11. Patterdale

The village pub was lovely, and we half regretted not having discovered it in time for lunch. With an hour to kill we found what began as a quiet corner and Christian got us a couple of pints. On the table was a sort of cardboard cube showing step-by-step instructions to pouring the perfect pint of Guinness, complete with the angles at which you should hold the glass at each stage of what seemed an enormously complicated procedure. Christian turned it over for a few seconds then pronounced it ‘bollocks’ and put it back on the table again. It seemed one punter at least was immune to the propaganda of the Guinness marketing machine.

It was warm and the beer tasted lovely and soothing, and with darkness falling outside we lapsed into sporadic, sleepy silences. Presently a family, or possibly the conglomeration of a couple of families, spewed across the big table next to us, and promptly murdered our already sparse conversation.

The alpha male of the group was spindly, very clean-cut and tremendously irritating. He had a loud voice and evidently a rather competitive nature, spending a large part of the meal bragging loudly to the assembled children about one accomplishment or another, before leaving half way through the meal to trounce one of his sons (who I’d have put at about 11) at the dartboard. Naturally such a triumph occasioned more crowing and boasting.

I have a feeling that the man’s painful nature was accentuated by his wife. Looking slightly overweight and undernourished, with small, watery eyes, she spent her meal sniping at the children and whining at her husband in equal measure, limp as a heap of old seaweed. Her husband wagged an overly jovial finger at her and exclaimed at four times the necessary volume that he hoped she was going to eat up all her food after he’d bought it at such extraordinary cost. She didn’t really seem to register his chiding, but rolled her eyes and moaned something back at no-one in particular.

In Regency times you’d have drawn a caricature of a pair like this and sent it off to some periodical with the caption ‘fwete domeftic fimplicity’ or similar, but as it was we finished our pints hastily and made a move. Christian has never been good at concealing his opinions, and on our way to the door he wore an outstanding scowl.

‘That man was AWFUL’, he hissed.

Back at the hostel, a tall and peculiarly-shaped old building that looked like it might at one stage have been an old mill, we were in for some much finer caricatures. A polite notice on the door declared the YHA closed for winter, which was a bit of a blow, and we were just casting around for a square of grass to pitch our soggy tent when the three blokes from earlier in the afternoon rolled down the path. Where we’d supped one pint they’d evidently set a faster pace, and announcing that they’d phoned ahead and reserved, they marched straight in and down the long corridor to reception. I dragged our bags into the hall and Christian shuffled hesitantly after them.

It turned out these jovial drunks had saved us from a night in a wet tent. The two-man skeleton crew who were manning YHA Patterdale for the winter months had opened up shop specially for them, and there was plenty of space for a couple more.

The older two out of the three musketeers must have been in their mid-to-late forties. One was tall and tubby, with specs and a bald head. This was the Comedian, with a not extraordinarily witty but pretty quickfire response to anything anyone else said, usually relating to beer or sex. Then there was the Expert. The Expert was shorter and stockier, again with a bit of a belly, and spoke almost exclusively about mountaineering, while avoiding discussing any aspect of the field for which you might need actual specialist knowledge. As everyone knows, the role of Expert in a group of blokes is not actually to possess knowledge, but just to be able to talk as if you do. I reckon I could carry off an Expert pretty well.

Then there was the Mute. The Mute must have been around the 30 mark, and seemed faintly embarrassed by his companions, but in a good-humoured, affectionate sort of way. He smiled sheepishly but didn’t speak a word. He might have been some relation of the Comedian, who occasionally spoke for him while nudging him with an elbow, but somehow the trio had the feel of pub mates about them. They were planning on making a hung-over assault on Helvellyn the following morning, and before nipping back out to the pub again they took a few moments for a little predatory flirtation with the girl on the desk, as if she might have been a barmaid in their local.

‘I keep thinking of funny things to say back to them but I can never get them out in time’, she confided to Christian as they rumbled off down the corridor to their room.
‘That’s because they’re not actually saying anything funny’, said the bearded but youngish warden from the corner of the open office where he was doing some paperwork. ‘They’re boring old men who are so confident that they’re funny that we think they are too.’ He looked up and grinned, and the girl gave Christian and me a room of our own ‘for a bit of quiet’.

It was strange being in an empty youth hostel. The warden and the girl we’d found on the desk seemed quite busy considering their lack of guests. They both had the look of outdoor types, and let us put our tent up in the drying room. I sat and read in the lounge upstairs, and listened to the girl singing along to Maroon Five, while Christian made some more of our E-number-laced pasta, this time greatly enhanced by the addition of a tin of Spam. Yes, cat food, laugh all you like. It tasted good. The next day we would reach our highest point over Kidsty Pike then we would leave the Lake District altogether.


10. Grisedale Hause

On the Friday morning we sat in the quiet breakfast room, eating one of those deeply unnatural, glorious tins of all-day breakfast where you can’t quite tell the difference between the sausage and the egg, and watching a deer picking its way past the window. Deer always look so dainty in their movements. If they drank tea they would do it from a porcelain cup and saucer, with their little fingers held high in the air. In the other corner of the room, just about as far away from us as possible, the slightly strange, solitary man with the blue shirt done up to the top button sat, eating bowl after bowl of muesli with hot water on top.

In Grasmere the sun shone and there was a gentle breeze, and once we got clear of the town we took the still soaking tent out of its bag, separated it into flysheet and inner, and tied one part to the back of each of our rucksacks, stopping every now and then to turn a wetter side out towards the sunshine. It didn’t work, but fortunately later in the day we found a better way to dry our temporary home.

At the top of the valley above Grasmere is a neat but spectacular pass called Grisedale Hause, and the pull up to it was not an easy one. At one point we lost the path just a little, and ended up dragging ourselves up a steep, grassy slope, which in another circumstance would have been perfect for sunbathing. Christian decided that it would be easier to crawl, and maybe it was, but squashed underneath his pack, slithering up the hill, he looked even more like a snail than normal.

It was a pretty enough day for us not to mind the climb, though, and when we’d gained a bit of height we downed bags and perched on the edge of a scar by the path. When we left Glebe Cottage, G had given us each a little foil packet of chocolate slice, and there were two pieces left. We ate our last taste of home gazing down the valley, past layers of mountains rising up in turn, first brown and green with the spidery field boundaries snaking across them, fading to hulking purple shadows on the horizon.

