‘So, how was the hike’? The ensuing look on my face must be bad because the next question is ‘oh was it hard?’ I wish. Hard would have been easy. This was of epic proportions. As I took those first steps on day one, I couldn’t have imagined that only five days later, all my limits would be reached and redefined.
192 miles (roughly 308kms), the Coast to Coast (C2C) walk was devised by the late English author, Alfred Wainwright, a fell walking chronicler, who devised the trek to link the Irish Sea on the West coast and North Sea on the East coast, via the hills, moors, and valleys of northern England. The C2C takes in three national parks (the famous Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors) and is one of the world’s best long-distance walks. Despite this, it does not have National Trail status and so is not waymarked or signposted so navigational skills and experience are absolutely essential.
I’m sure you’re thinking how lovely and quaint it sounds, a long distance stroll through the English countryside. We thought so too! That was our first mistake. Our second would be attempting to complete it in 12 days (the average is 14 or 15), especially with a very ordinary fitness level!
After dipping our boots in the Irish Sea and collecting our pebble from the beach to carry with us as tradition dictates, my adventure buddy Fran and I set off on day 1, with absolutely zero idea of what we were to face over the next 12 days. I think had we known at that stage, we would have driven straight back to London! Day one started well with a gentle climb to the top of rugged and desolate cliff top, before turning inland and making our way across lush green fields which then turned into a steep and muddy climb and a subsequent quad shattering descent. There was going to be no easing into this hike! Despite this, with each step I start to really breath, allowing the old familiar feeling of returning to the trail to wash over me, cleansing, soothing, healing.
After 3 hours we were lost. Neither of us had any real navigation experience, or skills (did I mention this was essential?), and so this wasn’t surprising. All part of the adventure right!? However, this didn’t really bode well for the days to come. Whilst we were not, nor ever ‘lost’ in the true sense of the word, we had wandered off the path, and were unsure which way to continue on. We called them navigational mishaps and there would be a few of them almost every day. The novelty of the ‘adventure’ wore off pretty quick, and it simply just added to the already challenging hiking. On that first day, our navigational mishap cost us almost an hour, and the afternoon became a race against the setting sun. After a solid 9 hours of walking, we eventually arrived at our first village, exhausted, aching and seriously wondering what we had gotten ourselves into!
Day 2 begins with a long walk around a large lake which is where the terrain started to get brutal. Rough and unrelenting rocky surfaces that required full focus for each step. Mentally exhausting, it would be another 4 days before we got any respite from it. At the top of the lake, there was a choice. To either take the low route and stick to the river bed through woodland for the remainder of the day, or take a high route up and over 4 ‘peaks’ (mountains). Not really appreciating the whole ‘contour line’ on a map, and completely missing our guidebook’s warning that this route was suitable ‘only for very strong and experienced walkers’, we decided to take this route. Four summits, one almost vertical climb, a terrifyingly steep descent down a face of loose shale and dirt, a large amount of rock scrambling and a knee hammering long and brutal rocky climb down. By the end of it, I was so exhausted I could barely remember my own name. It was only day 2 and I knew I was in trouble.
Day 3 starts with a steep climb up out of the village, the first of two today. Both exhausted and feeling the effects of day 2, we move slowly yet acutely aware of the 30kms we must cover today. The morning is clear and sunny, providing stunning views of some of the most dramatic scenery England has to offer. The Lake District contains England’s highest mountains and its largest lakes, and hiking through them is a stark and humbling reminder of our insignificance on this planet. We are at the tail end of the walking season and see few people along the way.
The terrain continues to be rough and rocky and takes so much mental focus, particularly on the descents, only adding to the exhaustion. Mud and boggy marsh has started to appear, and I experience firsthand the benefit of full length gaiters when I end up in one up to my knees, much to Fran’s amusement. Gaiters were also beneficial when we found ourselves climbing up the side of a mountain via a waterfall. Why were we in the waterfall? I’m not entirely sure to be honest, except it just seemed the easiest and quickest way up.
