By NAVEED GILANI
You must be wondering about the trailing part of the title of this travelogue. “Coast 2 Coast” is understandable as the whole purpose is to tell you about this expedition from one coast to another, however, “Maia O Maria”, I am sure, arouses curiosity. This is a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ between Munir and I and I can tell you that, the mention of Maria, which by the way came up more than many times during the trek, puts a smile on both our faces, naughty on Munir’s and suggestive on mine. That is all I am going to say for now.
That said…, here is this wonderful 320 km trek in United Kingdom which has turned out to be a bellwether for me as far as long-distance trekking goes. It is known as ‘Coast to Coast’ because it is between the two coasts, Irish Sea and the North Sea. It can be trekked in either direction; we did the more popular west to east direction, starting in St. Bees on the Irish Sea coast and ending in Robin Hood Bay on the North Sea coast. I highly recommend it as a ‘once in a lifetime’ event, assuming that you are more than a little bit outdoorsy. And, depending on where you are on that scale, you can attempt it in parts or in one go as we did. We found the first part of the trek, through the lake district, tougher than the later part where you leave the district and step into the Yorkshire dales and the North York moors.
Two years ago, I first suggested this trek to Munir to which he readily agreed, he is an ardent trekker and always willing to try anything new and challenging. I invited many others; initial response was ‘this is exciting’ but I knew from experience that in the end only the adventure junkies remain standing. Just for that I divided the invite into three categories; core-trekkers, part-trekkers, and non-trekkers. The core trekkers would walk all the way, the part-trekkers would choose the segment or segments they would walk, and the non-trekkers would not walk at all but sightsee the day off and meet us for the night. The previous year Kim, my wife, had done part of the Camino with me (read ‘The Camino – My Way’ in this blog) which is where I got this idea of making three categories so anyone and everyone could join.
Alfred Wainwright is the discoverer of this beautiful trek. In 1930, at age 23, he fell in love with the lake district when he first viewed the Lakeland fells after climbing the Orrest Head near Windermere. Coast to Coast Walk was later described in this book published in 1973 which has become the bible for the scores of trekkers who have walked Wainwright’s tracks since he first introduced them to the world. The book has had many revisions since it was first published, and I think it is a must-have if you are planning to walk the ‘Coast to Coast’ or C2C as I will call it in this blog.
This was the longest trek that I had ever attempted and requires a lot of detailed planning which, without Wainwright’s book would have been most difficult. The book goes into much details; maps with waypoints, doable sections for various fitness levels, places to stay – camping, B&B, youth hostels, and hotels, places to eat, historical sites, and much more. At the outset we had opted out of camping because that would mean carrying that much extra load. A day pack was all we planned to carry on our backs.
The book says that if you add up all the ascents during the trek it will equal to climbing mount Everest. I didn’t actually verify this, but I can tell you that bulk of the ascent is in the lake district which is why I have said that the first half was twice as tough as the later part of the trek so, I suppose, you would climb most of the Everest in this half. Taking a lead from the book, we decided that we would complete the trek in 14 days with one rest day in between, accordingly we had to decide where to stop for the nights along the way. Ideally, we wanted to divide the entire length evenly for our daily trek but that was not to be. Our target was to not walk more than 8 to 9 hours on any given day and therefore, depending on the terrain we had to pick the villages or towns to stay for the night. Some villages were natural stops with a lot of places to stay whereas there were other segments between villages that were either too long or too short. Considering all aspects, we decided on the daily stop points and picked Kirkby Stephens, a small market town, for our rest day. Though not really a mid-point on the C2C trek, it is located just as one leaves the lake district.
Having decided all the stop points I handed off the reservations part to Danesh, my son. He was then going to school in London and had decided to join us as a core-trekker therefore we coincided our start date with the end of his school year; August 21 was the D-day. To my disappointment he later decided to change his plan to be a part-trekker, I suppose when you are young you have plenty of distractions and hiking 320 KMs is not on the top of your wanna-do list. C’est la vie! We had told him that we wanted to try every accommodation option other than camping and though this was the busy time of the year it gave us a bit of flexibility in the options to choose from. A couple of stops, Patterdale and Shap, were really hard to get a place and we ended up staying at some distance from the main track. This was particularly annoying at Patterdale as we had to walk one and a half hour off the track to get to the YHA (youth hostel association) hostel. At Shap the owner of the B&B agreed to pick us in her car from the main track so that wasn’t too much of an issue.
The plan was for Kim and Danesh to drive to Kirkby Stephens to join us from whereon Danesh was to join for the rest of the trek and she to return after a couple of days with us as a non-trekker. This also changed and, on my suggestion, she ended up joining us for the entire trip after Kirkby Stephens. She would drive around during the day, enjoying the spectacular sights, visiting the historic landmarks, and meeting us for the night. The previous years’ experience on the Camino gave her sense enough to opt out of any walking, yet enjoying the mountains, moors and the farmlands.
Kim and I arrived in London a couple of days before the start day and stayed in Norwich with Sherry, my nephew, who had joined me for the Kilimanjaro trek back in 2013. He was to join us on this one also but didn’t due to a foot ailment. I am still not 100% if the foot was really that bad or just a good excuse. Munir arrived in Manchester and we were to meet on August 20 in St. Bees, our starting point on the Irish Sea coast. As part of the planning I had made copies of all the maps from Wainwright’s book and arranged them by each day of our trek. These were to be hung around my neck in a see-through plastic folder that I could see anytime on-the-go instead of pulling the book out of my backpack each time I had to refer to a map. I was also carrying an old school magnetic compass which also came in quite handy during the trek. As a backup I had also downloaded, in my smartphone, a complete C2C trail map from ‘Wikiloc’, an excellent app for trekkers which I highly recommend if you are attempting to trek anywhere. Another good tool was this app that converted the British Ordinance Survey (OS) grid points into the standard Latitude Longitude readings. This came in extremely handy as Wainwright’s book gives all waypoints in OS format and there were many times during the trek when I had to confirm our location by cross checking between OS and GPS. I may be getting into too much detail here but if you do decide to take this trip then let me tell you that these tips will be really useful. Back to the story…….
I took the first train out of Norwich with a changeover in train at Nottingham to get to St. Bees. Lo and behold the train got delayed, enough for me to miss my connection, so there I was in Nottingham station with a couple of hours on my hands to board another train with two extra changeovers to arrive at my destination much later than originally planned. Not too bad, I thought, as I had plenty of cushion built in the schedule. I went to a coffee shop at the station, had my coffee and leafed through the book while I waited for the train. When it was time, I picked up my backpack and walked away leaving my most prized possession for the trek behind, my trekking poles. I never trek without them and had recently bought a new pair for the C2C. I made the mistake of carrying them separately in my hand instead of hooking them to the backpack. I didn’t realize I had left them behind till much later when I was sitting comfortably in the train on my way to St. Bees. I kicked and punched the air for a few minutes for losing my must-have trekking gear. I sought assistance from the train conductor who was very helpful in calling the coffee shop back at the station but no luck. I even sent an email to their ‘lost and found’ which, to this day, has not been responded. It wasn’t a good start. Oh well….
Munir arrived at St. Bees earlier than I and we met up at the Stone House Farm, a quaint little B&B next to the railway station. St. Bees is a coastal village and parts of the train ride to it takes you along the Irish Sea coast with a lovely view. After checking in we went out for dinner in a nearby restaurant and turned in early to get up for an early start of this long trek that we had been wanting to do for the last two years. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t anxious that evening.
The first day’s trek was to take us to Ennerdale Bridge about 23.5 KMs away. I didn’t realize till that day that our booking, at YHA Ennerdale, was not in the village rather two hours further into our next day’s segment. Being the first day we were full of energy, so we didn’t mind doing what turned out to be over 10 hours and 34 KM long trek. The weather forecast for the day was 60% chances of rain; we were lucky to have had a predominantly dry day till the last half hour when we had to pull out our rain gear. Despite, we still managed to get our boots soaked enough to give us a good feel for trekking in rain which, unknown to us, was to come down hard in the days ahead. It wasn’t a tough hike, though there was a little bit of scrambling along the lake known as Ennerdale Water. We could have gone around the northside of the lake, which was supposed to be the easy dreamy lakeside stroll, but we wanted to go for a bit of a challenge, so we went southside. I missed my trekking poles today. Arriving at the YHA a bit wet, it was a pleasant surprise that these hostels have a ‘drying room’ where trekkers can leave their wet gear to dry off during the night. It had started raining very heavily and the next day’s forecast announced more rain. Specifically, it said, ‘gales arriving rain’. I did not really appreciate the term and its enormity till an hour into the next day’s trek.