We ate a cereal bar too, and drank some water, to make our snack into elevenses, and Christian climbed up onto a rock next to me. His mind wasn’t on the view.
‘If I was to wee really hard off here I bet I’d be able to hit some of the people in Grasmere.’ There was no mention of why he would want to, and it would have been quite a feat, but anyway he decided against testing his theory.

As we sat there, two blokes came past us. As usual they stopped for a chat, and as usual they’d walked the Coast to Coast once too. In my life I think I’ve only known ten or fifteen people who’ve done it, yet just about every other day walker we encountered along the way seemed to have tramped across the country at some point or other in their lives. Not a bad thing to do, I suppose. One of these two had camped, and he was smug in a friendly sort of way about our rucksacks. We let them get ahead a little, then carried on along our way. Turned out that despite being in one of the most touristy bits of the Lake District they were the only other walkers we would encounter until Patterdale.

Mountain passes are peculiar things. As we threaded our way through Grisedale Hause, we paused to look first one way, then the other. Back the way we’d come the skies were clear, the grass was crispy and the breeze was warm; while in front of us damp gusts swirled up the valley, the sky was overcast and a very gentle drizzle threatened rain. Two next door neighbours with totally different micro-climates.

Bu the rain didn’t come. Whether it was karma from the day before or simple blind luck (and I usually reckon on things being the latter), each time we stopped to put our jackets on, the drizzle slackened off to almost nothing again. It was a slightly bleak sort of a valley, all the same, and thinking back I don’t think I remember ever passing Grisedale Tarn in the sunshine. It’s funny, I’m sure if you spoke to some people they’d associate that same little pool with hot, still days, just because they’d always found it that way, in the same way that I can’t think of it without memories of rain spattering the water’s surface. Life can only be your own experience, I suppose.

The walk down into Patterdale seemed longer than it was, I think because we were hungry and didn’t have any bread for lunch, banking on finding a shop in the village. It was a good walk all the same. Despite it being a little overcast, the weather never broke, and we picked our way down the stony paths and talked about how we might make up the day we’d lost, and where we would stay that night, and about a Hallowe’en party we’d been to the week before where there had been lots of free Sambuca and a small man in a top hat trying to nail me into a coffin on the way in. Christian somehow managed to work a number of David Bowie songs into the conversation. Exchanges with Popy on long walks almost always seem to end with a rendition of either Bowie or Supertramp.

On the outskirts of the village was a pleasant-looking hotel, and we found a corner of the bar to lower the tone with our muddied clothes and scarecrow hair, just across from a young couple dressed in smart woollens, having a nice afternoon tea. We ordered big burgers with chips and pints, and I called the only campsite in Patterdale, where on an answerphone a lady with a lovely accent told me that the site was closed for the winter. So it seemed like we’d be in a hostel for the second night in a row. Practically domesticated.

As we made our way to YHA Patterdale, I began to have a strong sense of déjà vu. One thing about having walked quite a bit in the Lake District as part of bigger groups and being naturally disdainful of maps is that I have been to lots of places and not known their names. A rough fieldy car park looked greatly familiar, and I realised that I’d once parked up there in Tigger, my beautiful plum and custard 2CV. It was the same trip in which WRM and I had failed to make it up Black Crag, and we’d redeemed ourselves the next morning by climbing up Helvellyn. My little car hadn’t half struggled with some of the mountain roads (one particularly savage one called Kirkstone Pass springs to mind, where we spent the better part of 20 minutes in first gear), but the tricksy combination of man, machine and mountain had at least cleared my head of the foolish amount of whisky I’d drunk the night before.

As we arrived at the YHA, three men unpacking a car in the driveway told us it wasn’t open for another hour and a half (more of these gentlemen later), so we followed them down to the village pub. We stopped en-route, and Christian squashed into a phone box to call G and L, while I stocked up on exciting things in the shop and chased a lady with a pram who’d left her post on the counter. I found one of those chocolate puddings that you boil up in the tin, and squirreled it away behind the sleeping bag at the bottom of my rucksack for if things ever got dark.


9. Grasmere

It took us a long time to find the hostel, searching in turn, and though it actually wasn’t that difficult to track down I think probably the reason it took so long was that we were a little hypothermic. It’s a sliding scale, coldness, and there were a few times every now and then, usually when we hadn’t eaten in a while or we’d got particularly chilled through that our minds started to get a bit sluggish. At any rate, we eventually crossed the hallway of the Grasmere Youth Hostel, guiltily leaving a trail of slimy-looking sock prints across the floor on our way to the welcome, sweltering heat of the boot room.

If there’s one thing I have noticed about youth hostels, it’s that there almost never seems to be any youth in them. Grasmere was a case in point. There were a couple of thirty-something continentals with neat little beards knocking around, but of the few guests in the lounge, most of them must have been well into their retirement. Admittedly it was out of season, and students will have been at university, but still you wonder whether youth hostels are a bit of a dinosaur. When you can fly half way across the world for the price of a DVD plus your airport taxes, and stay in a nice en-suite on the cheap, you can see why a sheet sleeping bag doesn’t quite cut it. Apparently in the last decade three of the YHA hostels on the Coast to Coast have closed down simply because no-one was staying in them.

A pity, because Grasmere was pretty, which is more than could be said for us. It was four days since I had seen my own face, and what grinned back at me from the mirror was a horror. There was a scrappy stubble spilling down my cheeks and neck, and my hair, which was far too long, hung matted and greasy across my forehead, sticking somewhere on my cheekbone. The hollow eyes, cracked lips and wind-chapped red face were nicely accentuated by unusually white teeth, and I couldn’t work out why that should be the case, having not cleaned them in days. Intriguingly, Christian’s were much the same, and after a little thought we remembered that since the first morning coming off Dent we had been loading up the stream water in our water carriers with chlorine tablets. Were we unconsciously bleaching our teeth, I wonder?

