Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A COAST TO COAST WALK or “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”


The official starting place.

Alfred Wainwright, who is famous for his pictorial guides to the Lakeland Fells, married for the second time at the age of 63. Incidentally that is my age now. He married Betty, arguably the second love of his life.  Read a page or two of any of his guides to the fells or, A Coast to Coast Walk, to sense Wainwright’s absorbing love of that landscape. The language and phrases he uses create a sense of a voluptuous beauty, the curves and contours of the landscape lovingly cherished. It is said that it is Betty who inspired Alfred to create, A Coast to Coast Walk. He researched and wrote the guide between 1971 and 1972. It was published in 1973.

Alfred Wainwright, the creator of,,A Coast to Coast Walk.

About this time last year, Clive and Michael, two old school friends and I decided that we would like to walk the Coast to Coast. Why would we want to do that? People have been asked similar questions. Why climb Everest or walk across the Sahara? Why did men go to the Moon? Sometimes, for want of a better answer, they might say, “Because it is there.” Actually there is a certain truth in that statement because when you examine any actions the true root is often an emotional almost psychological cause. You have an inexplicable need to do it but can’t really explain the reason why. Of course a lot of things are not that obtuse. You may well have a concrete reason to do something. You might want to go to TESCOS to buy tonight’s dinner. So anyway, we decided we would do Wainwrights long distance walk, because….? I had certain ideas about what the walk would do for me. I knew the three of us would develop our relationship. With what result? This would be part of our challenge, part of the reason for doing the walk. Then there was the physical challenge of whether my body, our bodies, were up to it. Were the three of us fit enough? Then there were thoughts of meeting new people, seeing new places and eating locally produced and grown foods and of course drinking locally brewed ales.  Experiencing different landscapes in the Lakes followed by the Yorkshire Dales and then the Yorkshire Moors, was going to provide so many unknowns and emotional and awe inspiring moments. The fourteen days the walk was planned for was going to be a microcosm of life itself.  I wanted to live the walk and see how it affected me and I am sure Michael and Clive must have had similar thoughts. What could I learn along the way? These would be good enough reasons for doing the walk.

Michael, me and Clive. Leaving our guest house in St Bees to start the walk.

The Coast to Coast walk begins at St Bees Head, on the Cumbrian Coast. A steep grassy ascent to the top of St Bees promontory exercises the legs immediately. The high cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea provide breath-taking, dramatic, rugged scenery. The cliffs and landscape here is formed from sandstones from the Permian and Triassic periods over 200 million years ago. They have a deep dark rusty red hew. This was just the first bit of landscape that took our breath away, almost literally with the strong gusts from the sea blowing inland. We were up with cormorants and black headed gulls high above swirling seas crashing on the rocks below. The view down to the white foaming sea was precipitous and created heart thumping moments. After this dramatic overture, just past the whitewashed St Bees Lighthouse, we turned inland, south of Whitehaven. Some farm tracks and field pathways took us through a calmer landscape. As we crossed England from west to east, the landscape changed. The emotions and the effects on our senses changed with the landscapes we passed through.

The walk starts. St Bees Head.

 The massed fells of the Lake District came first. Some people call the fells, mountains and some people don’t but the fells are unique challenging masses of rock. In most cases they reach well over 2000feet. Helvelyn is 3114 feet high and is a true mountain. However, the fells are cut by steep sided valleys gouged out by glacial erosion. They look and feel spectacular and dramatic. At the summit of Dent Hill, our first high walk, the views back to Whitehaven and the coast were wonderful. The descent down the other side of this particular fell was truly dramatic. It looked as though we were going to drop off a cliff as we descended. It was the steepest descent I think we encountered on the whole walk. It was my first experience of descending a fell. My knees hurt. They were in pain at times. This was the first concern I had about my physical capacity. Michael, enjoyed the descent and was much quicker than Clive and me. Clive took it carefully and cautiously using his poles to aid him. At the bottom, arriving in a beautiful steep sided valley, my knees stopped hurting. I was relieved. This valley, between Dent Hill and Flat Fell with the Nannycatch Beck bubbling through it, was my first real experience of how the landscape could affect us emotionally.

