Thursday, 21 August 2014

C2C Day 1: St Bees to Ennerdale

And so it begins.

We decided to get an earlier start than the train that stopped in at St Bees allowed, and left a eerily quiet Carlisle to take the first train to Whitehaven so we could hit the trail before 9am.  This was going to be a big day: I couldn't find accommodation on the trail until the Ennerdale Hostel and that was 20 miles from the trailhead.  Ideally, we would have gotten moving at sunup, but we just decided to deal and we were prepared for a long day.

The train ride from Carlisle followed the coastline, with views of the Isle of Man and the Dumfries in Scotland under a blazing blue sky.  Whitehaven is notable because it was the locale of the furthest-flug battle in the American Revolutionary War.  John Paul Jones, a Scotsman, showed up to sink the harbored merchant ships docked here, failed at that and burned the town instead.  Today, it's rebuilt in orderly Manhattan-like grids, and it's a fairly large town.  Big enough so that there are cabs waiting at the train station, and for 10 quid the friendly cabbie brought us to the trailhead at St Bees.

There's a small cafe at the beach.  We ordered sandwiches and parked ourselves on a log on the beach without looking too hard at our surroundings and ended up sitting about six feet away from a dead porpoise.  Ah, the seaside.  Also, the most appetizing sandwich on the menu was cheese and tomato and they used shredded cheese and not only is it fairly disgusting but also impossible to eat without losing huge clumps of cheese and they didn't even bother to grill it, which would have at least made it still together more.  Bry didn't have much better luck- whatever he ordered, he basically got a grease-slicked sponge to try and digest.

Still.  Sustenance.  And a sunny day.  I am in heaven.

And here we go...

As tradition dictates, we picked our way down to the pebble beach and put our boots in the sea...

...and then carefully picked our pebbles to carry with us deposit at Robin Hood's Bay (one day).

The first four miles of the walk follows the edge of the dramatic cliffside of St Bees Head, with gorgeously endless views.  The trail also disconcertingly heads west for a few miles: your end destination is over your shoulder for the first bit.

We headed out with a guy from Yorkshire and a South African: old friends, wanting to do their first long-distance trail together.  They were soon huffing and asking to see our maps: was there a trail that didn't go quite so close to the cliff edge?

No.  There is not.

Even at our slow pace, we were soon quite far ahead, and wished them luck on their journey.

Move, sheep.

 There were lots of hides and blinds to check out the wildlife, as the cliffs are nesting sites for sand martins, guillemots, razorbills, and the elusive puffin.  Soon, the racket of nesting birds and the stench of guano wafted off the cliffs, giving us flashbacks of the train ride yesterday.


a Rock pippit

Past the lighthouse, and lots of cows.

What a fantastic way to start a walk!  Worth the extra miles going in the wrong direction.  

 Finally, the trail turned inland, passed an Unexpected Ostrich by the sea:

...and down a quiet track with views of the looming fells of the Lake District on the horizon, the first of which in the foreground would be conquered on this day.

 Seven Miles in, a roadside monument to the man and the trail.  184 miles to go!  Obligatory photo taken.

One of the charms and challenges of the Coast to Coast is that it is rarely, and inconstantly waymarked.  You have to be able to read a map and compass to get through- since it is not an "official" route, it is just a bunch of strung-together footpaths.

This first day, we did cut through a few small, tidy towns.  We were able to get stop in to some pubs to fill up our water bottles and we definitely didn't get any pies.  

Once we got through the orderly little town of Cleador, we began our first real climb of Dent Fell.

To our back we could see the Irish Sea and St Bees, with the Isle of Man and the mountains of Scotland in the distance.

It wasn't a hard climb, but it was hot out.  I was glad we had stop for a water refill when we did as we were going through a lot more water than we had on previous hikes.

A quick stop for lunch at the top and we were back on the trail, with all of gorgeous Lakeland in front of us, and we finally were in the actual Lake District park.

The fells looked painterly and unreal.

 After a knee-killing steep descent, we followed a stream through a hot, dry valley that reminded me more of California than the far north of England.

 We hit the town of Ennerdale Bridge at mile 14.  This was where most hikers take off their boots and relax with a pint, but we had another six miles to cover to get to the YHA.

It was a fairly easy walk to Ennerdale Water.  This area truly started to feel wild, and we saw no one on the trail from this point on as I don't think too many people strive to get this far on day 1.

 The idea of a wilderness area is kind of a foreign concept in the UK, as it's been deforested and overgrazed for ages, but the area around the reservoir is having an experimental re-wilding as they let the forest take over.

There's a high trail around the lake up Antlers Crag, but we opted for the low trail...which ended up climbing quite steeply anyway.

 Despite exhaustion setting in, I couldn't help but be in awe of my surroundings.  The crystal waters of the lake, the high peaks of the fells squeezing us down the valley.

 The hardest part of the trail for the day was after a steep climb up there was a rather drastic drop and a squeeze to negotiate.  I ended up squeezing my pack a bit much and I had a water bottle push its way out of its holder and drop down into the lake.  gulp.  But yeah, there's nothing like a little vertigo to wake you up out of your comfort zone.

maybe the lady on the train yesterday had come from here?  

 Squeeze negotiated, the rest of the trail was flat and peaceful as we rounded the far end of the lake.

The sun sets very late here in July, but around mile 18 I was getting ready to be off my feet for a bit.

pied wagtails

8:30 in the pm, the sun was pleasantly high still.   I love hiking late in the day- the earth cools off, the light is completely enchanting, the birds singing like mad.   I don't know if it is the promise of almost being done or what, but I always get a huge surge of energy at the end of the day and start booking it.

At mile 19, we had a complete collapse of map reading skills and failed to see a turn-off on the trail, crossed a bridge and entered a tall forest of larch trees.

A mile later, I thought to myself that we should have reached our destination by that point, but no sign of civilization.  I gazed out over the river we had crossed a mile back, and to my dismay, I could see the backside of the hostel directly across from where I was standing.

For fuck's sake.

There was no way to crash down the hill and cross the river here, so doubling back was in order, or going up another mile to the next river crossing.


We decided to double back that terrible mile, re-joined the trail, and walked the last mile slightly pissed at ourselves for the oversight.  We got to walk through a really beautiful forest that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise?

Our misadventure in map reading made getting to little Ennerdale YHA all the more sweeter, and this little off-the-grid hostel made a really comfy home for the night.  Plus, if you count our detour, we did a whopping 22 miles for the day, which is getting up in marathon territory and that might be the longest day of hiking that I've done in my life.  My feet were a bit sore, but I felt good.

I was a little apprehensive about staying in hostels as I had stayed in some filthy hovels on the continent, but they ended up being really fantastic and comfortable here, and we were able to get the all-important private room (with bunk beds).  There was a nice communal room for dining and reading, with plenty of friendly families and couples hanging around, and the whole thing was tucked in the fells on a rarely traveled dirt road and just gave us a real sense of accomplishment to having walked all the way here.  I apologized profusely for being so late- it was after 9- as most of them are usually only staffed until 10, and dinner time was at 7:30.  They gave us a wink and a smile and got to work cooking a rather delicious dinner.  I was expecting beans from a can, but they had a proper cook who did crunchy roasted carrots and a really hearty plate of Cumberland sausages.  I didn't even bother with asking for a vegetarian plate as per my usual; I was happy to eat whatever they threw at me.

With day 1 behind us, we were looking forward to the next day, and our first big fell climb.

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