Coast to Coast: in Wainwright’s footsteps (but he’s turning in his grave)

Women lack genuine enthusiasm, are intellectually inferior and if prone to nagging should be left to wait at Sty Head Tarn whilst you climb Great Gable in peace. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but that’s a fairly accurate summary of the views of the late-great-but-definitely-very-misogynistic Alfred Wainwright. He also believed in savouring the hills, not running through them, and he whilst he admits that a ‘strong athlete could walk it in a week’ he advises spending a fortnight over the 191-mile Coast to Coast route. Well, whilst I can see his point, and there are wonderful variants in the Lakes over ridges (Red Pike-Haystacks; Calf Crag-Gibson Knott-Helm Crag; St Sunday Crag or Striding Edge) that I skipped this time, I could only take a week off work. Also, I didn’t want to be away from the kids for too long either; that’s the problem of being a working woman, not that Alfred would understand that. So C2C in a week it was to be for me.

Taking a week over the route is nothing special – it’s a challenge – but when Damian Hall contacted me to do a short feature in Trail Running magazine about my adventure I suspected he’d got the wrong end of the stick and assumed I’d run it in one fell swoop. We’d bumped into (OK slightly stalked) Damian at the start of the Lakeland Ultra Trail 55km earlier that year and had a lovely chat with him about running and he asked us about our goals for the season and Miyako mentioned I’d been inspired by Jasmin Paris’s Spine Race to tackle the C2C.

Once we’d told Damo I was doing it there was no backing out.

I’d also bought a second hand copy of a very old edition on the Wainwright guide which is a real gem – I love the front cover with his illustration of the simple map drawn across the country West to East and I wanted to run that line from my beloved Lakes to another favourite spot: Robin Hoods Bay. The inside cover also has a beautifully simple map – and there was something about the symmetry of a route running through the three National Parks – Lakes, Dales and NY Moores – that appealed.

He might have been a bit of a crackpot, but he draws a lovely map

And to cross the whole country on foot felt like it would be an achievement – I’d cycled it twice before, and cycled across France via the Pyrenees so I assume something draws me to these sea to sea via the summits routes… I’d decided I wanted to make some big changes in my worklife in 2019 which would take some courage and ‘going solo’ and running a line across the country seemed an appropriate way to reflect that ambition on the ground.

Also I wanted to challenge myself to do something solo. I’d always been a bit afraid of being alone in the countryside, I wasn’t ever scared of the hills but rather of ‘stranger danger’. Having been bombarded with images of women joggers getting jumped on in the woods I always preferred to venture out with others. But this time I was going to do most of the run solo…

So I hatched a plan that involved me taking a train to St Bees and running solo through the Lakes in two days, then meeting up with my Dad as support crew (in the car) for the legs through the Pennines which were particularly bleak and wild (and to me unknown) territory and into the more familiar Dales. My Dad would then drop me home to York at the end the leg out of the Dales – so I got a night on my own bed, chance to wash my kit and get a massage before heading back to tackle the final two stages over the NY Moors with Miyako in tow. Unfortunately accommodation on the Moors is very limited and we couldn’t get into the Lion Inn so my Dad stepped in again to transfer us the hour back from the NY Moors to my parent’s flat in Filey for the night and ferry us back the following morning. Tim and the kids were planning to meet us at the end – and celebrate with a dip in the sea and fish and chips. Or that was the plan, at least…

Day 1: St Bees to Borrowdale YHA – 29 miles

I was up early as it was a big day by any standards, and I didn’t want to push too hard too early and not make it to the finish. I wasn’t entirely sure how fast I’d be travelling and there were a few days when I’d calculated getting to my destination in daylight might be touch and go… I knew the section through the Lakes pretty well after Ennerdale Bridge so only this first section and the final bit of Day 2 after Kidsty Pike were new to me. The first hour along the coast was lovely – but the mountains were calling and I was keen to arrive into the hills proper.

Cheeky grin at the panel that marks the start to make AW turn in his grave at someone running his route instead of savouring it – and a woman at that!

