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Blisters & Ale: England's Coast-to-Coast Walk

IN THE MID-1970s, the legendary English walker Alfred Wainwright devised a 190-mile ramble through three distinct landscapes. The route began at the cliffs of St. Bee’s on the Irish Sea and went east across the rugged, mountainous Lake District, through the rolling green valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, and finally onto the stark North York Moors before reaching the sea again. Using public rights-of-way, a hiker spent most of his time alone in the open, crossing lonely farms and stone fences between wee villages where the only accommodations were in old inns and small B&Bs.

Called the Coast to Coast Walk, it became known among connoisseurs as the best long-distance walk in England, a place renowned for its grand walks. From the first time I heard about the Coast to Coast it sounded irresistible. I bought Wainwright’s eccentric pictorial guidebook, written in his hand and illustrated with his sketches, and pored over its precise, evocative directions: “A path is found near a line of limestone outcrops and passes down a shallow valley, inclining right to a stile in a wall near a clump of larch trees.” I couldn’t wait to walk into such images.

But after one day, with only 15 miles done, I’d already begun to wonder about the next 175. I’d come in May for two reasons: less competition for space in the B&Bs, since most Coast-to-Coasters go later in the summer, and dryer weather, since less rain falls in May than any other month—a highly relative statistic in this soggy country. It had been raining for days, turning meadows into marsh, and my old boots had cracked under the constant water torture. But I was more concerned about their innocent victims—my feet, to which I and my plans unfortunately remained attached. For years, on dozens of long hikes over hundreds of miles, I’ve carried the same squashed package of moleskin, unopened. Now, with my feet afire and a-throb, I sipped bitter ale in a speck of a village called Ennerdale Bridge and sensed that this blister-free era had ended spectacularly.

The next morning I sauntered (well, hobbled) towards the mountains of Lakeland rising steeply just ahead. It was raining again. Countless streams dashed down the mountainside to Ennerdale Water. They all crossed the path and I crossed all of them, hopping from stone to stone, trying to keep my feet dry. Nine miles on I reached Black Sail Hut, once a shepherd’s shelter, aptly described by Wainwright as “the loneliest and most romantic of Youth Hostels, situated in a magnificent surround of mountainous country.” He loved these bare rocky steeps, and his ashes are scattered near here.

The walk’s most rigorous section starts at Black Sail and sets a rhythm that continues throughout four days in Lakeland: climb a mountain to a rocky upland, glimpse distant lakes and slim green valleys through mist and cloud, then descend into a verdant dale gushing with streams and waterfalls, past grazing sheep and tidy farms to the stone village snuggled there: Rothswaite, Grasmere, Patterdale, Shap. The glaciated mountains of Lakeland aren’t high--the walk gets above 3,000 feet only once and usually stays below 2,500—but they’re often very steep, and are made steeper by the English disdain for switchbacks. Straight up, straight down—why dither?

I rarely saw other walkers during the day. The solitude and the wild misty mountains made the days eerie and dream-like. It rained intermittently for three of my four days in Lakeland, and constantly on the other. The path alternated between bogs, streams, and slippery rocks. My boots kept drowning and I grew another crop of blisters. Most travelers agree with Wordsworth that the Lake District is England’s most beautiful region, but if I had bumped into him effusing about the place—“Blue pomp of lakes, high cliffs and falling floods” etc. etc.—I’d have stopped his gob with bloody moleskin. Still, he was right. It was gorgeous country. And in the evenings there were always the wonderful pubs, with good ale and easy conversation.

MY WIFE JUDE joined me six days into the trip at Kirkby-Stephen, mile 82. The next 13 miles to Keld, the walk’s midpoint, began with a five-mile, 1,700 foot climb to Nine Standards Rigg (ridge) atop the Pennines, England's spine. The summit was a pathless quagmire of peat hags—black bogs and gullies edged with marshy overhangs—but the views were spectacular, with the mountains of Lakeland to the west and the Cleveland Hills to the east.

