Just how hard can it be to walk from one side of England to the other? Harder than we expected, as it turns out …
The coast-to-coast walk is certainly a journey to remember. Forget the Inca Trail – the greatest trek that you never knew existed is right here on your doorstep. The English coast-to-coast route was invented by noted walker and writer Alfred Wainwright in 1973. It stalls on the west coast – St Bees in Cumbria – takes in nearly 200 miles of contrasting, rugged, steep, bucolic, boggy English countryside through three national parks, and ends in Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire (above). In the spirit of personal development, I’ve loaded up my backpack with camping accoutrement and set myself a ten-day target to do it in.
I’ve been warned that it won’t be easy. The terrain is tough in places with lots of ups and downs. And my ten-day aim is aggressive – Wainwright suggests 14 to 21 days. Yet heading up onto the red rocky cliffs of St Bees overlooking the Irish Sea, my face nipped by a cool breeze, having dipped my toe in the water and snatched a pebble to deposit on the other side, I remain confident. I mean, how hard can it actually be? Three hours in and I’m sweating buckets; the straps on my backpack are already starting to cut.
The walk begins up 90m-high red sandstone cliffs overlooking the sea before descending into the ruggedness of the Lake District. The first afternoon is testing, particularly the hour-long ascent up Dent Hill that feels like going straight up a mountain – which is pretty much what it is. This is followed by a descent to Ennerdale Water, a long, flat lake stretching for miles like a sheet of corrugated iron. There are no people here. It feels quite unearthly being utterly alone with unspoilt nature. If only my feet weren’t so sore.
I check my Henry Stedman – the authoritative guide to the trek – which tells me that it’s half an hour to the youth hostel I’m staying at. It’s three hours later that I’m finally lying on the top bunk at the Ennerdale Water YHA with my legs feeling like they’ve been sledgehammered. Sleep is peripatetic, broken frequently by a man who snores like a comedy bear. If I thought this was going to be a doddle, I was wrong.