By early morning I was skirting Ennerdale Water in sunshine – last time I’d been here with the kids we’d had one of their worst ever hikes in sleet. I popped into Ennerdale YHA to top up my water and found to my delight they were running an honesty cafe (I’d planned to top up here but thought I might need to sneak in the kitchen as it’s usually closed in the day). I enjoyed a slice of cake and cuppa and a 10 min break drinking in their unparalleled view of Pillar from the back terrace.

Around the side of Ennerdale Water – I love this valley, so quiet!
Tea and Pillar – thanks Ennerdale YHA

I was sorely tempted to take the high route – over Red Pike and onto Haystacks as that’s one of my favourite ridges – but I was sensible and followed the valley path through moraine to the head of Ennerdale. Little did I know Black Sail YHA – just a few miles up the trail – was also running an honesty cafe, so I stopped for another cup of tea this time with Great Gable for company, before slogging up the side of a stream to emerge round the back of Haystacks and join the path towards Honister.

Ability to eat well on a run is a key ultra running skill (I kid you not) and it’s one of the few running skills I excel at. So I grabbed a spot of lunch at Honister Slate mine before gently jogging down the path to Borrowdale – being treated to a glimpse of a kingfisher along the river Derwent. Couldn’t have been happier to arrive at one of my favourite spots, grab a shower, pull on the compression tights and put up my legs to rest until dinner on the comfy sofa of the lounge.

resting like a pro in the bar (apologies for my toes – I didn’t have room in my pack for spare shoes)

Day 2: Borrowdale to Burnbanks – 28 miles

Today involved crossing 3 high passes including the highest point on the route (Kidsty Pike – a new Wainwright for me) and Greenup Edge where I knew from previous experience in misty weather the path is very hard to find (and the opportunity to end up in the wrong valley quite high). So not the best day for low cloud and rain – but reassured by having done at least 2 courses on how to read a compass in the previous 12 months and having largely done most of this route before (and having hastily downloaded some GPS mapping software to my iPhone for emergencies) I headed up the valley with a spring in my step. Worse case scenario, I reasoned, I’d end up in Langdale or Thirlmere and whilst it’d be a detour I know the way back from there to where I’m meant to be.

Eagle Crag looms in the mist as I leave Borrowdale

Up and up I climbed, into the low cloud and soon I could barely see 10 metres ahead. The path dwindled to a boggy mess with only the occasional footprint to follow. I could just about make out the next cairn ahead in the mist – so one cairn at a time I carefully navigated over the top and dropped into Far Easedale. ‘So long as I know how to use my compass, and can see at least one cairn ahead of me, I’m going to be fine’ I decided – and I was.

Wandering in mist on Greenup Edge – better conditions than last time I was here with the Mum-venturers!

I rolled down into Far Easdale (the right valley!) ahead of schedule and into a pub carpark outside Grasmere where the support team (aka my Dad) had insisted on meeting me, rather than in Burnbanks at the end of Day 2 as we’d originally agreed. He was – at this was to set the tone for his ‘style’ of support for the next few days – not exactly where we’d agreed to meet, out of phone range and not on time. He was also eating my supply of food that he was meant to be carrying. But it was good to see him.

Support crew caught eating the snap at Grasmere

No time for a chat, I was off up Grisedale Hause – with 3 passes to climb today was going to be a long one. I’d done this pass twice before in the other direction in races (Ultra 55km comes that way) and it always drags so I’d not been looking forward to it, although I was relieved to know the route well in those conditions. But it was a much shorter and easier climb in this direction and again I was quickly heading towards Patterdale where I’d next planned to eat lunch and meet my Dad.

But a few miles before the village around the bottom of Birks (a fell) what do I see but a grey-haired chap wandering around the hills and I recognise ‘my support crew’ having a stroll. I relieve him of the car key and have my lunch in the car, just finishing as he catches me up. Next up the final big effort of the day – over the Angletarn Pikes to Kidsty Pike and along the never ending shores of Haweswater. I’d reccied this section in May (when it had rained) and I’d also been round Haweswater twice earlier that year; once in training for the Montane 50 and then in the race itself. Both times it rained and today was no different. I’ve since been back to Haweswater for a hike and have seen it in sunshine – it’s much nicer – but if I never have to run that path around that body reservoir again I’ll be happy.

Finally after a long wet day – and several bags of M&S gelatine free Colin the Caterpillars – I arrived at the end of the reservoir at Burnbanks. I’d wanted to stay at the Haweswater hotel but it was full – hence needing my Dad to transfer me to Shap where we’d booked into a lovely hostel. Ensuite with a bath and double bed. I was shivering from cold as we arrived and drank 3 cups of tea in the bath before I was warm again.

Day 3: Burnbanks to Kirby Stephen – 25 miles

I often schedule my long runs to end near a fish and chip shop – Miyako and I usually celebrate a successful 3 Peaks in Hawes chippy or a long run on the Cleveland Way at Robin Hoods Bay – and today was no exception. I’d realised Kirby Stephen was only 10 mins drive from one of my favourite eateries – Brough Chippy (I hadn’t counted on it being closed on Wednesday though). So I set off from Kirby Stephen after a hearty and delicious cooked breakfast already thinking about my tea. Shortly after Shap I had to cross the M6 and run round a grim quarry, so the brief distraction of being called by school to ask where my son was at least took my mind off the crappy landscape. (He was fine, my Mum was looking after him and had forgotten to tell school he was ill).

With the M6 behind me (and several days away from the thrilling crossing of the A19 dual carriageway and a railway line) I enjoyed the limestone country of Westmoreland – finding some sections of limestone pavement and enjoying the walls. A lot of paths for the next two days seem to follow these walls… The grandeur of the Lakes was gone and not ever to be surpassed – that’s the problem with the route you get the best bits first – but the gentler charms of the Pennines and Yorkshire Dales beckoned, and the walls told me I was nearing my home county of Yorkshire.

This could be anywhere between Shap and Kirby Stephen frankly – looks very samey all day after the M6

It was shorter and far easier day (most of the climbing was behind me so my pace was faster) so we arrived into the tiny town of Kirby Stephen with far more time than you can reasonably spend there. The disappointment of Brough chippy being closed was compounded by the ‘Coast to Coast’ chippy also having its day off. Fortunately after some ranting on my part about why-don’t-they-coordinate-their-opening-times-better-like-boulangeries-in-France which-have-a-rota-for-days-off-so-there’s-always-one-open we found a chip shop that was open and I became a lot less hangry.

Day 4: Kirby Stephen to Reeth – 24 miles

Today involved crossing the wildest and least inhabited bits of the route including Nine Standards which was also – joy – notoriously boggy. The map looked like a lost world of peat hags and heather. Leaving the pub where we’d stayed last night I was hopeful – there was a bit on sun and a red squirrel followed me along a wall for a bit. But as I climbed up towards the spooky cairns of Nine Standards Rigg (which looks like the Knights Who say ‘Ni’ from Monty Python’s Holy Grail) the sky became darker and the wind picked up.

‘Cut down the tallest tree in the forest with a herring’

This summit marked the Pennine Watershed – from here on the rivers run out to my destination – the North Sea. A few minutes after the elation of reaching this fluvial half-way marker I had to shelter behind a cairn and pull on my waterproof as the sky began pelting me with cold, hard drops. Next stop the real half-way point of Keld – but many moorland miles to cross before then and the landscape was pretty featureless and bleak moors. At least the path was very clear and not boggy – or so I thought…

Here comes there rain! Just after Nine Standards Rigg it started to lash with wind and rain.. perfect weather for peat bogs

This also was the day the singing started to keep up my spirits as I was soon sliding up and down and around peat hags. First I got the tune Baby Shark stuck in my head and I was singing the words ‘Baby Swale’ to it as I traced the tiny river Swale from these highs moors into a churning brown river lower down in Keld (and later into Reeth).

Somewhere in the Pennines above Ravenseat

This is the section of the C2C which crosses the Pennine Way and as I slopped around in the muddy moors I made a mental note never to do that route. Wainwright was clear which route he preferred, he says in the introduction to the C2C book: ‘I finished the Coast to Coast with regret, the Pennine Way with relief; that is the difference’. He’s not right about everything, but I suspect he’s right about which of these routes is most pleasant.

