The final day of our Coast to Coast crossing, with the sun high in the sky, the countryside at its overblown lushest: fields ripening and a football World Cup injecting carnival into every humdrum corner.
All we had to do was walk the final 14 miles from Ennerdale Bridge to St Bees.
We’d passed this way before of course. But both of our previous Coast to Coast endings had been characterised by dragging boots and sea frets reflecting the fear in us that we might never come back and if we did might never experience the walk in such a glorious spirit of being and sheer, exuberant discovery.
Now we knew we could. We had. And that made this final morning entirely different: as fresh, buoyant and full of promise as were Shushie and I. After our conversations of the previous day this was no reluctant letting go but a spring into the first day of the rest of our lives.
And how, at last, the weather colluded.
Arcadia in miniature
The day’s first gift, as we climbed up out of Ennerdale Bridge, was the surprising discovery of a stretch of moorland, sheep cropping the springy grass, trees low with that ancient blown look of the exposed.
It felt like a closing bracket, reminding us of where we started, looking out over the North Yorks Moors, 14 months and 180 miles earlier.
But this strange patch of Cumbrian moorland is only a minor aberration, and shortly our path took us off the fell road and down into the unbelievably perfect Nannycatch.
Wainwright calls it an Arcadia-in-miniature and so it is: an unexpected ravine, totally hidden except to walkers, where Nannycatch beck winds beneath the cliff of Raven Crag. The grazing sheep looked a little put out by our arrival, retreating to the cover of bracken and boulders, while small pellets of soft dung revealed the hidden valley’s other occupants emerging only at dawn and dusk. All around us birds we could not see sung as if this were the only place on earth.
It was the sort of place to visit with a picnic and no plans but we had plans a plenty and skipped through Nannycatch, soaking up its beauty and yet with eyes peeled for the path that our guidebook promised, or threatened – depending on your point of view – would rocket us skywards for the walk’s final climb, up Dent.
‘Dear Dent’ Wainwright calls it somewhere in recognition of its humble size relative to the Lakeland fells to come. Yet at 1,395 feet Dent is no pushover and, for those on their first Coast to Coast leg, represents an unexpected – and sometimes unwelcome – taste of the challenges ahead.
From the west it presents a long, unrelenting haul to the top where, according to Terry Marsh, the author of our guidebook, ‘mere mortals will be obliged to remain in a heap for some time’.
View from the top
Just as well really, as the view from the summit is breathtaking: a panorama out towards the lines of Lakeland fells, across to Sellafield and northwards to the Solway Firth, the twin peaks of the Isle of Man out to sea and, closer, the mound of St Bees Head.
From our direction Dent is a little kinder, offering a forest path that winds upwards in a series of hairpins. It was tough but we were high on last day adrenaline; so much so that as we emerged onto Dent’s grassed summit, we literally burst from the tree canopy like athletes from the blocks. Well, retired athletes, who’d still be easing themselves from the blocks as the competition crossed the line. But still, what we lacked in speed we made up for in volume, screaming into the breeze ‘St Bees here we come’.
It was time for coffee and as we sat there I noticed something surprising: as much as we love the Lakes, speak of them as ‘home’, the place where we are most ourselves, on this day we had our backs firmly to the serrated lines of felltops. Instead both Shushie and I looked resolutely forward with not an ounce of regret: to where we are going.
A final word on pies
I won’t use the word smug to describe how it felt ten minutes later to be flying down Dent, towards the village of Cleator, while group after group slogged upwards: stickily red-faced, with barely breath to greet us.
After all, they had 180 miles of magic to look forward to.
But would we have swapped places with them? No. On this day we were being drawn forward, pulled by the light playing on the distant headland, by the promise of the gulls’ cry and sea salt, and by a sense that this time a part of what we were experiencing was a genuine feeling of achievement. That reaching St Bees was a triumph of selfishness over selflessness…(see my last post) and therefore life over living.
There was nothing to stop for in Cleator. Not even, it turns out, a pie. (Long story short, there used to be a shop selling pies so big and tasty they become a little legend in their own right. But the Cleator pie maker died and the shop that used to sell them soon after. The village’s other shop has neither the business nous to step into the breach, nor a sense of humour. Trust me on this: we called in for something else they didn’t sell and left with a flea in our ears.)
The measly half page in the guidebook given to the final eight miles meant we were left to muddle our way through Cleator, eventually deciding to follow a newish cycle track speeding westwards on an old railway line as confidently as the TGV through the French countryside. Another closed bracket perhaps, reminding us of the miles we trekked with the ghosts of the Rosedale Ironstone Railway back at the start.
After a mile the track headed under a disused railway bridge out into England’s summer fields, where even ravenous sheep struggled to keep pace with the countryside’s surge skywards. We passed a pond whose waters were entirely hidden beneath reeds that grew taller than us, and then on, under another bridge to a track leading to a series of farmhouses whose land this must be.
Occasionally we passed other small groups of Coast to Coasters, and one larger group who seemed to be part of an organised trip, and perhaps one that had not made it entirely clear the Coast to Coast is no walk in the park. At the front of the trail were around a dozen smiling and appropriately dressed Europeans, and, some quarter of a mile behind them, being coaxed forward by the obvious group leader, three Japanese girls dressed for the Arctic and looking as miserable as someone who has walked 180 miles for a famous Cleator pie only to discover the last one has just been sold.
