Walking in the Lake District
The Coast to Coast walk was originally described by Alfred Wainwright in 1973 in his book Coast to Coast Walk.
Although Wainwright died in 1991, his book is still available and his hand-sketched drawings are still used by many of the walkers to navigate today.
It is a wonderful and inspiring route. It ranks alongside finest long distance walks in many guidebooks.
The walk (190 miles) crosses the north of England from St Bees on the shores of the Irish Sea to the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire Coast.
It is normally undertaken over a period of 14 days with overnight stops. It is normally undertaken west to east to take advantage of the prevailing wind.
The gradient profile is such that the hardest walking comes first in the Lake District Section between St Bees and Shap.
A friend of mine had long had an ambition to walk the whole 190 miles. In 2015 he teamed up with two of his friends and planned a 14-day crossing from St Bees to Robin Hood’s bay starting on May 15th 2015.
Having lots of fond memories of walking in the Lake District fells in my school days, but unable to take the full two weeks off work, I seized the opportunity to join them for the first 7 days through the Lakes. I planned to return from the Settle and Carlisle Railway station at Kirkby Stephen.
On Thursday 14th May 2015, the four of us met at Sevenoaks Station and travelled up to St Bees via Carlisle. Despite the Government’s £13bn investment into the West Coast Main Line aimed at shaving 30 minutes off the London-Carlisle time, Virgin Trains (yuck) still managed to deposit us at the border city 40 minutes late. This was only just in time to connect with our regional train around the beautiful coast to St Bees.
At St Bees we checked into the Albert Hotel and went for dinner at a pub (The Manor) getting to sleep early in anticipation for the big day.
St. Bees to Ennerdale 14 miles
We would be using the Sherpa Van service. It is an interesting business idea and involves a van picking up your luggage and taking it to the next hotel, leaving you to walk with a small rucksack each day. They charge £7 per day per pack which is actually a very reasonable fee.
We labelled up our bags and left them in the reception at the Albert and ventured out to the start of the trail at the caravan park at St Bees.
There is a marker point and we took our pictures there. We also collected two pebbles each from the beach. The tradition is to carry both and then place one in the North Sea at the end of the trip replacing it with one from Robin Hoods Bay.
The Coast to Coast trail starts with a day of varied scenery. The first three miles are along the red cliffs of St. Bees Head; a nature reserve for sea birds. The route then strikes inland across farmland and a former coal mining area.
We made good progress and we soon met the first of many co-walkers along the route; Jackie and her daughter Stacey were from north of Vancouver in Canada. We accompanied them to our lunch stop at Cleator.
Whilst we were having our meat & potato pies from the bakery in Cleator we were caught up by and passed by Philip, an accountant living in Frankfurt and his brother-in-law Joseph from Twickenham London. Phillip was celebrating his 50th birthday by doing the walk.
After lunch we left Cleator and headed up to the summit of Dent Hill. We had our last view of the sea at the summit before we descended to Ennerdale Bridge at the edge of the Lake District National Park.
Two of us were in one B&B whilst the other two were accommodated at the local pub. We were impressed that Sherpa had already delivered the luggage.
We later all met up for dinner and sampled some of the excellent local Ennerdale Ales.
Ennerdale to Roshtwaite 14 miles
After obtaining our packed lunches from our B&B, we met up again and all started out from Ennderdale.
The route took us along Ennerdale Water and past the site of Robin Hood’s Chair. This is the only part of the route that requires a bit of scrambling and a bit of caution. You have to keep your wits about you clambering around the rocks here as there is a 60 foot drop into the lake. Sadly a lady doing the coast-to-coast had slipped and died on this section only 2 weeks before.
The lake gives way to a forest path and there is a gradual ascent to the Black Sail Youth Hostel. We met up with our “Stray for the Day”; Paul (a maths teacher, from Shrewsbury) on this section and walked with him for the rest of the day. We also passed a party of 6 Americans from Seattle.
After eating our packed lunches at the Black Sail Hostel we tackled the steep ascent of Loft Beck (milepost 24). After a while the gradient eased and above Loft Beck there was a grassy slope with good views of Ennerdale and Buttermere. Once over the summit, we followed the path of the slate tramway down to the slate mine at Honister Hause (mile 25.5).
It was then a short walk down into Roshsthwaite. We were split up again with one guy staying at the vicarage and the rest of us at a little B&B.