Peace and ,"heaven," once we descended Dent Hill.

 I live in South London. There are always people about, cars, snatches of conversations taking place, hustle and bustle. In this valley there was none of that. It was the first time I had noticed it. The word that came to mind at first was, silence, but it wasn’t silent. Gradually I got used to new sounds. There was the wind, the insistent sound of bubbling water over rocks, an insect flying by and there was the sounds of our feet brushing threw clumps of heather and scuffing rocks. As we walked beside the stream there was also the swish of spiky reeds against our legs. There was no road or pathway through this valley. There were a few sheep scattered here and there. It felt wild and abandoned. It was a strange sensation. It took a while to adjust. The sun shone down on us and our backs felt warm. I could only think that this place was a piece of heaven.

Making our way along Hawsewater.

On our third  day, out of Ennerdale Bridge, we encountered our next new challenge. We started the walk along Ennerdale Water. On the map the path we were to take hugged the contours next to the lake.  The path, however, turned out to be rugged, rock strewn and at one place, half way along the side of the lake, the path came to an end and a high rock outcrop stuck out into the lake. We had to scramble around and over it, looking for cracks that might provide finger and toe holds. Our first bit of rock climbing, horizontally. This part of the walk turned out to be merely an introduction to what was to come. We were soon to realise that when we walked through a pleasant valley it would soon end. Every valley in the Lake District, has been created by glaciation. Britain was covered by glaciers 18000 years ago and when the ice receded at the end of this period it scoured out deep valleys across the landscape of Britain and the Lake District was formed in this process. The glaciers started high up in the mountains and the tarns, small mountain lakes, are the remains of these high in the fells. This means that valleys in the Lake District come to abrupt ends blocked by steep 2000 feet high rocky faces. This is what happed on this third day. We came to the end of the Ennerdale Valley and we had to go up. If you know about map contours it is those contours that are tightly packed together that you have to worry about. 

The climb out of Hawsewater.

The contours on our map showed a whole series of them very closely drawn together. This was going to be steep. Encountering the climb out of the valley alongside the almost vertical, Loft Beck, was hard work. We had to ascend 2500 feet scrambling over sharp rocks and outcrops. In places, Lake District National Park volunteers, had placed rocks in situations where we could place our feet more easily, but these much welcomed stretches of the climb were few. It took us a number of hours to climb up out of that valley. This walk provided a mixture of pain, doubt and belief, in equal shares, in our physical strength. At the top we were rewarded with incredibly beautiful views. This is what walking the Coast to Coast is really about. At the top, breathless and amazed that we had climbed so far and for so long we got our prize.  We were looking out over a large part of The Lakes. Ennerdale Water was to our left and to the right we caught a glimpse of Buttermere and the high fells of Red Pike, High Crag, Haystacks and Grey Knotts which were all magnificent in front of us. Before we left the Lakes we had to walk the length of Haweswater. The Fells above Haweswater, up near the top of Helvelyn and Angle Tarn were the first time I felt afraid. The winds were immense. It was difficult to walk and even stand up straight. Michael lost the waterproof cover to his back pack, grabbed by a gust of wind and blown beyond reach. Trying to cross a fast flowing waterfall I was blown from my footing on a boulder into the fast moving current. Luckily it was shallow and I was able to wade to the bank.

Me and a waterfall high in the fells.

  I loved the Yorkshire Dales. I was reminded of the picture on the Yorkshire Tea boxes showing fields surrounded by dry stone walls. It was a more gentle landscape than the Lakes but it was harsh and unforgiving in places too. Many of the valleys had deserted and derelict farm buildings. Sheep pens, like ancient Celtic circles, made from limestone blocks were scattered here and there. It was in the Dales that we met sheep after sheep; so many of the hardy creatures with their benign expressions staring straight at us as we passed. We came across some well fed and rather large cows and not a few bulls. They were at peace and gave us cursory glances as we walked past them. It was in this landscape that we came across, limestone pavements. These are created by a strata of limestone that has been exposed in places by the action, once again, of the scouring  of glaciers during the ice age. This limestone landscape is the landscape that gives rise to potholes made by  streams and water seeping underground. . It is a soluble rock easily dissolved in water. Limestone, is a sedimentary rock created from marine fragments such as corals and molluscs. The pavements  are raised above the surrounding bogs and soils, perhaps just a few feet.  They are dramatic. They are flat and uniform in height but deeply fissured and cracked  covering hundreds of square metres giving the impression of a raised pavement.

