Only it wasn’t winter. It was March, almost Easter, and a time, I’d supposed, for primrose lined paths, sparkling sunshine and hosts of daffodils.
But in Northern England this year, March was decidedly still winter.
Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk is an almost 200-mile path from St Bees on the Cumbrian coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea. It is a fairly tough walk over a range of different landscapes; and is tougher yet to complete in twelve days and tougher still to complete with a thirty-pound rucksack on your back.
Start throwing in day after day of snowfall and walking into an unremitting, scouring Siberian easterly and it could be brutal.
Each day brought new trials and obstacles: steep Lakeland passes; long 24 mile days; navigating in poor visibility on paths buried in snow, following cairns blanketed in snow, and seeking landmarks and way-markers obscured by falling snow. (It snowed. A lot).
Though I was walking solo, I wasn’t alone all the time. I met up for several days with another Coast to Coaster (hi, Pat).
We staggered up to Nine Standards Rigg together (the highest point on the Pennine section), blundering about in another white-out and that ferocious, freezing wind;
a wind that grew even stronger on the North York Moors: that horrible, relentless, flaying, snowflakes-in-your-eyes, difficult-to-stand-upright-in, damnable East Wind.
We had one clear, bright day – which helped to remind me why I go walking in early spring.
On other days too there might be a fleeting moment of sunlight.
Once or twice, I even saw that most inconstant and fickle of companions – my shadow.
But too soon we were slogging it back up into the snow line, freezing cold and blizzards where visibility was down to thirty yards and we were navigating by compass.
Wading through snow, uphill with a rucksack is very tiring – should you have wondered.
On most of the 24-mile day’s march from Richmond to Ingleby Cross, there was no snow … just plenty of mud. Miles of it.
I saw plenty of wildlife including hares, deer and red squirrels (though you’ll need a magnifying glass to see the latter above);
dippers in the Swale
and red grouse on the Moors.
On St Bees Head, I saw two birds I’d never seen before: guillemots
And I also saw, of course, the free-flying macaws of Kirby Stephen. Surreal, huh? (The Guardian explains why).
I stayed in charming villages and hamlets;
and collapsed in warm, gemütlich pubs that, frozen as I was, had me weeping in gratitude on arrival.
I saw splendid man-made things
There were cruel steps and stiff climbs;
gates, kissing gates, stiles, ladder stiles and squeeze stiles beyond count;
those seemingly infinite, arctic North York Moors;
moments of, “I can give up now and be home in time for tea”
and others of, “Marvellous. Bloody Marvellous.”
But mostly, I simply immersed myself in walking across a beautiful England; conquering one cooked breakfast after another; carrying all that I might need; wondering what I might have for supper;
looking about me
(As it isn’t a nationally designated path, way-marking on the C2C is non-existent in places. Thankfully, people have improvised – bottom right requires a Geordie accent)).
Apparently, ten thousand people from all over the world start the C2C each year – how many complete it, I don’t know. Pat and I (and all the B&B owners and various walkers and others we met) didn’t know of anyone who had walked all of it this year.
And, over a celebratory pint, we were the first people in 2013 to sign ‘The Coast to Coast Book’ at Wainwright’s Bar, Robin Hood’s Bay.
As well as signing The Book, tradition dictates that you dip your boot into the Irish Sea on setting out from St Bees and dip it again into the brine of the North Sea.
Tradition also requires that you pick up a pebble at the start, carry it all 200 miles and then hurl it into the North Sea – a bit pointless really but actually, really quite satisfying. Unfortunately, as Pat did neither of these two traditions, I formally declared his C2C effort null and void. He told me to get stuffed – which I thought rude.
Do I regret walking the C2C in these conditions? During the coldest March since 1962? Nope, not for a moment. It was physically the most challenging … er, challenge that I’ve ever done; the total cumulative ascent is equivalent to climbing Everest; it was Northern England showing off at her wildest and rawest; the satisfaction of completion was immense and, significantly, we had the paths, fells, moors and mountains mostly to ourselves. A rare honour.
Heck, I even got to see those March daffodils.
Do I rate the C2C as the second best walk in the world (according to one survey of ‘experts’)? Well, I’ve formed an opinion but I’m not going to tell you what it is.
Walk Wainwright’s Coast to Coast yourself and see what you think.
I have written a detailed, day-by-day account of this walk, with many more photographs, on my other blog – ‘The Walking Gardener’.