Travel Story Walking coast to coast across England

It's well worth beating the blisters to experience some of Britain’s finest scenery.

On a balmy spring morning, I am hiking through the beautiful valley of Borrowdale in England’s Lake District and I can’t believe my luck.

The sun is shining brightly when, by rights, the rain should be pelting down. The reason being, that Borrowdale lays claim to being the wettest place in the country. The small hamlet of Seathwaite, which we can see in the distance, is doused annually with more than 3500mm of rain (this probably accounts for its minuscule population).

Today, though, it is glorious. And in these conditions I doubt there are many more dramatic and inspirational places on Earth.

We are on day three of the Coast to Coast walk, the famous route devised by a grumpy flat-capped, hiking-obsessed Lancastrian called Alfred Wainwright, back in the early 1970s.

The 309km jaunt, from the Cumbrian village of St Bees on the west coast to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire on the east, is rated as one of the world’s most beautiful — and toughest — treks.

There are 12 in our party, all mates and most of us past our use-by dates, who are raising funds for a UK teenage charity while also supporting our leader, Fraser, who is recovering from a major stroke.

The walk normally takes a fortnight and in that time you traverse three of Britain’s most glorious national parks, while at the same time ascending (and descending) the height of Everest.

On day three though, with the weather gods smiling on us, we feel as if we could walk forever.

Wainwright, whose name we curse over the course of the fortnight when the going gets tough, started a tradition of dipping one’s feet in the sea at either end of the journey, and also carrying a pebble from beach to beach.

So, pebbles in pocket and toes moistened, you head off into the hills. Day one, while not overly tough, provides a taster of more serious ascents to come. Dent Hill may be only 352m high but it feels more like 1000 to this weary climber, and sinking up to my knees in a bog at the top does little to lift the spirits. But the views from the summit certainly do. From here you can see as far as the Isle of Man in the west and Solway Firth and Scotland to the north.

The next few days take you up and up, into the lofty peaks of the Lake District, then down into the greenest valleys imaginable. 

The kilometres are eaten up — an average of 25 a day — but the stupendous vistas make us forget our aching limbs, well almost.

Nights are spent in pubs or cosy B&Bs. Both provide immense full English breakfasts, which we devour with not a shred of guilt. Fat sausages and rich black pudding are the staples of the fell walker.

Four of us take an early detour to climb famous Helvellyn and the notorious Striding Edge, which involves a perilous descent down a rocky cliff. But again, the effort is worth it: the views are stupendous from all sides. It proves to be our longest and toughest day — 12 hours walking — at the end of which my pedometer clicks over the 50,000-step mark for perhaps the first and last time in my life.

Onward we march, through the beautiful Yorkshire Dales and across the rugged, but no less striking, North Yorkshire moors. Much to our astonishment the weather continues to hold, causing a few to decry the hundreds of dollars spent on state-of-the-art all-weather clothing that rarely makes an appearance. I simply count my blessings. I would not fancy attempting this jaunt in wind and rain, especially as for large swathes of the journey there are few signposts marking the route. Hopeless at reading maps I stick close to Stu, an experienced trekker who has painstakingly plotted the route on his GPS gizmo, which proves invaluable.

After a week of tramping, the blisters start to appear. I am one of the lucky ones. Whether it be the combination of good boots and expensive triple-layered socks — or the mysterious German foot cream I had been prescribed — my soles and toes remain untarnished. For some, though, it’s a different story.

In Kirkby Stephen, 62-year-old Wal is forced to visit a doctor who tells him, in no uncertain terms, his walk is over. His left foot sports an appalling blister that covers most of the sole and takes weeks to disappear. How he has walked so far in this condition, and without complaining, is astonishing.

While his is undoubtedly the worst case, there are plenty more gruesome sights among the others. Each morning the B&Bs take on the appearance of a military field hospital as our weary crew patch up each other’s wounds.

Somehow, though, the remaining 11 make it through to the finish line. And as the North Sea finally shimmers into view there are virtual hysterics among our party. Striding along the cliff top and into charming Robin Hood’s Bay, we whoop with delight before descending to the beach and lobbing our precious pebbles into the surf.

Alfred Wainwright died in 1991 and, a quarter of a century on, his pictorial walking guides — including the Coast to Coast volume — are still regarded as the definitive manuals for fell walkers. But despite recently being voted the world’s second-best walk, the Coast to Coast is still awaiting official National Trail status.

Not that it really matters. Official or unofficial, it is still a magnificent walk and standing on the beach with the sea circling our boots, we feel a genuine sense of achievement. Additionally, we have raised more than $28,000 for the Dallaglio Foundation in the process. We think we deserve a beer. And after two weeks and more than 300km of walking, a pint has never tasted as sweet.

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