BY PETER HESSLER |
Both Marcus and I had just finished at Oxford when we decided to hike the Coast to Coast trail across the country, and although we had studied different subjects-literature for me, and maths for him-we had learned the same lesson about English weather: you wanted it on your side. And so the June breeze was waiting for us in St. Bees (above) when we began, and from the beach up to the Cumbrian sea cliffs the wind nudged us steadily. 'East', it was saying.
As the wind blows it's 140 miles across the North of England from St. Bees to Robin Hood's Bay, on the North Sea coast. The country there is narrow, tightly girded just below the Scottish border, but where the land is pinched the hills add distance, and by foot the Coast to Coast Walk is 190 miles. Alfred Wainwright designed the route in the early 1970s, and, even for a man who had spent a lifetime writing about English walking trails, it was an impressive feat. Wainwright tied together the countless miles of hiking paths that web the North of England-public rights-of-way through farmland, old pannier tracks, even ancient Roman roads-until he had a single path with a purpose: a cross-country walk from sea to sea, through three National Parks with only a few touches of tarmac along the way.
It took us three and a half days to cross the Lake District. The pace of a long walk is always one of the most appealing aspects of foot travel; the land changes in real time, hills give way grudgingly, and long vistas seem all the brighter for having been earned. From a train or a car, landscapes replace each other like movie sets, but on foot the changes are suddenly tangible, and from the coast we could feel Lakeland developing. After ten miles we reached the first hill, and another five brought us to the first lake, and then the Irish Sea was only a memory as we walked beside Ennerdale Water, the westernmost of the lakes, its slate-grey surface brushed by the wind. The lake ended and the real hills rose before us-Green Gable, Great Gable, Brandreth-rugged green peaks of well over 2,000 feet. Between the mountains we took the high pass of Moses' Trod. It was an old packhorse trail, a relic from the days when slate was still mined in the western Lake District. It led us along a ruined slate tramway to Honister Pass, where the trail dropped gradually into a long valley and old drystone walls stretched like rocky veins across the green hills.
We passed through Grasmere on the third day. On a long walk there is something temporary about towns: they might be a place to stop for a meal or even spend a night or two, but they are never anything more than that, and the map always points onward. Grasmere is a tourist town, the home of Wordsworth where you can visit Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount, and the village churchyard where William and his sister Dorothy are buried. We paused for lunch but that was all. I wasn't an expert on the Romantics but I'd read enough Wordsworth to know that, if the poet were alive today and if he were to walk into Grasmere, he'd keep walking.
Above the well-worn village, though, the mountains were wild and magnificent. Through the hills we made about three miles an hour and, while we met other hikers on the trail, we always walked alone. Most of the others were also going east, but every now and then we'd meet somebody who had started at the North Sea and fought the wind across England. 'There's a nice bit up ahead,' he might say, or maybe we'd tell him how far it was to the next village, and whether they had a pub there.
Perhaps even more striking than the scenery of the Coast to Coast Walk is the range of travellers that you find on the trail. We encountered some other young people, fast walkers with heavy packs, but most were middle-aged or older, and we met several couples in their 70s. For a hiker in good shape the Coast to Coast Walk generally takes about two weeks, but people often stretch it out, spending extra rest days (or rain days) at their favourite villages. Unlike many American long-distance walks-the Appalachian Trail, for example, or the Pacific Coast Trail-the Coast to Coast Walk requires neither superb conditioning nor a summer's worth of free time. The walk's highest point is 2,558 feet, and its 37 villages appear, on the average, every five or six miles. There's even a backpack shuttle service if you don't feel like carrying your pack.
On the fifth day we walked back in time across the Westmorland plateau. Even earlier we had felt history underfoot: crossing the final ridge of the Lake District between Ullswater and Haweswater, we had followed the traces of High Street, the highest Roman road in England. The Romans had built the highway to link forts at Brougham and Ambleside, and we had followed it along the ridge of Kidsty Pike's long scree slope, 2,500 feet high, on a path that was nearly 2,000 years old. That had been on a windy, rainy morning, but by the fifth day the weather had passed us by and the sun shone bright on the scattered limestone ruins of the plateau.
For more than 20 miles the plateau stretches between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, and here it seemed as if everybody in England's long history had left his mark. We walked by the ruined 12th-century abbey at Shap, crossed another Roman road on Crosby Ravensworth Fell, and then passed a wide-ranging series of ruins near Orton: an old stone limekiln, the prominent cairn known as Robin Hood's Grave, the Gamelands Stone Circle. The trail led us alongside Severals, the ruins of a prehistoric village, and then it took us past the Giants' Graves, a clump of grass-covered mounds that looked like green waves frozen on the gentle pasture of Smardale. Some experts said they were really rabbit warrens, built after the Normans introduced the animals to England, but nobody knows for sure. Three miles later the Iron Age hillfort of Crogham Castle, a tangle of old stones, loomed above the path.
History was still there but it was fading fast. Already the sense of order was gone-we passed the Premonstratensian abbey first, then traces of the Romans, the ancient Brigante tribes, and the Normans, and then back to the Iron Age-but the land is swallowing all the ruins indiscriminately.
The weather held and the next day we crossed the Pennine watershed into the Yorkshire Dales National Park. We spent a night in a youth hostel in Keld, an old Norse settlement of a handful of stone cottages beside the River Swale, and then we followed the river-the water, like the wind, was now flowing east-into Swaledale.
