Introduction – Before even the first step
I don’t know if it’s a sign of old age but I’ve had feelings of trepidation about this trip for a while. Having decided on attempting the trip well over a year ago, and putting it off on three occasions for different reasons, I felt myself being pushed into the adventure. If I had postponed the departure until next spring (I definitely have no intention of walking in this country in the winter over such a long distance) then I’m sure it would never have happened.
But I did start to make all the arrangements for accommodation and transport, etc., in the hope/expectation/desire/ that there would be a true ‘Indian summer’ in the north of England in 2013 – now it seems they (the meteorological pundits) are suggesting that we may even have an earlier than usual winter this year. Walking in snow in my sandals in the next couple of weeks is not something I am looking forward to with relish!
As the crunch date came closer I started to wonder how I would cope with the weight I’d have to take with me. Over the years I’ve really managed to cut down on what I take away on my travels. If flying by plane I take everything as cabin luggage – it makes life easier and escape from the arrival airport much faster if you don’t have to wait by the carousel for another bag. That’s OK for most locations but it doesn’t work for walking in the UK – at any time of the year.
As it has been getting wetter and colder, with stronger winds and now the prospect of the temperatures dipping into single figures IN THE DAY TIME HOURS the problem of what to pack becomes quite a dilemma. Take too little you could hit problems, take too much and you will spend days and weeks bemoaning the extra weight.
As I was trying to resolve this issue over the last weekend I was getting more concerned as the rucksack was getting more full and I still had things to pack.
It doesn’t make life much easier in that I have to include this computer (and it’s power supply) together with my camera and all its bits and pieces. In order to transform this walk from no more than an effort of an old fart to prove the assumption about old farts wrong I need a project – and that entails writing this diary and illustrating it with pictures. If there are words but no images I could just be writing everything in a cosy B+B somewhere – after all the very basis of fiction is the use of the imagination.
But I fought against all of that and at about 09.00 on Tuesday 17th September I picked up the heavier than I would have liked rucksack and started the journey to St Bees in Cumbria, on the Irish Sea.
That’s an important barrier to cross. Closing the door behind you and starting the process to all intentions puts these fears to rest, in the background, in the rubbish bin. They are really only excuses for not doing something that might be difficult to accomplish. They just come easier to use as a crutch as time goes on.
Because it’s true that once you embark on an ‘adventure’ the very fact of doing it pushes any doubts out of the way. If you think about the doubts then you won’t be able to deal with any issues or problems that arise. So even though I will almost certainly be cursing the weather, the rucksack and ‘God’ during the course of the next couple of weeks now that on the way the goal is the Irish Sea – whatever the conditions.
Before even making the first step on the walk itself I have to get there. Yes, it saves money by using the Gold Old Farts Bus Pass but it also becomes all part of the game. I know from my exploratory trip up to the Lake District earlier in the year that it is more than practical to arrive on different points of the walk in a day. It means an early start and a little bit of luck that you don’t encounter delays due to unexpected events (such as a train derailment on the line just south of Barrow-in-Furness that effected my plans this afternoon or an accident on the road that delayed all buses into Lancaster last June when I was trying to get back home) but it can be done. Sometimes with a three minute transfer but even with the occasional hiccup it was possible to arrive at St Bees just before it got dark, the only expense being the last short leg by train from Workington. The plan of using the buses throughout wasn’t helped by the fact that Stagecoach timetable one of their own buses to leave Keswick 2 minutes before the arrival of a connecting bus from Lancaster – meaning a wait of almost an hour for the next bus. What chance an integrated transport system if the same company is incapable of sensible and considered timetabling.
But as I started to work out how I would divide up the 200 miles of space between the 2 seas (fitting it into the availability of accommodation) I realised that getting to St Bees as early as possible and doing the short stretch along the cliffs at the very beginning on the travelling day would make life a lot easier. This could be done with no heavy pack and therefore much quicker. But the most significant gain would be psychological. Considering I was having doubts about the whole project – although those doubts diminished as I got closer to St Bees – once the first steps had been taken it would become a matter of ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’.
