A walk to remember
TOC film editor Hank Sartin walked across England and brought back these five tips for your trek.
All this spring, whenever I told anyone about my plan to walk the Coast to Coast trail across northern England (from the Lake District National Park to the North York Moors National Park) in June with my sister, Tracy, eyes would glaze over with envy (the walking enthusiasts) or grow wide in abject horror (those who think vacations are for the beach and those who believe family should be kept at a distance). For me the trip was ideal. I love long walking trips as a vacation, and I’m not ashamed to say that I get along with my sister. Of course, we hadn’t traveled together in years, and on this vacation, we’d be 24-hour-a-day companions for more than two weeks, and we’d be hiking 192 miles in 15 days. So, it would be a test of body and the brother-sister bond. I’m pleased to report that I passed both tests. By the end, my knees were sore, I’d sunk to my shins in a bog, and I’d removed stitches with a Swiss Army knife. A perfect vacation. Now that I’m an expert on the Coast to Coast trail, here are a few tips I can pass along:
1 Do more inclined treadmill prep than you think you need.
The Coast to Coast trail starts with five days in Lake District, where Wordsworth wrote poetry and there are indeed a lot of lakes. What Wordsworth shrewdly omits (perhaps he was paid off by the local tourist board) is that this is also home to some of the steepest “hills” in England. Late in day two, I discovered that my workout focus on overall body strength hadn’t prepared me for the 1,000-foot ascent in about a quarter of a mile. While Tracy, who had been beating an elliptical machine into submission practically every day for months, sprang from rock to rock like a mountain goat (and yes, we saw mountain goats, so I have a basis for comparison), I gasped and sweated and broke the climb into manageable segments of 200 steps. But I made it.
2 Sustain a visible injury. It’s a conversation starter.
Though I was clearly the weak link physically, it was my sister who sustained the trip’s requisite dramatic injury. Walking on a particularly scenic part of the path above the town of Grasmere, Tracy fell forward onto a rock, sustaining a deep cut in her forehead. The gash required a trip to a health clinic where the National Health Service proved to be pleasant, efficient and cheap (it’s free to Brits, but as a foreigner, she had to pay $50 for emergency service that, we approximated, would have cost at least $700 in the U.S.).
For the rest of the trip, her bandaged forehead became our ticket to meeting people. The trail-walking community is small and gossipy, like a village-worth of people moving across England at slightly different paces. So, we’d walk into a pub for dinner, and a stranger in muddy boots would say, “Oh, you must be the American who fell,” and we’d end up in long, entertaining conversations over beer.
3 Embrace your weird photographic obsessions. You can laugh about it later.
Northern England lives up to its rep for rolling hills, beautiful valleys, lush greenery and sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. The trail goes mostly across private land (a feat made possible by walker-friendly English right-of-way laws), so you spend little time on roads and instead walk through fields where sheep and cows graze. For reasons that defy explanation, we became obsessed with the sheep, and every day began with a ritual vow that we wouldn’t take any more sheep pictures and ended with about 30 more images of sheep. The cows, for some reason, did not elicit the same fascination.
4 PYPB: Pack your own PowerBars.
My sister and I turned out to be very good walking companions. We’re both cheap, so we never minded sharing a room in a B&B; we both like to start the day early; we found that we could talk for hours or remain silent for long stretches without awkwardness; and neither of us believed in big lunches on the trail. We were satisfied with an energy bar, but they’re hard to find in England, so if PowerBars are your thing, pack a full supply.
5 Cultivate a Zen-like acceptance of weather.
One of the high points of the trail, literally and metaphorically, is the crossing of the Yorkshire moors. Covered in heather that turns deep purple, they rise dramatically, and the trail has been carefully chosen to afford prospects to the north. All of which would have been great, except that (a) the heather is not in bloom in June, so it’s mostly brown and dull green, and (b) our two days on the Yorkshire moors were so foggy that we usually couldn’t see 50 feet in front of us, let alone enjoy the vistas of the lower country. But on the plus side, the deep fog made us feel as if we were in a Brontë novel. And even in all that mist, we saw grouse and plover and, um, other birds. We didn’t even miss the sheep.
It’s hard to convey the euphoria that takes over when, after 180-some miles, you finally spy the North Sea. On our last day, as we walked for miles along the cliffs to trail’s end, we became camera-happy. Every fence and flower and butterfly suddenly seemed profoundly photogenic. And at trail’s end, in the small fishing town of Robin Hood’s Bay, tradition dictates that you have to touch the water, which at low tide meant an extra hundred yards across flat sands. I didn’t mind going the distance.
Visit this site for general info about the walk, which was originally laid out by an avid walker named Alfred Wainwright.
After starting the walk with full packs, we concluded that it was worth the 7 pounds per bag per day to have our packs carried. We called the Packhorse folks, and they were incredibly easy to work with. (They even carried Tracy and me on the day after her injury.)
This luggage and planning service will schedule all accommodations, or it can just arrange to carry your luggage every day if you prefer to make B&B reservations yourself. Even if you don’t use Sherpa Van to book B&Bs, its website is incredibly helpful for finding places to stay.