 minute wait one came by and we took it. It was a double-decker hop-on-hop-off tourist deal with half of the upstairs open to the air. Since the rain stopped just before it came we all decided to sit up there and at least attempt to dry off. The bus stopped in Keswick and we all transferred to a proper municipal bus that runs down to Grasmere, on to Windmere, and then on to Lancaster. I know this is a touristy area and everything but it’s pretty gobsmacking to be in a remote, rural place and be able to hop two separate busses with no advance notice, from street side bus stops, with almost no waiting time. I think such a thing is against the law in the U.S. what with public transit being woke and all.
It actually turned out to be a fun bus ride. All of us had a pretty zen attitude about not being able to complete the day’s hike. We were all joking with each other, talking about how we would’ve told each other’s families we got swept away to our deaths in the middle of gingerbread/William Wordsworth/Beatrix Potter country. I had been talking with Richard a good bit and had mentioned Allison several times. He said “even if you made it across that water your wife would kill for doing so when you got home.” Richard is pretty astute. Not that I would’ve even considered it. I am a risk averse person. Walking up the steep fells is about as out there as I get. I wasn’t going to cross that deluge even if you paid me.
I lucked out when I got to Grasmere in that, even though it was only about noon, my room was ready. I had to wait two more hours for my bag to arrive but I took a hot shower anyway and then sat around in a hotel bathrobe until my clothes showed up. Once dressed I took my wet stuff down to the drying room, put my rain jacket back on, snagged an umbrella from the lobby — the rain had begun again and it has kept up all day as I’m writing this — and took a little stroll around Grasmere. I went to Dove Cottage, which was William Wordsworth’s home, and took a tour. I had some gingerbread at the little gingerbread place all the tourists go to. I walked by a parking lot with four large tour busses full of senior citizens unloading and wondered what this place must be like when it’s not raining and it’s not offseason. Then I stopped in a pharmacy and picked up a little pair of scissors to better shape the moleskin I’ve been using on my blister. Which, despite walking in soaking wet boots for seven or eight miles today, didn’t really bother me, partially because of the moleskin I’ve already been using on it, partially because it’s in a spot that, while kinda annoying, is not super annoying. It doesn’t hurt at all.
Dinner was at the bar/restaurant attached to my hotel, both of which are called “Tweedies.” The bar was full of people watching the Milan-Newcastle Champions League match. The food — potato and leek soup and half a roast chicken — was excellent. For desert I had a cup of coffee and some rhubarb panacotta that was to die for. Not bad at all.
After dinner I came back to the hotel. The Wi-Fi in my room is pretty terrible because it’s way out in a far end of the building so I’m down in a little sitting room off the lobby with big leather armchairs, soft lighting and no other soul but me. The wind and rain is raging outside the window but it feels warm and cozy in here. After dinner and before writing I took the opportunity to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge from the books they have in the adjacent library. It’s heavenly.
My only concern: by the front door, where the luggage transport service leaves the bags, is a suitcase for a Coast to Coast hiker. As I’m writing this it’s nearly 9PM and no one has claimed it. Check-in here closed at 6 and there is no one staffing the hotel for the rest of the night, so there’s no one aware, I suspect, that a bag is here for a hiker who has not claimed it. I sent a message on to the transport company to let them know and they replied, thanking me, saying they are looking into it. I Googled the last name on the luggage tag and cannot match either of the cribbage guys, form whom I only know their first names. I’m more than a little worried, frankly. I hope whoever this bag belongs to is OK. If I don’t hear anything before bed tonight I’ll follow up in the morning.
Some photos from the day:
This was the drying room at last night’s hotel in Seatoller. It’s full of damp, rain and sweat-soaked wool and the heat is cranked up to about 85 degrees. Try to imagine the smell. OK, now make it about 50% worse. OK, now make it another 500% worse. You’re still not there yet, but you get the idea. The drying room is right off the lobby. When I paid my bill this morning I asked the woman there if they ever get used to the smell. She said “it’s me perfume!” Then she got serious and acknowledged that it makes her wanna barf. But hey: dry socks and boots are important.
