Day 1: St Bees, Cumbria, on the Irish Sea.
The teacher was wearing a dress as fabulous as a Brighton procession and appeared to have butterflies flying around her ankles. Me, my friend John and his dog Cuillin were stood in the school office looking like we’d been sent to see the Head for misbehaving, only ten minutes after setting off from the beach, where gale force winds had provided an eyebrow-raising start to my adventure.
I was on my first-ever properly long walk. Two hundred miles from coast to coast across Northern England, visiting schools each day and (hopefully) fundraising for two separate charities (which I’ll come back to another time).
As we three had walked up to the school on their first day back after half-term, I suddenly thought – I’m not sure they’ve remembered I’m coming. Perhaps I’d fallen at the very first hurdle? I’d already decided against climbing St Bees Head due to the gales. But that’s one of the beauties of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk. You can go wherever you want, between A and B. Which suited me. Why rush? I’d be leaving all that rushing about to the impatient and the Instagrammers.
Of course, I’d dipped my boots and a uniquely special riverstone in the surf, had the obligatory photo taken by the Wainwright’s C2C sign, then walked past the 900 year old priory. Now, the smiling woman with the butterfly shoes welcomed us into the assembly hall where 200 children were singing, as loudly as I think, we all once used to sing.
Cuillin, a working English Shepherd dog was wearing his official ‘Search and Rescue’ jacket. Of course the children only had eyes for him at first. At least, until I pulled “the big book” out of my backpack. Cuillin barked.
The Lost Words book by Jackie Morris & Robert Macfarlane. 400 eyes widened at Jackie’s vivid pictures of life, even at the very back of the hall as they carefully listened to my plans, to walk and raise enough money to provide all the schools in Cumbria with this beautiful book. I played ‘The Lost Words Blessing’ song (just been released that very day!), and in return, they sang us off, with a school roof-raising song about “buzzy, buzzy bees”.
My friend, John had offered to walk with me a while that first morning, throwing in a vital lift to the start point, on the far west tip of Cumbria. He’s walked a hundred times further than me with his dog, without any of this fuss. John doesn’t make a fuss. He chooses his words carefully. A perfect walking companion. He’d also lent me all the vital kit I’d need but didn’t have. Sticks. Ointments (We’ll come back to that later too).
After a while, John said “Woah!. What a noise! School’s changed a lot since my day.” Then, a pause, “the teachers have too”. He’d seen why I’d chosen to make an already epic walk that bit more interesting, by visiting a primary school each day to present an assembly. The children’s happiness, ideas, sharing and singing would provide me with the rocket fuel I’d be needing on my walk. Kids are after all, our everyday, occasionally overlooked, fountains of youth.
“This way” I announced, bravely choosing not to refer to my map. I realised within two minutes that given two options, I’d gone the wrong way. The way I’d have gone if I was in a car. (John’s the best kind of friend who’ll let you make your own mistakes, without laughing or complaint). I’d planned a special route out of the tiny village using an old ‘lonning’ path with Alan Cleaver’s help. Alan’s known as ‘The Lonnings Guy’ and had agreed (online) with me – Wainwright’s start is a bit odd. You walk the wrong way uphill along a cliff edge only to come back down to a life-threatening crossing, on one of the county’s most dangerous roads. By using the footpath that still traces the old lonning, near the school we’d follow a hidden bit of history instead, where quarrymen and workers had once walked up from the sea and down from the fields above.
After an hour or so, John turned back to go to work. (He probably knew a shorter way back to the van too, I bet). I was on my own now. Heading through farms and the remains of a once-thriving town, towards Ennerdale, the official home of ‘rewilding’ in Cumbria – long-established before everyone started having pointless arguments about it.
(Whilst writing about this walk, 9 months later, I’ve realised that my walking alone, quickly became about the people I’d meet, at least leading up to and on, this very first day. I’d assumed it’d be all about the trees, clouds and that kind of stuff. But actually, the walk only happened because of people. And was infinitely improved by everyone I met. As well as enjoying the feeling of having left some of life’s more trying characters behind. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of gawping at birds and rolling about in meadowy bliss ahead…).
