Wainwright Walks: Coast to Coast - Northern Souls

It’s not a date that gets eagerly awaited by many, but for me, last year at least, 2 January was a hugely important day, because it marked the start of my adventure on the Coast to Coast trail.

Midwinter is hardly the ideal time to be setting out along Alfred Wainwright’s mammoth trek, but this was work and 192 miles needed careful exploration. And so began a 12 month relationship with the entire breadth of northern England – its greatest peaks, its prettiest valleys, its flattest vales and, as I would quickly discover, its most colourful folk. Much more than just a walk, the Coast to Coast, which stretches from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, is an education, an insight and a window into the lives of so many that work, rest and play between the Irish and North seas. 

Leaving the safety of London far behind, my very first research trip was to the Cumbrian town of Kirkby Stephen, where a colleague and I donned hats and gloves to set off keenly on our first crossing of the Pennines. “The attainment of Nine Standards is an occasion for celebration,” said Wainwright of his walk’s majestic Pennine summit. But for us it wasn’t majestic and we certainly weren’t celebrating. In fact we got lost. As the snow tumbled down there was the first white-out either of us had ever experienced in England. Sky, clouds, peat bog… none was distinguishable from the next. At such times a £4.99 compass can be incredibly useful.

Getting lost in January inevitably results in losing daylight, and wandering the hills above a black and frozen Swaledale is not an experience I hope to repeat. But at 6.15pm we finally saw the welcoming lights of Keld, our first night on the walk and the home of my first memorable Coast to Coast character…

“Bloody ‘ell lads... I was givin’ you ‘nother 10 minutes before I phoned mountain rescue!” So exclaimed the silhouetted, pipe-smoking figure of Tony Leete as we dragged our cold bodies towards the bright haven of Keld Lodge. Since April 2007, former RAF officer Tony has been co-owner and resident impresario of the Swaledale village’s largest guesthouse.

“I was thinking of retiring, but then I got wind of the old youth hostel going up for sale,” he said. With the help of sister Trish and partner Linda, Tony turned the decrepit Keld Youth Hostel into the altogether more salubrious Keld Lodge. “The place was horrendous,” Trish recalls. “The carpets were thick with grease, there were 12 rusting beds in some of the rooms and there was a constant smell of old boots.”

Keld is the perfect example of a Coast to Coast overnight spot – tiny, remote and crammed full of local charm. And where boy Scouts and adventurers once flocked, the lodge now caters for the new walking fraternity of professional couples and active silver-surfer types.

“We still get ‘em every week,” explains Tony. “‘Where can I get a signal on my phone?’ they say. ‘Just 6 miles around the corner, sir!’ I tell them with a smile.” About 90 percent of Tony’s guests are midway through the Coast to Coast, and for the past 12 months, Linda and Trish have also been running the neighbouring B&B, leaving Tony and a gaggle of local villagers and valley-dwellers to keep the lodge ticking over.

“A place like this wouldn’t have been complete without a bar,” explains Tony, standing proudly behind a row of gleaming beer pumps. You get the feeling that Keld’s first licensed premises since 1954 says more about Tony’s passion than his business head. Given half a chance he will happily pontificate about the plus-points of his various Yorkshire Ales. But who can blame him? Every night I spent in Keld last year, at least half the village also seemed to be there. Wainwright Ale will always be a popular choice, but here who could look beyond Tony’s very own Kelda Ale?

Keld has far better internet access than it does mobile reception but, frankly, they don’t need it. News and gossip spreads here faster than you can access your Facebook account. And at the centre of the Keldweb is a remarkable lady once dubbed the Queen of the Coast to Coast.

Having married a local farmer in 1980, Doreen Whitehead ran a B&B in Keld for almost 25 years before retiring last year. She is a matriarch in the true sense – managing to dominate a room and be thoroughly endearing all at the same time. Known simply as Mother Goose by her good friend and local MP William Hague, in retirement Doreen appears to have retained her status at the heart of village life.

Her legacy is a small annual publication that’s approaching its 25th edition – The Official Accommodation Guide to the Coast to Coast. Wainwright himself once described it as “an invaluable little book”, the first to tie together the myriad heap of farmhouses, hostels, pubs and B&Bs that once littered the route.

As a B&B owner herself, Doreen used to stimulate affection and fear in equal measure. “I just like things to be done my way,” she admits with a sparkle in her eye. So as long as you’re happy to comply, I suggest you seek her out at the Keld Lodge bar, furnish her with half a bitter and enjoy a good 30 minutes in the company of a local legend.

