I was woken this morning by the chuntering of a two-carriage train at the station below our bedroom window. St Bees, like the other villages on this remote piece of line has a trim Victorian station complete with Stationmaster’s cottage and this one has been turned into a Bed & Breakfast. The train’s diesel engines wound up and it clunked off over the level crossing, shaking our bedroom as it passed.
That we got here at all is something of a minor miracle. This was the Holiday That Didn’t Want To Be Had. It started off as a trek through the Swiss alps, booked with giddy – and as it turned out, unwarranted – optimism many months ago. When it became clear that the Swiss didn’t want us or our Covid variants thank you, we converted it into a walk from the west coast of England, to the east coast. And then the afternoon before we were due to leave, a cheery email informed us that most of our rail journey to the start point had been “changed”; Customer Service speak for “cancelled”. And every other alternative train journey was fully booked. So we drove five hours to Carlisle, plonked the car in long-term parking and caught our connection to St Bees. In your face Customer Service!
The start of the Coast to Coast is, um, at the coast. That was a half mile walk out of silent St Bees, brooding no doubt over the England football team’s traditional exit from a major competition on penalties. Across the railway tracks was a statue of St Bega – an Irish Princess from the Middle Ages who reportedly fled an arranged marriage and settled in the area which eventually took her name. Ten minutes later we were at the beachside signpost which marks the official start of the walk. We enlisted a passing Cliff to take our photo.
Cliff was a compact, wiry man full of enthusiasm for this area. His face lit up as he told us about Spring bringing plankton and eels to the shore line, followed by basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises, and the multitude of seabirds lining the cliffs. He told us where the best autumn foliage could be found and gave us dense instructions about going off the main track to find death-defying drops and hidden places. “See you at the top of Dent Hill perhaps” he said.
We parted with that slightly awkward Covid-era do-we-shake-hands-or-not half-wave and headed to the shoreline to dip our boots. The sea had a milky flatness to it and sent polite ripples to anoint our feet.
Tom retrieved a pebble for transporting to the other coast. And then the walk began, up the headland in a soft breeze, with pale sunlight washing through.
The Isle of Man was a low, grey wall on the horizon. To the north, the Scottish Coast looked about the same. The path was lined with shouty marigold and thistles with purple flattops – the King’s Road punks of the hedgerow. Overhead, gulls wheeled and shrieked and larks, larked.
We spent the morning walking over these cliffs, their red sandstone flanks speckled with nesting gulls and scruffy teenage chicks, hopping and testing their wings. Guillemots and Razorbills zoomed over the sea so low that the tip of a trailing foot would catch a wave.
A gloomy lighthouse emerged from behind the rolling clifftop. It was built in 1866 to replace Britain’s last coal-fired lighthouse which burned down in 1822 taking the lighthouse keeper’s wife and five children with it.
A sea fret began tickling the clifftop, forcing us into rain jackets for the first time. But as soon as we turned inland we left the drizzle behind as we strode out over moorland. The landscape here is a green chequerboard of fields with the sound of a tractor never far away.
Day one of this route shows that there isn’t a single Coast to Coast trail, rather a network of paths, farm tracks and single-track roads combining to take you across the country.
There were several hours of this, and occasionally we emerged into a small village of two-up, two-down terraced houses, with a couple of shops and a war memorial. Much of the housing was built to support an iron-ore boom in the 1800s which changed the character of these rural villages. One such, Cleator saw its population grow from around 800 to almost 18,000 between 1880 and 1840. The hard drinking mining crowd turned the little village into something like the Klondike (said our guidebook). It’s a bit quieter now. Beyond it, the first real hill of this walk – Dent Fell, which the guide book had led us to believe was going to just about finish us off after eight hours of walking. It was fine. But it was a long day – a little over 25k – and we were glad to see Ennerdale emerge from the valley below.