……. the curious phenomenon of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk.
If you’re happily strolling along a tranquil Lakeland path and your peaceful reverie is disturbed by the sound of a large, noisy group of bedraggled lost souls complaining about the lack of signposting, the weather or the rough, hilly terrain and if these unhappy wanderers are voicing their grievances in American, German or Australian accents. ………. then you’ve probably stumbled upon the Coast to Coast (C2C) path. You might then ask yourself what these folk are up to; what made them want to do it; and why they are behaving in such a bizarre manner?
To begin at the beginning. Once upon a time in Kendal there was a Borough Treasurer who liked a good walk: so much so that in 1972 he crossed the country from St Bees, on the Irish Sea in Cumbria, to Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea in N Yorkshire and wrote a guide book describing his adventures. He hoped that his book would encourage others to devise similar long distance expeditions themselves, rather than to follow slavishly in his footsteps. However, follow him slavishly they did- and still do in vast numbers. At first a few hardy souls followed the route he described, but today thousands are walking from coast to coast every year.
The Borough Treasurer in question was Alfred Wainwright (AW), who by the time he traversed the country was becoming rather well known as the author of a rightly celebrated series of seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. This post reflects on the curious phenomenon that is his Coast to Coast walk.
I suffer a big disadvantage in writing about the C2C walk – I’ve never done it. My experience of the C2C is confined to the Lake District – where at one time or another I’ve trodden most of the route – and the Yorkshire Dales, where I accompanied friends for a three day hike from Kirkby Stephen to Richmond.
Still, I’ve never let a lack of first-hand experience get in the way of an opinion on any other topic, so why start now? In fact, I do believe that the experiences I have had are sufficient to entitle me to an opinion or three.
In the beginning.
The route originally described by AW is about 190 miles long and involves over 26,000 ft of climbing (around the height of Everest). Two thirds of it traverses three national parks: The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and N Yorkshire Moors.
The route undoubtedly presents some incredibly attractive scenery as it crosses the Cumbrian fells, Pennines and Cleveland hills and provides many interesting glimpses of England’s history. It is also a challenge not to be underestimated (although frequently is).
Although AW said that his walk “has a bias in favour of high ground rather than low” the original route does tend to follow the line of least resistance: although he did offer alternatives for three of the days:
- suggesting that the walker might climb Helvellyn or St Sunday Crag on the way to Patterdale, rather than follow the long valley trail down Grisedale,
- offering the Helm Crag ridge as an alternative to Upper Easedale for the passage from Borrowdale to Grasmere, and
- after Keld, giving a high level walk around the old lead mines as an alternative to the valley route down Swaledale.
Since then, subsequent writers have added a few more challenging alternatives of their own.
In the guide book, first published in 1973, AW is at great pains to point out that his walk is not an “official route” like the Pennine way. As noted, he hoped to inspire others to devise their own routes, rather than to just follow his and was ironically very disparaging about the sort of walk that the C2C has in fact become.
The C2C today.
Today, AW’s “unofficial” walk is incredibly popular – with thousands completing it every year. It is said by many to be the most popular long distance walk in Britain and was rated second best walk in the world in a survey of “experts” in Country Walker magazine. First on the list was the Milford Trail in New Zealand, but astonishingly the C2C was rated ahead of the Tour de Mont Blanc, Inca Trail and Everest Trek. Having walked the TMB and a variant of the Everest Trek I’m prompted to enquire who the “experts” were and suggest they try and get out more.
The C2C path certainly has its fervent evangelists, some of whom run out of and/or scrape the barrel of superlatives in describing the walk. In 2004 a Canadian, Bill Scott, who has done it twice, gushed about its charms, describing it as “second to none” and arguing that it should be first on the list of best long distance walks, describing it as “a cultural as well as a physical and mental challenge.” Calm down now Bill!
AW’s big walk is big business and has revived many local economies along the way: it’s a veritable boon to the hotels, B&Bs, cafes and all the other businesses providing support to the long distance walker. Many walking companies now offer packages for the entire trip, or will arrange shorter breaks taking in selected highlights: these packages include accommodation, route notes and (very appealing to ageing walkers like myself) bag carrying.