Swaledale was mining country. Its natives first began to dig for lead ore in prehistoric times, and the demand swelled after the Norman Conquest with the roofing needs of new castles and churches. There was another sudden surge in mining in the 17th century, as Britain became the world's largest exporter of lead. Then the industry suddenly died at the end of the 1800s as cheaper imports poured in from overseas. Although today the mining ruins lie throughout the winding river valley, the land has recovered in the past century until even the old scars now have a certain beauty: the overgrown hushes where miners used torrents of water to search for new veins, the stone ruins of the abandoned mills. We passed Blakethwaite Smelt Mill, with the arches of its peat store still intact, and then we walked through the Old Gang Mill, where heather grew throughout the grey mine scree. In the middle of the ruins a chimney towered alone, completely intact.
Below us the River Swale was a fellow traveller, flowing east through the valley, and we followed it to Reeth, which may have been the prettiest village of the entire walk. In the centre of town there was a beautiful close-mowed green, and the village itself was surrounded by the graceful slope of Calver Hill; one jewel set within the other, bright in the summer sunshine.
Marrick, three miles further, didn't have a single shop, but an old woman offered to sell us refreshments. 'I donate all the money from the walkers to the church,' she explained. She pulled a folding table into her yard, served us orange juice and scones, and told us what had happened in Wimbledon that day. 'Becker won but he was very ill-tempered,' she said, disapprovingly. It was late afternoon on a long-lived English summer day, the sort of day when you couldn't imagine being ill-tempered, but then the crowds and the queues of London, and the smells of the city and the rush of traffic were all far away.
To reach the North York Moors from the west, you have to cross the Vale of Mowbray. From Whitcliffe it's nearly 25 miles to Ingleby Cross-much of it along the River Swale, all of it as flat as your shadow. The long valley slipped past in a day. My feet began to hurt. A hot spell was building and above the fields the air shivered in the sun. In the two years I had lived in England it was the first time I had seen heat waves.
The next day the temperature rose to 30 degrees Celsius, a record, people said. On the unshaded hills of the North York Moors it felt even hotter. The moors are the largest stretch of heathered hills in England, and for most of the 40 miles across the park to the coast there are no trees and few villages-only the long sloping hills, the heather, and the Swaledale sheep with their black faces and curled horns.
Climbing Beacon Hill, the gateway to the moors, we visited the ruins of Mount Grace Priory. The Carthusians founded Mount Grace in 1398, and in the solitude of the moors it wasn't difficult to imagine monastic life. The monks had been sworn to strict vows of silence, and in the ruins you could still see the tiny cells, each with its own private garden. We followed the path to the ridge of the Cleveland Hills and then looked back at the Vale of Mowbray. From above, the fields of yesterday's walk were a crazy patchwork of colours stretched taut to the horizon: greens of all shades, the soft brown of wheat, the bright yellow of rapeseed. Standing there I tried to imagine what the landscape would look like in August and September, when the dull-green heather bloomed purple across the moors. Today the wind on the hills was gentle but hot.
Mining had also shaped this countryside, and for six miles we followed the course of the Rosedale Ironstone Railway. The line has been shut down since 1929, and now its trackbed is a walking path through the empty hills. Until the last mine closed in 1964, ironstone had been mined in the moors for 2,000 years and the hills had also yielded alum, a chemical used for tanning and dyeing, and jet, a type of ornamental stone that briefly became popular in the late 1800s. Queen Victoria, who fancied the black stone, wore it at court, and suddenly the mines sprouted like heather across the moors, only to die with the fad. Nothing is deader than an abandoned jet mine, I decided-the stone is no more than an adjective now, the jet of 'jet black'- and the old workings lay like long-forgotten scratches along the hillsides.
Not everything died with the mines, though. The 700-year-old Lion Inn stands alone on the moors, a pub without a village on a lonely highway. It had been a coal-miners' pub but now it caters to the people who walk or drive through the park. North of the pub, the nine-foot-tall Ralph Cross stands beside the highway. Nobody knows exactly how old the stone cross is, or why it had been erected-some say it was placed there in memory of a traveller who had died of exhaustion. In 1974 it was chosen as the emblem of the North York Moors National Park. And on foot, I realized how perfect the symbol is; somehow it captures the essence of the moors, their solitude and their mystery.
On the tenth day we crested a hill and suddenly the wind was in our faces. It smelled of salt, but we didn't actually see the ocean until we were practically on top of it. A heavy sea fog, known locally as a roak, had slipped across the moors as they flattened out toward the coast, and it was at Hawsker, only a mile from the sea, that we first caught sight of the water.
It was a cool misty day and the North Sea was iron-grey and calm. The final stretch of the Coast to Coast Walk follows the Yorkshire shoreline south for three miles, and for the last mile and a half we could see Robin Hood's Bay, tucked into a break in the high dark cliffline. From a distance it was all red roofs and chimneys, the houses packed so tightly together that there wasn't any sense of the narrow cobbled streets that twisted down to the coast. In the old days it had been a notorious haven for smugglers and there was a l .d that in Robin Hood's Bay, contraband could move from one end to the other entirely indoors. Today, though, it's all gift shops and tourists-a pretty village pressed close between water and rock.
In town, I knew, we would walk down to the edge of the sea and take a picture. The photo was inevitable-we had taken another one by the Irish Sea at St. Bees-but somehow at the moment when Robin Hood's Bay first came into view I wasn't thinking about the finish. All I could think about was the trail, the sea breeze, and a late June day that, while fog-shrouded and cool, nevertheless had a certain beauty of its own.
"Grasmere" by Andy Williams Photography