- Published: 10 April 2012
|Completing the tradition, Forever Young columnist William Thomas dips his well-worn walking shoe in the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay.|
A walk across England coast to coast to mark a 65th birthday
by William Thomas
“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
They were wrapped in SmartWool socks and snuggled in Gore-Tex shoes but yes, as a matter of fact they did. But it wasn’t all that long ago.
On the first Sunday in October, I set out from St. Bees, on England’s northwest coast, to walk the breadth of the country, from Irish Sea to North Sea, a trek of 192 miles.
Why would a man celebrate his 65th birthday with a punishing 14-day march over rugged mountains and barren moors, up and down 29,000 feet of rocky paths and heathered fields?
I love to hike and writer Alfred Wainwright’s Coast To Coast Walk along England’s wild and pristine footpaths has intrigued me for years. Designed to engage nature and avoid civilization, the path cuts across the mountainous Lake District, through forests and streams of the Yorkshire Dales and across the bleak and barren knolls of the North York Moors. Three national parks, two weeks, one backpack, a guidebook, compass, map and Swiss Army knife – everything a rambler needs for a fortnight of freedom on foot.
It was drizzling through sunshine the morning of Oct. 2 when, following tradition, I dipped my foot in the Irish Sea, snatched a good-luck pebble from the beach and climbed up the 300-foot sandstone cliffs at St. Bees. I was on a milestone mission.
By 2 p.m. I’d scaled St Bees Head, clamoured over the first of several hundred stiles, passed through the village of Sandwith, crossed a dozen farmers’ fences and arrived, to my great surprise, back in St Bees. The “Mile Zero Coast To Coast” sign I’d sneered at six hours earlier was laughing at me now. English national parks do not allow markers or signs.
Reaching the Fox & Hounds Pub by dark, my legs were tingling and everything on me was drenched. I’d trained for 16 and 18 miles but not the extreme elevation of the Lake District where peaks hit two and three thousand feet.
Out early after a sumptuous breakfast, I scaled the roller coaster trail that hugs the edge of a beautiful, black lake known as Ennerdale Water.
The wrap-around scenery was dreamy and dramatic – glistening green hills dotted with black-faced sheep and crisscrossed with fast-running streams. Rocky paths disappeared up and over mountain peaks, ancient stone walls surrounded pastures that fell out of sight into valleys below.
The sun peeked through briefly and I saw Scafell Pike in the distance, England’s highest peak at 3210 feet. Thank God, the path circles that one!
Plodding ever east, I stumbled upon the hamlet of Seatoller, hiked through Johnny Wood, past Nook Farm and The Flock Inn into Rosthwaite for a pint, a pie and an intense study of tomorrow’s ordinance map, my evening routine.
The next day towering cliffs loomed – Lining Crag, Greenup Edge, Eagle Crag. I scaled them all and three more but got lost again and followed two experienced hikers into Grasmere.
This trek being far more difficult than I anticipated – longer, higher, lousy weather – I went to the post office for a bus schedule.
But next morning the sun came out and a grizzled, old hiker at breakfast at the Chestnut Inn seemed genuinely disappointed when told I was quitting.
“I could never do it but you, you’re still young.”
And then I remembered why I was here – to prove 65 was not so old.
Striding eventually into Patterdale, with the sailboats bobbing on Ullswater Lake, I thought I might just finish. With the Lake District and the gale force winds behind me, everything from the weather to my attitude improved.
Gradually the focus switched from place to people.
Ian Moseley, innkeeper of Old Water View B&B in Patterdale, insisted I try his specially-brewed ales as we poured over maps.
Waiting for me at the Brookfield House was dear, sweet Margaret who served me tea and scones by the fire and washed and dried my sweat-soaked clothes.
From the Smardale Fell I thought I saw the mysterious Nine Standards Rigg in the distance – 12-foot high spooky statues atop a moor in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, I had to take the low route across the Pennine Hills and missed the Nine Standards Rigg at the top.
I loved Keld, a hamlet of a dozen stone houses on a bleak, barren moor, because it was the halfway point.
The 11-mile walk to the village of Reeth was glorious. The sun shone, I walked in shorts.
Reeth, the Yorkshire setting for James Herriot’s All Creatures Great And Small is a pretty ‘Dale town’ with a green common and a couple of pubs.
And so it went, lone walker by day, clinking pints with strangers in pubs at night, the evening camaraderie the reward for the solitude of 20-mile days.
On a roller coaster tramp over the North York Moors, I nearly fell onto the roof of The White Lion a sprawling, cavernous pub, built into the side of a hill, a thing of old English beauty.
My last day, I’m counting my blessings and touching wood – no sprains, bad falls, pulls, calluses, not even a blister. As long as I ice my right knee at night, the body is holding up.
From Grosmont to the coast was a tough uphill march on mostly moors and a few back roads. Then serendipity struck. I was standing atop Sleights Moor at 700 feet when the drizzle slowed and the clouds lifted. The sun broke through and there it was, due east and dazzling, the towers of Whitby Abbey sitting in front of a twinkling North Sea. I walked slower knowing it was imminently reachable and, maybe, because I didn’t want the journey to end.
Hours later I strutted, okay hobbled, triumphantly into the village of Robin Hood’s Bay, and headed straight to the sea.
There, with 192 miles of England’s most savage and splendid landscape behind me, I pretty much broke down. No whoops, hollers or high-fives, I just stood quietly thinking, “Damn, I actually did it!”
Age 65 may or may not be the new 50 but it sure as hell ain’t the old 65.