London, St. Bees, and Start of England's Coast-to-Coast Walk; July 12-18, 2015

We had some significant constraints on this year's summer trip, based on Tim & Emily's athletic endeavors: Emily would need to keep up a strict daily training regime while traveling, in preparation for Harvard's cross-country running team in the fall; Tim's cycling schedule meant he could join only a part of the trip, at best. Those limitations pretty much ruled out anything like our recent adventures to Venezuela and Papua New Guinea. We settled on hiking England's Coast-to-Coast route, with Tim joining us afterward for a week exploring the Scottish Highlands.

The Coast-to-Coast walk is popular with trekkers, stretching 190 miles (without side-trips) from St. Bees on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea. There are plenty of villages along the way, so it's deluxe trekking: luggage is transfered each day so we hike with day packs, and each night finds us in a comfortable B&B. The pace is configurable; we designed a moderately aggressive 13-day schedule, averaging just under 15 miles per day, although daily distances vary considerably based on the terrain and the location of villages. We chose Sherpa Van as our luggage transfer service, and they also helped with accommodation reservations. So far they've done a flawless job.

We spent a day in London before taking the train to St. Bees. In typical gray weather we walked a great deal, had a memorable meal at Ottolenghi, made the obligatory visit to the tourist-packed British Museum (photo 1), and saw an excellent production of Miss Saigon (photo 2, on the theater balcony).

The Coast-to-Coast route is not one of Britain's sanctioned national long-distance trails, but it is one of the most popular.
There's a nice Smithsonian magazine article on the walk here. The route was established by Alfred Wainwright in his 1973 book, although most hikers rely on the more recent and extremely detailed Stedman guide instead of Wainwright's original.  The navigation can be a bit tricky in parts, so the guidebook together with GPS way-points have been very helpful. Wainwright suggests dipping one's toe in the ocean at the two ends of the walk, so we obliged (photo 3) as we set off from St. Bees.

The trail begins with a few miles along attractive coastline (photo 4), then veers inland where it takes the rest of the first day to reach the edge of Lake District National Park. The Lake District is the hilliest part of the walk, and some say the most challenging and stunning. We were surprised at just how rugged it is. We opted for some alternative higher routes, so days 2-4 had as much up and down as we'd have on a typical day in the Sierras -- or the Himalayas for that matter -- along with trails along breathtaking ridges with wonderful names like "High Stile" and "Striding Edge". Photos 5-8 don't do the area justice. It's more settled than the Sierras or Himalayas, of course, so we've been enjoying luxuries such as scones & cream at the end of our walk each afternoon (photo 9), local ales, surprisingly good dinners most nights, and comfortable historical B&Bs -- though in touristy Grasmere we were relegated to the youth hostel since most other lodgings had two-night minimums.

We'd heard that much of the charm of hiking the Coast-to-Coast is the people one meets, and so far we haven't been disappointed. We've gotten to know a number of hikers on approximately our same itinerary, including a mother with her 13-year-old son, lone male hikers at either end of the age spectrum, and a European computer science professor and his wife who recognized us at our very first B&B. A rather large man on a bicycle in a small town along the way stopped to regale us with tales of his four crossings. Most impressive was an elderly gentleman making his way steadily up one of the steepest climbs, using crutches -- he'd had a hip replacement less than six weeks ago and was on a day-hike to stretch his legs. So far everyone we've met has been British, and they are a hardy lot!

The weather on the Coast-to-Coast is much discussed, primarily rain. The Lake District is particularly notorious. So far we've been very lucky, with some blustery weather and truly high winds on the ridge-tops, but no significant rain to speak of.

Emily has been running every day, with no days off in her upcoming training plan. So far she's either gone running in the morning before we set off, or taken an alternative longer route and met us along the trail. Either way, she's putting in some serious miles! According to our guidebook, the #1 cause of hikers abandoning the Coast-to-Coast is "collapse of morale." So far so good.

Next: One more day in the Lake District, then the remaining eight days of walking are in Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. Then off to Scotland!

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