Post 23: Alighting at St Bees station, Archie and myself were relieved to see another coast to coaster ahead of us. He looked like a walking rucksack with legs. Soon to be known as John (also Jonah walker), he was about five-foot six inches, fifteen stone and carried a pack with camping gear that went from his knees to a foot above his head. As he descended some steps, his legs bowed at the knees.
‘Doing coast to coast?’ I said.
‘Yes, hopefully,’ he replied, ‘this packs heavy.’
‘Are you camping in St Bees tonight?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I’ll soon have the tent up and a brew on,’ he said panting already.
‘Well good luck, perhaps we’ll see you in the pub later on or perhaps during the walk?’ I said thinking, if he makes the pub it will be a surprise, if he does the walk it will be a miracle.
We found our bed and breakfast and, as it was a pleasant evening and we had some spare time, we decided to check out the first part of the route. Here we were about to embark on a 192-mile walk and what do we do before it? Go on a 3-mile walk. If we couldn’t find our way on the first 3 miles then we might as well pack up now and go home. Having successfully found the start of the walk on St Bees beach, we walked to the first headland, then, having worked up a hunger and thirst, decided not to overdo it, instead retiring to the pub for the evening. Our confidence was immediately sapped when we met some youngsters, aged sixteen to seventeen, who were carrying tents and intended completing the walk in one week. They were carrying no spare clothes and ate their meal in five minutes. Were we middle-aged, thirty-nine year-olds, being a bit optimistic in thinking we could walk the same distance as these youngsters? They were never seen again.
If that wasn’t bad enough, someone called Pete entered the pub adorned in immaculate, brightly coloured, expensive waterproofs and beautifully ironed cord breeches. I have always thought that these breeches look better suited to horse riding than walking but, supposedly, they ensure that mud only gets on your socks. Pete and another male and two females looked as though their clothing had never been farther than the outdoor shop and here they were about to embark on a coast to coast walk. Or maybe we had got it wrong and they were just posing?
29 March 1991: Day 1 – St Bees to Ennerdale Youth Hostel – 19 miles
We left our bed and breakfast at 8.45am to embark on our much-awaited epic walk. With a sunny sky and a crisp freshness in the air our spirits were high and we tingled with excitement at what might lie ahead. For a bit of re-assurance we stood next to the statue of St Bega and joined her with a little silent prayer for good luck. In 650 St Bega , an abbess, sailed from from her native Ireland with a company of nuns in search of peace and solitude in England where they could dedicate their lives to the service of God. Their ship was wrecked but they eventually ended up at St Bees.
Arriving at the Irish Sea, we were relieved to find the tide in and were able to dip our boots in the salty water.
It is traditional at this point to pick up a pebble and carry it all the way to the East Coast. However, I decided my rucksack was already heavy enough and a pebble could have tipped me over the edge. The sign of a good walking route is that it doesn’t follow the most direct route but instead seeks out the best route. AW’s coast to coast route does this, leading you north along the coast instead of east in the direction of the end of the walk, Robin Hood’s Bay. After four miles, the coast is left to head inland to Sandwith and Cleator. The latter has the River Eden nearby, which heralds the start of the Lake District and the boundary of the National Park. Excitement was building as to what lay ahead.
It was at Cleator, ‘the outlying pasture amongst the rocks’ and a former iron-ore mining town, that I first encountered signs that this coast to coast walk had become extremely popular. We stopped at a café, which had been provided at the back of a tiny shop. It looked as though no planning permission had been applied for or given as you simply walked through to the back of the shop where there was a covered area and a few benches. To someone who had walked 8 miles it was the equivalent of Betty’s in York. We were not the only ones stopping as, according to the visitor’s book, there were six hundred in 1988, seven hundred in 1989 and sixteen hundred in 1990. Not surprisingly, the owner had a gleaming BMW parked out the back and was proudly polishing it. Wainwright describes Cleator ‘as a springboard to beauty’.