A limestone pavement.

 Another landscape we encountered, especially on the high fells but also on the moors, were peat bogs. These were a special sort of challenge. Seamus Heaney, in his poem,”Bogland,” writes,
"Every layer they strip seems camped on before
The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage
The wet centre is bottomless."
Heaney, in some of his poetry refers to, bog people. These were thought to be ancient Celtic human sacrifices left to sink into the peat and preserved in the peat’s rich damp composition.   I had thoughts of seeing leathery skinned heads or arms sticking out of the exposed black peat.    Heaney’s line, “The wet centre is bottomless,” is apt. I sank up to my knees making a wrong step on a couple of occasions in those treacherous bogs. I had to yank my left leg out with quite some effort one time. That was a little worrying. Clive, Michael and I learned to negotiate peat bogs as we might play a game of chess. Every move had to be worked out. We soon learned an effective strategy.  We looked for stones and rocks first of all that we could step on. We worked out that if a rock was visible it wasn’t about to sink. Where there were no rocks we learned to step on substantial sized clumps of heather. We believed that their root systems would hold us and like snow shoes on soft snow they spread our load. In the absence of handy heather clumps we looked for reeds. If we stepped on the long leathery reed spikes we could create a tough strong ,”carpet ,” to walk on and we discovered that this would hold our weight. Walking across bog land understandably slowed our progress considerably.  

Peat showing just under the surface. A treacherous terrain. 

The North Yorkshire Moors should have, could have, provided many more beautiful and awe inspiring vistas. What we were presented with, on our first encounter on the moors, from Ingleby Cross to Clay Bank was a relentless walk, after a steep climb, in low cloud and incessant rain that lasted all day. Everything looked grey. Our mood felt grey. Visibility was poor, it was wet and we were cold. All we could do was trudge on and on. The moors improved considerably the next day, after we left Clay Bank. The purple heathers, undulating gently across the landscape were beautiful. We came across pheasants and grouse and indeed were halted for a while because a grouse shoot was taking place. Grouse are very inquisitive creatures. They seemed to be unafraid and stood close to where we walked to look at us. We all thought they had the funniest voices of any bird we had ever heard. They garbled away in a sort of high pitched turkey gobble. This part of the moors was like a switch back. We ascended steeply and then descended just as steeply. This roller coaster continued for three ascents and descents.

Michael in the wet, damp mists up on the moors.

 The final ascent took us up to the Wainstones, a group of massive, broken, fissured blocks of sandstone, some twenty or thirty feet high forming a barrier in front of us. They stuck out of the hill at crazy angles. I wondered how a feature like this could have been formed. Michael thought water and ice entering cracks and fissures and forcing the rock apart  had caused it. He was right. I lead the way up to the Wainstones and because I was concentrating on where to place my feet, missed the narrow path that lead to one side. We spent half an hour trying to find a route around or over the Wainstones. Eventually we returned to my first route and discovered the correct path, although it wasn’t easy. Some scrambling was required.

The Wainstones.

The beauty of the different landscapes we passed through is an important element of our walk but more importantly it was who we were with.   Michael, Clive and I have known each other since we were about 14 years of age. We met at St Edwards School near Market Drayton in Shropshire.  Over the years we lost contact and then reconnected. We decided to do this walk together about a year ago.   In the years of re-connection we have got to know each other again.  Doing the walk together was an intense experience and I think we learned a lot of new things about each other which can only be a good thing.  We stuck together through a few challenges during the walk. An important element of being together was to give each other breathing space.  While we walked the three of us stretched out along the different paths. We in effect walked on our own for a lot of the time. We could see each other ahead or behind.  Often we had to concentrate on where we placed each step. That took a lot of concentration. We each got into our own individual, mind zones. We formed our own walking rhythms. Once in a while we would stop and come together to consult maps and stand in awe of the surroundings we happened to be passing through. In the evening we also had time to ourselves before we met in the bar or restaurant of the place we were staying at. We had individual rooms in all our bed and breakfasts. I think these opportunities to have our own thoughts and personal time was a healthy thing and made our joint efforts that bit stronger. It helped get us through.

