Posted 7th May 2013
Here I was again, setting off into a bit of an unknown. The boots were on, the backpack was stuffed to the brim and I had a familiar friend for company. Only this time I only needed one little red guidebook, AW's Coast to Coast Pictorial Guide.
So far my walks with Wainwright had been simple; lovely, enticing rambling excursions into Lakeland, enchanting on occasion, exerting in places and uplifting in general. But most definitely day trips, albeit sometimes quite long days. This excursion however, presented a whole new ball game. This was long distance walking, a route of parts with a goal in the distance, the very distance.
So, as I ran down the pebbly beach at St Bees to mark the start of my journey by dipping my toes in the Irish Sea there was real exuberance in that dash to the water's edge. This was the start of something entirely different for me. It was like the first day back at school, the bell had rung and it was time to muster; a whole new chapter in my walking explorations was about to unfold.
If I thought I'd experienced tiredness, batterings by the elements, navigational conundrums and chocolate induced sugar highs during my previous walks. It was all about to go up another notch. Eyes up, feet forward.
GATEWAY TO THE LAKES
St Bees to Rosthwaite
DISTANCE: 29 miles/46.6 kilometres
St Bees to Ennerdale Bridge
14 ¼ miles/22.9 kilometres
Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwaite
14.5 miles/23.3 kilometres
OS MAP: Explorer 303, OL4
Starting from the shores of the Irish Sea a full 4 miles (6.43 kilometres) of coastal footpath is followed by the flatlands and old mining villages of West Cumbria. The small foothill of Dent is a flavour of bigger things to come and leads into the most remote of all the Lake District valleys - Ennerdale. Here the Coast to Coast path hugs the edge of Ennerdale Water, taking a direct route up the valley, amongst some of the biggest peaks in the area. There's a steep climb passing around Wainwright's much loved peak, on Haystacks, across to Honister Pass and its very obvious slate mining. It's an industry, which has done much to shape the villages of this area and the lovely valley of Borrowdale, the destination for
this first section.
Now, you really shouldn't start out on this walk until you've set foot on the beach itself. Once you are down on its shore there's a certain Coast to Coast tradition that you may like to follow. This involves choosing a pebble from this beach, popping it in your pocket and taking it with you all the way across northern England to your destination on the east coast. There's also something else that Wainwright advised. He didn't believe the walk had officially begun until you'd dipped your toes in the Irish Sea. This is no time to hold back, embrace that icy Irish Sea. My thinking is that this could actually aid the challenge you've set yourself, a bit of light refreshment for the toes may well sort of awaken them in readiness for the hard work that's ahead.
Once these traditions have been dutifully observed your Coast to Coast walk can get underway. Now, as well as walking & writing, Wainwright's other great contribution to his books was his drawing. Sketches abound, but just as valuable are his maps. Armed with your Coast to Coast guide you can see from a glance at his hand drawn map of the whole route what a comprehensive journey this is, marching its way between the two coasts. As Wainwright quickly realized, a straight line across northern England could include the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors, so three National Parks in one walk. From St Bees in the west to Robin Hood's Bay in the east, Wainwright certainly made 192 miles (308.9 kilometres) look incredibly simple.
So, if you tackle this journey as AW suggests, you will always be heading east. He recommended this direction because of the prevailing conditions, preferring to have the wind on his back rather than blowing in his face.
He added: ‘In the case of this particular walk it is perhaps unfortunate that the grandest part of it, through Lakeland, comes so early, but those who do not already know the heather moors of north-east Yorkshire can be assured that they form a fitting
Don't be surprised that when you do start you will seem to be travelling in slightly the wrong direction. AW himself points out the walk does begin a little ‘disconcertingly' by heading north along the cliffs.
‘It is along the top of the cliffs, that this long journey to Robin Hood's Bay begins. There is no possibility of getting lost but there is a risk of accident on the seaward side of the fence: assurance of ultimately arriving at Robin Hood's Bay is much greater if the landward side is preferred.'
These cliffs have been the cause of concern since at least 1717 when a lighthouse was first installed on the tip of St Bees Head. This building however also marks the most westerly point on the Coast to Coast path.
It was at this spot that I had the pleasure of meeting up again with an old Lakeland acquaintance and the man who nearly twenty-five years ago accompanied Alfred Wainwright on one of his last television appearances. Eric Robson, broadcaster, writer and filmmaker had the rare privilege of joining AW to film a journey along his Coast to Coast route.
‘It was like yesterday that I began this walk with AW. It was an adventure, an expedition, he was just enjoying himself. He was particularly fond and proud of the Coast to Coast walk.' However, Eric did reveal that despite AW's claims that one could do the walk in twelve days, he certainly never did. ‘That runs counter to everything he suggests - he encourages walkers to take their time, to dawdle, to enjoy it. At the heart of his project was the notion that here was one suggestion, it was ‘a' Coast to Coast walk not ‘the' Coast to Coast walk. It was an adventure and an expedition, he wanted everybody to basically stick to his route but go and explore from it'.
I'd got to know Eric through my first real brush with Lakeland when I'd tackled ten of AW's classic routes for the first television series. Eric had advised me on places to go, and had even come out and encouraged me along on certain routes and checked in on me after I had returned.
Julia Bradbury's Wainwright Walks: Coast to Coast book, published by Frances Lincoln, is available to buy from all good book stores priced at £14.99 paperback.
Photographs courtesy of © Skyworks Ltd
Drawings courtesy of © The Estate of A Wainwright