It was also only in a clean room that we began to realise how bad we smelled, and washing the sweat and grime of days off made us itch like hell. Still, cleaned up and in a set of dry clothes we finally started to warm up, and when, at two thirty in the afternoon, a very strange little old man in a blue shirt done right up to the top button came into the bedroom, climbed into bed and went to sleep, we decided it was probably time we went out to face the world.

Aside from the thoroughly vile experience of putting sopping wet boots on again, feeling the icy damp soak through the warm dry socks and into our soft feet, the afternoon was pleasant. Sitting over a pub lunch we agreed that we couldn’t have faced the tops again, and the calm of Grasmere after the storm we’d endured just hours before lent the whole afternoon a sort of sedative quality. We ate steak, stocked up on provisions at the Co-op, including an unnecessarily large tub of Vaseline for Christian’s bleeding lips, then sat back in the lounge at the hostel. I ate a Mars bar and read a magazine about Myra Hindley, then in a cold basement room we played a game of pool on one of those hilarious tables that are so warped by generations of damp and temperature change that it’s more like playing pinball. I think Christian won.

A thirty-second pad through the drizzle in our socks was the self-catering block, deserted and smelling of fresh paint, where we drank tea made with hot water that we didn’t have to boil ourselves, and ate our pasta in a warm and empty dining room with rain trickling down the big bay windows and fabric flowers on the tables. Luxury is all relative. I remember years ago coming home from South America and feeling soft carpet under my bare feet, and realising that I hadn’t missed it but equally that I couldn’t remember anywhere during my five months away where I’d encountered it. As we washed up, a friendly, retired couple came in and started to cook their own supper, and we talked to them about the weather, more significant than usual, and about a grandson they had who was a journalist (I kept quiet about my own profession – proper writers with qualifications make me feel a bit of a charlatan).

Back up in the dorm, we were on our own. Everyone else was still at dinner, or in the lounge, or wherever, and it can’t have been much after seven. There’s a photo I have of Christian tucked up in his bunk, smiling through the bars. You can read in his eyes that he’s shattered, but the smile is wide and relieved. There’d been a few moments that day when our morale had started to get a bit shaky, but as we laid our heads down on soft pillows we knew we’d just about picked ourselves up again.


8. Grasmere Common

It’s difficult to find a bright side to the events of our fourth morning. If there was one, then it was probably that the weather could have been as filthy for the whole two weeks as it was that day. At any rate, we took a real beating.

It was still dark when we woke. The rain was rattling down on the canvas and the tent lurched violently in the wind. There was no getting stoves out to make porridge and tea today, and we sheltered in our sleeping bags, eating cereal bars, sipping from our water carriers and waiting for enough light to get on our way.

Outside it was damp and blustery. I got on with folding the flysheet, while Christian unpegged the inner, still rigid with its poles. For a moment he took his hand off the tent to reach the peg bag, and in that second the wind snatched our little home up and whisked it away, cracking me across the back of the neck before flying overhead and cartwheeling at some speed down the valley. There was an awful moment as tired brains worked, adding up the sorry consequences to losing our tent, then both of us dropped what was in our hands and pelted after it down the hillside. I almost got a hold on one of the poles, but slipped on a wet rock and went down hard, then Christian dashed across through some soggy long grass and managed to pin it down.

Between us we dragged the soaking shell and our muddied selves back up to where the bags were, grimly imagining what it would be like to sleep in that night. Ahead of us a leaden fog clung to the mountain, and there was no way to go but through it.

Already a little shaken, we started the long climb up Lining Crag, up a well-built path that crossed and re-crossed a slimy stream. On a bright day I imagine it’s terribly beautiful, but our heads were down and our hoods up. It was when we reached the top of Lining Crag that Christian’s phone, silent now for nearly a whole day in the reception black hole of the valley, began to make noises.

There were three text messages, all sent the day before. One was a heroic little poem from a Welshman, and the other two were from my mum and L, both warning us about gale force winds in the mountains of the Lake District. Such cautions would have been very useful if we’d had reception a day earlier, but as it was we were at the heart of things anyway, and the only way was forward.

We reached the end of the crag that had been sheltering us for the first half hour, and as the tops opened up before us, the weather became vastly more savage. We later discovered that some of the gusts were up to 60mph. Unstable with our packs, they threw us flat into the mud as we splashed through puddles up to our ankles. The rain sheeted across the ridge top, the wind driving it through our frozen chests and arms. Everything was drenched.

Worse, the mist was so thick that navigation became nigh on impossible, and we began to lose the lines of little cairns and fence posts we were supposed to be following. Each time we got the map out it got more and more sodden, and the stinging rain meant we had to keep our hoods pulled low, confining our visibility to little dripping tunnels of Gore Tex. The stumbling and meandering seemed to go on forever.

We started to get ratty with each other, searching in vain for a rusty fence post that was meant to mark our way and arguing over the roar of the storm about whether something was a path or a stream. It turned out it was both, and we followed it down, dodging a seductive valley that led in the wrong direction and miraculously enough finding ourselves back on track.

The rain slackened. Christian fell on his knee in the stream/path and there was a dark moment when we both thought he’d damaged it, but it was just another bruise. A mile further down the valley and the sun was out, sheep nibbled grass by a romantically abandoned bothy, and only the clouds on the mountains bore any testament to the purgatory we had just dragged ourselves through.

We passed a smiley old man with a waxed jacket, flat cap and old frame rucksack. One of those solitary wanderers of whom I greatly approve. He’d just come from the other side of Grasmere, and told us that the way to Patterdale, which we’d hoped to make that day, was all but impassable. Tottering through our sun-drenched valley I don’t think we would have believed him if we hadn’t lately seen for ourselves.

And we were broken anyway. Everything we owned was soaked, and we were shattered after four hours and what can’t have been more than six miles. So we stumbled through the picturesque outskirts and into the centre of Grasmere. It was a pretty place, in spots bordering on being a bit twee, and there was a very different sort of tourist here to the classy walkers of Rosthwaite. There were still macs and packs about, but by and large the boots people wore were those sort of utility trainers you keep for travel and the odd lowland potter rather than rugged hiking ones. There were plenty of little cafes and shops. Grasmere, province of the cream tea brigade.