We were happy to have done about one-third of our second day’s trek in the first day and we took it easy leaving the hostel at 9:30 AM. It had thundered and rained all night and based on the forecast we did not expect any letting up in the downpour which, it didn’t. We had had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, vegetable sausages, and potato cakes – this was to be our breakfast every day for the next two weeks and let me say that after the first couple of days I stopped enjoying it. We were in a happy mood when we started; all prepared for the rains that we were sure to encounter during our journey; getting a two-week rain free window in North of UK is well-nigh impossible. The YHA Ennerdale is located along river Liza on a straight gravel jeepable path surrounded by forest plantation. The next YHA called Black Sail is a 90-minute walk away located on the edge of the gravel path from whereon we separate from this path and get into the tricky part of the trek with a steep ascent of over 300 meters.
In between the two YHAs, there is an alternate scenic route that adds about 2 hours to the trek and crosses over three summits. This route is only recommended for experienced trekkers and that too when the visibility is good. Today the visibility was very poor; the rain was relentless, and wind was picking up, so we decided to go straight to Black Sail. Beyond it and true to the promise of the book, the path became less and less obvious and extremely boggy at places. The book had amply warned us of the danger of getting lost in this part particularly in the kind of weather and visibility that we encountered on this day; the wind had converted to gushing gales and the small streams or becks, as they call them in this part of England, had become torrential.
Trying to find a fordable section in some of the streams was difficult; we had to go up and down the stream to find a suitable crossover which was not without risk of falling full body in the stream. My boots were wet and sloshing, eyeglasses were completely foggy which I had to take off after a slip and a small fall. As keeping track of the path was difficult, we did get off it many times and had to retrace our steps back to get on it again. Looking back on our trip I can tell you that this was the roughest day in the two weeks on C2C. We arrived in YHA Borrowdale two hours later than we should have. Once there, the first thing we did was shed our clothes and gear in the drying room before having our lunch that we carried with us since morning but never got a chance to eat.
The third day was a short distance to Grasmere. It was a straightforward climb of 600 meters to Greenup edge and then down the valley into Grasmere. It took us about 6 hrs. and the ground was again boggy at places. I found out that I have this divining skill for the boggiest of the spots to step into; twice went in ankle deep and once fell on my butt – all well received; the weather was much better than the day before; a nice drizzle with slow and steady wind. All in all, it was a good walk with very nice view going up to Greenup. Enroute, we met an intrepid young man going the opposite direction carrying his bicycle; C2C is also popular with off-road cyclists though I am not sure which track they use because our route was definitely not cyclable. We told the young man that he won’t be able to make it on a bike, but he smiled and told us that everyone tells him that, but he is going nevertheless – I suppose the heroism or silliness, depending on how you look at it, of the young age emboldens you to take long chances. We could have combined today with the next day’s trek to Patterdale but in hindsight it was good we didn’t, we weren’t in any rush. We stayed the night at YHA Grasmere.
From Grasmere to Patterdale is a nice hike and we were lucky to have encountered a nice sunny day. There were three alternate routes that one could choose from and by now our decision was to always take the easier route and not go for the more difficult one. Although, looking back I feel like we should have pushed the envelope a bit. I must mention that the dynamics are totally different when you are in the thick of any situation, the decisions made then can always be second guessed later. If I am ever back there again, I may take the high route. The initial ascent, which is steep, takes us to Grisedale tarn – tarn is what they call a lake in Scotland, from where the three routes go their separate ways. It was a beautiful weekend day and we met several day-hikers coming up to the lake from Patterdale or Grasmere. One father with his two young boys had camped the night at the lake and was enjoying the sunny day dipping in the lake with them. Another young lady had her 10 month or so old son snuggly packed in the baby backpack on her back and had come up to enjoy the sun – just she and her son. It took us 4 and half hours to get into Patterdale but our reservation for the night were at YHA Halvellyn which was about two hours away from our C2C path. We left our path for the YHA and stopped for lunch at a café along the bank of lake of Ullswater, swarmed by holiday makers on this beautiful day. From there the walk to the YHA added another hour to our trek which wasn’t too much as we had had a relatively short hike day, but I was worried about the next day which was to be a long and tiring day. I did not want to add another two hours of getting to our main track. Arriving at the YHA, we were made to wait two hours before getting checked in; I wasn’t a happy puppy. I asked the girl at the counter if we could book a taxi for the next morning to take us from the YHA to the C2C track. Next day being a Sunday posed some difficulty in getting a taxi that early in the morning. She kept trying, calling taxi companies and all the while wondering, I am sure, why would we want a taxi for part of the trek when we had set out to do a full 320 km trek. We finally found a taxi to agree to come over the next morning, but I was mentally prepared for a no-show, though it would have pissed me, leaving no choice other than walking the extra two hours.
