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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Continuing on, we reached a high slope and looked back along the ridge at the heap of rock called Haystacks. Beneath it was a gleam of water called Innominate Tarn, A.W.'s favorite spot on earth. "Aquiet place, a lonely place," he wrote of the lake. "Where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch."

After 21 years working his way up in the ranks at the BlackburnTown Hall, Wainwright followed the lure of the mountains and got out of industrial England. He took an accounting job working for the quiet Lakeland town of Kendal and moved there with his family. Although his marriage was still intact, it was, according to his biographer, Hunter Davies, miserable. But the move was not.

"I am a lover come back to his first and best love, and come to stay," he wrote a friend. "Nobody here knows me, yet I am surrounded with friends: the tall trees by the river, the enchanting path over by the castle, the birds and the squirrels in the wood; and all around me, most faithful and constant of all, the unchanging hills."

As we followed Wainwright's directions over his unchanging hills, we got to know his gruff and idiosyncratic side (the part that fed his curmudgeonly reputation), as well as his often sardonic sense of humor.

This will seem "the dullest section of the walk," Wainwright wrote of a stretch of the route approaching Whitwell Moor. "Those who believe the Earth is flat will be mightily encouraged in this section. . . . Verily a slough of despond." "Before proceeding beyond the tarn," he warned of Lakeland's GrisdalePass, "sit down awhile and consult (a) the weather, (b) the time, (c) the state of the blisters. . . . "

Aye, there's the rub. By the time (three days and 38 miles into the walk) we got to Wordsworth's "dear vale" of Grasmere, the town where the poet lived for 14 years, blisters and knee pains from steep descents had made the journey less enchanting. We each bought blister remedies by the boxload and a pair of lightweight hiking poles and set off again.

We had become part of a small moving community of people who had all started in St. Bees about the same time. It included a group of five superhiker Australian women, who quickly disappeared ahead to be tracked only in B & B guest books; a pair of sweetly happy British honeymooners, who disappeared languidly behind; a New Zealand couple with blisters at least equal to ours; two anonymous women from the Seattle area; Helen and Richard Lupton from British Columbia; Roger and Joanna Garrett from Michigan; and a solitary but gregarious Irishman named Paul. We learned of some members through gossip only. A man from the Netherlands named Piet, quickly nicknamed the Flying Dutchman, passed among us like a ghost, said to be cruising 25 miles a day. We also heard a rumor that somewhere out there were celebrities: two past British tiddlywinks champions.

We were walking ever deeper into British history, surrounded by prehistoric standing stones; Roman forts; names like gill (which means ravine or stream) and fell, both left by the Vikings; and stone fences from the 18th century. A framework of the walker's old-fashioned kind of time settled around us, made of barriers as solid as the fences: limits of distance, stamina, energy, daylight, weather and knowledge of terrain.

In this mood we came upon a long straight path on a ridge. It was the remains of a Roman road now called High Street, which lies along a broad-backed mountain of the same name. The road was probably built in the first century A.D., and even after 2,000 years it retained the authority of empire. We might have imagined joining a clanking company of Roman soldiers, except they'd have shamed us. Their rate of march even in the mountains is said to have been about 18 miles in five hours. We, on the other hand, were hard pressed to go half that speed.

Lakeland let us go brutally, with a steep descent—"hard going," A.W. wrote in his guide—agonizing to knees and blisters. He hinted that mountain lovers might prefer to stay in Lakeland's lofty magnificence "and be damned to the Coast to Coast walk." If you don't continue, he said, "no hard feelings. You'll think of something to tell the folks at home." But, he went on, you "could have regrets. And (let's be clear about this) you can't expect to get your money back for the book."

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