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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

Set up for scenic anticlimax, we found, instead, that the landscape opened out in the distance toward the magnificent long ridges of the north edge of the YorkshireDalesNational Park. Here, trails and country lanes led between deep green pastures and along streams in the shadows of oak trees, and after the climbs and descents of the mountains, the gentleness of terrain turned us from hikers back into walkers.

The terrain was gentle, but the history was not. The human presence here goes back at least 11,000 years, and the oldest known artifact is a harpoon. Shapes in the hills reveal forts and graves. Power ebbed and flowed through the centuries, from the warlike tribes called the Brigantes, to the Romans who fought them, then later to the Danes and Vikings. When the Normans arrived in 1066, they engaged in what is now described as ethnic cleansing. Later, they gave vast estates to the church, in order, one author writes, to ensure "a safe passage, after a sinful life, to heaven." So wealth and power came to be vested in churchmen, who built farms and estates centered around abbeys.

As we reached the town of Shap after a long day, we passed the ruins of Shap Abbey, which was founded in 1199. The remaining structure stands quietly near a stone bridge, among sheep, its power yielded to a more secular world. The Hermitage B & B, where we stayed the night, is relatively new: the year 1691 was written over the front door. "There is a sense of sanctuary here," said proprietor Jean Jackson, who's seen many "Coasters" stagger to her door. They have impressed her with their, well, individualism. "People are peculiar," she said, "in the nicest ways."

The owners of our next B & B, the Jolly Farmers, in the town of Kirkby Stephen, told us of opening their door, on more than one occasion, to people who immediately burst into tears. I can understand. The leg between Shap and Kirkby Stephen turned out to be a tough 20 miles through a steeply rolling landscape, made more difficult for passing near, but not near enough, a chocolate factory. At least the weather was good; during wet and muddy periods, the proprietors of the Jolly Farmers have been known to stop their guests on the doorstep and hose them down like sheep.

As we moved on from Kirkby Stephen, the miles slipped past more swiftly, just as the years—filled with hikes, work and a tedious marriage—had slipped past Wainwright. Then, in 1952, his life changed. In that year he began a series of seven guidebooks to the fells of Lakeland, drawing each page by hand, including intricate sketches, maps and text. "I don't think anybody since the days of the monks had ever produced a completely handwritten book," his printer told his biographer. A.W. went into debt to publish the first of these, The Eastern Fells, in 1955. By the time the seventh came out in 1966, the series had become a great success. But it wasn't until 1973 that he published A Coast to Coast Walk and, with it, scratched his own signature across Britain.

"A sundial records the hours," says the Coast to Coast guide, "but time is measured in centuries at Keld." For us it had been a short day: 123/4 miles from Kirkby Stephen. In Keld, an ancient little town on a hillside, we met Doreen Whitehead, author of a well-known bed-and-breakfast guide to the walk, who had known Wainwright.

"I think he was a kind man at the bottom of him," she said. "He brought a lot of prosperity to these little villages." A.W. had a reputation for being gruff and abrupt, but Whitehead dissented; he'd always taken the time to talk with her.

The next morning we walked through an extraordinary landscape of ruined stone buildings, torn earth and holes in the ground. These were old lead mines, where, starting in the 16th century, thousands of men had dug out ore until the industry collapsed in the 1880s. Not far from a monumental ruin of a smelting mill called Old Gang, about 15 miles from the city of Richmond, the fabled tiddlywinks champs turned up. They were Alan Dean, wiry and lean, and agile across the hilltops, and Charles Relle, tall and broad, and desperately afraid of heights. Alan and Charles were peculiar in the nicest sort of way. "All tiddlywinks players are odd," Charles said when we had dinner with them a couple of days later. "You're expected to be odd," added Alan.

The notion of serious adult competition in the game of tiddlywinks, which involves flipping coin-size pieces of colored plastic into a small cup, was dreamed up in the mid-1950s by a group of students at Cambridge who wanted to hack into some of the respect given athletes. Now here were two champions from the 1970s tramping the Coast to Coast with a rolled-up tiddlywinks tablecloth, playing a match in a pub every night. We arranged to meet the pair in two days for a game, and with that in mind, Suzanne and I marched off into the longest—and according to A.W., the most boring—day.

"You have heard of Yorkshire's broad acres," he wrote in the Coast to Coast guide. "Here they are in person, interminable. . . . " But we continued to find the route charming, bucolic and friendly. We even enjoyed Danby Wiske, where A.W. vented his spleen at a town he said "is less attractive than its name. . . . You are tired and hungry but nobody wants to know. . . . "

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus