Coast to Coast Walk – St Bees to Ennerdale YHA

Mile Zero - Coast to Coast Walk - St Bees - Cumbria

Mile Zero – Coast to Coast Walk – St Bees – Cumbria

Chapter One – St Bees Head to Ennerdale YHA

So, the walk proper.

As I’ve already said the first 5 mile stretch, which starts off at the official Coast to Coast Mile Zero marker at the beach in St Bees, I did on the same day that I travelled from Liverpool. And I’m not the only one how has considered that. Many people, if they use the companies who will arrange both the transport and the accommodation or just individuals, do this if at all possible. I did so as the start of the walk is about half a mile from St Bees village itself and it’s good to get into the walk when you don’t have a heavy rucksack to carry. You can do the 5 miles relatively quickly and then there’s a slightly less than 2 mile walk (mostly) downhill to St Bees afterwards. You could try to hitch but there’s not a great deal of traffic on this very quiet country road.

St Bees Head in the sun!

St Bees Head in the sun!

You start off with a relatively steep ascent to follow a path that then goes along the edge of the cliffs – though not particularly dangerous in the vast majority of cases but with a few areas where care needs to be taken. The path is very well-marked but after all the rain we have had in the recent past quite muddy in places, although outside of sheltered areas from the wind the mud was drying quite quickly. And on that afternoon I had: about 30-45 minutes of warm sunshine; saw some rabbits; and just avoided stepping on a slow worm. But as I said earlier the most important aspect of doing this short walk in the late afternoon was psychological. The first steps were made as soon as possible. (I hope I’m not sounding too negative here. I’m looking forward to the walk and the challenge but this is England and the weather is what makes for uncertainty.

Slow worm on St Bees cliff path

Slow worm on St Bees cliff path

So at 7 o’clock on the evening of 17th September it was 5 miles down, 195 to go.

What I also come to quickly realise, as I had thought, was that starting these long distance walks in the middle of the week normally means fewer people competing for the limited accommodation, and that benefit stays with you as you progress.

What this little walk enabled me to do was test the veracity of the information in the book I’m using. Although there was little chance of going wrong there were enough little indicators to show that the author has done a good job. (The guide book I used was the ‘Coast to Coast Path’ by Henry Stedman, 5th Edition, Trailblazer publications, 2012.)

Leaving the pub at about 10.30 the night before there was a clear sky and the almost full moon, so things were starting to look up weather wise. Also had been modest in beer consumption, something I want to keep to, perhaps apart from the free day or the night before.

The next morning, Wednesday 18th September, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that it had rained over night, seeming to contradict the indications of the night before. At the breakfast table things got worse as, looking out the window, there was a slight drizzle. But even worse were the images on the tele, which is always on in B+B breakfast rooms. Not having had a television at home for the whole of this millennium there are many names to which I cannot put a face. Since the Tories (and the ersatz Tories, the Liberals) became out ‘leaders’ I wouldn’t recognise most of the ministers if they entered the room. Now I was assaulted by a procession of Tory ministers spouting their lies and inconsistencies. The fact that they are our ‘leaders’ says more about the electorate than the elected as these smug, rich, public school educated, privileged, chinless wonders made their arguments that we must maintain austerity and that ‘we are all in this together.’

Once I was through that unpleasant interlude I started on the walk proper. The plan was that having done the first stretch along the cliff edge all I needed to do was to catch the local bus back up to the small village of Sandwith (pronounced ‘Sanith’) – up being the operative word – it was all right coming down carrying nothing, it would be a different matter going back up with a full pack. The local bus was due to leave at 09.14, which made matters very convenient as I would be under way by 09.30. But the bus didn’t turn up! And as always in these situations where the vast majority of the population, even of small villages don’t use public transport, when I asked the locals if they knew what had happened they could throw no light on the matter as if it hadn’t happened before. Fortunately for me when I asked at the B+B they offered a lift and so, even now 15 minutes later than planned/expected I started to head east.

With the sunshine!

Sandwith in the sun on the first full day

Sandwith in the sun on the first full day

As I had been waiting for the bus the weather was improving. Still a little cool in the shade but with an increasing amount of blue sky. This seemed to be following the TV weather forecast that indicated that the weather would really turn into a true ‘Indian Summer’ by the end of the week. Were my fears of walking in the constant rain, the only difference being getting wet or totally soaked, groundless? Indicators were looking good. So it was a lot more enthusiasm as I made further steps towards the east.

But in many parts of the Lake District it can be wet at any time of the year and many fields along the way are permanently water-logged. Water logged fields means mud, lots of it, and sometime you can sink into it above your ankles. Although the parallel might be a bit extreme I always think of the novel ‘Under Fire’, written about the First World War by the French Communist Henri Barbusse. When people think about the trenches on the Western front they think of the horror of the bombardments and ‘going over the top’. One phrase that has stuck with me since I read the book many years is ‘hell is water’. And the mud that comes with it. And I know that mud is going to be a major factor on this route, even over the other side of the Pennines, whatever might be the weather above my head. OK, it’s a bit a step to compare walking across this tiny isle and being on the Western Front but I hope you get my idea.

And with water comes mud, and with mud comes slippery and with slippery comes falls. And I was quite pleased that by the end of the day the falls amounted to two, one without poles, one without.

