Why Walk The Coast To Coast?
Because it’s there? Because you feel the need? Or because it’s one of the most popular long-distance footpaths in the world? All are good reasons but for many years I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to trek for 200 miles from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay.
After buying Alfred Wainwright’s ‘A Coast to Coast Walk – A Pictorial Guide’ in the early 1980s, I waited until 2013 before walking his path. Though the idea of crossing England and three national parks was appealing, the route includes long stretches, like the Vale of Mowbray, that didn’t appeal. There were other long-distance walks that I wanted to do and I discounted Wainwright’s path for years. But eventually, I read enough enthusiastic, and indeed non-enthusiastic, accounts on walking the C2C to convince me otherwise.
Was it worth the thirty-year wait?
Well, where to start? My experience in the wintry weather of March 2013 was extraordinary. It was exciting and exhilarating, challenging, sometimes scary, often exhausting, occasionally dull but overall thoroughly rewarding.
I saw England at her rawest, starkest and most beautiful. And coldest. It was probably the most difficult physical challenge I have ever undertaken.
So yes, I rather think it was worth the wait. But really? If I were you, I wouldn’t bother waiting quite so long before tackling Wainwright’s path. My advice would be – DO IT. Do it whilst you’re able.
Here are some things you might wish to know:
Is the Coast to Coast tough/difficult?
Yes/yes. Next question.
Very Funny. How difficult is the Coast to Coast?
It is perfectly do-able and, hopefully, it’ll be very satisfying too. Thousands of people complete the C2C every year but I doubt that anyone who has walked all the way from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay would argue that it is an easy walk.
You’ll walk for 200 miles. You might, like me, walk day after day without a break. You’ll cover rough terrain and face countless stiff climbs. You might be carrying a heavy rucksack. You’ll often be miles from comfort, tea or food. And you’ll walk into whatever weather the North of England throws at you. If you’re lucky that will be warm, gentle sunshine. But if you’re not, be properly kitted out or else you’ll be miserable.
The ascents on the C2C add up to a cumulative height equal to climbing Everest. But don’t panic, keep reading. The C2C isn’t beyond the reasonably fit. It really isn’t. And you can make things easier for yourself:
- For a start, take as many days as you like – it isn’t a race. I did it in 12 but that was my choice. Take 14, 16, take 21 days. My itinerary included four days of 20 miles or more but you can easily divide each of those long four days into two. So, for example, by spending the night in Grasmere, you can split my Day 3 (Borrowdale to Patterdale) and its 17 miles and two 2000ft climbs. Should you think those two days are then a bit too easy, you have the option of two fantastic add-ons: the ridge walk to Helm Crag on the first day above Grasmere; and an ascent of Helvellyn or St Sunday Crag on the second.
- Secondly, use a baggage carriage company to move your luggage from one B&B to the next. My days of lugging a 30lb rucksack up a mountain are coming to an end and for about £8 per bag per night, luggage transfer is looking increasingly attractive. I will then only carry a day-sack containing waterproofs, camera, packed lunch and the like.
- And thirdly, divide the walk into stages and complete it over many weeks, months or years. Doing the C2C in stages may not be as satisfying as facing it full-on as one multi-day effort but walk the walk as you see fit. No one, who matters, will judge you.
The C2C is pretty tough. But don’t let that put you off. It is also mesmerising, beautiful and, in my experience, quite wonderful. I didn’t want to stop walking when I reached the end. The effort in completing the route will be amply rewarded by a tremendous, smug and priceless satisfaction when you finish.
How long is the Coast to Coast?
Throughout the account of my walk, I have referred to the C2C’s total distance as 200 miles but most websites and books give 190 or 192 miles long. My early copy of Wainwright’s book says 190 miles – though the route has changed a little since then. But the guidebook I used (Trailblazer – Coast to Coast Path) has this note: “for this guidebook each stage was logged using a GPS odometer and the final tally showed the actual distance walked to be around 198½ miles.”
I have tallied up the daily distances I walked (I strayed from the official path a little – especially on Day 4 due to bad weather) and arrived at a figure of 200½ miles. No two people walking the C2C at different times will walk exactly the same path: getting lost, taking short-cuts, taking long-cuts will all affect the total mileage.