Not that we minded. It was comfortable, and we craved comfort. There was no campsite in town, so Christian and I took it in turns to go looking for the YHA hostel while the other one sat thawing out in the sun on the village green. When we stopped walking we were all of a sudden very cold and stiff.

I had a message on my phone to call AD, which I did. He was perky and upbeat, telling me he’d got a new job and wouldn’t be at work when I got back. It seemed a bit strange to be chatting away just as usual, and I could see him leaning against the wall outside the office, no doubt in a smart suit and tie, while I sat, sodden and shivering uncontrollably, on a peeling bench on Grasmere green.

7. Rosthwaite

From Seatoller, the way wound through a car park, where the National Trust were recruiting (why this seemed an ideal location I have no idea, but there we go), and through some sparse woods to the chocolate box village of Rosthwaite. There were quite a few people about by now, almost all groups of late middle-aged walkers with little rucksacks and clean clothes, windswept in a smart, cultivated sort of a way. Like everyone else, they all wanted to chat, and some of them had done the Coast to Coast before. They would ask where you were walking to, and you’d say Robin Hood’s Bay and there’d be a sort of understanding. Of course they’d all done it in summer, staying in cosy B&Bs, and thought we were nutters, lugging our dirty great packs through the rain and the cold, but we were already used to that.

I think it was Christian’s idea to go to the pub. It was raining a bit, and after a couple of nights of kipping wild and eating camp food, a pub lunch seemed like a fine reward. We were in that comfortable window where we knew we wouldn’t make Grasmere before dark, but had plenty of time to get to our intended campsite on the outskirts of Rosthwaite, so we ducked into the village hotel for a bite.

It was quite an upmarket hotel, with nicely dressed old ladies sitting in one corner taking tea, more smart walkers with Labradors, and completely incongruous Eastern European bar staff. Christian and I must have looked terrible, but they were welcoming and chatty in that easy, all the time in the world way that country pubs are. The food was solid and warming, and we drank two pints of very good beer, venturing back out onto the road feeling robust and slightly tipsy. We found throughout the two weeks that when you’re working yourself hard all day and burning up just about everything you eat, booze goes right to your head. Which was alright by us.

We crossed the river and began the climb up the valley. A man passed us, and told us our campsite was closed, but we kept on going anyway, keen to get another couple of miles in before dark. Across the river we could see the campsite, totally deserted bar a few sheep, so we pushed on up. Our guidebook mentioned ‘a desolate but lovely hanging valley, an unexpected bowl high up the fellside’ between two pyramid hillocks, and we decided to make for that. By the time we got there we’d be so high up that nobody would bother us about camping wild. Wild camping is technically illegal outside of Scotland, since in England and Wales all land belongs to someone, and you’re supposed to get permission. In practice though, if you’re above a certain height in a national park and camp clean then usually no-one will bother you.

It was a pretty walk up the valley as the wind picked up and the light started to dim. We passed some beautiful swirly waterfalls, one of which was flanked by a patch of long, green grass that would be perfect for a picnic if you were there in a nicer season. But then I suppose if we’d been there in a nicer season then we wouldn’t have had it all to ourselves, which was quite special in itself. The ground got marshier and the grass longer, until up ahead we could see the first of the two neat little hillocks.

‘The breasts of Sheba’, said Christian, prodding his own chest to emphasize his clever analogy. This may be lost on many. I don’t know if anyone watched the Allan Quatermain films with Richard Chamberlain when they were younger, but Christian and I loved them. There was a sequel, The Lost City of Gold, which despite plentiful fighting and crass racial stereotypes (an Arab who was clearly a boot-polished English comedian, and was named ‘Shwarma’ springs to mind) was vastly outdone by the first one, King Solomon’s Mines. We were obsessed with Quatermain, recording the music onto tape to play while we bundled in our room, and as a six year old I discovered that if I punched Christian in the face from a certain angle it made his jaw crack in a similar way to how it did when Quatermain hit people. Christian, as with many of my sadistic childhood whims, didn’t seem to mind this much, but I imagine my mum eventually put a stop to it.

Anyway, in King Solomon’s Mines, the map to the mines is in the form of a small statuette of a buxom goddess, and the treasure itself is located between two hills known as ‘the breasts of Sheba’. So in a sense we were returning to the grounds of our childhood. Two budding Quatermains, missing only the feisty blonde and stoic tribal sidekick.

And it was a lovely spot. We pitched our tent in one place, then realised how windy it was and upped sticks to a more sheltered plot. Despite the wind, it was a nice night, and after supper we lay back on the cold, sloping grass and talked for a bit as we drank our tea. Even in the dark we could see the outline of the path creeping up to the shadowy tops, and it felt a million miles from anywhere.


6. Honister

Cooking breakfast was dark and lonely. Wearing almost all the clothes I had with me I huddled over the stove in the drizzle, watching as the ghost of a day began to soften a horizon I still couldn’t see out beyond the trees. Christian was up with the dawn, and together we drank sweet tea and ate porridge, almost without saying a word.

He washed up our dishes in the beck that ran down the side of the hostel, and I dropped the tent, then we started off up the path, with hills springing up on all sides. That morning at Black Sail was the first one where we started to help each other put our packs on, saving ourselves that savage jerk when you arch your back and wrench your shoulder, tottering for a moment before you get the weight even.

The stony path quickly vanished into a barely defined track over marshy lumps of grass. We banked left and started to climb sharply up through a soupy, wet mist, tramping up uneven steps dug into the hillside by years of volunteers opening up the Lakes for a generation that have mostly abandoned them. I stopped Christian for a moment so I could take a picture of him damp and out of breath with the climb, so we’d be able to prove to any nay-sayers that it wasn’t all easy rolling and sunny skies. We needn’t have worried about that.

Up on the tops there was a biting wind, but we had good jackets, and with it came beautiful gaps in the mist where you’d suddenly see a deep valley open up to your left or right, only to be swamped by the rushing grey a few moments later. By this stage we’d worked out that in the cold you needed to be eating every couple of hours at least, so when one such view appeared below us we sat on our packs by the side of the path and ate a cereal bar for early elevenses. Along with his trolley full of Pasta ‘n’ Sauce, Christian had also bought us a few packs of glucose tablets, which we sucked on as we walked.

