St Bees to Kirkby Stephen
Walking from the west coast of England to the east coast is a great idea but it does need the cooperation of mind, legs and weather. Weather is weather but we decided that setting ourselves up to fail was silly so split the walk into two. St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen was the 2015 project with the remaining, longer walk to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast deferred to 2016.
Tradition says you must pick up a pebble from the sea at St Bees and deposit it in the sea on the other side. It was our bad luck that the tide was out, so we walked past the ‘official’ start of the walk and then passed it again half an hour later with pebbles. At least it wasn’t raining! A mixture of cloud, sun and wind took us to Ennerdale Bridge where we spent the first night.
Our second day was more eventful, the ‘accident’ day. Several hours in, Tony dropped the all-important guide book into a stream. I was impressed by his fishing skills as he retrieved it. Turning soggy pages is difficult and we happened to be at a critical point. The book did dry out and the pages remain readable, if wavy. High winds made the going difficult and we had a steep climb to negotiate. I was leading when I lost my balance and fell backwards. It wasn’t in the plan for the pair of us to roll off the path and fall around three metres down a bank, stopping just short of a stream – we could have fallen in a more dangerous place. All limbs were intact although my left knee had met a rock and I could feel my leg swelling and getting stiff as I moved. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and marched on. The remaining five or six miles became a blur. I was scared to look at my knee; when I did, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
By the morning, my leg was assorted shades of purple and the swelling was spreading. More ibuprofen, paracetamol and bloody-mindedness kept me going. In spite of my problems, we chose to take the higher – and more difficult – route for the views. It was worth it. Arrived in Grasmere where we would have a break – our ‘rest day’. Tony had a sore throat. We needed to stop.
We headed for Patterdale the following day with renewed vigour. Leg stiff and colourful but moving; Tony still rough. Nevertheless, we decided on the more demanding but more picturesque route via St Sunday’s Crag. (‘This is our only chance’ sentiment.) It was steeper than expected. We then realised why. We had taken the wrong path and gone up Fairfield adding an additional peak and not a small amount of time to our route. The signage was non-existent. But we could clearly see a path along the ridge in the right direction. What we didn’t know was that Cofa’s Pike lay in our way. This is a rocky outcrop, a real challenge to climb. But the thought of retracing our steps was too depressing. The elation we experienced after succeeding was worth the initial fear. Nothing like a few difficulties to focus the mind and make knees and throats insignificant. A guy went past us on a bike. We were obviously doing it the easy way.
With our destination almost in sight, we had just one descent (steep, according to the guidebook) to do. This was a shock. It was narrow with an overhang so severe that our only way down was on our bottoms, passing our rucksacks between us so they didn’t push us over the edge. We debated whether it was actually possible. We should have turned and sought an alternative route as further down we looked back and saw the correct path. We were not the only ones to go wrong as we saw others having similar – and worse – problems. Again, lack of signs hadn’t helped. But we had been foolish.
We had the ‘Big Day’ ahead of us. Fortified by an enormous breakfast and carrying almost our weight in packed lunches, we were walking by 8.20am. Kidsty Pike was our first target, the highest point on the walk. We ate lunch there along with many other, now familiar faces. It was sunny and hot – lucky us – and the views were magnificent.
The descent required hands as well as feet at times, slow progress but we got to Hawes water. It is a long lake. It is a seemingly endless lake. The path beside it is up and down and tiring. This was the worst part of the walk. I was exhausted when a passer-by told us to cheer up as we only had about an hour to go to Shap. An hour! We plodded on. I tried to phone ahead to our B & B to say we would be late – we didn’t want the emergency services alerted because we hadn’t arrived. But I had no phone signal. Tony started to have back troubles. With huge relief we reached Shap only to find our B & B was at the far end, a further mile away. We arrived at 7.05 – some day! We didn’t have the energy to walk back along the road to the pub for dinner. There was enough left in our packed lunches to satisfy us, together with a beer and a glass of wine kindly provided by the owner, Margaret, a lady renowned for her hospitality.
A short walk on the following day – then it was our final trek to Kirkby Stephen, a sunny, easy day made all the better by the vision of the champagne we would drink at the end. It felt strange to stop when some of our walking companions were completing the whole distance. But we’d done it and were on a high! And we were sure we would complete the second part: the challenge for 2016.