I was using Cicerone’s brilliant little mapbook containing all the Ordnance Survey sections I’d need. If you walked off their pages, you were at least a mile off-route and frankly deserved to be lost. It provides an invisible handrail in a sensible direction, if you pay attention. The fact I’d gone left instead of right as soon as we left the school was my fault alone and had safely taught me a timely first lesson.
I’d rejoin the ‘official’ C2C route near Clints Quarry, one of Cumbria’s best nature reserves, home of rare wildlife and lost words – ravens, orchids and newts. It’d been set to become a landfill site until local activists and Cumbria Wildlife Trust saved it from becoming another grass-topped dustbin. Hard to resist a visit but with fifteen miles to cover, a heavier backpack than I’d ever carried, and a talk to give that evening, I pressed on to Cleator and the looming lump of Dent Hill.
I saw an A-board sign I’d regularly driven by in the past, and had always found intriguing. Today there was one major difference. Ordinarily, the sign advertised the little shop’s wares but prominently, across the top, it usually read “NO PIES” in large letters. Today, I’d got to it well before lunchtime. Today, for the first time in many years, it said “PIES”. So today, I had to go in…
Having crashed into a display with my forgotten backpack, causing me a Royston Vasey flashback, I realised I’d best buy something quick. But I couldn’t see any pies. There were big glass bottles of a bio-hazard yellow liquid last seen in the seventies, labelled “Dent Lemonade”. I asked the other customer I’d also squashed, if this was a local codename for moonshine made down in the old mines. “No. But you can put whatever hooch in it you want!” they cackled”.
I noticed a teacloth-covered baker’s tray. Here goes. “ Erm. What pies have you please?” I imagined my favourite (chicken and mushroom). I’d packed my rucksack so last-minute, that I only realised there simply wasn’t any room at all for food, other than a few boiled sweets as I was leaving home.
“We’ve got Steak” (me thinking: ‘I don’t eat beef I haven’t known’). “Or Steak and Kidney” (me thinking, stomach-flipping: ‘Ooh. that’s just made it worse’). “Or Meat?”…the shopkeeper dared me.
I think of Michael Palin at times like this. When he was globetrotting under pressure and being forced to listen to gamelan music or go to the loo off the side of a moving dhow. “Meat?” I asked, doing my best to channel lovely, wise Michael. “Well, err, meat and potato”. Well, I suppose that meant less of the mysterious ‘meat’… “oh, great, one of those please”.
The pie was fresh from the oven. I’d forgotten I’d nowhere to put it. So I walked the next mile towards the hill holding it out in front of me, like a surreal Olympic torchbearer. But the sun was shining, I’d a huge mystery pie in my hand, and Dent Hill looked pretty good, as I walked away from all the roads, traffic, shops and people.
At the farm on Blackhow, I saw a knackered tractor, older than me, somehow still puttering away in the yard. I asked the young farmer what kind it used to be. In my village, one of two annual highlights (the other being the blink-and-you-miss-it “is that it?”of the Tour of Britain) is the far, far more important tractor run, when local farm families take a turn round the parishes in their magnificent vintage machines. Relatives in armchairs on their trailers. “You can have it for £100” he said with a laugh. “or buy a new one for £100,000! I’m amazed it still goes too. It’s perfect for this little farm though.”
I realised I was still carrying the pie like a royal gift, so took a bite as I moved on. Best to eat it before I started huffing and puffing up that hill. I remembered Tony Baldrick off the telly nearly keeling over on Dent hill. He’d foolishly over-indulged at Cleator’s rather niche, (now-closed) gourmet scotch egg emporium. (40 flavours).
As I came to the foot of Dent, an array of alarming signs told me of the many ways I’d be surely killed were I to try and walk through the trees and up the first big hill of the journey. ‘Forestry’ work was in progress somewhere and all gates were chained shut. I stood and thought for a while, wrestling what had turned out to be a delicious pie, big enough for two. I couldn’t hear any killing machines.
A sketchy diversion was suggested. As I considered my options, an old chap appeared, unlocked and relocked the gate and came over to me. I smiled like Palin and asked about the diversion. He seemed absolutely livid but when he spoke (VERY loudly) all I heard sounded like “ba-ba-BA-BA-ha-ha-cla-cla-CLA!!!”. He saw I was confused so he said it again louder. Twice. I thought he’d forgotten to put his teeth in. I certainly hadn’t seen any, whilst he was shouting at me.
