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Resetting life’s compass on the Coast to Coast Path
Hannah and her husband, two "ordinary people", take on their first self-supported long distance trail during the pandemic.
My husband and I were driven out of our tent by the constant dripping of condensation on our faces. It ran down our necks into the clammy warmth of our damp sleeping bags.
This is not how I envisaged September 2020. The frustrated sailor in me preferred to describe it as 192 miles walking from the shores of the Irish Sea to the shores of the North Sea, not Alfred Wainwright’s 192 mile Coast-to-Coast Trail (C2C). Because I should have sailed across the Pacific and Atlantic by now. You see, the Aldi-bought merino base layer that I had worn every day on the C2C, had originally been purchased to keep me warm under my ocean racing foul-weather gear, during 4-hour watches on deck.
The Plans that Never Were
In fact, so much of the gear in my 60L rucksack had originally been bought or donated as essential kit for crewing the last two legs of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, aboard the Uruguayan-sponsored 70-foot racing yacht ‘Punta del Este’. Earlier in 2020, I should have joined my fellow crew in Seattle to race the last 11,600 nautical miles back to London via Panama, New York, Bermuda and Derry-Londonderry.
This was to be a huge and life-changing adventure. I am not a sailor and I signed up to the race as spontaneously as I decided to walk the C2C. My desire for outdoor adventure and the elemental unknows it throws up, I have come to realise, is a counterbalance to a desk-based, urban, socially sanctioned life.
By February 2020, I had left my university research post and sat my RYA Day Skipper theory exams. I was as prepared as I could be for what lay ahead: I had my vaccines, a maritime visa for the USA, a one-way flight to Seattle. My name was emblazoned in reflective tape across my unwieldy gear, I had prescription seasickness tablets and nautical rules of the road, navigational lights and shapes committed to memory. I obsessively practiced my knots on a fraying piece of climbing rope I had been carrying in my coat pocket for months. I was excited, nervous, a bit scared, but most of all, secretly exhilarated at the prospect of such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Life in Limbo
Then, as we all know, the pandemic arrived in March and overnight I was left high and dry. The race was abruptly aborted and indefinitely postponed during leg 6, where the fleet have remained moored up in Subic Bay in the Philippines.
As the nation went into its first lockdown, all crew were advised to remain available for an unknown future restart date. My daily life went into limbo and stasis after 3 years of hyperactivity and movement in the name of race preparation. I had nothing urgent to ‘do’ (except address the need to secure some employment and income). So I slipped into drinking too much, too regularly, and struggled to make any routine whatsoever.
My world narrowed to my tiny, inner-city terrace in Bristol. I had to step out my front door and look directly above me if I wanted to see the sky and, whenever I did, I imagined what it might have been like to look up at the sky from the helm somewhere in the Pacific. I felt lethargic, caged and crushingly demotivated. 2020 was meant to be the year that saw my biggest undertaking and personal challenge yet. In many ways it remained so, but for subtle reasons that I did not see coming at the time.
Upon reflection, I can see how the (now aborted) race, which had been such an intense part of my life’s focus and planning the previous three years, had been a big strain - even before the uncertainty initiated by Covid-19 and unemployment. So, in a desire to ground myself and take stock, my husband and I very casually decided to walk across England, from one sea to another. It was decided spontaneously over breakfast in early August: a good way to mark what would have been race finish and finally surrender all the hopes and plans we had for 2020.
Planning to Walk the Coast to Coast
We had just 3 weeks to gather kit, plan our itinerary and psych ourselves up - knowing neither of us were in good shape, nor knew how to use a compass. Go Outdoors and OS YouTube videos became the answered prayer to our needs! As we poured over the C2C Trailblazer guide and Arthur Wainwright’s legendary pictorial guide, we booked one-way train tickets to St. Bees and made sure we added ‘face mask’ to the kit list.
We did a practice pitch of our new tent in our local park and cooked a breakfast on our new Trangia in our narrow back yard, hoping we would not accidentally burn our fence in the process. We fastidiously noted how much water was needed for 2 cups of coffee and 2 porridge sachets and did the calculations for how many litres we could carry as a bare minimum to allow for 2 hot drinks and 2 hot bowls of food per person, per day with some water for drinking during the day and brushing teeth. If we relied on not washing up crockery, we figured we could both carry 2-3 litres each. It was heavy in our packs and my water bladder was prone to leaking so I had to keep it in a double layer of waterproof bags. But I was not put off, because it was such a relief to suddenly have a renewed sense of excitement and purpose.
When planning our walking schedule we enthusiastically, if naively, planned to rough camp night two beside what Wainwright described as “the loneliest and most romantic of youth Hostels”. Black Sail Hut sits in a deep valley overlooked by the intimidating Lake District peaks of Pillar, Haystacks, Great Gable and High Crag. Wainwright had mused, “Why go to Switzerland?” Once there, noting the impending arrival of our shared birthday, I despairingly mused, “I could have gone on holiday!”
Indeed, our relief at arriving at Black Sail during a developing storm had quickly disappeared. We found the hostel locked, with a family inside who declared they were social-distancing and unable to offer us so much as a cuppa, whilst we stood in the beating wind and rain outside their misted-up kitchen window - with not even some respite from a porch or door frame. I was beginning to shiver. I was soaked through and cursed myself for buying the cheaper Gore-Tex fabric boots, rather than some stout leather ones. Disappointed at the lack of solidarity, all we could do was find somewhere sheltered (ha ha) to pitch the tent and wait out the storm.