‘I got orange flavour, so we’d be getting some vitamin C. Just about all we’ll be getting I think.’ He was not wrong, and better men than us would have shuddered at what a diet of porridge, freeze-dried pasta and Bovril sandwiches was doing to our insides. But not us. In that stretch over the top, gradually soaking through, I started to feel strong for the first time. The sort of strong that comes when you’re a little bit beat and only really means you can feel your body and all your limbs and your heart thumping, but it’s good all the same.

We followed easy lines of small cairns along the top, looking for a ruined mine building that we didn’t see until we were almost on top of it, then stumped steeply down what I think might have been an old rail track to the Honister slate mine at in the valley. The Coast to Coast is a deeply crafty walk, the work of a complete obsessive. It winds its snickety route across the country through ways that only a man on his own two feet can go, and in these lonesome parts of the country where once industry cut the mountains to shreds, scarring the hillsides deep enough that you can still see it centuries later, a lot of the paths are old packhorse routes, or abandoned monorails. There’s something a bit comforting in their functionality.

The writers of one of our guidebooks, a home-made but terribly useful pamphlet called Camping it up on the Coast to Coast, end their book with a little note telling you to remember Wainwright. They say you are kicking at his heels the whole way across, and there are times when you feel like you almost are. Like you might come through a pass and find a bespectacled old man sitting on a rock, content in his own company. Wainwright spent years crossing and re-crossing these hills, totally in love with them in his cheerful, understated way, and you can look at the Coast to Coast almost as a novel about England, just you write the story yourself.

A dog sat outside the Honister mine, and there were the cars of tourists outside the shop. People were moving about round the edges of the youth hostel and after the solitude of the tops it felt quite busy. A lot of people stop and have a cuppa at the mine, but as ever Christian and I were chasing daylight, so we pushed on down a sloping road by a river to a little hamlet called Seatoller.


5. Black Sail

The forest was never-ending. In total I think there was around four miles of it, and it just seemed to go on forever. And it all looked exactly the same, so you never really felt like you were getting anywhere. Our feet and shoulders were getting sore, and we started to take it in turns to walk one behind the other, the one at the back hooking his arms underneath the leader’s pack and lifting it up, taking the weight off the other’s shoulders for a couple of minutes until we swapped.
‘I’m bored of this bloody paggering forest’, said Christian.

Eventually, as the afternoon drew to its grey close, we came to the youth hostel at Black Sail. It must be one of the most beautiful places to stay in the Lake District: a rustic former shepherd’s bothy at the head of a valley, where you can see for miles down over the tops of the forest to the lake beyond. That and apparently the warden is an amazing cook and if you let him know in advance he’ll get a bottle of wine in for you.

At this time of the year, Black Sail was locked up and deserted, lines of upturned mugs laid out neatly inside the window, but we sat on the bench in front of it, inscribed with the name of a guy from Leeds who’d once looked out from that very spot and been so overwhelmed by what he saw that he dedicated his life to bringing inner-city children to see the Lake District. You could see how it might have happened. Christian lit the Trangia stove, and with our hats and coats on we sat in the blue failing light with cold faces and sipped from steaming mugs. Christian had soup and I had a sachet of hot chocolate that I’d brought as a luxury. We knew our walking was over for the night, but we didn’t want to get on with the business of setting up camp and cooking supper just yet. Some of my fondest moments of the trip are of those quiet, tired times where we just stopped for a minute or two and soaked up the memories of the day.

I left Christian up by the hostel and took my mug down onto a small, grassy plain just below out of the wind that rushed up the valley, bouncing my heels on the spongy ground until I found a patch that wasn’t too damp. By the time I’d got the tent up it was dark. Across from us and a bit lower down in the distance, a growling forestry machine was finishing its work by the light of its glaring headlamps, but up where we were there was just the glow of Christian’s head torch and the flicker of the stove.

It was another ludicrously early night, but more disturbed than the last one. The wind rose, shrieking past us and rattling the flysheet savagely against the poles, and a couple of times when I’d just drifted off to sleep I was woken by concerned nudges from Christian.
‘It’s getting very fierce’, he hissed.
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘But what about the stove and the plates? They might blow away.’
I remembered bleakly that, to save ourselves rooting through rucksacks in a crowded tent before dawn, we’d left the stove and breakfast things in the back porch. Listening carefully you could just hear the rattle of metal. Presumably our most important possessions tumbling away into the woods to live with the fairies.

I unzipped my sleeping bag, pulled on my unlaced boots and ventured out into the cold. The forestry machinery had gone and all was black. It felt wild and hostile away from my warm bedding. The stuff in the porch was not in even the slightest disarray, which all goes to show that however rough it sounds outside, if your tent’s good enough, it should hold. Anyway, we’d put out every guy rope we had and tied the flysheet to the frame four times over, so if the little dome was going flying then so were we.

Back in bed, I’d nearly slipped away again when I got another nudge.
‘There’s a light coming towards us’, breathed Christian.
I couldn’t see anything, but a few moments later there was a definite flash of torchlight, which vanished abruptly then reappeared half a minute down the line, as if someone was crossing hummocky terrain towards us. After a little while we could hear the faint crunching of footsteps. Irrational fear crept over us.

Stay quiet, or make noise to show we were awake and ready? Whoever it was, it hardly seemed likely that they’d miss us, especially considering our tent was a conspicuous bright yellow, so in a sudden fluster, with the footsteps almost upon us, we shouted confused greetings and hurriedly unzipped the entrance.
‘Evening lads’, said a man’s voice, and we saw a thin silhouette with a small pack and a head torch disappear up the path beyond our camp.

It was only at a guess about half seven or eight at night, but where this cheery loner was going at even that hour of the evening, who knows. It was a mean old night and the path climbed up to exposed tops in every direction, with the nearest village near on five miles away, as far as we could tell.

Resigning ourselves to never knowing, we wriggled deep down in our sleeping bags and slept well as the wind moaned beyond our thin fabric walls.