We got together for a pub meal of local Cumberland sausage and mash.
Roshtwaite to Grasmere 8 miles
We set off again after breakfast and began by walking up Borrowdale. We soon bumped into “Stray of the Day”; Nick (from Tunbridge Wells) and we walked with him for most of the rest of the day. We nicknamed him “taxi driver Nick” on account of his ability to talk without turning his head around.
After a climb of 2 hours of so we reached the highest point of the day at Greenup Edge (mile 32). It was cold at the top so we didn’t hang around long. We continued along the ridge to Calf Crag (mile 33.5) for another picnic lunch.
With time in hand we decided to forgo the low-level Far Easedale alternative and headed over the ridge to Helm Crag overlooking Grasmere. Helm is famous to many visitors to the Lakes for its “Lion and Lamb” appearance.
We descended Helm Crag (quite a steep descent) and headed into Grasmere (milepost 38) for afternoon tea.
We walked to our B&B (at last we were all in the same place) located next to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. In the evening we went back into Grasmere for a dinner of steak & hake and several drinks at the local.
We bumped into most of the people we had met so far on the walk that evening; the Canadian girls, the Americans from Seattle, Taxi Nick, Phillip and Francis.
It was quite late when we made it back to the B&B.
It was just as well that Day 4 would be a short one.
Grasmere to Patterdale 8 miles
So far we had been lucky with the weather. It turned out that day 4 was to be the worst of the trip (for me anyway). It rained hard for most of the morning and the early afternoon.
After a late breakfast we donned our waterproofs and headed for the quick stretch over to Patterdale (milepost 46.5). The route is quite straightforward and heads up Grisedale Tongue and reaches its highest point at Grisedale Tarn (milepost 42). It was bloody miserable walking though and I, with the permission of the others, headed up at a quicker pace to try and keep warm.
We descended quickly down into Patterdale and saw an interesting “temporary art sculpture” ; the “Paper Bridge” Just outside Patterdale.
As we reached Patterdale the sun was just coming out. We arrived at around 2pm and after a sandwich lunch at a local café we took the afternoon off to recover.
I was staying at the Old Water View Guest House and the owner actually told me that I had Alf Wainwright’s room. The author lived there for a few months each year.
In the evening we went to the Red Lion pub for a dinner of fish pie. We met up once again with the Canadians, Phillip and Francis. We also met another “Stray” Mark and a group of 4 lads from Sheffield. They had done the walk before and we named them “the paratroopers” for their ability to walk quite fast.
Sadly Wainwright’s room was not at all lucky for me. The rain kept me awake for most of the night.
Patterdale to Shap 15.5 miles
Patterdale to Shap is usually the hardest day of the whole crossing. It is 16 miles and includes the largest daily ascent and descent; 770m at Kidsty Pike.
We woke up early and had already started out by 9am. We immediately bumped into Jackie and Stacey (The Canadians) and started the long ascent of Kidsty Pike with them.
I was getting a little impatient with the pace so I went on ahead. Eventually I caught up with two lads from Bury, Barry and Ian. They were doing the whole crossing in 10 days. I climbed up the steepest part with them until we reached the plateau at 700m. The path intersects “High Street”, an old Roman Road, and goes across the ridge here.
I continued alone until I reached Kidsty Pike summit. I made it in 2 hours 30 minutes from Patterdale. I met up with a lad from Manchester who was out on a day trip doing a circle. He took my photograph and then I waited for the others.
Whilst I was waiting Barry and Ian passed me and then Phillip and Francis passed as well. Eventually after 40 minutes the other three arrived accompanied by the Canadians. We then repeated the photo session before heading down towards Haweswater Lake. We paused on the way down for a picnic lunch in pretty idyllic conditions.
The weather suddenly and briefly turned and it began to hail as we descended the steep crag down to the lake. We reached the lake shore and continued the 4-mile walk along Haweswater. We reached the end of the lake (and the Lake District) by about 3pm.
The last 4 miles of the walk to Shap was along grassy riverbanks, through parkland and across pastures and it was easy going. Just before Shap there was a ruined Abbey (Shap Abbey) and one of the local farmers had left an honesty box full of drinks and crisps to help walkers up the last hill.
We finally reached Shap (mileposts 62 to 63) at about 5:30pm. We were staying in the Hermitage Bed and Breakfast. This is quite a famous one for Coast to Coasters and dates from 1659. The house was really quite beautiful inside.