It was not the greatest start to our walking adventure. Only our second day on the trail, we had walked 9 miles on nothing but dried bananas, a Nescafe sachet and a meagre portion of Oats-so-Simple. We had had visions of a shower and hot drinks at Black Sail, maybe even a bit of star gazing. But here we were, staring at the inside of the tent at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Numb with penetrating cold and damp, we tried not to listen to the howling gale outside, the monstrous roar of a mountain river and our racing heart beats. Neither of us spoke of the terrors in our minds. I was consumed by fears of landslides and rising river water nearby. My husband was fixated by being crushed under a stampede of cows he had gingerly avoided earlier in the day.
At some point early the next morning, the rain abated to a fine drizzle and the blanket of low-lying storm cloud lifted enough for us to finally see the mountain ridges surrounding us. We decided to forgo food and drink to walk 6 miles over the mountains to the sanctuary of a café at Honister Pass (according to the Trailblazer guide).
However, choosing to walk during a pandemic meant that much of the provisioning and hospitality information in these guides was useless. Many businesses were not open following the lifting of the first lockdown and we quickly realised that these were not ‘normal times’. Being self-sufficient on the C2C was even more imperative now: an open café serving pie and chips was a bonus, rather than something to be relied upon for daily sustenance.
“Despite being a resourceful, self-sufficient couple, we were walking outside more than just county boundaries.”
We met plenty of long-distance walkers on the C2C and those doing the Clevedon and Pennine Ways - two long distance paths that intersect the C2C - but all were British citizens. In a ‘normal year’ we were told we would have met plenty of American, Australian and Canadian walkers in particular. After lockdown it was so freeing to be simply walking and camping across the country. Although, when laundry, groceries or hospitality services were often closed, it felt isolating too. Despite being a resourceful, self-sufficient couple, we were walking outside more than just county boundaries. The further east we walked, the more evident the social-distancing sanctions and closures in place. Discussions of local lockdowns were gathering a pace in Westminster as we hiked.
As the weather continued to be miserable, I began to fully comprehend what we had let ourselves in for. I was terrified of getting lost in the low visibility, possibly missing Loft Beck and Honister Pass altogether, but despite my fears and misgivings, I think someone was looking out for us. Although I was choked up with fear, lacking confidence in using a compass and dismayed that my Harvey’s map scale was too big to be much use, the route descriptions in the Trailblazer guide proved to be heaven sent!
I clung to each word and would stop every few hundred yards to review route descriptions and have a mental battle with my doubting internal voice:
“Path goes off eastish from YHA – do not take much more obvious path heading south-east…”
(“Could this be considered a path?”)
“Steps following stream up steep hill…”
(“Yes, but which of these three streams should I follow?”)
“Cairns mark the way…”
“At boggy saddle, turn east and climb path marked by cairn to a gate in fence…”
(“Is this ground any boggier than the rest? What path? What cairn? Gate? Fence?)
All of this might be so obvious on a clear day, but in low hanging, thick cloud after 24 hours of torrential rain and sleep deprivation, it certainly was not. Sometimes, the only way I could acknowledge rising contours was by my vigorous sweating and shortness of breath!
I was scared, but so utterly focused on reaching Honister Pass and the slate mine café that I did not register that it was my 42nd birthday… We walked on, one route description at a time, one foot in front of the other. When we eventually reached the slate mine café, despite being utterly soaked through and exhausted, we enjoyed the tastiest bacon butty anyone has ever cooked up. I was tearful with relief, my stomach grateful and we sat contentedly under a porch overlooking the sodden car park. There were still another 15 days of walking and camping ahead of us (admittedly we were not rushing the C2C), but already I was rewarded with a precious gift earned through hard experience: I can walk miles on an empty stomach. And being warm and dry is more important than food for my morale. I also appreciated that one should never take cairns or route descriptions for granted; their creators are walkers’ angels!
The best gift of all though, was to look back on 2020 with some pride as I came to realise that it was the year that had pushed me into an adventure of self-reliance in every aspect of my life. I was scared and plagued by doubts, crushed with disappointment at the loss of my much anticipated sailing adventure, but regardless, started by simply putting one foot in front of the other, despite my lack of fitness, route planning, navigational skill and adequate kit.
By Day 18, I woke up with the tent’s fabric a centimetre or two from my face. It was finally no longer usable, the tent poles misshapen after the storm damage on our second night. As we emerged from our damp shelter, it was just gone 6am. We were almost at the end of our first experience of a self-assisted, self-powered hike across Northern England.
Following a swift, but wistful assessment of the tent’s demise, we coaxed our stiff, sleepy bodies into the now familiar ritual of squatting around the stove at daybreak. We heat water on the Trangia for the long-distance hikers staple of caffeine and calories, provided in weight and space saving sachets of Nescafe and Oats-So-Simple. We consumed them in silence and cursed the tent for one last time, feeling a bit deflated that, regardless, today would be our last day walking Arthur Wainwright’s 192 mile Coast-to-Coast trail (C2C) from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. It was over.
Now, seven months after walking the C2C, the Clipper Race is still postponed until some indefinite date in 2022. But my husband and I are hoping to walk the Offa’s Dyke Path, entirely self-assisted, in June - this time with a more robust tent and the quiet confidence of knowing we, us very ordinary people, can do it!
I am more than happy to receive walking queries, requests, suggestions and advice. I am open to joining walks if you’re looking for a companion on a trail and am happy to share our Coast to Coast itinerary and ‘if I could do it again’ advice.
Hannah Rumble is an academic and freelance writer by day, but longs for her own big adventures on land and water after reading far too many adventure books and being partial to living a life less ordinary.
You can read more of her stories, including her postgrad Clipper Race journey, at changingtack.blog. Or follow on social media at @NoviceSailor.
All images courtesy of Hannah Rumble.