In May 2017 I hiked the Offa’s Dyke route from Prestatyn in north Wales to Chepstow down in the south. It was a hard old slog carrying all my kit and free camping along the way, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the blisters and sore feet and vowed to do another walk in England one day.
So, in May 2018 I flew back to the UK and was lucky to enjoy some bright and sunny weather as I yomped the “Coast to Coast” that stretches from the west coast of the Lake District (St. Bees) to the east coast (Robin Hood’s Bay), crossing the Lakes, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors.
Traveling from London via Carlisle on a very slow train, I arrived in St Bees at about 5 pm, and had 16 miles of hiking ahead of me across farmlands in pleasant evening sunshine to get to my first camp in the gardens of the Fox and Hounds at Ennerdale Bridge… and the first of several steak and ale pies.
I was using my new Tarptent Moment DW single man tent and a Hyke and Byke Eolus 800 goose down fill sleeping bag I ordered from the USA to keep weight to a minimum. I suffered somewhat on the Offa’s Dyke and I made a concerted effort to reduce backpack weight by 10 Kgs.
Later on when absolutely howling and pretty chilly up in the North Yorkshire Moors I used a silk bag liner for extra warmth, but for now I was comfortable.
The next day I was up at 5.00 am, partly because of the eight hour time difference between the UK and Hong Kong, and partly because it was already light. By 6.00 am I was packed up, looking east, and heading towards Ennerdale Water.
I planned to walk 23 miles across the hills and valleys to Grasmere… and I did… including an extra 3 miles detour up and down a roller coaster ridge route, as recommended by a local hiker who told me, “the view is better”.
Possibly. My feet thought otherwise.
Although it was the second day, I had been hiking for less than 24 hours and had made about 37 miles when I came across a spartan and remote youth hostel called, “Blacksail”. It was being managed and looked after by a young couple and I was able to buy a hot drink and a piece of cake. Just before leaving I double checked on directions ahead as my friend Kieran Hale (former RHKP and keen hiker) said that at this point it was easy to walk off on the wrong trail. (Thanks for all the tips and advise, Kieran).
Following his advise I took the less obvious left hand path and started a climb, not dissimilar to climbing Sunset Peak on Lantau Island where I live, possibly not as high, perhaps 600-700 meters, and much cooler, with the Hong Kong snakes and kites replaced by English sheep and buzzards.
As I was climbing I bumped into a hardy looking fellow dressed in old style hiking kit with a face that had been exposed to the Cumbrian wind and rain, rather than computer monitors and fluorescent lighting. As I approached him he was laughing and cackling and pointing up the hill to a solitary figure that was making hard work of lugging a mountain bike up the steep path.
He couldn’t help himself laughing, but also expressed concern that the “idiot” was going to kill himself. Looking up at the struggling figure he said, ‘Keep an eye on that one… he’s got lost… he thinks this is a bridle path’.
I consulted my map, and in fairness it did say “bridle path”. That said I assumed the bridle belonged to a mule or a donkey!
The old Cumbrian continued, ‘He is in even more trouble when he gets to the top…its just bog for miles and miles…no way he can ride that bike’.
I waved goodbye to the hardly hiker and quickly caught up with the hapless cyclist dressed in finest black lycra and lugging the sort of bicycle you would buy in a supermarket like Asda, certainly not one of those expensive downhill jobs I see back home on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
He was in a right state, huffing and puffing, and had obviously rehearsed the, ‘Don’t laugh’, when he greeted me.
I walked with him and kept him company as he struggled with his bicycle up the rocky steep trail and when we got to the top felt really sorry for him when it became clear that the plateau was an endless and very soggy “bog”. Bog and nothing but peat bog for miles. Fair play to him, he struggled on, navigating across fast streams and occasionally going knee deep into pools of deep black peat, and struggling to haul his machine out covered in mud.
I had been told by the “local” chap earlier on that the valley route to Grasmere was very wet and that if I had time I should continue to climb and follow the high ridge route, which I did, and which at the end of 20 odd miles of hiking I could have done without. It was like a roller coast, up and down steep climbs, with Grasmere in the distance seemingly getting no nearer, and if anything, further and further away.
Anyway, I eventually reached the end of the ridge in the early evening and scrambled down the steep scree path and into Grasmere, which I instantly took a dislike to. Its a pretty enough place, but seemed far to touristy and expensive. I decided I would push on even though it was late, but first I needed some food and hauled myself and hiking kit into a pub for beer and nosh.
