April 22, 2015
Here are some observations from my recent 12-day coast-to-coast walk across England from Robin Hoods Bay to St Bees.
Is east to west best?
Most folks do this walk west to east, but I was pleased that I chose the other direction. By the time I got to the Lake District my blisters had healed, my pack was lighter (I had eaten almost all my food and had used most of my cooking fuel) and I had found my pace. Most of all, I was ending with the most spectacular scenery of the trip. But I no longer had a spare day in my pocket: I had to get to St Bees to catch my train on the Monday, whatever the weather. If I had been going west to east, I could have altered my plans had the fickle Lake District weather turned against me (which it did); going east to west without a day to spare, I had to slog through the horizontal snow and rain that came down on my second-last day.
Is 12 days enough?
I could have done the walk in ten days without too much extra strain, but I would rather have done it in 14. That would have given me a day to spend wandering around Reeth and another in Grasmere. Without those rest days, my days were a little too similar: pack up tent, hike, pitch tent, go to pub, sleep, repeat. And a 12-day hike requires seven or more hours of hiking a day. Remember, there'll be a fair bit of time spent each day reading the map, looking for the path and retracing your steps after a misjudged turn. If the guidebook indicates a six-hour hike, expect it to be seven hours—and then add time for breaks. And carrying camping gear will slow your pace.
Is camping a good choice?
Carrying a tent, I didn't need to worry about booking accommodation or keeping to a schedule defined by pre-booked accommodation. And camping was often insanely cheap or even free (e.g. at the Hildyard Arms in Colburn). But the extra weight—tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove, fuel, food—sometimes made me envy the hikers scooting along with their daypacks. And remember, it takes time to pack up your tent and gear in the morning, particularly if you want your give your tent a moment to dry off in the sun.
Is a camping stove needed?
It proved useful when I did the trip. The hiking season hadn't really kicked off, so some of the places I camped (e.g. the Blue Bell Inn in Ingleby Cross) weren't cooking food. But you could easily omit a stove and eat in the pub each night, with a few Mars Bars in your pack in case the kitchen turns out to be closed.
What guidebook or maps will I need?
I used the Coast to Coast Adventure Atlas (A-Z Adventure Atlas) and Stedman's Coast-to-Coast book. The former was in constant use as a map; I used the latter as a guidebook. To do the walk without a large-scale topographic map (e.g. the A-Z), a compass and a waterproof neck pouch is asking for trouble. Make no mistake: The hand-drawn maps in Stedman's simply won't do.
Which sections were hardest?
For me, although I was wearing soft-soled boots, the days with road walking were the worst. The walk between Shap and Patterdale is meant to be the hardest section; I found it quite pleasant, as it was offroad. But on my penultimate day, snow and rain forced me to change my route between Rosthwaite and Ennerdale Bridge into a long road walk. The final hours of that walk were grim. And the walk between Colburn and Ingelby Cross involved a fair bit of road walking and was a bit of a penance, as I recall.
Will a three-season sleeping bag do?
I used a Snugpak Chrysalis 3, a warm three-season sleeping bag, and always slept well (this was early April). But I slept in thermals and a jumper and generally ate a big meal before bed. However, I wasn't wild camping in the Lake District mountains; with the wind chill, that would have required a much warmer bag.
Will I need two sleeping mats?
I thought about bringing an extra mat against the cold. But in the end, I brought only one and it was quite sufficient.
Should I use a walking pole?
This was the first hike I ever did with a walking pole. It helped on almost all terain, but particularly for the Pennine bogs. An emphatic yes!
What items of kit proved essential?
Waterproof socks! Vaseline for feet and toes (to prevent blisters). Compeed. And don't underestimate the Lake District. You'll need a good waterproof jacket at the very least—a waterproof poncho won't do as it won't keep your arms dry and won't help much against the wind.
Finally—and most importantly—a big shoutout to those hospitable folk who made my trip such a pleasure. I'm thinking here of the landlord of the Blue Bell Inn who offered me breakfast off his own table (do pub landlords ever sleep?), the RAF instructor and his family whom I met at the Hildyard Arms, Peter, the owner of the Orchard Caravan Park in Reeth, the staff of the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere (I came in soaked to the skin) and many other kind and friendly strangers.