Lying on the grass, I exhaled for what felt like the first time in 18 months. I was miles away from civilization and a world away from the long days of solitary confinement in my London apartment.
Now he was alone again, but under happier circumstances. She could hear distant sheep and feel a gentle breeze as she gazed out over the countryside and sky of the Lake District. I spent a few days walking from the shores of the Irish Sea in Cumbria to the North Sea on Coast to Coast, a network of trails created by Alfred Wainwright, and it was sheer bliss.
It was September 2021 and while the world was slowly returning to “normal”, mine had imploded four months earlier when my mother died after a short illness. At her funeral, the vicar and my uncle spoke about my mother’s strong determination and resilience. She was ingrained in me too, but the last 18 months had taken their toll: was the struggle still there? It’s time to find out.
The Coast to Coast was not my first long-distance trail, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. For 12 days I crawled up formidable mountains, down rock faces, scaled dry stone walls, soaked my weary feet in icy streams, negotiated swamps and bogs, and tried to face my fear of cows (they are known to kill cows). hikers, you know).
I kept walking. Coast to Coast is officially 192 miles long, and my itinerary was ambitious, averaging around 16 miles per day, with no days off. It is true that I did not carry all my equipment or camp: my suitcase was on its own journey from hotel to hotel. All he had to do was put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
Although sometimes my walk was solitary, contemplative and an opportunity to think about my mother; in others, it was a joyous, riotous ride of English eccentricity, the camaraderie of fellow hikers, and the friendliness of strangers.
I was halfway between St Bees and Ennerdale Bridge on the first day when I saw a plastic bag with my name on it hanging on a door: “To Emma Lunn and the bear. Have a nice trip.” The bear was my trusty traveling companion, Arnie, a stuffed animal my nephew had given me a decade earlier.
The bag contained a variety of sugary snacks and had been left by a friendly local in response to an introductory post he had written on the Coast to Coast Facebook group the night before. My gratitude was captured on film by the Stockton Ramblers, a spirited trio of fellow hikers I regularly caught up with along the way, who were video blogging their adventure.
I needed the sugar hit the next day when I opted for the “high road” from Ennerdale Bridge to Seatoller. My calves were on fire during the relentless 755-meter Red Pike ascent, during which I entered a semi-meditative state where I counted 100 painful steps before allowing myself to stop to take a breather, check my GPS, and then repeat. With sheep tracks criss-crossing my uphill route and the summit shrouded in mist, the going was rough and the navigation difficult.
Red Pike was phenomenal and well worth the effort. The clouds cleared moments after I collapsed, dog-tired, but buoyant, at the top. It was the first time I had come to a place that gave me an idea of the magnitude of the Lake District, with Derwentwater, Crummock Water and Ennerdale Water, among others, in sight.
From the top of Red Pike begins a kind of classic walk along the ridge of the Lake District to the peaks of High Stile and Haystacks. My GPS failed as I scrambled over rocks and slid down scree-covered slopes, aimlessly trying to get back onto something resembling a path as my water supplies ran low in the blistering heat.
The Coast to Coast delivered regular doses of exhilaration, each time I conquered a summit, survived a dangerous ascent, traversed a field of cows without incident, or simply survived another day. Despite having a good level of fitness, I could barely stand on my feet at times when I arrived at my B&B or hotel.
I was lucky with the weather. It only rained for about 30 minutes during my entire trip. But while I regretted not packing enough summer clothes, some hikers skipped clothes altogether.
I was at the top of Kidsty Pike, 2,500 feet, when my fellow hikers and I collectively looked away as a middle-aged man wearing nothing but hiking boots and a backpack walked to the top. The jury was out if he was the infamous Naked Rambler (ex-Marine Stephen Gough), or just a random hiker who found himself too hot.
Despite being the most popular long-distance footpath in the UK, Coast to Coast is not a designated national footpath nor is it signposted. The traditional route laid out by walker and writer Alfred Wainwright runs through three of England’s most impressive national parks. Traditionally walked from west to east, it begins at St Bees, near Whitehaven, before traversing the spectacular mountains and valleys of the Lake District, the rolling fields of the Yorkshire Dales and the bleak but remarkable North York Moors. End in the picturesque fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay.
Some hikers pack all their gear and camp; a crazy minority execute it in record attempts. Others merrily go from pub to pub for 15 or 16 days, taking several days off. I paid Mac’s Adventures to handle the logistics, with overnight stops ranging from the elegant Glaramara House Hotel in Borrowdale and the New Ing Lodge walkers’ retreat in Shap, to a room above the Arncliffe Arms in Glaisdale.
Tradition dictates that anyone embarking on the coast-to-coast walk begins by dipping a toe in the Irish Sea at St Bees and choosing a stone to throw into the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay.
I dispensed with my pebble before checking into Lee-Side, a charming B&B in Robin Hood’s Bay with just four rooms (from £60 single). A woman my age and her mother checked in at the same time as me, and the owners of the B&B greeted us with coffee and cake. I couldn’t help but be envious that the other woman’s mother was still with her; then I remembered that my mother had been with me too, every step of the way.
Coast to coast you need to know
Depending on your itinerary, you’ll hike 13 to 16 miles a day, up to 10 hours, often uphill. To train you must practice walking this distance on consecutive days. If you plan to bring all of your gear, you should also bring it on your training hikes. Hiking poles are recommended, your knees will thank you.
Hikers should carry enough food and water every day. Some days you’ll pass through towns with shops and pubs, but other days you may be dependent on “honesty boxes” at farms and churches where you’ll be expected to leave adequate money in exchange for snacks and drinks.
Macs Adventures can tailor-make self-guided trips for solo trekkers, couples, and groups, with rest days as needed. Prices start from £1149 per person for 12 nights and include accommodation, GPS routes, luggage transfer and taxis, if accommodation is off the route. Other companies that offer self-guided coast-to-coast itineraries include Mickledore and Contours Holidays. If you want to book your own accommodation, Sherpavan and Packhorse offer daily luggage transfers. Campers must reserve at designated campgrounds; free camping is not allowed.
As the route takes you from one side of England to the other, the best way to travel is by public transport. You can take a train to St Bees from London, via Carlisle. Robin Hood’s Bay doesn’t have a train station, so you’ll need to take a bus to Whitby or Scarborough for rail connections. If you’re driving, Packhorse offers secure car parking at Kirkby Stephen (about halfway) and offers transfers to St Bees and back from Robin Hood’s Bay.
Solo walkers should always let a friend or family member know the route they intend to take each day and approximately how long it will take. GPS navigation is easy to follow but depends on your phone – grab a map and compass as a backup and make sure you know how to use it. Stop and chat with any other hikers you know. Not only is it good to be social, but if you get lost, people you’ve talked to are more likely to remember what time and where they saw you. Pack an emergency foil blanket – they’re cheap and lightweight and can keep you warm if you have to spend the night outside. Lastly, know your limits. If you have never climbed a mountain before, it is better to do it with another person before attempting a summit alone.