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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We stopped at the White Swan Inn and pub, all white walls outside and dark wood inside. The proprietor, Frank Phillips, was very familiar with A.W.'s cantankerousness, but forgave him genially. "Wainwright just didn't like the plain between the mountains," he said. "He didn't get a good reception when he got here." Phillips laughed. "Things have changed. I want them to bring the books up to date."

We pushed on. "Left, right, left, right," A.W. writes, testily. "It is better to stick to the road . . . and get on quickly." The route followed country roads more than trails, but often broke away to take rights-of-way through farms. One was a free-range chicken farm, with thousands of the birds hunting avidly through the fields. Right and left, they strutted up to us with an aggressive air, which made me wonder what would happen if one of us tripped and fell. Would they swarm and peck us down to bones in seconds? That's the kind of thing you think about when you're walking 190 miles. You start off seeking a profound awareness of the complexity of life, and what you get is tiddlywinks and killer chickens.

Not that tiddlywinks is a frivolous thing. At least not the way Alan and Charles played it that night in the pub in Ingleby Cross. They spread their cloth on a table, cleared the area of customers and circled around the scattered winks, popping them at each other's colors and finally at the cup in the table's center. Alan was sardonic about what he considered to be his poor play, but Charles sighed deeply at the fate of each shot and agonized over any errors that he made. He won, 5-2.

After Alfred Wainwright retired in early 1967, he became a full-time author, and even overcame his misanthropic nature sufficiently to participate in a BBC-TV series about his walks, which led to a certain fame. He finally divorced in 1968. (His son, Peter, who worked for an oil company in Bahrain, died just a couple of years ago.) And in 1970, he married his dream woman, "she whom he loved." Her name was Betty, and she didn't walk with him much, but she did drive him to the start of the trails.

So the latter parts of Wainwright's life were like the latter parts of our walk: the stresses of the past were gone, and a pleasant period ensued. Of course, our last days, like his, had their difficulties: various pains, occasional difficult climbs and a wild, wicked and ultimately exhilarating storm. We walked along an old railroad embankment on the ridges, clouds scudding close overhead, and leaned sideways against a 40-mile-an-hour breeze, feeling that when we came down off the hill we would find only horse carts in the lanes.

What we found, instead, was Lion Inn. It stood high on a ridge by a paved road, which looked foreign under the early-England sky. But in its pub was a small gathering of our community of Coast to Coasters: the women from Seattle, two men from southern England that we'd met earlier, and the tiddlywink champs. For a few minutes we were a little village unto ourselves, celebrating the proximity of the North Sea, which now seemed so close across the final hills.

The next day we hoofed it hard for 23 miles to the town of Grosmont, and the following day crossed the last 151/2 miles. In late afternoon, 16 days after we began our journey, we walked down a steep cobbled street in Robin Hood's Bay and heard again the sound of waves and gulls.

The North Sea tide was high, and the water was more restless than on the other side of England. It surged hungrily against the cobbles, and a big sign warned: "Extreme danger on this slipway at high tide." Ignoring the sign, we walked into the water and let the North Sea wash our tired legs.

By the end of his life, Wainwright had lost most of his vision and could no longer read or hike. But no matter. "I live in a world of mists," he told the BBC in his final interview, in late 1990, "but by closing my eyes I can see a thousand walks as clearly as when I first walked them."

When A.W. died a month later, in January 1991, his wife and a close friend, following his wishes, took his ashes up to Haystacks, in Lakeland, and spread them near Innominate Tarn, the quiet place, the lonely place.

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