I’d reccied this next section in the Summer holidays with the kids when we were camping art Grinton Lodge YHA – a family favourite and tonight’s destination. So I knew there was a cafe in the small hamlet of Keld – although the owner had been non-committal when I’d asked her in August whether she’d be open at lunchtime on a Thursday in September. Fingers-crossed, I sprinted into the half-way point hoping I’d be able to celebrate with a cuppa. Dad had said he was going to run the last few miles into Keld with me but he changed his mind when he saw the mud and was waiting in the car.

Halfway! I celebrated with cheese on toast and a cuppa in the cafe at Keld

The following section from Keld along the Swale and up Swinniside Gill is truly lovely on a nice day, in fact it’s one of my favourite walks in the Dales. But today it was not at it’s best – it wasn’t so bad that I took the low-level variant by the river to Reeth either. And it wasn’t as bad as that infamous time (on this same path on a family walk with my Dad) we had to rope-up my daughter Elsa to stop her blowing away in a storm… That episode, along with the wet slog round Ennerdale Water, is in my children’s top 3 worst walks (I’ll have to blog about the best/worst one ever – which also involved my Dad, lightning and inappropriate clothing – in the Dolomites another time). So in comparison today was a breeze – and at least nobody was whining – I was still singing though. Not seeing a soul all day (except at Keld) I’d started talking to sheep and singing On Ilka Moore Baht Tat to keep myself going.

Elsa ‘enjoying’ the Muker-Keld walk one October half-term…

Maybe because I’d spent much of my own childhood ‘enjoying’ the Dales in all weathers, I was in my element in the rain – which eventually stopped. The issue then became navigation – there were big trails across the moors but no signs and everything looked the same in ever direction. I will confess I largely navigate in the Lakes by knowing where I am pretty well and being able to recognise hills in the distance. All I could see here was heather, and the odd shooting butt.

Somehow I managed to find my way to Surrender Bridge where my dad was waiting in his original 1980s Ron Hill tracksters to check on me before the final section into Reeth. I was almost home, but in the maze of paths in that final section, tired after 4 long days on the trails and relaxing as I was back somewhere I recognised, I stopped checking the map and started just heading towards the youth hostel high on the hill. I ended up losing the official path for the first time and landed on the road between Reeth and Muker. Fortunately I knew vaguely where I was and decided to drop down along the Swale into Grinton rather than try and re-find the route via Reeth. And I arrived at Grinton Lodge YHA to a warm welcome – Chris the former manager of Borrowdale (and a keen fell runner) was working on reception.

Miles over the moors to Reeth

Day 5: Reeth-Danby Wiske – 25 miles

The less said about Danby Wiske and this stage the better. It’s the boring bit in between the Dales and the NY Moors. My Dad ran a few miles with me at the start of the day along the Swale as far as Marrick Abbey where it starts going uphill – not accusing him of stopping there for that reason, just saying I noticed he liked to join me on the downhill sections 😉

My ‘pacer’ running me into Surrender Bridge on Day 4 – downhill obviously!

After reaching Richmond at the bottom of Swaledale, which was pleasant enough, the path then followed fields and farms – passing briefly under the A1 motorway – and through tiny villages and along the occasional B road. I also ran past Kiplin Hall – a heritage venue I’d done some strategy work with a few months before. I decided not to pop in for a quick update but headed on.

Today’s highlight was bumping into a fellow runner, out for her daily jog with the dog, who kindly accompanied me for about 4-5 miles into Catterick, chatting as we ran along. It was a trickier section for navigation with lots of little paths and checking of the map so it was great to have a guide so I could relax and not need to check the map constantly. From here to just before the end would all be new to me too – but fortunately from tomorrow I had another guide lined-up who not only knew most of the route from her HardMoors races but also has every gadget and GPX thingumy going to keep us on track – Miyako. It was also good timing to have some company as I was running out of verses of On Ilka Moor Baht Tat to sing to the sheep.

Best of all, today the route finished about an hour from home – so rather than fork out for a hotel with true Yorkshire value for money we headed home to wash the wet kit, have a massage, see the kids and sleep in my own bed. We also needed to pick up my secret weapon for the final stages – Shimoji-san. The last two days were long ones and with 130 miles already in my legs I’d need some moral support to get to the seaside by teatime on Sunday especially given the weather forecast.

Day 6: Danby Wiske-Blakey Ridge – 30 miles

When Miyako and I do our long training runs together we chat, and with a week of gossip to catch up on I hardly noticed the first 6 miles of the day as we jogged round yet more bloody fields of turnips and sweetcorn on featureless flat plains until we arrived at Ingelby Cross where the route gets interesting again.

My secret weapon: Shimoji-san with her navigation gadgets and endless snacks (and good company)

A early highlight that day was the *fun* of crossing the A19 dual carriageway on foot, but otherwise the first thing I remember was the millions of pheasants on the paths as we climbed through some woods and came out onto the moors.

We were blessed with glorious weather for once (and not for long!) and the running was easy along the ridges – up and down, up and down, up and down. Miyako spotted Roseberry Topping in the background and we waved to our old friend. This is one of the few days with lots of photos of me running – given I was alone for so long, my Dad isn’t great with a camera and it was so wet on the final day. It wasn’t as stunning as the Lakes – what is though frankly – but the scenery was a big improvement on the past 2 days and I enjoyed the views as well as the company.

Wandering up and down the NY Moors
Queen of the mountains!

Day 7: Blakely Ridge – Robin Hood Bay – 30 miles (but we took a shortcut)

Must have used up all the good weather yesterday as we never even got a glimpse of the sun today. And such as shame as even in what was pretty grim weather you could still tell this stage would have been a cracker – we’ll definitely go back and do this again as soon as CV19 allows it. After following a ridge along the moors, we dropped into woods to follow the river to the sea – in Spring there would be wild garlic and bluebells, we’ll come back then. I believe this is the Esk Valley but it was too wet to check the map and bit his stage all I could think of was fish and chips at the end. I’d even gone off Colin the Caterpillars after eating 12 bags since St Bees.

So the final day turned into a bit of a grind – but we always knew we’d make it. There was a lot of this (in the photo above) – head down, tramping through wet heather. And a lot of singing On Ilka Moor Baht Tat – Miyako is probably the only Japanese person to know all verses. We passed two hikers on the trail (I think the only people we saw all day) and slightly freaked them out with our singing as we ran.

There was a lunch stop in Grosmont where we wrung out our wet clothes before going into a little cafe. Some ‘hilarious’ antics to keep our spirits up – posting for ironic photos next to ‘fire hazard’ signs and bales of wire (in-joke for my Dad who worked in the wire industry and has more interest in wire products than average). We even got to ford a river at one stage – wading up to our knees through a river. We couldn’t have been more wet – not even our mountain-grade full waterproofs could keep us dry in that rain for so long.

Humour kept us going – I’d have been amazed if anyone could have started a fire in those conditions

We know the area around Robin Hoods Bay very well – it’s one of our main training areas – so when the route takes a final twist North to take in the coastal path from Hawkser but Wainwright says there’s an option to stay straight on and save yourself 3-4 miles we decided to skip that last loop. It’s a path we’ve done many, many times before – but today wasn’t the day for scenic detours and you’d have seen nothing but sea spray.

Dad and Tim were waiting for us at the top of the last steep hill into RHB which I can reveal is murder on your quads after a week on your feet. It’s one of the steepest hills I know and I was worried my legs might actually fall off as I rolled into the tiny village by the sea to find my kids joining in for the last 10 metres or so. I ran into the the sea to dry off – the tide was in and waves crashing up the cobbles by the pub at the end of the route.

No I hadn’t jumped in the sea – that’s just rain!

I can’t remember now at what stage we were informed that the fish and chip shops had both closed early due to bad weather, but I do remember how adamant I was that I wasn’t leaving there coast until I’d had some – so we drive to Whitby to enjoy the full ‘Nicky Spinks’: fish, chips and curry sauce. We’d earned it!

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