Me, Michael and Clive at the start of "High Street" high on the fells above Hawsewater. We got lost!!!

We met some lovely people along the way.  An Australian couple called Dan and Jane kept appearing at various stages, either, high on the fells or going off down a path on the moors. We had a number of very friendly conversations with them. Betty, a New Zealander, was an elderly lady, older than us three anyway, we first met carrying a heavy back pack in the woods along the end of Ennerdale Valley. She was walking alone. We chatted for a while before moving on. We saw her climb the steep precipitous waterfall at the end of the valley stepping carefully and slowly, a long way behind us. We met her again later on. She had undoubtedly made it. Betty was a very impressive lady.
While continuing our walk through the beautiful Dales we came across Nun Cote Nook Farm, between Reeth and Richmond. A hand written sign informed us that cream teas were available if we went round the back to the conservatory attached to the rear of the farmhouse. There we met a smiling flowery aproned lady called Elaine. She was all smiles. Her youngest daughter appeared and asked us if we would like to sit in the garden while she brought us a menu. Teas and coffees were prominent at the top of the menu followed by a selection of cakes and scones. I chose a piece of the most mouth-watering chocolate fudge cake with a large cup of Yorkshire Tea to wash it down with. Michael, chose a Victoria sponge cake with clotted cream and real strawberries as its filling. Clive had cream with scones. The sun was shining, the garden had beautiful vistas over, stone walls, high hills, sheep and cows. We were in heaven! When I took my empty cup and plate back to Elaine’s kitchen I saw her kitchen ceiling festooned with masses and masses of ribbons. She told us that they were prize winning rosettes for her sheep. Her kitchen looked spectacular. Elaine’s daughter told me that the whole family take part in the competitions. They were two very proud and happy ladies. Elaine sold Coast to Coast mugs. She had had them made herself, so we were not going to be able to buy them anywhere else. We each bought one of her lovely mugs.

Elaine's farmhouse kitchen with her ceiling festooned with rosettes.

After walking further into the Dales on another day and traversing a river by a beautiful stone bridge we ascended a high hill. We could see in front of us another working farmhouse. It had a row of tractors in front of it and a number of farmers and tractor drivers milling about. As we approached an amusing sign announced, BEWARE! FREE RANGE CHILDREN. Another sign a little further along informed us that we could get tea and coffee at this farmhouse too. It was called, Ravenseat. There were other walkers outside the farmhouse drinking tea as we approached. The tractor drivers had started up there tractors and the smell of diesel pervaded the air. I asked about this and I was told that they were getting ready to drive in convoy to a local fair for charity. We approached the farmhouse door to ask about tea when suddenly a rather tall ebullient lady burst forth, took our order and suggested the three of us did not need sugar in our tea because we were, “sweet enough.” That brought coy smiles to our faces. The order of tea was passed on to one of her, “free range children,” as their mother jumped on to a four wheel drive buggy, grabbing her youngest toddler to her bosom and then dramatically roaring off on this sturdy carriage up the opposite hillside where she stopped to take pictures of the now long stream of chugging tractors as they wended their smoky way over the hill and away from the farm. She was very impressive and I immediately named her, “Boudicca.” She reminded me of the strident statue of Boudicca in her chariot next to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge in London. It was not till later, back in London, I was looking at the books about The Coast to Coast walk in Waterstones in Wimbledon when I caught sight of a book entitled, “The Yorkshire Shepherdess, “by Amanda Owen. The picture on the front immediately showed me that,” Boudicca,” was indeed the Yorkshire Shepherdess. We had been given tea by a famous author. I bought the book.

A convoy of tractors on their way from Ravenseat Farm.

