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July 22, 2009

The Canterbury Tales of our own times: Lincoln Allison walks from Coast to Coast

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Thirtysomething miles south of Hadrian's wall is another line, this one English wiggle rather than Roman straight. It consists of boot marks and, much of the time, of people. It is the Coast to Coast walk devised by Blackburn's rambling guru, Alfred Wainwright, in 1973 and it stretches from St. Bees in Cumbria on the Irish sea to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire on the North Sea, a distance - not as the crow flies, but as the walk goes - of about 192 miles.

Of course, you could say that it goes from Robin Hood's Bay to St. Bees, but apparently 90% of people who do it go from west to east with the prevailing wind behind them. That is certainly the direction in which the boots point and one meets very few "wrongwayers".

I had always thought that one day I would do a long distance walk and I had assumed that it would be the Pennine Way. But a young woman at a party convinced me that the C2C (as it is inevitably called) is prettier, more varied and at least marginally less boggy. It is also more than 60 miles shorter, an important point in negotiations with my companion. Of course, I can't really make the comparison, but I can state that the C2C is extremely varied and that considerable portions of it are very beautiful. You begin and end with cliff walks, though in all honesty we only really saw the Cumbrian coast as the Yorkshire cliffs had a serious "har" on them and visibility was next to nothing.

You spend five days crossing the mountain ridges and walking by the lakes of the Lake District. About 40% of the walk is across moors of heather, cottongrass and bilberry, but there are also rocky limestone hills with bright green grass and lush meadows full of flowers. There are some remarkable woods and one day has to be spent crossing the fertile lowland ordinariness of the Vale of Mowbray (including a sprint across the A19 dual carriageway).

However, there is nothing that would count as urban because the biggest place you go through is Richmond which has fewer than 10,000 people. But with its castle, hilltop square and narrow alleys it can successfully play the role of "small European city" for the American walkers and we did manage to get a curry there to make a change from the normal diet of pub food.

And the beauty! De gustibus and all that, but when we arrived in Reeth we dropped from the rocky hills onto the flowery meadows and walked through the old stone village to the green where the local brass band was playing. An American lady on the 'phone remarked that she was in fairyland. The first sight of Richmond from the hills above is an early romantic landscape painting come to life. The North York moors, a plateau with interesting fissures, contain one of the most perfect forests I have ever seen, a place of glades, caves, ravines and waterfalls. There is even an eerie, beau laid, kind of beauty about the old lead mines of the high Pennines. And I haven't even mentioned the Lake District in this context.

For the record: We took thirteen days, which is about average. We got lost twice and I had one (large) blister. We stayed in pubs, B & Bs, guesthouses, a private house and a beautifully converted barn at the top of Swaledale. We spent over 1000; it can be done for a fraction of that price if you use camp sites, youth hostels and bunk barns or, of course, if you camp "wild".

We had one day of horrendous driving rain and hail (Rosthwaite to Patterdale), one of mist and drizzle and four that were pretty mixed, leaving seven fine days. The food was mediocre: any hope I had of finding the kind of original, locally sourced menus that can be found in pubs in Lancashire and West Yorkshire was not realised. The beer was good, though: every pub had a choice of good cask ales.

The most memorable creatures were the curlews, plaintively and stridently distracting us from their nests. The rarest were the black grouse on the North York Moors; they are known in the North as moorcocks, though this has nothing to do with moorhens. And if I had two pieces of advice for any would-be coast-to-coaster they would be:

1. Do not attempt to carry all your luggage or you will become very tired or very smelly or both. Everyone I met bar one gave up and used one of the carrying services which, at about 7 per day, are pretty reasonable.

2. Take at least two pairs of well worn in boots or shoes. I needed the second one because the first was under water so often that bits came loose and from being entirely benign they became painful.

I knew that I liked walking and that I aspired to the physical feat of walking over 200 miles (by the time you've been lost a couple of times) over rough country. What surprised me was the people and the extent to which C2C is a social institution with a multitude of meanings for its participants.

The many books on it suggest that around 10,000 people do it every year, but given the long days and the weak pound there seemed to be a lot more than usual when we went: we got to know more than thirty who were either setting off or arriving the same day as us.

It is said that about 25% of those doing it are American and our exact American contemporaries ran well into double figures. A crude first reaction might be to ask, rhetorically, whether they didn't have enough land of their own to hike across. But I could understand their desire to experience an Old World landscape - intricate, detailed, human formed and on a human scale - up close. The other nationalities included (Flemish) Belgians, Spanish and Canadians.

We were astonished by the sociability of what we had vaguely imagined to be a rather lonely experience. The land may be empty, but the path is well beaten and the norm is friendship. You overtake people, then they overtake you. You ask, "Going all the way?" and you arrange to meet in the pub later. Everywhere C2Cers were the majority of the demand for food, drink and accommodation. It is not surprising that people remember 2001, the foot and mouth epidemic and the walking ban, with horror: farmers were compensated, but the tourist industry was not.

Once in the pub you listen to the stories. The ex-pat who hasn't lived here for decades, but who is now beginning to hanker for his homeland. The retired farmer from the South who wants a detailed glimpse of the North of England. (It was amazing, incidentally, how many of our companions were over seventy.) The widower who is sponsored to complete for the benefit of the hospice. The young American executive who wanted to get as far away from his Chicago office, physically and spiritually, as he could. The prison officer who took a beating so bad that it damaged his arm to the degree that he can no longer do any sport so he walks. And the walkaholics, who are far more comfortable walking than they are doing anything else - like the young woman studying for a Ph.D in astrophysics who told me that she feels naked without a rucksack.

At the end of the walk you dip your boot ritually into the North Sea and retreat to Wainwright's Bar in the Bay Hotel at the sea's edge where each new arrival is greeted with a cheer. The pilgrimage is over. For there is no doubt that that is what it is, though it is different for each pilgrim. This is the Canterbury Tales of our own times.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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