Flying without wings
They were the last west-to-easters we were to see as we sped out from the fields to farm tracks and then onto a narrow coast road into the pretty village of Sandwith where, on any other sunny Sunday, we might have stopped for a cider on the village green. But still the sea was like a magnet, tugging at us as we bowled along until, in the distance, a clapper board house with a rowing boat stationed in its garden, suggested we were there.
And so it was. To the north, jagged red cliffs and a beach scrubby with seaweed-covered boulders, leading away to the rooftops of Whitehaven. Ahead, a signpost mysteriously encrusted with biting insects. And to the south, and all around us, the promise of a path meandering along the cliff edge, through high grasses and flower-jewelled banks, smelling of sea and sunshine and the end of our journey.
It could not have been more perfect; a greater contrast from the miles of wet haziness we had slogged through to get to this point.
The fields on the landward side were grown tall with corn while below us white horses bobbed on a now turquoise sea and the cliffs held dramas of their own, alive with seabirds of every variety, tucked into shelves and crevices, while others rode the breeze overhead effortlessly. It felt that if we were to step off into the blue we would rise into the air with them.
We had promised ourselves a picnic on the seacliffs. St Bees woud not be our own this time, but shared with crowds of daytrippers. So time for reflection would happen before we reached the physical end we decided.
“We’ll know the right spot when we see it,” I told Shushie confidently. And we did. A place where the path, running so close to the sheer drop, suddenly took a 90 degree turn to offer views in both ahead to where we were going, and far, far, out to sea. And where it did so, two large boulders waited.
Shushie and I kicked off our boots and socks and settled in, knowing we could take our time here, in this place where fields and sea and sky met in a tableau of light and colour and beauty. Where every second a wave unfolding to shore, a bird returning to its young in a cliff crack, or a cloud shadow passing overhead, changed the picture into something new.
It was after we’d eaten, as we sat there breathing it all into our souls, that Shushie reached into her backpack for her phone and two sets of headphones. And the vividness of those moments, already being committed forever to memory, lifted to another level.
This is the music we listened to.
And fed up
Not everyone was having such a glorious time on the cliff path that day. As we continued to sit in our cliff top perch two youngsters strode by, faces glowing with sunshine, strong legs bare and firm. Behind them an older woman huffed and puffed: “I thought we were going for a walk. Not a route march.”
We smiled sympathetically at her, assuming her remarks were fond rather than furious. We were wrong. As the young couple waited and she closed the gap, her sarcasm turned to a screaming fit. “Let me do this MY WAY. I mean it. Go ahead if you want to go at your own pace. And leave me to mine.
“This is the LAST time I EVER agree to go walking with you.”
Ouch. But believe it or not she may not have been the angriest walker on the cliffs that day. A few miles on, as the path began to dip and climb again between the undulations of the velvet fields, another woman, closer in age to us, came towards us – carrying an outsize suitcase.
Bear in mind that we were now several miles from a road in any direction were on a narrow cliff path above a steep drop, where anything larger than a backpack was a liability and distraction. And there she was, dressed like us for walking, except for the mystery of this massive suitcase which she was alternately dragging behind and shoving with both hands in front of her.
I’d love to be able to give you an explanation but as we approached the look on her thunderous face clearly said ‘do not even THINK about asking me what has happened and why I am out here alone with enough luggage for a midlife gap year’.
So we didn’t. But if you’re of a literary mind, I might just have offered you a cracking first scene for your next novel.
We took time out to watch the herring gull fledglings somehow managing to survive on their impossibly precarious perches, while adult birds seemed set on dive bombing them to their deaths 200 feet below.
And to take pictures of each other skipping through the fields when, finally, the curve of St Bees beach came into view.
Here I begin to be at a loss to describe all that we felt as we picked a way down past a vast caravan park to the prom where everyone else wore flip flops rather than worn boots, and had that slightly dazed air of day trippers who can’t quite believe they are at the seaside and not only is it not raining; it is hot enough to justify an ice cream.
We were locked inside our jumbled thoughts and scarcely looked at them as we shed boots and socks and allowed the sea, its surface glittering with a million diamond lights, to draw us the last few hundred feet. Every step brought a release from those thoughts, every wave smoothing its way to shore whispered to enjoy the cool sand between our toes, the breeze soothing our glowing faces, the shining ocean, calling us home.
Right then, as we stood up to our thighs in seawater, it was a long, long hug – a slightly damp one from the tears flowing down our faces – that sealed the moment.
We had come came to the end. And realised it was just another beginning.
One final bit of business before I close.
Right back at the start, I promised you blisters.
But in 16 months of walking the best we’ve been able to summon were a few micro-bobbles. Certainly nothing worthy of having a blog named for it.
I lamented this to Shushie as we set out on this final weekend of walking and once again the universe was ready to play its part – with a reminder to be careful what you wish for.
Here, dear friends, is what my skin and blister, my soul sister, found when the boots came off:
And so we came to the end. And realised it was just another beginning.