Lamb shank and a pint of local bitter after a long day of hiking. There is nothing better than really earning your food.
After dinner, it started to drizzle and so I hiked out of Grasmere and headed for the hills where I found myself a free camping spot next to a sheep hut half way up the mountain. As I was setting up my tent the weather deteriorated and really start to rain. Inside my tent it was doing a good job and I was inside my sleeping bag and asleep in no time.
It rained and howled all night, but by sunrise it was blue, sunny, crisp. As I was packing up my tent I could see the first of the B&B hikers with their day packs starting out along the C2C route.
I caught up with a gaggle of hikers and exchanged pleasantries. Surprisingly, there were many Americans and Australians doing the hike. It seemed the coast to coast is a lot more famous than the Offa’s Dyke hike. Why? No idea. I can safety say having now completed both that they are superb hikes of pretty much the same length and difficulty. I was, however, better equipped for the coast to coast and carrying about 10 kilograms less kit and that made a huge difference.
The majority of hikers I encountered were middle aged, completing just a few sections at a time, or were hopping from Bed & Breakfast to another, with a transport company carrying all their possessions. Like the Offa’s Dyke, some were even transported to the start of the section each day. Most were taking it very seriously indeed and had planned ahead for many months.
I was walking a lot further than most of my fellow hikers each day, mainly because I started earlier and carried on walking into the evening, whereas most hikers finished about 4 – 5.00 pm at a designated pub or bed & breakfast.
I normally stopped walking about 9.00 pm just before it started to get dark and pitched my tent on any flat dry grass, although on a few occasions I stopped earlier if I wanted to pitch the tent in their pub beer garden or in an adjacent field. I always had a couple of pints of local bitter with my evening meal, which was usually pub food, although in the remote areas I cooked up and ate whatever I had in the rucksack, usually noodles or fruit and nuts. I tried to avoid sweets and chocolate this time, as I was trying to cut down on bad carbs just before sleeping.
Strangely enough, the real ale was the best food to have in the evenings as it not only re-hydrated me, but is settling on the stomach after a long day of hiking and proper real ale is full of vitamins and minerals. I’m sticking with this story.
Whilst drinking and eating in the pubs with the other hikers it abundantly clear to them from my back pack and the state of me that I was a solo free camper and many would ask where I had started, where I was going, where I came from, what I did for a living, my plans, etc?
Those who know me, know these are not easy questions to answer.
A rambling answer, if I could be bothered and in the mood would include Hong Kong, South Africa, Shanghai, England, Staffordshire, Bournemouth, Royal Hong Kong Police, China, investigation, security, global adventuring, motorcycling, paragliding, etc. I think most people I encountered thought I was making it all up.
What was clear to me, though, was that most people I met along my various hikes lead relatively boring lives. Or perhaps I lead a very interesting one.
Around midday I would normally take a 20-30 minutes break in a picturesque spot with a stream, get a brew on, eat some fruit, nuts, noodles or a village post office sandwich, enjoy all the wildlife and watch the world go by.
The joy of this hike has been the total immersion in “nature”. Birds, insects, wild animals, domestic creatures, and especially butterflies. I loved them all.
The natural beauty of the English countryside is remarkable. All too often I would stumble as I gazed around me at the scenery and wildlife. I was lucky to see fox cubs peering out of their den, lapwings arching and swooping above the moorlands, grayling swimming in a crystal clear steams, and soaring buzzards.
I pushed on through to Gelridding and Patterdale and up into the hills again. I was navigating using a dedicated Coast to Coast strip map that did not have as much detail as an OS map, but was much lighter, and if you concentrated and read it correctly, more than good enough.
The Coast to Coast is not as well sign posted as the Offa’s Dyke that has the “acorn” symbol at nearly every junction and stile. As such, I made mistakes, or perhaps wasn’t paying attention, and doing so led to my biggest diversion off the C2C route, but a diversion I would gladly do again because it led me to a beautiful valley where I pitched my tent in total isolation (except for the werewolves and goblins).
Having got myself back on track I had a long hike ahead of me across classic Lake District highlands, across valleys, rivers, streams and along the shoreline of lakes towards Shap and Kirkby Steven that marked the end of the Lake District, and the start of the second phase of the coast to coast across the Yorkshire Dales. I yet again veered off the real Coast to Coast path and climbed several peaks that I assumed were included in the hike. Only when I came across hikers I had overtaken several hours before did I realise I might be making a tough hike tougher that I should. Still, nice views from the top.