4. Ennerdale

Our way went on through woods, down towards Ennerdale water, and we began to feel like we were really in the Lake District. Seeing the water stretching out before us with the peaks in the background made me nostalgic for the days of my mid-to-late teens, when through a combination of the scouts, the school outdoor pursuits society and family friends I first discovered the lakes. I used to have a chart on my bedroom wall showing a Wainwright sketch map of the Lake District, with all the peaks marked, and a list at the bottom with little check boxes next to them so you could tick them off when you’d done them. I think I was up to forty odd.

By the by, I do have the dubious honour of having failed to climb the fourth or fifth smallest Wainwright hill: the forebodingly-named Black Crag, actually barely more than a hillock. I was twenty at the time, I think, on a jaunt in my old 2CV with WRM. On the day we went for Black Crag it was pouring with rain, and we could only snatch glances at our map to avoid it getting completely soaked through. The terrain looked sort of like it ought to, though alarm bells should probably have sounded when the bridge we were aiming for proved absent, and we had to take off our boots and socks and ford the river. Turned out we were in a very similar valley a couple of miles away from the one we should have been in, and had been screwed from the very start.

The one cloud hanging over these happy reminiscences was the state of Christian’s bowels. As anyone who knows my brother can confirm, this is a source of unending concern and analysis. A friend of mine once remarked that she’d never held a conversation with him that didn’t at some stage involve poo. In our flat on Caledonian Road there are two toilets, each of which contains reading material, and after a lengthy spell in ‘the pooing bog’ you can usually expect a vivid account of the state of things.

All was not well on this particular morning, and as we passed a little copse just at the edge of the lake, Christian looked furtively around then dropped his pack and disappeared into the trees, leaving me to keep watch. I sat on a fallen trunk, eating a Mars bar. I looked one way, and there was nothing. I looked the other way. I looked back, and a cyclist whizzed past out of nowhere. There was a frantic scuffle from the undergrowth. An old couple in waxed jackets advanced upon our position at some speed, with a dog. I looked towards the lake and called behind me. There was more scrabbling around, and a harassed-looking Christian stumbled out of the trees and sat down next to me, exchanging mock conversation and keeping a beady eye to make sure the dog didn’t venture anywhere untoward.

The mood lightened after that, and we had to walk almost the whole length of Ennerdale along the less busy southern bank. It wasn’t exactly overcast, but it wasn’t really sunny either; that perfect walking weather where you don’t get too hot or too cold and you feel like you could go on just about forever. I had dim memories of one of my old schoolteachers telling me that she had once walked all the way along barefoot, though maybe that was another lake. We passed a few walkers, all of whom stopped and asked us why on earth we were carrying such big packs and where we were going, but all of whom seemed quite encouraging when they discovered how cracked we really were.

Nearing the top of the lake we slumped on the pebbly beach and ate more Bovril sandwiches, along with some chocolate slice that my mum had sent us with, carefully wrapped in tin foil. The rocky bank path, with its straggly trees clutching at the sparse clods of earth, gave way to lush meadows, and we made our way past some limping sheep and an outdoor centre with racks of canoes up against the side of the house, to a hard Forestry Commission track through a managed conifer plantation.


3. Dent

We became very used to the sound of the alarm on Christian’s phone. The gentle crescendo which heralded the morning’s aches, pulling yourself from your sleeping bag in the cold to make a start. Neither of us are morning people, but the timing was such that we had to be up and away at first light most days.

On this first morning I changed out of my clean sleeping clothes back into the dirty ones from the day before and crept out into the dark to cook breakfast. The flicker of the stove was a strange but pleasant sort of company, and I had to lean precariously over the steep banks of the river to wash the pots from the evening before, reaching down into the black until I felt the icy rush of water. I cooked a pan of sugary porridge as the first light of day crept over Cleator. Before long Christian emerged, narrow-eyed and displeased with the hour, and by eight o’ clock we were shouldering our packs, and squelching across the field. Our legs seemed fine after the exertions of the day before, but already I could feel the ache across my chest from the dead weight of the rucksack.
‘My shoulders are going to be round my knees before we’ve finished’, pronounced Christian, as he opened the gate. There was a shout from across the river, and at the far side of the bridge we saw Tom hanging out of the window of his bungalow waving.
‘Good luck, lads.’

We began our ascent by getting lost, until a nice man from an isolated house leaned out of his window and pointed us in the right direction. The Coast to Coast isn’t a national trail, so it’s not very well signposted, especially in the carefully conserved Lake District, but that doesn’t mean you’re without direction. Our progress across Cumbria was marked by a series of silhouetted farmers pointing from the opposite end of fields or shouting from their Land Rovers as they saw us going wrong. Whether this was out of a desire to keep us off their land I’m not sure, but I’d like to think it was just good spirit. To be fair you’d have to be quite a bastard to casually watch two laden walkers heading off in completely the wrong direction.

Navigation always seems easier once you get away from fields, or maybe it’s just because the walking’s more pleasant. We cleared the last houses, crossed a forestry track and started in earnest on the tramp up Dent fell. It was quite steep, and hard work with our packs, the path hemmed in by tight, scratchy rows of conifers that caught on our clothes. I quietly cursed myself for not removing my long johns in the cold of the morning. I should point out I had never, previously to this trip, been a long john wearer, and I can report it to be an interesting experience. Apart from the obvious practical value on cold evenings and mornings, it also gives you a cheery sort of feeling that you might be wearing your pyjamas underneath your clothes. But not when you’re hot and struggling up a hill.

When we came out of the trees onto a slippy green hillside, the sun was properly up, and below us fields and woods stretched out to the sea, all bathed in a lovely gold light. The sun was ahead of us to the east, peeking blindingly over the summit and throwing long shadows back down the slope. As anyone who has ever climbed a hill or mountain will know, perspective is a cruel beast, and what you think is the top almost never is. After three or four occasions of thinking we’d crested it, only to see another hump stick up in front of us, we finally reached the Western summit of Dent. The grass was longer and browner on the top; a breezy, sun-drenched plateau, and we paused to take a picture, looking back at what would be our last view of the sea until we saw the North Sea in the failing light from a soggy Yorkshire moor two weeks later.

