When an English accountant named Alfred Wainwright first went to the lonely hills of northern England in 1930, he was a lonely man. But the cool, empty vistas of moor and mountain must have soaked up his own emptiness like a sponge, because the hills were where he found love.
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Today, many people walk in the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright, whose passion for the mountains turned him from accountant into author. The reason is simple: Wainwright, who died at age 84 in 1991, wrote a series of guidebooks to walks through the wildest landscapes in Britain. One book in particular created a now-famous route through heather and woods, over stiles, past lakes, among sheep and across ridges in the face of horizontal rain, from one coast of England to the other.
The route is called the Coast to Coast. It's a walk through history and time, across an England that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years. But the trip is also a journey of companionship, and the most familiar friend is Wainwright himself, who walked alone.
Recently, my wife, Suzanne, and I decided to follow in his footsteps. As it was for Wainwright, it was a map that first intrigued us. "Give me a map of country I do not know," he wrote, "and it has the power to thrill and excite me."
The maps he made of the Coast to Coast walk are wonderfully appealing, with intricate dotted route and contour lines, bushy marks for bogs, notes for gates and barns, alternate routes to mountains (called fells), and drawings of outcrops, tarns (lakes) and waterfalls. Wainwright said he began making maps so that by looking at them, he could "go on fell walking in spirit long after my legs had given up." He didn't know that it would not be his legs that would betray him in the end, but his eyes.
As we looked at the maps at home, they showed a long wriggle of a route, starting in northwest England at the village of St. Bees on the Irish Sea and leading out into delightful imaginary distances, through three of Britain's finest national parks, to the village of Robin Hood's Bay, 190 miles away on the North Sea. But at the start of our walk, on a cool morning under a gathering overcast, the maps suddenly turned real and the distances long.
We began, as most walkers do, in St. Bees. We had been planning the trip for more than a year, delayed by the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, which roared like wildfire through this part of Britain, closing trails and leaving farm and tourist economies in shambles. But now the fields were clean and the gates were open. We stood on an expanse of low-tide beach and, as Coast to Coast tradition demands, let gentle little Irish Sea waves wet the soles of our boots.
After a magnificent first five miles along sea cliffs, among sounds of waves and gulls, we walked up a quiet lane into the village of Sandwith. It was like many of the villages we would soon encounter: a cluster of white cottages, two pubs, a patch of green with a picnic table, and a farm road leading east. It felt as if we had already shed the hasty part of time and were immersed in Britain's ancient, slower flow of days and hours in which all travel moved at the pace of feet or hooves, and the space between villages was set by the distance a person could walk in a day.
"Coast to coast, are ye?" said an elderly man with a cane and a collie as we walked into Sandwith. "Going to do it all?"
"Yes," we answered.