Keld was a small huddle of stone houses. The Butt House B&B stood slightly up from the village. (A butt is an earthen hunter’s blind.) The B&B’s proprietress, Mrs. Doreen Whitehead, was a legend among Coast to Coasters for her cooking and imposing manner. She brought to mind a Checker cab—massive, indestructible, of indiscernible age. She ordered us to put our things in our room and return to the parlor immediately for tea. Some familiar compatriots of the walk were already ensconced there--Roy and Sue, Joe and Mamie, Trevor and Sue—enjoying Mrs. Whitehead’s superb scones and chocolate cake. Our hostess steamed in to assign us numbers and dinner places. “Dinner is at 8:00 but I like my guests down at 7:30,” she decreed, “so when I’m ready, I know where you are.” No one was tardy.

After a prodigious dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding served by Mr. Earnest Whitehead, a Jack Sprat to his ample wife, we retired to the parlor. Mrs. Whitehead joined us. She was a delightful blend of bluff cheer and absolute command. Her 11 year old grandson had recently visited. She paid him 50 pence per day to dust and polish. “But if I find a speck of dust, I dock him,” she said, “and he does the downstairs for free, for his keep. He left here with seven quid,” she added, looking horrified at the expense.

The next morning began, as always, with the heart-attack-on-a-plate known as a full English breakfast—cereal with whole milk, fried eggs, fried sausages, thick fried rashers, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, and heavily buttered toast. Deadly but delicious, and I ate it eagerly every day for two weeks. Mrs. Whitehead’s rendition was especially killing.

“I’ll be sitting in the entryway whenever you want to pay me,” she said. “You can’t get out without going past me.”

While settling up, I asked if she had known Wainwright. Yes, when he was an old man he would drive here for her chocolate cake and conversation. He didn’t like crowds, and as a young man he would walk into the Lake District on weekends to write, sketch, and dream. He made the notebooks for himself, so that when he was old he could sit by the fire and re-live his walks. But he told someone about the notebooks, who told a publisher, and that was that. His series of pictorial guides made him a demi-god among long-distance English walkers—that is, among the English.

Mrs. Whitehead showed me her small but thorough guide to B&Bs along the route. American buyers were required to send a five-dollar bill, and she had $700-worth of Lincolns saved towards her dream trip to Nashville. “I love country music,” she said in her thick Yorkshire accent, “especially Dolly Parton.”

KELD STOOD at the entrance to Swaledale, described by Wainwright as the finest of the Yorkshire Dales. No argument from me. It’s hard to imagine a more heavenly stretch of green English countryside. Every new climb and bend revealed another postcard view of emerald fields dotted with stone barns and sheep, everything neatly segmented by stone walls that marched straight up the hills—a landscape polished into beautiful order by centuries of use.

The miles between Keld and Reeth (11½), and between Reeth and Richmond (10½), rolled by like a stroll in paradise. But after 10 days of rural peace I was looking forward to Richmond, the only largish town on the route, with a population of 8,000. Richmond’s traffic and bustling market square seemed positively cosmopolitan. At the King’s Head, inspired by all this urbanity, we ordered gin and tonics instead of ale.

“Excellent drink,” said a well-dressed old gent at my elbow. After a sentence or two of pleasantries, he offered his hand: “I’m Lord Wensley,” he said. I almost retorted, “And I’m the King of Spain,” but something stopped me. Maybe the aristocratic mannerisms—the puckered down-turned mouth, the out-thrust lower lip, the way he chewed as he laughed.

He joined us and told his story. Seven hundred years ago his family supplied the army of Edward I in a losing battle and was rewarded with a lordship. Before inheriting the title and 28,000 acres of Yorkshire, Lord Wensley had worked as a doctor for Mobil. He didn’t get down to the House of Lords much. He had been married for 42 years to a frosty woman who never made him laugh; she had died of breast cancer. Consoling himself in the pubs of Richmond, he was drawn to a barmaid named Averill who was warm, merry, and plump (“a bit bumpy-bumpy”). After six months he shocked her by proposing marriage.

“But you’re a lord and I’m a skivvy,” said the future Lady Wensley. No matter, he told her, but she really would have to stop cursing so much. She made him laugh and he was very happy, but his only son and heir, the obviously odious Ambrose, refused to meet her. Milord was out loose tonight because Averill was in London buying an expensive outfit for a swanky soiree.

He had been flirting with Jude in a charming way all evening. When she made some remark about being a nice Jewish girl, he looked stunned. “You’re Jewish?” he said. Uh-oh, I thought, here comes the notorious anti-Semitism of the British upper classes.

