St. Bees to Sandwith

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I should organize these posts. I am working on an article about the trip that needs to be an original piece, not first published on the blog; therefore, I am breaking my rule about photographs and organizing each post around one striking image from each stage and will tell the story through this image. 

We arrived in rain. More rain then most Brits usually see in the summertime. For weeks leading up to our arrival, parts of the country were devastated by flood. Some of the landladies and landlords of our guest houses would note that they had seen record cancellations, something that had we been UK residents we might have pondered. After investing so much money in the flight and baggage transfer, etc., we were prepared to be like the postal workers, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night […]” would stop us from our walk.

But I was nervous.

Not of walking in the rain, I know I am not the Wicked Witch of the West; I do not melt in water. I was afraid of my skin and the way that the cool damp weather would inhibit my mobility; I was afraid of being left behind. My mother taught me, early on, that when you live with chronic pain-pain can never be an excuse not to do something. If you wait for a painless moment to begin living, you’ll miss out on your entire life.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about Packhorse, who arranged our accommodations and I am particularly grateful to our first few nights spent at Fleatham House, Shakespeare’s home (Co-Proprietor Michael Shakespeare, not William) on a hill overlooking St. Bee’s Head the start of the route. The proprietors picked us up from the train station, offered us tea and scones with clotted cream after every outing and the breakfast was fantastic. Although Stedman writes that the Museli revolution has not yet hit Northern England, we did not find this to be the case. Everywhere we stayed, but Fleatham House in particular, had a range of healthy breakfast items; one need not have a greasy full English, unless you want it. Sensing my nerves about the walk and the weather, the proprietor  suggested that we start the walk a day early, and do a warm-up lap to Sandwith (approx. 4 miles with elevated cliff walk).

We practiced Wainwright’s ceremonial dipping of the boots in the Irish Sea and chose our stones that we would carry with us to Robin Hood’s Bay. The Western part of Northern England draws many parallels to the Pacific Northwest of the US: a coastal range, followed by a strip of mountainous terrain. The coastal range in St. Bee’s Head is more rocky than sandy and compared to England’s East Coast, is less populated. We saw no one beginning their Coast to Coast walk; the wind was powerful and uninviting.

This first bit of the walk is well signposted and it was our first introduction to the concept of pubic rights of way. The land in the picture above is not park land; there is no fixed trail. Rather as part of the public right to roam, a   centuries old tradition, maintained through the public political will, walkers can traverse the fields of farmers whose land overlaps with these ancestral rights of way.

We walked over our first stiles, familiarizing ourself with the vocabulary that divides our common language, words like fell, ghyll, beck, tarn, stile, cairn. Words that would become necessary as part of the great scavenger hunt/obstacle course of map interpretation.

These four miles, despite the pain and the rain and the wind were a lovely start. It gave us the confidence to move forward and to face the fells (the mountains ahead).

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About 30 Ways of Walking

Gina Liotta's writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Slate, The Paterson Literary Review, LIPS, and The Healing Muse, among others. She lives, writes and teaches in New York.
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