It also solves another problem that seems to bedevil many of the long distance walks and that is that the very first section seems to be something that has to be done but is rarely the most interesting. This was the case with Hadrian’s Wall walk. On that walk the first section in the east started at an old Roman fort (although there’s not really a lot to see there) and then passes through a mixture of industrial decline and dereliction next door to yuppie housing and bar developments – although some of those bars didn’t seem to have a very long life. Doing that first (admittedly short) stage without having the burden of your worldly goods makes for a gentle introduction to the start of the 200 mile trek.
So the way I planned to get to the start of the walk was to use the pass on the buses Liverpool – Preston – Lancaster and then to catch the train that went along the southern coast of the Lake District passing through Barrow-in-Furness and Sellafield.
Things didn’t start out too well. Having got into the centre of town I was asked one of the most bizarre questions ever by a total stranger (and that says a lot living in Liverpool for most of my life). The question was ‘What do you think of someone who at the start of a relationship says that he only wants it to last three days?’ – this from a young woman. With such a strange question you have to think about the answer as the only correct answer is the one the woman herself wants to hear. She sat in the opposite double seat at the top front of the bus so I had a conversation that was getting more bizarre as time went on. Fortunately for me (being selfish) she got out at Southport, but a seriously damaged woman in need of some professional help.
The train journey was pleasant enough in fairly unpleasant weather conditions but would be one to experience in really fine weather. It starts by passing through Carnforth and Steamtown (though no evidence of any steam when I went through) then alongside the sea marshes, passing over causeways and dipping back inland and back to the sea. On the other side of the train you have the southern lakes and their peaks, though most covered in low cloud on the Tuesday.
But though rural there are some big towns along this route, and its the serving of these places that maintains the rail route. It might be busier in the holiday times with tourists but this is the commuter transport for school children and the workers of the two major industrial sites in this part of the country, Barrow-in-Furness shipyards and the Sellafield nuclear facility, both which employ hundreds, if not thousands, and the closure of either of these would turn this area into a backwater, suffering the fate of so much of Britain in the decline that has been overseen by respective post-war governments. It’s also very easy to see when you are up here that whatever the controversy that surrounds nuclear power has its social and economic consequences of those areas that have been chosen to house these plants. They are big money earners, and many of the surrounding small towns and villages have become commuter towns to relatively wealthy workers. It’s an interesting journey for many reasons and all in all a better train option than passing through Carlisle and then back west and east.
Although the weather had been changeable ever since leaving home I was greeted with a light shower as soon as I got off the train, not the sort of welcome I really wanted.
Buoyed up by the brief sunshine interlude whilst walking along the cliff path and an almost full moon in a cloudless night sky I retired for the night with more positive thoughts about the future trip than I had had for a while.
Workington – St Bees, 16.02, 17.21, 18.16, 27 minutes, single – £3.60
Whitehaven – St Bees, 16.22, 17.39, 18.36, 7 minutes, single – £2.20
The timetable from Lancaster – Carlisle
Single from Lancaster to St Bees £17.80
The bus from St Bees to Whitehaven is supposed to leave at the bus stop at the railway station car park at 09.14, and passes through Sandwith.
Accommodation – St Bees
The Albert Hotel
Tel: 01946 822345
Single B+B £40.00
Good, clean Bed and Breakfast. Doesn’t take credit cards. Very close to the station and just opposite the bus stop to Whitehaven. Doesn’t (always) do evening meals. Got someone to give me a lift up to Sandwith when they knew that the public bus hadn’t turned up.
The Queens Arms
Just a bit further up the road from the Albert and the railway station. Has free wifi. Has a comprehensive menu but no snacks, such as sandwiches, available in the evening. Reasonably priced real ale (£2.90 pint of Jennings Cumberland Ale) – not yet into ‘Wordsworth country’, i.e., anywhere that can claim any connection whatsoever, however tenuous, to the great romantic/revolutionary (who might have suggested French Revolution solutions to exploiters of the poor and dispossessed) where the maxim seems to be ‘screw the tourists’.