28 Nov 22
Hiking the UK’s Coast to Coast Path
The UK’s glorious countryside is best explored on foot. The walking paths provide access to some of the most stunning scenery in the world, the comradeship of fellow hikers and the kindness of strangers, particularly on Wainwright’s famous192-mile Coast to Coast Path that covers three national parks.
Most people who walk the Coast to Coast Path will arrive into St Bees via train from Carlisle. The pretty rail route between the two towns hugs the coastline so closely in parts that you can catch glimpses of the soon to be opened English Coast Path. The Coast to Coast shares this trail from St Bees for around 8km before turning inland, then again on the last day as you walk into Robin Hood’s Bay. When fully complete the route will be the longest coastal path walk in the world at around 4,500kms!
Arriving into St Bees can be slightly disorienting at first as the village itself is not immediately obvious from the train station. It can seem like you have been plonked in the middle of nowhere! There is a definite disconnect between the village proper and St Bees Head on the seaside. The 15 minute walk to the trailhead moves in the opposite direction away from the township, so depending on where your accommodation is grab any last minute items when you arrive.
The ochre coloured sandstone cliffs of St Bees Head are somewhat surprising among the greenness of the English landscape. Also, the first climb to the top of the headland looks enormous! In reality it is quite effortless, with gorgeous views on a clear day over the Irish Sea to Scotland and the Isle of Man. The trailhead is easy to pick up from the beach below as the path has been well worn by thousands of hikers and a steady stream of tourists and day visitors who climb to the top to enjoy the views. If the sun is shining the seaside village draws hordes of families with an incalculable number of parents, kids and dogs enjoying the long stretch of pebbly shoreline. This is the beach where Alfred Wainwright suggests you chose your pebble to carry with you to Robin Hood’s Bay.
One of the first things that strikes you as you reach the top of the 90m high cliffs and begin to stride towards Robin Hood’s Bay, is just how special this walk feels. Perhaps there is a heightened sense of freedom and awe being so high above the sea? There are recent studies suggesting that feeling awe in nature may have a positive effect on both our mental and physical health, anecdotally we know this is true. Research from the University of California into the ‘psychology of awe’ has shown that it can “inspire ethical behaviour…may boost your immune system, make you feel more creative and bind people together”. Whatever feeling it is, there is no other walk that inspires awe from the get go, that I can think of, that truly compares to the Coast to Coast Path, in fact I’ve been known to refer to it as the ‘perfect walk’.
To place that statement into context, there are very few hikes where you get to walk across a whole country, true there is Hadrian’s Wall and the Camino de Santiago that immediately spring to mind but the Coast to Coast is different. The path travels through three outstanding national parks; the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. Each park is uniquely beautiful from the volcanic geology of the Lake District to the vast open expanses of the moors. I’ve had customers tell me they’ve called out to ‘Heathcliff’ as they’ve marched onwards across the moorland, something I’ve never thought of doing personally but perhaps I’ll try it on my next outing. The scenery is stunning! The walk is long enough to immerse yourself into your hikers ‘bubble’ without being so long that it limits how many people are capable of doing it. It’s ‘technical’ but doable for most people with a solid degree of fitness and a good set of hiking poles, particularly for the descents and ascents in the Lake District.
For most people the Lake District will top their ‘favourite section’ list, and it truly is beautiful. The fells and dales are sublimely gorgeous, but it takes effort to enjoy the views. The landscape has been sculpted by nature over 500 million years from volcanic rock that over time formed deep glacial valleys, some of which has now filled with water to form the 14 lakes of the Lake District. There are also sections of slate, granite and limestone, so the path through the lakeland section is rocky with steep ascents and descents that need to be carefully navigated. As mentioned earlier however, it can be undertaken with a good set of walking poles, a solid degree of fitness and a sense of humour. The average age of hikers who complete the Coast to Coast Path with RAW is 65 years old.
While I appreciate the stunning scenery of the Lakeland district, the section I enjoy the most is the flat wide open spaces of the moors. Once you have climbed the rollercoaster of the Cleveland Hills the landscape flattens into expansive moorland. There is a feeling of remoteness and solitude, something about the sublime colours of the bracken and the three types of heather that grow on the North York Moors: Ling, Bell and Cross-leaved. Ling has a very small pink flower and is the most common heather which usually flowers mid to late August. Bell heather flowers first from late July. This section of the walk is the most sparsely populated, so it creates a sense of space from the big uninterrupted panoramic views to the horizon.
You will be into your third week of walking so your fitness will have improved, your body may be a little weary, but the walking is easier on flat wide paths which provides an opportunity to take your time and soak up the sweeping landscapes. But it’s not just about the scenery; it’s also the people you chat to along the way – the small connections you make on a daily basis. These are what burn in my memory and lighten my heart; the feel good factor.
One of many fond memories happened in the small village of Muker in the Yorkshire Dales where we diverted to sample the outstanding cream teas. Little did we know at that time this scone oasis was closed due to the death of the Queen and there was a day of national mourning that closed all the shops. We were charmed into a sudden stop by a hedge that had been shaped into a sheep. Sheep are a recurring theme throughout the walk so it wasn’t unusual for us to stop and discuss the ‘merits’ of the sheep artwork. Was the sheep a Herdwick or had we stumbled upon one of the first Swaledales to be seen? But what was even more charming than this modern art piece was the owner of the house. The ‘sheep sculptor’ came onto his verandah to tell us the story of how the sheep came about. It turns out that one end of the Salvador Dali like piece was a sheep and the other end an elephant! Brilliant! And this was all due to his grandson’s suggestion.
How wonderful! An impromptu explanation by our ‘guide’ on the genesis of the sheep hedge. Who does that? Who leaves the comfort of their home to talk to a random group of Australians admiring this artistic joy? It seems that the Brits do. They love to talk, they love to have a chat about nothing … nothing, and the weather! They will start up a conversation as if they were only chatting to you last week. And it is delightful!
Perhaps the most valuable bit of information or advice I can give you from my Coast to Coast experiences is to take your time, be sure footed on the rockier sections by putting your poles to good use, and enjoy your time on the trail – it truly is magnificent!
Find out more
RAW Travel offers guided and supported self-guided options along the Coast to Coast Path. A unique feature of our self-guided walks is the day you spend hiking with our experienced Lake District mountain guide. Your guide will provide you with local knowledge, insights and basic navigational skills to give you the confidence to fully enjoy your Coast to Coast walk.