AW’s C2C guide book was published in 1973: that is 7 years after the final volume of what I consider his masterpiece, the Pictorial Guides To The Lakeland Fells and a full 18 years after the first volume.
By then the Pictorial Guides were selling like hot cakes and converting a growing number of readers to the delights of fellwalking. He must surely have guessed that the C2C guide would also be a best seller and that many of his disciples would want to follow him on his latest adventure.
And yet, AW seems to have naïvely believed that his “unofficial” footpath would escape the negative aspects he ascribed to “official” routes like the Pennine Way. He doesn’t seem to have expected that his path would become so popular, indeed more popular than any of the “official” trails.
TV has made a huge contribution to the C2C’s popularity. Eric Robson accompanied AW for the 1990 BBC4 series “Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk”: by this time AW was clearly aware of just how popular the walk had already become. In 2007, the High Priestess of the Wainwright Cult, Julia Bradbury, focused on the C2C in her 2009 BBC series “Wainwright Walks: Coast to Coast” which has promoted the walk to a global audience. Her 2013 spin-off book with the same title and Tony Robinson’s 2017 Channel 5 foray onto the path brought it further exposure.
Many of the multi-national groups I’ve encountered on the path say they learnt about the walk from watching Julia’s programme. Often the international contingent outnumber the Brits in a group of C2C’ers: this no doubt creates a very healthy, vibrant and stimulating international ambience and a real sense of camaraderie with others pursuing a shared objective, which must provide much fun and enjoyment. All good and well if you like having a good time and making new friends, as Wainwright himself might have said.
However, there are downsides.
How it seems to me.
– the unfit, the unprepared and the navigationally challenged.
Before getting to the downsides, many upsides must be acknowledged.
Notwithstanding reservations about following lines of least resistance (and as I’ve said, more challenging variations are now offered), in my experience the paths are generally delightful and provide some stunning views of what for me is the best place on earth as it traverses Lakeland via Ennerdale, Borrowdale, Easedale, the higher section around Haweswater and then beyond towards the Eastern wilderness approaching Shap.
The scenery in the Yorkshire Dales is also wonderful and the capital of Swaledale, Reeth, like most dales villages, is a delight with its village green, old atmospheric pubs and local shops.
So, having acknowledged the many attractions of the C2C- like the camaraderie, fantastic views, fine pubs and friendly locals, what’s not to like about it?
Well, for a start – although it’s not typical of the whole route – the over-used and worn-out path crossing the morass that is Nine Standards Rigg, above Kirkby Stephen, is as close to a re-enactment of the muddy battles of the Somme as you’re likely to experience without contracting trench foot or getting shot.
At the risk of again sounding like Victor Meldrew’s more misanthropic cousin, in my experience the problem is not with the scenery or even the route, but the people- there are too many of them, they are too often in too big a group and as a consequence make too much noise. How dare these folk express their joy of being alive in such spectacular surroundings through such raucous banter?
As well as being noisy, many are also woefully underprepared and don’t look fit enough to walk to the bar, let alone complete a challenging multi-day hike. I don’t want to come over as an old curmudgeon, although if I did I’d be in good company with Alfred Wainwright.
I’ve also come across many “navigationally challenged” C2C walkers who’ve had no idea where they were. I’ll mention just three examples, but I could multiply these many times.
We met a group of three Americans descending from Windy Gap towards Sty Head, assuming they were approaching Honister Pass. They’d turned right instead of left at the head of Ennerdale without realising the error of their ways. Still, they seemed happy enough as they followed our directions down Sty Head Ghyll to Seathwaite in Borrowdale.
Interestingly, in its advice on navigational issues on the C2C, The Wainwright Society (since 2012 the “Responsible Organisation” for the walk) referred specifically to the tendency of walkers to take the wrong turn at the head of Ennerdale. Unbelievable you might think, given the quality of available mapping and the detailed instructions in today’s guide books and walking notes?
