A Walk Across England

In the 1970s, British accountant Alfred Wainwright linked back roads, rights-of-way and ancient footpaths to blaze a beguiling trail across the sceptered isle

"In these fields and lanes," says author Michael Parfit of the Coast to Coast walk, "the past seemed close enough to touch, as if seen in a pool of clear water. And in a way we did touch it, because we shared its means of travel." The countryside outside Keld (above), in Yorkshire Dales National Park, is one of the most evocative lengths of the two-week trek. (Michael Freeman)
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"Oh," he said, shaking his head. "You'll be tired." He reached into his pocket and gave us a roll of mints.

Both sobered and fortified, we set off toward green hillsides, now shrouded in rain, and started uphill. Soon it became steep and slippery. "Never believe Wainwright when he says ‘gentle climb,' " another walker wrote in a guest book we saw later in a hotel in Robin Hood's Bay.

Alfred Wainwright's vocation perhaps explains the tidiness of his many guidebooks and his occasional grim understatement. He was born in 1907 and raised in the gritty textile city of Blackburn, northwest of Manchester. In 1931 he married a woman named Ruth Holden, who worked in a textile mill. They had a son, whom they named Peter, but the couple had little in common, and they soon ran out of even friendship. "He had ruined her life," Wainwright wrote in a short story that was clearly autobiographical, "just as surely as he had ruined his own." A.W., as he preferred to be called, began to indulge in dreams of one day finding a different—and perfect—female companion he termed "she whom he loved." But the romance he found was with a place, and it was decidedly not comfortable: the mountainous north of England.

On the ascent from the west, A.W.'s guidebook told us as our pace slowed in the first climb, "it is the sudden revelation of the Lakeland fells that rivets the attention." For him the introduction to the Lake District, when he came here for a week's holiday in 1930, riveted his whole life to the fells. "I saw mountain ranges," he wrote, "one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering waters of the lake below added to a pageant of loveliness. . . . "

For us the pageant of the first park, Lake DistrictNational Park, was limited and wet. We had walked into what a 60-ish, shirtless British hiker later told us was "a bit of heavy dew." In other words, ropes of rain.

We wore full rain gear, but as the shirtless Brit might have said, we were nevertheless a bit damp when we climbed a sodden hillside after a walk of 131/2 miles and arrived at a bedand-breakfast called Low Cock How Farm. A long white building with a dripping slate roof and four tractors in the front yard, the establishment was pleasantly crowded with 11 other equally wet walkers. Their clothing and ours soon festooned the place, hanging from nails in beams near the fireplace. But the baths were enormous, the hot water abundant and the company congenial. In one of the bathrooms we found a bottle labeled "M-RMuscle Embrocation. Ideal for Horses and Dogs." It was nearly empty.

In the morning, we partook of a vast English breakfast of cereal, eggs, bacon, broiled tomatoes, beans, toast and marmalade—a breakfast that would be presented at every B & B—then set off again. The previous day's rain had seemed geological, something so massive and permanent it would require an earthquake to dislodge, but as the morning progressed, the sun roared like a British lion and dispersed the clouds in fleeing shreds. Now we stepped full-on into the pageant.

Both sky and land were tumultuous. As we walked out of a forest, dark mountains rose and silver water fell, mixing white sound with the wind. The first lake of many, Ennerdale Water, stretched out before us, a blue pool under the treeless slate-and-granite ridges of some of the Lake District's more famous mountains: Red Pike, Pillar and Haystacks.

"Lakeland means, to most visitors, not lakes but mountains," A.W. wrote in his Coast to Coast guide. And indeed it is the high country, clothed only in patches of bracken and heather, that gives the whole district its definitive aura of openness and freedom.

The trails of the Coast to Coast run through private land as well as public parks, following back roads, rights-of-way across fields, and ancient footpaths between towns. This access is jealously guarded by several organizations, including the Ramblers' Association, which recently helped push through a national law to open millions of acres to walkers by establishing new rights of access to uncultivated land.

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