An epic Coast to Coast Walk: Experiencing England on foot
We are standing on an empty beach. Soft evening light falls onto our heavy backpacks. We bend down and pick up a wet pebble from the ground.
Our walk has officially begun.
It is a hiker’s tradition peculiar to the Coast to Coast Walk to carry a little stone from the starting point, St. Bees at the Irish Sea, all the way across the country to release it into the North Sea, arriving at Robing Hood Bay.
It is close to sunset, so we set up our tent along the cliffs that majestically spread in both directions before our eyes. We watch the red-glowing sun disappear into the sea, a pot of hot ramen noodles in my hands.
I take a deep breath. It’s good to be back on trail again.
A rainy, exhausting start in the Lake District
After a gorgeous April, I had high hopes for the weather on the Coast to Coast. But, it’s England, after all, who am I fooling?
So our rain gear became the most essential quick-access item during our first days as we ventured into the mountains of the Lake District.
And, oh boy, was I surprised. Being used to hiking in the Alps, I had been mocking this trail’s elevation gains as ‘hills, no more than that.’
But as I stood sweating and breathing heavily under my bright orange rain poncho on top of our first mountain pass, peaks mysteriously shrouded in mist, torrents running down left and right of the steep footpath, I had to admit it.
Those English hills definitely deserve to be called mountains.
Despite the weather, I smiled widely, taking in the views. Chuckling at our rain-drenched misery I was reminded of one of the mountains’ most beautiful qualities.
They humble you.
They remind you that you are only a small being crawling on a giant’s back.
They invite you to take on a different perspective.
In between the rain, there were days full of sunshine, bathing the mountains in a friendlier light.
The winds persisted.
But we found quiet moments, cooking food on our camping stove, drinking hot chocolate huddled up in our sleeping bags when night temperatures went down to almost zero.
Some beautiful days passed and it was all good; until it wasn’t.
An unexpected adventure in dangerous weather
One morning, the day we would reach the trail’s highest peak, Kidsty Pike, we woke up knowing it would be a windy and rainy day.
What we didn’t realize was how serious mountain weather could get, even here, in supposedly ‘flat’ England. As we climbed higher, the conditions got worse and worse. By the time we reached the high plateau, they had reached their maximum.
The rain punctured our faces like a million sharp needles, the wind threw us around so heavily we could barely move forward. Breathing under such strong wind became almost impossible. My rain poncho, which I couldn’t manage to hold onto, kept flattering into my face, almost suffocating me.
At some point, my partner tripped. He fell down onto his knees, losing all gear attached to his backpack, of which some instantly flew away with the wind. By now, we were shivering from the cold. We looked at each other.
‘This is dangerous,’ he said, with a concern in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before.
I nodded. ‘We have to get off this mountain,’ I agreed.
There was no shelter, nor any hope for improving weather conditions. We both knew, if we didn’t make it to lower altitudes quickly, hypothermia would not take too long to get us. It was scary, making our way down the slippery trail, the relentless storm hitting us hard. We were not the only hikers out there, everyone fighting their own fight against the storm.
But finally, we made it down.
The wind ceased, bringing back a feeling of safety into our shaking bodies.
We knew we had made it through the worst.
And still, it took us another 4-hour march to reach civilization, frozen to the bone and now carrying an extra load of water weight. We tried to call a taxi, we tried to hitchhike the few cars that passed. But nothing. And so we were deadly exhausted by the time we stumbled into Shap’s local pub.
The friendly owners welcomed us in despite our grime and – as soon as we told them of our hardships – got a fire going, served us extra-large hot drinks, and offered to hang our completely drenched gear by the fireplace. Arriving at this place felt like heaven. Thankful, we slowly came back to life under their kind-hearted care.
Would I ever have expected to get into a life-threatening situation on a UK mountain? No.
Will I treat those mountains with due respect from now on? Absolutely f-ing yes.
A little break
After recovering from our unexpected escapade, we checked the weather forecast. It was supposed to stay just as bad for a while. So we did not hesitate long and went up to Scotland to visit some friends until the weather would get better.
By the time we came back, summer had finally arrived in England.
We were greeted by sunshine, heading into the next section of the trail. The Yorkshire Dales.
Continuing the Coast to Coast Trail alone – and sick
Well, our bad luck was not quite over yet: With (small, but nevertheless obstructive) injuries occurring, I had to continue the trail alone. Solo backpacking is something I am used to, but on top of it all, I managed to catch a grim cold along the way.
I knew I was demanding a lot from my body, recovering daily from the strain of walking and the cold. Instead of resting more, I did the opposite of what responsible people probably would do. I picked up the pace. I honestly just wanted to get to the end of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path.
Next up, I crossed the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. Having left the bigger mountains behind me, walking was now a pleasure, despite not being at my physical best.
Meeting more sheep than people, I crossed bogland and meadows and sunny fields. (Seriously, do not even consider hiking the Coast to Coast Way if you are afraid of sheep or something. Those fluffy fellows are literally everywhere. Also rabbits! I was excited, obviously.)
The beauty of solo hiking
I camped by rivers, behind pubs, between bushes, and hidden behind crops. Now that I was in my own company again, I could reflect on what this kind of journey means to me.
It’s an incredible feeling of freedom to be able to rest wherever your tent fits. To see places at times most people have returned to their homes. To feel the strength of your body, day by day, carrying everything you need over mountains.
Falling into bed exhausted, hearing the winds and forest animals howl. Feeling pain all over your body and still being able to get up the next day, and do it all over again.
Almost there: The last miles of the Coast to Coast Way
One last national park to cross before reaching the other coast, 192 miles later. The North York Moors. A monotonous, heather-overgrown landscape with no towns in between. Just you and nature out there.
I had some of the most beautiful sunsets there. Still battling my cold, I sat high above on my rocky lookout, trying to shield myself from the wind. In front of me the flat landscape of Middlesbrough.
And that’s where I got my first glances of the sea. It’s a strange sensation to first lie eyes upon what you’ve been trying to reach for so long. A beautiful, moving emotion, knowing that the struggles were worth it.
And so it wasn’t long until my last night on the trail had come. I set up my green little house next to a crowd of curious cows, Robin Hood Bay within my reach.
192 miles later – the last steps on trail
June nights up north are short. It was barely 4:30 am when the first rays of sunlight hit my tent. Usually, I try to find my way back to sleep, but since it was the last morning, I decided to get up soon after and walk my last steps of the trail.
My shoes still covered in mud from the day before, I did not want to put my feet into that wet, horrendously smelling prison again. Bare feet on the ground, I walked down the little village that showed clear signs of active tourism, many pubs, hotels, shops. But at this time of the day, I was the only one out there.
I reached the beach. I had made it. Once again. I pulled out the two stones we had collected at the other side of the country.
Plop. Another plop. They were gone.
Only a few early dog walkers and fishermen were around when I reached the final point of Wainwright’s famous Coast to Coast Walk. I enjoyed the feeling of having a moment of my own to take it all in.
And then, just like my pebble, I threw myself into the ice-cold water. Ahhh, what a time to be alive. (Trust me, after a week without any showers, that brisk dip was more than welcome. Possibly even badly needed.)
Saying goodbye to the Coast to Coast Walk
Still walking through an almost empty village, I brewed one last coffee while waiting for the bus. I disappeared as quietly as I had come.
And as I make my way back to London, memories of beautiful places and people I have met along the way buzz in my head.
As always, it’s not about arriving – it’s about what you experience along the way.
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