Wainwright’s book calls the segment from Patterdale to Shap as the toughest in the entire C2C. This is the day when you leave, not without struggle, the Lake District. Struggle it was, 9-hour and 30 mins long and that too not the full trek to Shap as we ended our trek at Shap Abbey which is outside of Shap. First it was a long climb up to Kidsty Pike then descending very steeply to the Haweswater lake from where the trawl along the lake seems to never end. It was a hot day and I ran out of the 2-liter water that I was carrying. One of the other trekkers whom we had been meeting off and on along the route gave me a couple of Iodine tablets which I used for purifying the water I collected from one of the streams along the lake. Munir had brought along this water purifying straw which lets you drink out of any quality water; this came in quite handy and I think I will buy one before my next trekking trip. Munir’ nephew from Manchester met us at the Shap Abbey where, in one of its grounds, we had a nice picnic with homemade food. At Shap we were booked to stay in a B&B which was a real treat; run by a husband and wife, it was a 15th Century home with gracious accommodation in tranquil rural surroundings. We thought, at £120 per night, it was expensive when, having no other alternatives, we booked it but after spending the night in this historic country B&B we were glad we got to stay there; the breakfast was also elaborate with homemade jams, marmalades and variety of cheese, a departure from the standard YHA breakfasts that I had begun not to look forward to.
The next stage to Kirkby Stephens was to be the longest (33 KMs) in the C2C but in effect our first day of the trek turned out to be the longest (35 KMs) as we had to trek further than planned due to accommodation. A rather rough day today; with not much gradient the long undulating path over fields and moorlands took us over 10 hours to cover. I have mentioned earlier that along with Wainwright’s maps I was also following the Wikiloc trail as a backup. This trail was from another trekker’s journey on the C2C who, incidentally, was also tracing Wainwright’s path. On this segment, I started following the Wikiloc track only and kept triangulating it with the map from time to time; there wasn’t much intricacy in this segment, so I didn’t think there was any possibility of losing the track. I was wrong; we did get quite a bit off. Eventually, we would have joined up with the original track but after quite a circuitous walk. Making use of the compass and the app for the conversion of GPS to OS points we get back to the map’s trail. We wasted quite a bit of time therefore the 10 hours to get to our day’s destination. Soon we were able to sight the churches and other buildings of Kirby Stephens. We were excitedly looking forward to the rest day.
Kirkby Stephens is no metropolis rather a pleasant little small market town, a perfect stop after the Lakeland stages of the C2C. We took it easy on this seventh day of our trek; slept in a bit, washed our clothes in a laundromat near the hotel, unsuccessfully looked for the famous English Fish & Chips for lunch because I had never had any and wanted to try it. I mentioned earlier that going up the climb in the rain on our second day I had slipped and my glasses, which have progressive lenses, fell off twisting the wire frame. I twisted them back into what I thought was the original position. In the evening, while planning for the following day’s trek, I discovered that it had become difficult to read the small print on the maps. I tried adjusting to different angles but no luck. After three days of trying in vain to readjust the glasses I got convinced that because of the fall, though it wasn’t a big one, something strange had happened to my eyesight. I was concerned. Therefore, seeing an optician across from our hotel seemed godsent. He spent a few minutes, disassembled the frame and re-fixed it and wallah! I could read perfectly; it was so pleasing to be able to fully read again as if I had got my eyesight back after being blinded. In the afternoon, Shafi and Aashi, my nephew and niece, drove over from Manchester to see us at Kirkby Stephens. Kim and Danesh arrived a little later; we had a warm family reunion of sorts, reminisced and drove to another town for a nice dinner of juicy burgers. One day’s rest rejuvenated us for the balance of the trek and all the aches and pains that were bothering us during this early period of the long trek stopped bothering us, not that they had stopped but one becomes immune.