The weather was pretty much perfect for hiking. My feet, which always let me down on long distance hikes due to being the wrong shape for a human being, had settled into an almost tolerable level of discomfort, if not, pain. I got in the habit of taking off my boots at lunch, soaking them in the streams and lakes, and taping up the blisters, or where blisters were starting to form around the toes and heel.
As I approached the outskirts of some hamlets I was delighted to come across “honesty boxes” full of soft drinks, beer, sweets and cakes, that were very welcome.
The Yorkshire Dales was my favourite part of the Coast to Coast hike. Why? I guess I have traveled all around the world and seen many mountainous places (Tibet, Alps, Himalayas, Pyrenees, US Rockies, Lesotho, Table Mountain, Sunset Peak, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya etc). I have also been to and hiked through the Lake District many times and so, as beautiful as they are, there was nothing really surprising.
The Yorkshire Dales, however were superb. I guess because they are so quintessentially English. Rolling green hills, secret blue bell woods, butterflies and birds, babbling crystal clear streams, and chocolate box “pretty” villages. I was also blessed with glorious weather and that made all the difference. It was very enjoyable indeed.
The North Yorkshire Moors? What can I say?
Cold, blowy, damp and I wasn’t feeling that great as I developed a chest infection. Visibility was poor, but I did see an amusing red grouse chasing me and making funny noises… and I shall remember that more than anything.
However, there was a big dampener put on the whole hike when I reached Robin Hood’s Bay.
I should have been celebrating, but I was presented with an unnecessary logistical headache when I should have been preparing for a motorcycle ride across Europe with Fanny and getting early medical attention for an annoying chest infection.
I called Fanny in Hong Kong to let her know I had completed the hike in nine days and what my plans were for the next few days.
She said, in her nonplussed way (sic), ‘ There is no ink in the printer ….. and your brother called me and said Marie (his wife) doesn’t want you to stay at their house any more’ !!!!
Huh? No ink in the printer?
And what am I supposed to have done now?
‘You antagonized her, and you can’t stay anymore… I don’t want to get involved…. how come there is no printer ink?’
I was seriously perplexed. Antagonized?
‘Apparently you said English women are ugly’, Fanny added
‘I have said English women are ugly for over 35 years… that is why I am with you, my pinko commie 宝贝’
Fanny continued, ‘ I’ll talk to you later, take care, don’t cause anymore trouble’, and then she hung up.
As I was sitting having my “celebratory” pints of Wainwright Ale in the Bay Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay I was racking my brain to:
1) actually remember saying anything about fat ugly English women (after all its a universal truth and I have nothing more to add); and
2) work out the logistics for retrieving two motorcycles that are sitting in my brother’s garage in Wimborne with all my damp stuff.
And then it became clear.
Marie (aka the ayatollah) absolutely hates my mother. The ayatollah and our mother have never got on and been at each others throats for decades, so much so that she banned my brother, their children and their grandchildren from seeing her.
The back story is that before the hike my brother and I drove up to Staffordshire where we were brought up to see our ailing mother, and while we were there had a superb time (I thought), meeting school friends, regaling old stories, and drinking and eating in the local pubs. No mention was made of my female preferences and the next day my brother dropped me off at Stafford train station and I traveled up to the Lake District to start the hike.
I can only assume when Simon got home he was interrogated by the ayatollah and caved in, ‘ Yes Ma’am, its true, I had a wonderful time, saw my mother, had a few beers, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t hit me, my brother made me do it’
So, having been evicted, with my personal possessions thrown into a damp garage in Dorset, I now had to spend many hundred pounds and several days recovering all my “stuff”. Its been a logistical pain in the arse and so I have no intention to write about it, nor describe further.
Anyway, I have learned my lesson, if you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all, and never trust a woman with thin lips.
So, after a marathon relay across the south of England all the motorbikes are now safely in a garage in Bexhill on Sea, where they will be cared for by my friend Nick, who having spent a great deal of his time in Hong Kong, also shares my views on the attractiveness of English women, their tattoos, nose rings and cellulite, but is wise enough not to say anything to one!
What next then?
Well, Fanny is arriving in England in June and we will ride our motorcycles across Europe to visit my friend Mike in Amandola in Italy, and also call by Fanny’s company HQ in Basel, Switzerland (a new BBT chapter).
But in the meantime, I am off to ride a scooter across Sicily.