The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
19. COAST TO COAST WALK
Cumbria, North Yorkshire, England
Distance: 309 km
Time: 14 days
Alfred Wainwright was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1907. He excelled at school, studied accountancy, enjoyed cartography to the point of drawing his own set of local maps, and got a job at Blackburn Borough Council. At the age of 23 he had saved enough money to embark on a week’s walking through the Lake District with his cousin Eric Beardsall. Upon climbing Orrest Head (238 m) on the eastern shoreline of Windermere the young Alfred saw the Lakeland Fells for the first time, and what he saw transfixed him - an expanse of mountains, woodlands and lakes stretching, it seemed, to infinity, a serene world he later described as being ‘in a tumultuous array across glittering waters; our awakening to beauty’. Over the next decades Wainwright did more than anyone to promote the tradition of fell walking. His pictorial guide to the Lakeland Fells, a series of seven guidebooks published from 1952 to 1966, remains the Lake District’s standard reference on fells and the trails that connect them. He later went on to write a guidebook on the Pennine Way, and in 1973 devised and wrote a new book about a long distance walk across northern England he had cobbled together on his own starting at St Bees, south of St Bees Head in Cumbria on the Irish Sea and ending at Robin Hood’s Bay, 9 km south of Whitby on the North Sea. He titled his new book, appropriately, A Coast to Coast Walk.
Described as a masterpiece, and even smacking of genius, the walk bisects three very different national parks - the Lake District National Park, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park - and was originally envisaged as a series of stages with an extra day here and there for sightseeing or just plain ‘staring’ (Wainwright was fond of the idea of ‘standing and staring’, a pastime capable of adding considerable time to any walk - and playing havoc with itineraries!). He was also averse to people following precisely the route he had created for himself, preferring them instead to follow his suggestions but find their own way just as he had done, to deviate from prescribed pathways and make their own individual, unique memories.
Walking the Coast to Coast from west to east, Wainwright recommended dipping your boots in the Irish Sea at St Bees and again in the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, just so you could truly say you went ‘coast to coast’, and the west-to-east option remains the more popular route as it places the prevailing winds at your back, and the late afternoon sun over your shoulder, perfect for photographs. Some, however, may prefer to walk east to west and make the Lake District the culmination of their crossing.
Those who are content, however, to walk in Wainwright’s footsteps will not be disappointed. The Coast to Coast Walk takes a high level route wherever possible, whether it be over the Westmorland limestone plateau, over the Pennines watershed, the Gunnerside and Melbeck moors or over the heather-clad highlands of the North York Moors. If you looked to walk the perfect line between its chosen start and end points, you could do no better than take the almost ruler-straight route Wainwright devised.
COAST TO COAST WALK
From St Bees Head you set off north along its sandstone cliffs before turning east through the West Cumberland Plains towards the western boundaries of the Lake District National Park, and a demanding climb up Dent Fell (352 m), then descending on a forestry track down to the valley of Nanny Catch Beck and ending a tough day (with an accumulated elevation gain of around 1,100 m!) at Ennerdale Bridge. A path around Ennerdale Water leads to a dirt track and after 6.5 km you enter Ennerdale Valley. An old tramway path takes you into Honister, through lovely Johnny’s Wood, and into Rosthwaite. The Cumbria Way takes you through the Borrowdale Valley and past impressive Eagle Crag before climbing to Greenup Edge and trailing along Helm Crag Ridge to Grasmere, one-time home to William Wordsworth.
Climbing to Grisedale Hause a choice of three trails of varying difficulty now presents itself, all ending in the town of Patterdale. Next comes Kidsty Pike - the walk’s high point at 780 m with its wonderfully angled profile and long considered a fell in its own right despite its connection to its parent peak, Rampsgill Head. Descending to Haweswater and rounding its lake you leave the Lake District and find yourself on the limestone pavements of the Westmorland limestone plateau that take you into the small market town of Kirkby Stephen on the banks of the River Eden.
Climbing again, this time up to England’s primary watershed at Nine Standards Rigg where moorland paths descend to the lovely town of Swaledale, you are now at the half-way point where the trail crosses the Pennine Way at the village of Keld, from which a high route and low route both lead to Reeth and on to the market town of Richmond. It’s then across the flat pasturelands of the Vale of Mowbray and along the western boundary of the North York Moors, one of the UK’s largest expanses of heather moorland - a gorgeous mix of plateaus, dales, woodlands and farms. The trail joins here with the Cleveland Way and the interesting and little-known Lyke Wake Walk, first suggested as a trail by a local farmer in 1955 who argued it was possible to walk on nothing but heather over a 40-mile (64-km) route across the moors of northeast Yorkshire at their highest point.
Next is Urra Moor, the North York Moors’ highest at 454 m, and turning north from here at Bloworth Crossing places you on the tracks of the Rosedale Railway, opened in 1861 to transport iron ore deposits then being mined in the Rosedale Valley. The rail line closed in 1929, but a section that runs up to Blakey Junction is followed before continuing to Glaisdale, home to the lovely Beggar’s Bridge (1619) and a mere 13 km west of Whitby. With the end in sight, a woodland path takes you into Egton Bridge, host to England’s oldest gooseberry festival, and a disused tollroad leads into the village of Grosmont and through Littlebeck on the River Esk. On the clifftops of the north coast it links up again with the Cleveland Way before paralleling the coast south to your final destination, Robin Hood’s Bay.