For the walk that I completed, 200 miles sounds like a good, reliable figure.
What equipment do you need on the Coast to Coast?
There are several long stretches on the C2C where you will be miles from habitation and roads, so make sure you are carrying everything you need.
You should be prepared for a range of weather. Mountains and moors can get cold even in summer and relentlessly bad weather can strike at any time of year.
Here’s a list that may prove useful:
- Obviously, you must have good, strong, waterproof footwear: preferably boots which will support your ankles and cushion your feet. (Incidentally, I used Meindl boots and they were excellent. I suffered from one small blister on the C2C).
- I swear by Goretex gaiters. They will help keep your trouser-legs and socks when walking through long, wet grass; sink in a bog or step in a stream. They also prevent your lower legs from becoming encased in mud.
- A waterproof coat and over-trousers are essential. Though curiously my guidebook has this line: “… waterproof trousers would only suit people who really feel the cold; most others will find them unnecessary and awkward to put on and wear; quick drying or minimal leg wear is better.” Really? Like anyone who has walked a lot in England, I have marched for long periods in heavy rain and most certainly wouldn’t be without my waterproof leggings. Walking in soaking wet trousers or shorts is utterly miserable – and allow water to trickle onto your socks and into your boots. No thanks.
- Adequate cold weather clothing: several layers is best. I generally wore three top layers: a tee-shirt, a fleece and an outer waterproof/wind-proof shell. In addition, I had gloves and a snood. Even in fierce, wintry conditions, I only got cold when I stopped moving for any length of time. (I did miss owning a full face balaclava to protect my face against bitterly cold winds. I have since bought one).
- You must have and know how to use a compass, or at least be with someone who does. Being lost on a fell-top, in mist and with no idea of which direction to take, is no fun and can be dangerous. I certainly needed my compass on several occasions. I would also suggest Ordnance Survey maps, for some stretches at least – the Lakeland passes in particular. But if you have a guide book, they are not strictly necessary.
- Because I often walk in snow and ice I also carry a pair of Yaktrax – a sort of crampons-lite. (I didn’t use them on the C2C but on the Dales Way they allowed me to walk on iced paths which were otherwise impassable).
- For emergencies, I carry a foil exposure blanket, a high-viz vest (not necessary if Day-Glo orange is your walking colour of choice), head-torch (with spare batteries), whistle and some back-up high calorific food, usually chocolate or flapjack. And a charged mobile phone – though don’t only rely on the latter. Coverage on the hills is still patchy.
- I also carry a basic first aid kit (plasters, painkillers, fungal cream), lip balm and moisturiser – walking 200 miles can lead to a little chaffing. I have a needle too for popping blisters, which I have always found the best and least painful remedy.
- I have two 750 ml water bottles which I find is adequate. If you’re walking in hot weather, you’ll need more.
- Cash – there are times when you won’t pass a cash-point for days and many B&B’s don’t take cards.
- Sunblock and sunglasses.
- Something to carry everything in. I am impressed by my Berghaus C7 1 Series 65 + 10 Rucksack.
When to walk the Coast to Coast?
I generally walk in March for several reasons: climbing a mountain with a big rucksack is cooler work in March than on a scorching day in August; accommodation is easier to book than in busier months (and often cheaper); the weather is sometimes surprisingly fine (if not on this occasion); and the paths and hills are mostly empty. If I’m going to undertake an adventure I find that solitude enhances it.
But that’s just my personal preference and of course, if you wish to avoid snow and ice you will, like most people, walk the C2C between April and September. You’ll benefit from longer days, greener views, warmer weather and plenty of company. But if you decide to walk during the quieter months of spring and autumn, be aware that not all B&B’s and hostels will be open and that the baggage carrier companies don’t run. (Their season generally starts at Easter and finishes in September/October).
What is way-marking like on the Coast to Coast?
Despite being hugely popular, and the busiest of Britain’s long-distance footpaths, the Coast to Coast is not officially recognised. It is not marked on Ordnance Survey maps and way-marking is often non-existent.