I ventured down to the Queen’s Head for a pint with Barry and Ian and then we all then had dinner in the (Award Winning) Shap chip shop.
Whilst we were in the chip shop I formulated a plan for the next day. I needed to arrive at Kirkby Stephen in time for my train at 5pm and ideally I needed to aim for 4pm. The stretch was flat but very long at 20 miles.
I didn’t want to push the others. With their agreement I made a suggestion that I would walk with Phillip and Francis instead. Phillip and Francis happily agreed and promised that they would escort me to Kirkby by 4pm. We ventured over to the Crown and sealed the deal with pints of Cumberland Ale.
Shap to Kirkby Stephen – 21 Miles
Although I had agreed to walk with Phillip and Francis in order to reach Kirkby Stephen sooner there was one slight problem. I had been allocated early breakfast at 7:30am whilst Phillip and Francis had been given 8:00 am. The B&B were short staffed so we decided to live with the arrangements.
My three companions left first at about 8:30am and headed out. We three would leave at 9am and aim to pass them en route.
Short staffed or not the Hermitage breakfast was superb. It included home-made Cumberland sausage and it was the best of 6 very good breakfasts.
Pretty much on time at 9am Phillip, Francis and I set out. We made brief stops for provisions at the Co-op and the bakery (corned beef & potato pasty) and by 9:30am we had cleared Shap and were over the footbridge that takes the Coast to Coast across the M6 motorway.
Phillip who emigrated to Germany 12 years ago with his British wife and Francis, his wife’s brother, were excellent company. We got on really well and spent the whole day covering a variety of subjects from Japan and Germany to London, walking and running.
They were truly fantastic guys and took their role of escorting “the prisoner” to Kirkby in time for his train very seriously.
We immediately made good pace and within an hour Francis shouted “target acquired” as we spotted my three erstwhile companions on the brow of the hill. We quickly caught them up. I paused long enough to say extended farewells and to wish my former comrades good luck on the rest of the trip.
We pushed on and on. We overtook Nick and then the Paras and finally bumped into Barry and Ian.
The scenery of limestone escarpments, moorland, pasture and scattered farmsteads was quite different from any other stage of the walk. We stopped briefly for lunch in the vicinity of Sunbiggin Tarn (milepost 74) and then pressed on towards Kirkby.
Eventually the Settle & Carlisle Railway came into view and we descended towards the town. We paused only to photograph the lambs in the fields
To the surprise of the bar maid at the Black Bull “Have you really come from Shap?” we arrived in Kirkby Stephen (Mile Post 83) at 3:10pm. (The others eventually arrived after 6pm)
We had a couple of pints of Ruskins to celebrate before going to the Fletcher House Guest House.
I waited for Sherpa to deliver my kit. Once it had arrived I bade a fond farewell to Phillip and Francis and got a taxi to the Kirkby Stephen Railway Station.
The Journey Home
Instead of heading straight home using the fast routes via Carlisle to Euston or via Doncaster to Kings Cross, I had decided to take the traditional Midland Railway route (it was cheaper too)
The Settle & Carlisle (famously saved by Michael Portillo) was built to try to allow the Midland out of St Pancras to compete with the rival Euston and Kings Cross routes to Scotland.
My intention was to follow the route of the Midland Railway’s erstwhile “Thames-Clyde Express” (Competitor to the Euston “Royal Scot” and the Kings Cross “Flying Scotsman“) to Leeds via Settle and then on via Barnsley, Sheffield, Nottingham and finally into St Pancras.
I boarded the 5.14pm train at the delightfully-restored Kirkby Stephen station.
After a beautiful journey down the Settle and Carlisle on a glorious late spring evening I ended up at Leeds. I inspected the wonderfully recently restored Art Deco 1938 “Midland” ticket hall and checked into a hotel across the road from the station. I feasted on Indian street food and craft IPA Beer at “Bundobust” close to the station. I got an early night.
The next morning I woke early and inspected the beautiful market building. It has a replica stall for the first ever Marks and Spencer (It was actually selling M&S goods)
I boarded the local train to Nottingham at 10:05 and enjoyed an interesting journey through the Yorkshire mill towns and down to Sheffield.
At Nottingham I had a layover of an hour and a half so I took the brand new tram into the city for a spot of lunch
The 13:37 express to St Pancras had me back in the capital by 15:15. An hour or so later I was back in Otford