After 11 hours of solid hiking we arrive into our village for the night. In three days we have walked around 75kms over almost 30 hours.
Day 4 and we swear to make it through the day without any navigational mishaps. We find some relief in that today, we only have one ascent and descent, though it takes us to the highest point on the walk. Today is the last full day we spend in the Lake District and though I am sad to leave it, I am looking forward to no mountains and hopefully less taxing terrain! Today’s battle is the wind. So strong it is hard to stay upright and impossible to hear each other speak. We find out 3 days later that a French hiker got blown over up there and broke his leg. I was almost envious of him. At that point I think I’d have preferred a broken leg. With the wind came the cloud and mist and not being able to see more than 5 metres in front of us. By now our navigation skills had improved significantly, but in those conditions it’s still easy to lose the path, which is what we told ourselves anyway.
A steep descent mostly on our backsides and using our hands delivers us to the shores of a large lake which we follow for the majority of the afternoon. A long and tedious rocky walk takes us into our village for the night. Day 4 has been a tiring 10 hours and almost 26kms. We have real concerns about our ability, both physically and mentally, to complete the remainder of the walk. We have no rest days planned, and between Fran’s knees and my feet, our pace is really starting to slow.
Day 5 is an excruciatingly long day at 34kms. We have left the Lake District behind and have transited to undulating muddy and cow manure filled fields and moorlands. We hit our breaking point just before midday in spectacular toddler tantrum style. Poles were thrown. A large amount of expletives were yelled. This had never happened before. Not at any point along the 800km of the Camino, not even in blizzard type conditions at almost 5500m in Nepal. Knowing that quitting isn’t our style, but also recognising that we needed to rest, we decided to cut short the rest of the day. We knew that if we had any chance of completing the rest of the walk, we needed to take a break. Our egos didn’t like it, but sometimes there is more strength and wisdom in knowing when to stop and rest and when to endure and persist. So we walked into the nearest village, found a farmer and paid him 20 pound to take us to our village. We figured that those last kilometres that we didn’t walk that day, we more than made up through our many, many navigational mishaps!
By that evening, after a long lunch and afternoon siesta, and knowing that we were heading into three ‘shorter’ days with no major climbs and the promise of less brutal terrain, we felt much better, mentally at least!
The morning of day 6 is overcast and dull, though this doesn’t dampen our rested spirits, nor does the rain when it sets in. The remainder of day 6 and the following 2 days are calmer as we cross the Pennines negotiating peat bogs (large muddy wetlands) which are a welcome respite from the brutal terrain of the Lake District. These days are shorter and much more enjoyable and we relish the early afternoon finishes with cream teas and red wine.
The final 4 days are relatively uneventful yet no less epic as we cover almost 118kms. We move from the bleak and bare moors which are dull and uninteresting, to the most beautiful serene woods and rivers. The terrain has softened and has become much kinder on our feet. The ascents and descents continue, albeit in a more gentle way. From coast to coast you ascend and descend the equivalent height of Mount Everest, and my knees can attest to this fact! Our navigational mishaps continue, though they are less frequent. The last 5kms or so on each of these long days feel as if they will never end as we eagerly anticipate reaching our village for the night. Wine gums help.
On our last day as we approach the coast, there is as always, mixed emotions. Sheer relief that it was over, yet equally sad that our adventure is at an end. It was one hell of a challenge, more so than I was expecting. But in the challenges I realised that there are no limits to what we can achieve or what we are capable of. The limits are self-imposed. As long as we keep moving, keep challenging ourselves, keep pushing those limits so that they never have the chance to become too solid, too confining. Our power lies in our minds, in our words, and in our beliefs. I am amazed at what two really ordinary girls who just love to walk achieved. Absolutely broken, sitting in a field full of cow manure, holding back tears and drowning in voices so loud chanting ‘you can’t, it’s too hard, you won’t make it’, I hear a whisper ‘well what if? What if you just rested awhile, and then took one more step….’.