This is especially so in the National Parks where I barely saw an official sign. (But this is to change – and might already have done so. See this article). When I walked the route in early 2013, signposts in the Parks were very infrequent and mostly home-made (put up by landowners fed up with lost walkers wandering all over the place asking for directions).
Can I recommend a Coast to Coast guidebook?
I carried two:
my old, treasured copy of Wainwright and
Trailblazer’s Coast to Coast Path by Henry Stedman. However beautiful Wainwright’s book is, I found the maps difficult to follow when out in the open. But it is a fine read and full of information and detail – some of which the Trailblazer lacked. For instance, only AW mentions the bad weather alternative for the Patterdale to Shap leg which I was forced to use.
Pat (whom I met and walked much of the C2C with) carried an up to date Wainwright and the maps in this were much clearer than in my 1980s copy.
There will be times when the way ahead is uncertain and whichever guide you’re using is unclear or unhelpful. Having two guidebooks to consult was a real boon for us. Generally, I thought the Trailblazer excellent and would recommend it. It is witty, full of interesting stuff, well laid out and easy to use.
Mostly the maps are very good but when crossing snow-covered, featureless terrain they are next to useless … but then I don’t use GPS. Cross-referencing with an OS map and/or using a compass was vital.
To be fair, all guidebooks would have been deficient in some of the conditions I experienced (which is why you must have a compass with you).
How expensive is walking the Coast to Coast?
My twelve days walk (13 nights B&B, food and beer) cost about £800. I already had all the equipment and clothing I needed.
Booking train tickets in advance will save money – a single from my home on the Sussex Coast to St Bees cost me £26.60 and another £34.50 back home again from Scarborough.
You can, of course, make your trip much cheaper by staying in youth hostels and/or camping; though the latter will obviously add considerably to the weight you need to carry.
Should you pre-book all your accommodation?
If you’re walking out of season you probably don’t need to. But I do. After a long day’s walk, the last thing I want is a hunt for somewhere to rest my head. The downside to pre-booking, of course, is that you’re committed to a pre-determined schedule whatever the weather might do and however tired or sore you feel.
If you’re walking during the busier months you certainly will want to book in advance and as far ahead as you possibly can.
Will I walk the Coast to Coast again?
But not for a few years: there are so many other long-distance footpaths that I want to do. The C2C is an excellent walk but if or when I walk it again, I might adapt the route. For example, with the greatest respect to the people of Cleator and Moor End, I have no wish to re-visit either of those places. Actually, I think that Day 1 (St Bees to Ennerdale Bridge) is a disappointing start to the walk – and an even worse finish. For that reason, and having walked that section before, I never even considered walking east to west. Robin Hood’s Bay is, I think, a far more satisfying end than finishing at St Bees.
If I walk the path again, I might arrive in Borrowdale on a different path – perhaps from Ulverston in the south along the Cumbria Way, passing through Coniston and Great Langdale. The path from Ulverston to Coniston is far superior, I think, to St Bees to Ennerdale Bridge. And though Ennerdale to Borrowdale on the C2C is a belter of a walk, so too is Great Langdale to Borrowdale.
After all, Wainwright was very keen that people adapt his route as they see fit or make up entirely new routes. As he put it: “… I want to encourage in others the ambition to devise with the aid of maps their own cross-country marathons and not be merely followers of other people‘s routes:, there is no end to the possibilities for originality and initiative.”
AW wouldn’t mind in the least if you wish to amend his walk. Indeed, he would positively encourage it.
A year after walking the C2C, I took AW’s advice and made up my own coast to coast route, if only by linking up three established paths. There is an account of that walk – HERE.
I do hope that none of the above or reading my day by day record, has put you off walking Wainwright’s path. Obviously my experience was fairly unusual – given that I faced the worst March weather in 60 years. I may have unduly alarmed you with all that talk of blizzards and white-outs.
Chances are you will walk at a milder time of year and won’t face many of the difficulties I did. And whilst you must be sensibly prepared and equipped for walking across remote fells and moors, you will probably do so without mishap or worry – just a great deal of enjoyment and, I hope, sunshine and great views. The elation you’ll feel at reaching Robin Hood’s Bay (and having a pint) is something you can’t possibly imagine unless you’ve walked every single step from the Irish Sea.
Go do it.