A Walk on the Wild Side: England’s Coast to Coast – The Know

A Walk on the Wild Side: England’s Coast to Coast  The Know

I settled onto a hard bench under a sunny window in a Patterdale pub and took a deep breath. Another hiking day behind us. The day had been wonderful with clear skies, very little rain, manageable trails, and good company. I took a sip of my hard cider. “I’m not sure about tomorrow,” piped in one of the hikers we met up with. “Looks like it could be a doozy.”

“Eileen, what does the guide book say?” I ask my good friend and hiking companion extraordinaire. “Well, it doesn’t look too bad. About a twelve-mile day. There is a peak, Kidsty Pike, that looks a bit dicey. A five-mile, 2,000-foot ascent, but we come down pretty fast in just over a mile. And the book says we are leaving the Lake District and it won’t let you go without a struggle?”

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“And the weather?” “Well here is the clincher,” said the hiker at the table, “apparently there is a hurricane headed for Great Britain!” *

We were four days into the Coast to Coast (C2C) walk, as the Brits like to call hiking, set in beautiful northern England. The full walk runs from the coast of the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea, a distance of about 190 miles. Eileen and I were covering only half of the two-week trek, ending our trip in Kirkby Stephen.

The past four days had taken us deep into the Lake District; gorgeous rolling countryside including England’s largest national park featuring deep lakes (tarns) and over 200 mountain tops (fells). Scattered amongst the landscape are small villages, pastures marked with stone walls, and multiple Herwick sheep affectionately referred to as ‘Herdies’. It also is the wettest inhabited place in England!

Our weather had been marginal as it often is in late September: mostly cloudy with rain clearing occasionally to sunny cloud-filled skies. It had been very wet with streams running wild, torrents of water flowing down trails and through gates, and ankle-high boughs. Our guide book would direct us to follow the stones across a stream, but we often had water quickly seeping into our boots as we stepped into the rushing current, few rocks high enough to provide dry footage.

“Well, let’s toast to warm feet and dry days ahead. See you on the trail.” We nodded goodbye.

The next morning was clear and we geared up with day packs, poles, trail map, guide book, phone set with GPS trail markers, water, snacks, and rain gear. The morning quickly became overcast and a light rain began to fall. The trail was relatively easy and, as it was the fifth day hiking, was even more doable. We fell into a rhythm of steady yet cautious steps as rain fell harder, making the trail wet and rocks slippery. Eileen donned her turquoise poncho which blew and billowed around her. Lakes dotted the landscape below and the ever-present sheep, grazing silently, were scattered about. We climbed higher. The fog settled around us as the wind and rain become stronger and the temperature dropped. The landscape was eerie.

Eileen McGinnity on the windy trail.

Earlier, we were passed by a handful of hikers, but we had not seen anyone for over an hour. The anticipation of a steeper climb and descent was on our minds as we climbed higher. The rain was driven horizontally into our faces. I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands and my rain jacket was no longer doing the job. I felt too cold to stop and put on my poncho, which would probably fly out of my hand in the whipping wind, anyway, as my backpack rain cover did. Suddenly, out of the fog, three runners dressed in minimal clothing sprinted by, jumping puddles, zigzagging up the path. In a flash they were gone.

We had met runners the day before who educated us on their sport. It’s called “fell running” and consists of running off-road where the climb and decent is a significant part of the activity, kind of like cross country with major hills and no trails. It originated in the Lake District and has become quite popular. (Organized races are held all over the area and require participants to have navigation skills and carry survival equipment!) We pressed on, lifted a bit by the fact that people, with no rain gear to speak of, and few clothes for that matter, were running the same trek!

As we neared the top, the trail was no longer marked and we referred to the map. We needed to make a hard left at a cairn that had C2C painted on it. We found a cairn but no sign. Eileen checked her GPS and determined we were at the right junction. Before turning left, I ventured forward, found a ridge and looked down. A sheer one-hundred-foot drop spotted with large boulders appeared below the fog. Relieved that this was not our descent, we took a left and carried on.

Slowly I descended. Eileen, lifted by the fell runners, was literally sprinting down the path. It was steep and rocky and very wet, but actually not bad, and we made our way down the mountain. As we dropped into the valley, the wind decreased and the rain slowed and a beautiful reservoir surrounded by pine trees came into view.

Alice Johnson on the C2C.

An hour later, we were sitting in a cozy hotel next to a large fire toasting our day. We had called a cab to take us to our next respite which was four miles up the road. We are not purists, those hikers who must walk every step of a given trail. Instead we are reasonable hikers — and soaking wet, the decision was made. Later that night, we shared our day with a couple we had met earlier in the week. “Wow, that is amazing that you hiked the highest peak on the C2C while a hurricane was approaching the island! What an accomplishment!”

“It was wet and cold but the trail was not too difficult. What did you do today?” we asked. “Oh, we went into town and saw Downton Abbey. It was great!” “Let’s toast,” I said, “to C2C, fell runners, reasonable hikers and cozy pubs.”

Note: Hurricane Lorenzo, a category 5, was the strongest hurricane ever to make it that far east. By the time it made land in Great Britain (Oct. 4, 2019) is was an extratropical cyclone, characterized by gusty winds and heavy rains, according to the BBC. We saw just the preview of the storm. Later that week hikers were advised to leave the trail.