I’m Jewish,” he said. “We were Jews when we supplied Edward I. We’ve all been bar mitzvahed. I’m going to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem this summer to make reparations to my parents for marrying a Gentile.” He looked at Jude with redoubled wonder. “You will be the third Lady Wensley,” he said theatrically.

Soon after, feigning a broken heart, he took his leave for “the Hall” near Wensleydale. “Supper,” he said, “will be cold partridge, salad, and port. I’m up to 1968. I may finish the whole bottle tonight.” He waved and then stumbled with all available dignity towards his waiting driver.

RICHMOND was at mile 117. I needed to rest my swollen, infected feet for a day, but we also had to keep moving because we were booked into B&Bs. Even Wainwright didn’t like the next part of the walk, a 23-mile march over flat farmland and eight miles of asphalt. He called it tedious. I called a cab. Better to save my dogs for the last 50-odd miles.

The North York Moors dominated the next three days. In August the moors are purple with heather, but in mid-May the colors were dark and dour, as harshly handsome as Brontë’s Heathcliff. No trees, no houses, no fences. The wind blew so hard that you could put your shoulder to it, and standing still was difficult. Grouse skittered among the heather or flushed with thunderous wings. The strange cries of the curlew put a sound to the lonely surroundings. Far below, the cheerful green vales looked like different worlds entirely.

Two oases lit this segment. The first was Lord Stones Café, dug into a hill eight miles east of Ingleby Cross. We warmed our wind-battered bones there one day at lunch. The second was the famous Lion Inn at Blakeky, which appeared dramatically on the otherwise empty horizon, as it has for travelers since the 1550s. It was a fabulous warren of cozy rooms with fireplaces and low beamed ceilings. I had tried to book a room there but it was Saturday night and full, so we ended up at a B&B a few miles downhill in Farndale.

The Coast to Coast avoids crowds, towns, and busy roads, so most of the B&Bs along the route depend on walkers for their business. By this point in the trip I had stayed in everything from cozy stone farmhouses to elegant old mansions, with rooms that ranged from satisfactory to exceptional. The How in Rothswaite had been genteel and gracious (and owned by George Orwell’s nephew). In Shap I had the biggest room and the best meal of my trip at the lovely Hermitage, built in 1690. The Monk’s House in Ingleby Arncliffe, with its lovely garden and a sandstone fireplace incised with Celtic designs, dated to the 1300s. You’ve met Mrs. Whitehead.

And then there was our B&B in Farndale, on a spartan sheep farm at the edge of poverty. Its sign was hand-painted black letters on a dented hubcap nailed to a post. The owners were near 70. He was ramrod straight, and offered his conversation as reluctantly as his hospitality. She was something from Dickens. Bent and misshapen, with a shrill warbly voice and one rheumy eye, which twitched, she made an alarming hostess.

The next morning as she cooked our breakfast she often paused to work on her catarrh, hawking so harshly that I expected to see lungs on our plates. Jude couldn’t eat. I had the full English breakfast.

OUR LAST DAY'S walk was 16 ½ miles from Grosmont to Robin Hood’s Bay. It was a small masterpiece, with Wainwright recapitulating the themes of his long-distance symphony. It began with a climb to a moor, moved into a dell with a tiny stone village, then into a forest with bluebells, a waterfall, and a peculiar hermit’s cave sculpted from a gigantic boulder in 1790. Then we were back among green fields and sheep until, at a rise, we glimpsed the blue ribbon of the North Sea. Exhilaration!

But Wainwright was a tease. His route took us to the edge of the land several miles north of our goal, forcing us to savor a grand cliff walk whose curves blocked the sight of our final destination. Then at last there it was, spilling steeply down to the sea—the red-roofed village of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Following Coast to Coast tradition, at the start of the trip I had picked up a stone from the beach at St. Bee’s and had wet my boots in the Irish Sea. Now I tossed my stone into the North Sea and stepped in after it.

That left two things to do. First I signed my name in the official Coast to Coast log at the Bay Hotel, and read with relish the comments of my fellow pilgrims: Knackered! Dead man walking. Took the dog for a walk. Devastated, gutted, never again. Good for the soul, bad for the soles. “Done!” I wrote, “And almost done in.”

And then the last thing: I raised a pint to Wainwright, to long distance walking, and, by God, to myself.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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