The first one was due to lack of attention. I was thinking again about the bastard Tories who had assaulted my ears on the television over breakfast. It seems that Tories can do you harm if you merely think about them. Do you also know that the word ‘tory’ comes from the 17th century Irish word ‘tóraidhe’ meaning thief/brigand – so nothing has changed there.

The second one was when I was going down what is considered to be the steepest descent on the whole route, and that was when I was in the company of the two Canadians. For some reason I seem to fall over either when walking in the company of others or when walkers are coming in the opposite direction (as happened when I was up here earlier in the year for my trail run). It’s as if I christen out contact by bouncing off the ground.

I’ve become an advocate of poles, not just the one but two. I don’t think you really get the benefit with the one. With two you can pull yourself up hill, very much in the way that cross-country skiers get along, and used effectively going downhill can really protect the knees as well as preventing unplanned downward velocity. On this route there are lot of climbs and there are also a not inconsiderable number of steep descents, which play murder on the knees.

This first day was not that extreme. My total mileage amounted to about 16-17 (a little more than first anticipated as I took the longer northerly, and drier route around Ennerdale Lake – as in particularly wet conditions the ‘official’ long distance route along the south shore can be very wet and probably would have taken longer.

The main climb of the day was over Cleator Moor but that was made ‘easier’ by the fact that the sun was shining which took the bite out of the wind. As always the moor on the top was bleak, even in good weather and I wouldn’t have liked to have been there in low cloud, although it’s not long before you head back down to the river valley.

Prior to that there were some interesting, of varying quality, sculptures in and around the disused railway line now public path close to the village of Moor Row. These were paid for and created by people of the community and are worth a slight diversion off the recognised route to see them.

Just after this village and just before Cleator Moor I met up with a couple of Canadians, as far as I could see there weren’t many other people walking the same route that day. I stayed with them until they decided on a lunch break, my idea being if it is good weather make the most of it and if it’s bad keep on going to get into some proper shelter.

After leaving them, just under an hour from Ennerdale Bridge, I experienced a few short showers but nothing that required and drastic anti-rain action and arrived in the small village of Ennerdale Bridge 20 minutes before my scheduled time.

That was something else that I was pleased about on the first full day of walking. I had made route cards for every day and although I had allowed to short a time in one section I was able to pick that up at another and by the end of the day was in credit. If that remains the case I will be more than happy. Getting to a place early is preferable to miscalculating and arriving late, especially on the days where the distance to be covered is in the high teens, but I’ve got to try to understand why the timings are so different. It becomes a bit demoralising when you look at your watch and see that you had planned to have been at the destination but looking at the map you still have a couple of miles to go.

Spent 40 minutes in the Fox and Hounds in Ennerdale Bridge, one of the pubs that has been taken over by the community. Pint of 4.2% Wild Ennerdale, from the local Ennerdale brewery, at £2.90. Serves food all day but didn’t look at the menu or try anything.

Just before I left a walker came in declaring to the world that he was a Welshman doing the Coast to Coast walk. Why do people do that? If I entered a pub in the Lake District saying I was an Englishman the response would have been understandably, so what? I don’t understand why people do this in an almost empty pub, I’m merely broadcasting the matter to the rest of the world.

A nice little pub but there’s always a danger of stopping as getting started again is difficult when you still have 5 or so miles to go.

The northerly diversion around the edge of Ennerdale Lake (taken to avoid possible wet conditions on the southerly route) was easy at first, then there was a shortish stretch along a narrow path that wound its way through the bracken until meeting a forest track which eventually reached the Ennerdale YHA.

Why does the last mile or so always seem so long?

This hostel was very quite, only 5 people staying out of a maximum of 24. Things are getting quiet in general and accommodation doesn’t seem that difficult to find. Might have got away with not booking and just turning up but at the end of a long and potentially miserable day weather-wise why may more difficulties for yourself?

If it was difficult to move on from the pub earlier on it was even more difficult to move after a shower. The body seems to know it doesn’t have to go any further and goes into shut down mode but all those aches and pains – which were no more than those I normally wake up trying to identify – seemed to disappear by the next morning.

(As I’m writing this I’ve just looked up at a YHA notice that says that 10p from the sale of a bottle of Jennings Cumberland Ale (a glass of which I have at the right hand side of the computer) goes to help provide breaks in YHA hostels for children from (presumably) deprived backgrounds. So does that mean I can drink as much as I like and claim that it’s all for charitable purposes?)

So at 17.15 on the afternoon of Wednesday 18th September it was 19 miles down, 181 to go.

Practical Information:

Accommodation

YHA – Ennerdale

Does evening meals but they ask for pre-booking to guarantee a meal, although if you arrive and they are cooking for some they can normally add a late booking without problems. The standard price for an evening meal in all the youth hostels (at least in the Lake District area 2013) are Mains £7.50, 2 Courses £9.95, 3 Courses £11.95. Breakfast £4.99.

Most, if not all, Youth Hostels now serve alcohol.

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Coast to Coast Walk – Before even a single step

St Bega - St Bees - Cumbria

St Bega – St Bees – Cumbria

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.

Practical Information:

Transport

Train

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

Bus

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

www.alberthotel-stbees.co.uk

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.

Food:

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’.

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