He was determined to have this ‘chat’ so I tried again, “I haven’t been here for years. Kids from Frizington use this for their forest schools work don’t they? With Miss Borrowdale”. The old guy somehow got even angrier “Wah-wah-wah-moh-baik-moh-baik!” and mimed revving an imaginary handlebar. I guessed he seemed to own some of the land which had been closed off without his say-so. And that some kids (not Miss Borrowdale’s) had been illegally riding motorbikes around there. (Just before I fell asleep that night, I suddenly realised his speech may have been due to a stroke or something, at which point I felt equally relieved, really mean, and then very sorry for him. Crikey, he’d been phenomenally angry).
The Dent diversion to Nannycatch Road was a worry. Not as a route, as Wainwright himself encouraged C2C walkers to wander, but I had a schedule of sorts to keep with a public talk to give that evening. A couple walking towards me saw my backpack and asked if this was the Coast to Coast. They’d come back from abroad, having walked coast to coast together a lifetime ago and vaguely recalled this lane. By Wath Bridge, house martins, swallows and a swift soared and veered like heat-seeking missiles, catching insects for their dinner, watched by two brothers, joined by me.
The Allcock brothers were walking the Coast to Coast together. Fast. They’d paid for the ‘sherpa van’ service to carry their backpacks and had been ‘training’ for months. I’d been up Scafell once with my book and watched a boxset of Deutschland ’84 whilst riding an exercise bike. And I was carrying about 25lbs (which we’ll also come back to, another time).
Their pace was premier-league but the company and energy was very welcome as we walked in the sun, listening to birds and spotting flowers . As we chatted they seemed to be reconnecting with their childhood knowledge of nature, and I was glad to share my amateur insights with someone. One of them told me he used to be on the radio talking about “the adventures of being a customs officer” and said I should get myself on air too. I filed that thought and his encouragement under “helpful things to know”…
We flew across Flat Fell (their newly-honed orienteering skills made it a breeze) and started our descent to Ennerdale Bridge. As they headed off to the nearest beer garden I realised I wasn’t at all sure where my bed at “The Cloggers” was. I asked the only passer-by, who replied “Are you Jamie?”, which kind of threw me. “I live along there. And I’m coming to your talk tonight”. Which was a rather perfect greeting.
After peeling off my rucksack I headed out to distribute flyers for my talk and check in at the venue. Rounding the corner I was met by a scene straight out of a 1940s homefront film, as traditional country music struck up and three circles of very young children paraded around the village school playground, tiny arms and legs indicating every angle, whilst an earnest young man called with increasing concern “heel, toe, heel, toe, and turn! Turn! TURN!!!”, all against a stunning backdrop of fells and mountains.
It’s the one thing I’d have loved to have filmed or photographed the most. An incredible, unexpected welcome to this spectacular little village. But in this age of god-knows-what, such photos are more trouble than they’re worth. I treasured the memory of it and looked forward to calling in to see them, before I left, on my next school visit in the morning.
My equally-unexpected arrival time with the Allcocks (3 hours ahead of the book’s schedule?!) meant a steady flow of visitors lagged behind us, so I stood and handed out fliers at the village edge and invited everyone to my talk that night. Some (perhaps even less organised than me) were walking in, but having to catch taxis back to where they’d just been, to stay the night. A few said they’d come to The Gather. I’d no idea if anyone would…
The Gather is one of those small but mighty things that funders sometimes get absolutely right. A gem of a community centre, run by a powerhouse of volunteers and Emma, the manager . They’d been the first venue I called when I thought of my whole trip. Before I booked any accommodation, called any schools or checked my three-week timetable. And their response had been so overwhelmingly positive, it’s perfectly fair to say my entire walk, partly happened because of them.
That evening, around forty people including the two speed-walking brothers turned up at The Gather and listened to me talk about The Lost Words, spell songs of wildlife, the kindness of ravens and how kids now thought conkers were acorns. Or pine cones. This roomful of generous strangers and The Gather’s team offered so many donations, my ridiculous fundraising target suddenly seemed so much closer. As did the North Sea.
15 miles done. Only another 180 miles or so to go, eh?