The search for Coast to Coast accommodation these days can be tackled differently… in fact you can outsource it to people like Simon and Lindsay Jones. They may live in Kirkby Stephen, but you’re just as likely to see Simon anywhere along the route. And quite possibly, he’ll be carrying your bag.

Simon and Lindsay are better known as Packhorse – a business that falls somewhere between a baggage handler and a bespoke travel agency. I bumped into Simon many times, always diligently tagging bags as he prepared to transport them by bus to that night’s destination, ahead of their rambling owners. “Exhausted walkers can always hitch a ride with their bags if they fancy a day’s rest,” Simon explains. There’s no doubt that these two will help if they possibly can. I once managed to return to London and leave my walking boots on a drying rack in Yorkshire, but Simon and Lindsay duly whisked them all the way to St Bees, ready for the next leg of my research. Thank you chaps.

Nobody knows the infrastructure of the Coast to Coast better than these two. One can only wonder what Wainwright would have made of thousands of walkers paying others to carry their bags, but such is the bustling walking industry that he inspired.

“We’re always listening out for emergencies,” says Simon. “There’s often the odd injured walker or concerned B&B owner!”

Those looking for a more old-fashioned Coast to Coast experience could do a lot worse than spend a night in Ennerdale. For all the Lake District’s 19 million annual visitors, barely a few thousand get to see much of Ennerdale. Possibly the remotest valley in England, there was no way that Wainwright was going to leave this off his grand trek.

“There’s just six of us who actually live in the valley, and that goes down to three in the winter,” says Tony Hume, manager of both the Ennerdale Youth Hostel and the famous Black Sail Hut, where up to 16 people can spend a memorable night among a perfect surround of Lakeland peaks. “I taught geography in Leeds for 23 years, but I thought I’d test my theory that I wanted to live in an isolated area,” he adds. Well areas don’t get more isolated than this, or more perfect for a geography teacher! 

“It’s been a far more demanding job than I’d imagined, with little separation between work and my time. But I get to see people pretty much every day, even in the deepest frosts of winter,” says Tony. For ‘people’, read ‘walkers’. With no surfaced road, the valley’s two hostels are a walker’s preserve, but Coast to Coasters have to compete to get a slot. “Only about 25 percent of guests at Black Sail are on the walk,” says Tony. “Occasionally they turn up unannounced and have to walk 3½ miles in the wrong direction to get to Ennerdale. And if we’re full there, I can normally find them room in the barn.”

Many of the folk mentioned here owe some, or even all, of their livelihood and reputation to the Coast to Coast. But as the research team and I explored the North York Moors in February last year, we happened upon a truly memorable pair, quite removed from the walk itself but as much a part of the walk experience as anyone. Fred Cook and Alan Snaith are old hands and Yorkshire through and through. They’re both retired gamekeepers and are a real couple of likely lads. 

“We get all sorts of telly going on up here,” they explained as they leaned casually against a Land Rover above Farndale. “These moors have been used for everything you know,” they continued, clearly rather unimpressed with our BBC plans. To cap it all, they’d even met Alfred Wainwright himself, something we will sadly never manage. But then came a breakthrough. “What? Luscious lips?” beamed Fred excitedly, as I mentioned our presenter Julia Bradbury. From that point on Fred and Alan were nothing short of warm and welcoming, recounting lifetimes spent in one of England’s least populated areas.

“We’ve known each other 60 years or more,” explained Alan. “Fred was gamekeeper of Kildale from 1964. I was over at Crinkle Park from 1968.” 
“Aye, but before that we used to go bunking off from school,” cuts in Fred. “Just during shooting season mind. We’d come up ‘ere and ‘elp the grouse beaters.”

Even in retirement Fred and Alan are usually to be found out and about on the moor tops, especially during the shooting season.
“It’s been terrible this year. Very bad for parasites,” says Alan. “Lots of grouse ticks. Perfect weather for the ticks. Terrible for the grouse though.”

Despite the presence of a few thousand extra walkers, the cycle of life on the moors carries on largely as it did when Alan and Fred were schoolboys. There’s no denying that throughout Cumbria and Yorkshire there are lives that now revolve around the Coast to Coast Walk.

But perhaps Wainwright’s greatest success was to find a route that has retained its original character and integrity through its first 35 years. The rural expanse of northern England will always be a wonderful backdrop, but for those with the time and inclination, the Coast to Coast is a grand opportunity to meet the people that live there

Julia Bradbury on Wainwright and the Coast to Coast route









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