The top was fine walking, but the drop down the other side was unpleasantly severe. The ground was greasy, and I fell over into a spiky bush. Once I’d finished swearing, I found that holding up my bare forearm and watching the tiny droplets of blood welling out of the dirty pinpricks was quite diverting, and I nearly slipped again. It sounds strange, but there’s something quite confirming about hurting yourself a little bit. I don’t mean I intend to start paying money to ladies in high heels, but you can get a bit paranoid about scrapes and cuts and bruises, and then when you do get scuffed up one way or another you realise it’s not the end of the world and you feel quite human.

‘Supper for you’, Christian shouted from up ahead, pointing to a patch of particularly pestilent-looking crimson fungus bubbling up by the path. A couple of days earlier, sitting by the brazier in the garden at our Bonfire Night party, B had been trying to describe to me which wild mushrooms were safe to pick and eat. Having been hunting out the things since childhood she made it sound quite straightforward, and I might conceivably have chanced my hand at foraging, had Big WCR not leaned over and butted in. He has known me since we were knock-kneed schoolboys of four years old in bright blue caps and blazers.
‘Can I just say: do not, under any circumstances, suggest to this man that he starts trying to pick mushrooms. He will die.’
So that was the end of that. Christian however found this a terribly funny joke, to be repeated on every occasion during two weeks that we passed anything remotely resembling a mushroom.

We picked our way past a deer fence and down into the bottom of the valley, stopping to refill our water carriers from the fresh stream that slithered along at the foot of Dent fell. The way wound up the valley, round kinks in the stream and sheepfolds, then climbed sharply up the side and out, quite abruptly, onto the road running the last mile or so down to the village of Ennerdale Bridge.

It was a faintly ghostly sort of place, Ennerdale Bridge. There was a very quiet school next to a phone box, and the sign in the window of what had once been the village shop read that it had closed down in 2006 due to lack of custom, and now operated two mornings a week as a post office. We had been nursing hopes of picking up a tin of something for the next day’s breakfast there, but it was not to be. Sort of reminded me how far away we were from the world I was accustomed to, where a shop was so totally reliant on passing trade from wanderers that a slump in our sort of domestic snail tourism meant curtains.


2. Cleator

Inevitably the weather didn’t last. The cliffs were exposed, and when the wind picked up after a little while the dry grass from the fields whipped across our faces, and we got knocked over repeatedly by gusts, until we had to hide behind a hedge and pull on our windproofs. You sort of forget that a six foot bloke with a vast pack on his back is a rather unstable creature. The sky clouded, the afternoon drew on and after an hour or two we turned our backs to the sea, descending with a little relief through sheltered fields and farm tracks and a stop in a waterlogged field where we made Bovril sandwiches then got lost. In front of us rose the neat hill of Dent fell, the first real pull upwards of our trip, and doing sums of the miles and hours we realised we were going to have to go over it in the dark if we were going to make Ennerdale Bridge.

But we never did. Coming down a winding path into the village of Cleator at the foot of the hill, we were accosted by a rotund man with a dog.
‘You don’t want to be up there at night, lads’, he declared, gesturing up towards Dent. As the shadows crept up the side it did look a bit forbidding. ‘You want to get yourselves kennelled up before dark.’ It looked like we would have to stay in Cleator, which did not please us. I was due back at my desk in London in less than two weeks, and apart from the obvious problem of getting behind on our already tight schedule, we both felt inexplicably unpleasant towards Cleator. It was difficult to say why.
‘I think it’s because it sounds like a cross between that bad guy out of Flash Gordon and Cleethorpes’, said Christian. It looked cluttered and depressing. The harpy. In our frustration at the morning’s delays, Cleator became an emblem of the obstacles in our way – a place that had suckered us in and wouldn’t let us leave. Worse, there was no campsite on the map.

We could not have been more wrong about Cleator. In a bid to find somewhere to sleep, I took off my boots and gaiters, already caked in mud, and padded into the village pub. In a poky little room full of old timers the barmaid smiled pleasantly at me.
‘Did you not see the sign outside? It says muddy boots welcome. What can I get you? I’m sorry, we’ve no pies.’
‘I was just wondering if you knew of any campsites round here. We meant to make it to Ennerdale Bridge today but we’ve run out of daylight.’
She looked doubtful.
‘No campsites round here, no. Sorry. There’s a hotel down the road, but it’s quite dear.’
‘You can’t think of anywhere we might be able to put up a tent?’
At this point an old man in a flat cap by the bar pitched in.
‘You can stop in my field if you like. Makes no odds to me.’
The man was a widowed old farmer called Tom who lived in a bungalow down by the river. Across the river was a good flat field, sheltered by hedges, which he owned, and where we put up our tent, looking across at the village on the other side. On returning to warm ourselves in the corner of the pub, Tom sipped at his pint of mild, and along with three or four other retired farm types, quizzed us about our plans. In the Cleator village pub there were no private conversations. Whoever was talking, everyone else in the room was involved. Tom would not accept even so much as a drink by way of thanks.
‘You’re alright’, he said. ‘I’ve got to be off in a sec. Me daughter’s making me a shepherd’s pie.’ When he did leave, it was only for a period of about fifteen minutes, and by the time we’d ordered our second pint, he’d returned.
‘Pie was there but she hadn’t cooked it yet’, he announced to the assembled company.
‘Could you not have put it in the oven yourself, Tom?’ asked the barmaid.
‘Oh no. I haven’t cooked for meself in years.’
‘I tell you one thing’, said another old man, ‘I’ve never washed a pot in me life. When the wife was in hospital havin’ our second I kept all the dirty dishes in the fridge for when she got back.’
A man in a boiler suit walked in and gave one of the regulars a bag of scallops. A brief discussion followed about whether scallops were potato or fish. A large lady breezed in breathlessly.
‘Hey Tom, I thought you’d be here. I’ve just seen two lads putting up a tent in that field of yours.’
‘I know. They’re in the corner.’ We waved, and exchanged more pleasantries with the neighbourhood busybody. A small man with a moustache who seemed to know a lot about fellwalking told us we should aim for Black Sail the next day.