Greenup Gill. This is the relatively calmer portion of it, well before we got to the place where the beck flowed down into it, swamping the bridge. It got way rougher farther along the trail. I couldn’t take a photo of it there because it was raining so hard that I was getting worried about how wet my phone was getting. Anyway: double that level of chaos, and put it right next to you and that’s what we were dealing with at the swamped bridge.
I get what you’re laying down, bus.
Richard and, um, Ellie (?), the New Zealanders on the bus. Behind me were like eight other hikers who thought better of soldiering on. It was kind of like a party on top of the double decker. Them, me, a couple from Massachusetts, the Michaganders, three women from Cornwall. All of us agreeing that it’d be really dumb to die just to say you didn’t cut nine miles out of your 192-mile hike.
A view from the bus of the fell we did not climb today as we took the long way around. There will be more hills tomorrow.
Grasmere is weird. Definitely a touristy destination with all that entails, but there are a couple of interesting things. Like this. It’s St. Oswald’s church. It was founded in 642 by the King of Northumbria, which was a Saxon kingdom that covered what is now southern Scotland and northern England. It’s roughly equivalent, I reckon, to there being some ancient king of, like, Pennsylvania and western Maryland. The original church building is gone. This is the new one. It was just built in the 14th century so it still has that new church smell. William Wordsworth is buried in the graveyard. There were a lot of old ladies who got off the tour busses looking at his grave. Wordsworth, who devoted himself to “plain living and high thinking” and who was distressed at the notion that “our life is only drest For show” would likely not be a big fan of his mortal remains being a tourist attraction.
Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home. Despite him probably not wanting to be a tourist attraction, the fact that he was famous in his lifetime is the reason this place is still, more or less, like it was when he lived there. After he left it in 1809 it was rented out to various people for a while but soon came to be known as “Wordsworth’s Cottage” and thus avoided renovation or demolition because people as early as the mid-19th century wanted to see it. Of course it wasn’t all perfect: a lot of these people built large townhouses to rent to tourists right next to the place, thereby blocking the cottage’s view of the lake that inspired Wordsworth’s poetry. This is why we can’t have nice things. All of that being said, I was really impressed with Dove Cottage. And, for as spartan as it is, I sorta wanna move in there and write for basically the rest of my life.
Oh, one other thing: I said I wanted to see the room where Coleridge got high. Turned out Coleridge really only visited from Keswick, a few miles up the road and presumably got high at home. The guy who lived here after Wordsworth, though, the writer Thomas De Quincey, got fucked up here on the daily. Indeed, he got famous for his book, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which was based on his experiences drinking quart after quart of laudanum here at Dove Cottage. It was a smash hit, but De Quincey was criticized for giving too much attention to the pleasure of opium and not enough to the harsh negatives of addiction. Not that I’m gonna judge. Maybe he had a point. You don’t meet a lot of laudanum heads these days, so who’s to say? Far more unforgivable is the fact that he messed up the garden the Wordsworths had spent a lot of time and effort on, pissing them off pretty good. So the guy was a mixed bag at best, it seems.
I’m generally not the type whose heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky, but it’s easy to feel that way when you spend a chunk of your day and evening reading Romanic poetry and visiting Wordsworth’s pad.
And no, I am not likely to keep the budding beard. I sorta wanted to see what it looked like 30 years after I last grew one and, dear lord, it has a lot of gray in it now. Consider it a Coast to Coast only thing that isn’t even likely to last the whole Coast to Coast.
Tweedies, where I’m staying tonight. I’m not entirely sure the place isn’t haunted but it seems like, if it is haunted, it’s haunted by friendly ghosts.
We’ll see if the trail is any more passable tomorrow. Here’s hoping I don’t have another bus ride in my future.