Also memorable was the group of lads we passed perusing their maps between Rest Dodd and The Nabb, apparently heading for Martindale. In good weather and excellent visibility, they’d taken a 90 degree left turn off the extremely well-trodden path towards Kidsty Pike (see earlier picture) and were espousing outlandish theories on where they were on the C2C. When I asked them if I could help they confidently assured me they were on the C2C heading for Kidsty pike, so I left them to it and pressed on, confident that they could call a cab by the time they hit Ullswater and realised it wasn’t Hawsewater.
I’ve heard more than a few of these lost souls – like the guy who’d gone astray on the way off Kidsty pike – bemoaning the lack of sign posts pointing the way off the summits and expressing surprise when I say that many of us would oppose such “improvements” vehemently and prefer the challenge of navigating with our maps and compasses. They look at me as if I’m barmy – a look I’m becoming worryingly familiar with as I get older.
Unlike the National Trails, the C2C is not signposted throughout its length. As we will see below this alleged shortcoming may soon be rectified, although I doubt we’ll be seeing sign posts on the fell tops any time soon. I imagine Friends of the Lake District, the National Trust and other interest groups might have something to say about that.
The surprising thing is that many of the disoriented dunderheads I’ve met are often festooned with map cases, compasses and GPS devices: but clearly have no idea how to use them.
I’m amazed how little research many C2C walkers seem to do before booking their holiday. I have in mind an American who complained that the paths were very rough and not well paved like those at home. I’ve walked in a few national parks in the US on some pretty rough trails, so can only assume his experience at home was confined to urban nature trails. He should console himself with the thought that at least you don’t get bears in Cumbria (apart from the “Bear on The Square Inn” in Millom).
The C2C is a challenge to even the fittest hiker, yet many seem to tackle it without any training or experience of long walks. On each of the three mornings I breakfasted with C2C hikers in N Yorkshire I was struck by the sick-parade of the walking wounded, desperately trying to prepare their blistered and tired feet for another day of torture or giving up the ghost and calling for taxis to take them to their next billet.
In the Lakes I’ve also met some C2C walkers who have been really struggling. I know from experience that on any multi-day hike there will be hard days when you wish you’d never bothered and part of the sense of satisfaction comes from meeting the challenge successfully, but the C2C seems to attract a high proportion of those who cross the line from a good challenge to purgatory.
The number of walking wounded is testimony to the fact that many participants are well outside their comfort zone. No one wants to stifle the sense of adventure or deny folk the sense of achievement that comes with completing a challenge walk, but I wonder if the TV programmes, articles and walking companies could do more to structure their expectations? Maybe expectations are frequently at odds with reality because they’ve seen TV presenters strolling effortlessly around the path (or possibly selected parts of it) without breaking sweat?
There is a tipping-point where the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge is outweighed by the misery of spending your annual holiday thoroughly wet, miserable and tired.
Given the huge numbers who traipse along them, the C2C paths take a lot of punishment and it is a big ask to keep them safe while minimising environmental damage.
It has long been an anomaly that the C2C walk, despite being the country’s most popular and well used long distance footpath, receives none of the additional funding that official National Trails attracts and is maintained by the National Park authorities, local councils and landowners, including the National Trust.
Certainly in the Lakes the National Park Authority and National Trust appear to do a good job keeping the paths in good nick, but interest groups such as the Wainwright Society – through their 2007 “Coast to Coast-make it National” – campaign, have long lobbied for National Trail status which would unlock government funding for maintenance and measures to make it more accessible. More recently a campaign for re-designation was launched by the, then unknown, MP for Richmond, Rishi Sunak.
It is encouraging to note that progress is being made and that Natural England have just been asked to carry out a “full audit” of the trail to establish what needs to be done to bring it up to scratch, particularly as regards accessibility and a formal proposal is due to be presented to Government in Spring 2022. It will be interesting to see if the honourable member for Richmond is quite so keen to “splash the cash” in his current job. As long as the government doesn’t decide to “level-up” the Lakeland fells I’ll be happy!