They turned the fire on for us, and with warmth and conversation and beer it was tempting to stay in the pub all evening. This early on in the walk though, our resolve was still strong, and we left after a couple of pints to go and make supper. As I struggled to get my gaiters on in the hallway, Tom popped his head out of the bar.
‘It’s cold out. If you lads get too cold then there’s a spare room at the bungalow. Just give me a knock.’
My Grandpa Braime once wrote a little book called Continental Kindnesses. It was a collection of short anecdotes from a lifetime of adventures in his motor cars and aeroplanes when people helped him out for no good reason, and I reckon among the collections of Irish farmhands, Swiss receptionists, Scandinavian office workers and wordless Frenchmen, there would have been a place there for old Tom.
Down by the riverbank Christian cooked supper. Two days before he’d convinced the checkout lady in Asda that he was completely insane by cheerily loading up the conveyor with 30 packets of Bachelors freeze-dried pasta, and it is true that our menu was perhaps not the most varied. Everything tastes better outdoors though, and the most important question of each and every day was how we would end it. Would it be cheese and ham? Macaroni? Italian herb (this one was described on the packet as ‘delicately seasoned’)? Bolognese? There was a rather suspicious mushroom and red wine one which always seemed to find its way to the bottom of the pile of potential pasta. This evening was carbonara. It was Bonfire Night, and as we ate from steaming bowls rockets lit up the sky above the village.
I was worried about the cold, and put on all of my clothes before I got into my sleeping bag, but in fact that night in Cleator was one of the mildest nights of the trip. As I drifted off to sleep I could hear the river and more rockets going on in the distance.
‘Jols’, whispered Christian, ‘It’s only half past six’. He chuckled quietly and rolled over.

1. Setting out

There’s nothing quite like setting out on an adventure. That moment when you realise you’ve gone too far to turn back and all the courage you haven’t had up ‘til then suddenly comes on in a rush of inevitability.

I don’t know if on the morning that Christian and I left home to walk across England I seriously thought we’d make it to the end. Given the time of year and the fact that we hadn’t walked anywhere serious in years, both terribly out of shape through indolence and alcohol, I had a sort of feeling that we might have to call it a day somewhere down the line. But in many ways that wasn’t really the point of the exercise. Christian’s reasons for coming were his own, but for me, the Coast to Coast was a rock to break myself against. An absurd and impractical jaunt to snap me out of a creeping and hateful sense that I’d lost the person I once hoped I might be, desperate for the faintest touch of an adventure. If I went the distance then that was fine, and if I didn’t then it was probably alright too.

There was a lot of time to consider this and other things on that first morning. To get by train from Leeds to St Bees, right on the West coast of Cumbria, takes around six and a half hours. I waited in Leeds City station by the side of the 6.15 to Lancaster, with that sick feeling you get when you’ve got up too early, watching Christian jogging along the opposite platform where he’d just put Lucy on her own train to Birmingham, his skip hat at a tilt, bowed under his ridiculous pack. I was having difficulty manoeuvring with mine. Come a week’s time the weight would seem alright, and walking around without them on made you feel a sort of unnatural lightness, but on this first morning my shoulders hurt already.

It was light by the time we made Lancaster, and the trains were beginning to fill up with commuters. Already with our boots and bags it felt like we were outsiders, no longer part of the everyday that was otherwise going along as it always did. We would feel like that quite a lot over the weeks to come. When you’re part of something you barely notice it, but when you’re on the outside, looking in, everything seems more interesting. We sat on a bench in Lancaster station, drinking tea, fiddling with our gaiters and waiting for the next train, a Virgin one to Edinburgh. It was raining.
‘Trust Lancashire to piss on a couple of Yorkshiremen’, remarked Christian.
‘No sort of place at all’, I replied.

There was no space for us in the carriages, so we squatted on our packs in the vestibule, trying not to look at the haggard alcoholic lady with short cropped hair who shambled up and down the train with a slipstream of noxious booze fumes, desperate for the buffet car to open so she could get her hands on some tins. Lord knows where she was going at that hour of the morning, and I’m almost certain she didn’t have a ticket. Still, she somehow escaped the inspector, and was still wandering around, talking incessantly to herself in a gravely voice, when we rolled out onto the platform at Carlisle.

The line from Carlisle to St Bees is possibly the oddest one I’ve ever been on. It consists of a single carriage which winds its way with remarkable slowness along the coast, through little pebbly hamlets, sometimes running almost at the top of the beach, heading for its eventual glamorous target of the Sellafield nuclear power station. A bit like a bus, you have to tell the conductor if you want it to stop at the next station, but it almost never did, because there can’t have been more than six or seven people on the whole train. Not many people live in this quiet corner of Cumbria, and not many visit either. If tourists are going to that part of the world, they go to the Lake District. I think the only reason I’d ever heard of St Bees before was that there’s a school there that sometimes competed against ours in sports. Not that I was ever involved of course, but I mainly remember the headmaster reading out the results in assembly and stumbling over any remotely ethnic names. Anyway, it took forever to get there. Christian dozed against the scratched windows and I drank tea from a cardboard cup and read the guidebook.

The idea of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast is that you begin by dipping your booted feet into the Irish Sea at St Bees in the West, then march across to Robin Hood’s Bay in the East and touch your bare toes in the North Sea. By the time we made the beach, and waggled the tips of our boots in the water, it was already half 12. It was November, and the days were short, so it looked like we might not make the full distance of our first day, but it was a lovely start all the same. The rain that had dripped glumly down in Lancashire was long gone. The sun shone bright and clear, the air was salty, and an onshore breeze cooled us as we made our first climb up worn wooden steps onto the cliffs. We were both gloriously happy, and it felt a bit like days when we were little, tottering along the cliffs at Sandsend or Hayburn Wike back when everything was an adventure and whatever you made it. Two weeks later we would struggle through our last day in snow, wind and driving rain, but this first afternoon someone somewhere was smiling on us.

The path along the cliff tops was broad and grassy, and below us, with the town all but hidden by a lump of hill, the sea sparkled for miles. We were short of breath, and I had that tight, liquid feeling in my lungs like you get when you haven’t used them much for a while then you give yourself massive gasps of fresh cold air and they don’t know what to do with themselves. I resisted the temptation to use an inhaler, and within 15 minutes my chest felt clean and clear. Christian boasted about how great his new trousers were, then promptly tore the knee right open on some barbed wire by a lighthouse.