All the landladies at our various bed and breakfast were lovely. They were always friendly and appeared so pleased to see us. We were invariably made most welcome.  Sue and her husband Chris, who run the Eden House Bed and Breakfast in Kirby Stephen were particularly helpful. They saved us! We were booked in to the Jolly Farmers guest house next door to Eden House. We waited for some time but there was no answer to our knock on the door or to our phone calls. We knocked on the door of Eden House to find out if they knew anything. We discovered that The Jolly Farmers was closed. The proprietor had gone to Spain for a wedding. Sherpa, the company who transported our heavy luggage each day between B&B’s had a key to the Jolly Farmer’s to let themselves in and had deposited our luggage inside and locked the door after them. We had no way of getting to it. While I negotiated with Sue at Eden House, Michael phoned Macs Adventures, our tour company. Sue and her husband Chris were able to get hold of a lady who worked at The Jolly Farmers who had an access key. She arrived and allowed us to retrieve our luggage. Sue offered us a double room for the night and Michael negotiated with Macs Adventures to get us another room in a B&B along the road. All was saved. Sue and Chris were more than wonderful.

The School House bed and breakfast at Patterdale.

The most intriguing B&B we stayed in was at The School House, Patterdale. The tiny village is set in a narrow valley with the high crags of Catstycam , Arniston and Birks surrounding it. We couldn’t get a mobile phone signal here and the internet connection was weak. The school house had been built in the 1860’s and looked a little austere from the outside. However, once we walked through the door an incredible sight was revealed. The owners had decorated it with carved wood panelling from Thailand. There were rugs and wall hangings festooned around the bare stone walls. My bedroom had a four-poster bed with intricately carved posts and rails. Our hosts were wonderful too. I had my peat bog soaked jeans washed that night. You could have stood them up on their own, they were so stiff with peat. The mattress on my bed was unbelievably high and I had to use a low stool to enable me climb up onto the bed. I was reminded of Grimm’s fairy tales.

Robin Hoods Bay in the distance as we turned the headland.
We arrived in Robin Hoods Bay on Saturday 5th September absolutely elated. Our last days walk from Glaisdale had provided us walking encounters with roads, fields and some moor lands which we had been informed had peat bogs. Our initial thoughts were, not dreaded peat bogs like we had encountered before on the fells. These proved to be mild versions of what we had encountered before. There was no chance that we would sink and disappear into these shallow excuses for a bog. The last part of our walk was negotiating the headland, high up on the cliffs leading to Robin Hoods Bay. We were once again walking high  above  very impressive cliffs, wind-blown. It was a sea ravaged and rugged red sandstone landscape and proved to go on and on forever. Then we saw the huddled buildings of Robin Hoods Bay spilling down the cliffs to the beach. We had made it!!!!!!!!! The walk had provided us with a dramatic start high above the sea and it had ended with a dramatic finish high above the sea. We walked on to the village and straight down the steep main street to the beach. We threw our pebbles from St Bees into the sea. A kind gentlemen took a group photograph of the three of us and then we retired for a pint of Wainwrights beer in Wainwrights Bar at The Bay Hotel next to the pebbly beach. We had a lovely meal at The Smugglers Restaurant that evening and stayed in a beautiful Victorian guest house, at the top of the village, called, The Villa, owned by a kind and friendly lady called Jane who loved  barn dancing we discovered. On Sunday 6th we took a bus to Scarborough and then a train to London. Walking the Coast to Coast and completing it together is very important to the three of us. I began this review of our adventure wondering, why we should do it. There is no definitive answer but the process of walking it and its effect on our senses, our relationships with people and how it has informed an understanding of ourselves is something very special. We have lived it.


 The happy three of us standing on the beach at Robin Hoods Bay.

                                                                                         

4 comments:

  1. A lovely piece, Tony, thank you.

    Michael

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    1. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be with you on the walk,Michael.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your reflections of the Walk, Tony -- and comparing them with my own. What a grand and exciting adventure that was. I'm still trying to come to terms with the whole thing. In addition to the daily blog posts I have done, I think I'll try to write something more substantial. The project seems to require that kind of response, eh?! Cheers, mate!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a privilege and a pleasure to be with you on the walk,Clive.

      Delete