The Coast to Coast is a walkers dream, connecting St Bees in the West to Robin Hood’s Bay in the east. Devised by Alfred Wainwright in the 1970s, the 192 miles of pathways, tracks and roads across Northern England are some of the most spectacular in the country. Linked together they provide an amazing opportunity to just put on your boots and get away from it all. Sinking into the simple routine of walk, eat, sleep is one of the best gifts you can ever give yourself.
St Bees, with its vibrant ochre sandstone, is the perfect but unassuming start to what, for many, will be the best walk they’ve ever done. On a clear day, the Isle of Man can be viewed 30 miles out to sea and a few cheekily steep ascents along the coastline soon test a person’s fitness. The key is to go slow and steady, as day one is an excellent introduction for what’s to come.
After four miles of heading along cliff tops above the Irish Sea the route turns inland. Then on this Easterly trajectory, it continues for over 180 miles until reaching the North Sea where it turns south towards Robin’s Bay. The Bay, as its known, with a melting pot of locals, holidaymakers and triumphant Coast to Coasters is a traditional fishing village blended with an intriguing smuggling history.
Between the two, the route traverses three National Parks; The Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales and The North York Moors. It passes close to England’s highest peak – Scafell Pike and can be walked in stages or complete in one journey. If you think you can beat fifty one and a half hours then you could top the leader board on the bi-annual endurance event. However, if you are a lesser mortal like me then planning to take at least two weeks is a much more civilised approach. Even then you will find plenty of places you’ll wish you could linger for longer.
England’s largest National Park, the Lake District (which gained the UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017) is the most challenging part of the route in terms of ascents, descents and terrain. The weather here can change from moment to moment. For many, it is the most spectacular part of the route; affording some stunning views without having to slog to the very tops. Often referred to simply as the Lakes, this amazing area in Cumbria has attracted visitors for centuries. But perhaps Beatrix Potter and the iconic romantic poet Wordsworth are the most well-known and influential of all.
The route passes along the shores of Ennerdale water up and over to Borrowdale, then onto Grasmere and Patterdale before leaving the National park near the monastic ruins of Shap Abbey. In so doing it passes over Kidsty Pike the highest point on the Coast to Coast route. The days can be committing and long but with this comes the reward of tired satisfaction and a well-earned pint. Of which there are many to choose from in traditional pubs along the way.
The Lake District fells are home to hardy Herdwick sheep and dry stone walls – both symbols of our human influence on the landscape. And traditional slate buildings along with the remains of an industrial mining heritage link us back through time.
Dale, a Viking word for valley, has stood the test of time across Northern England. Similarly, other geologically descriptive words such as fell (hill), tarn (small lake), beck (small river) and mere (body of water) have survived.
The rich heritage continues into the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Amid a limestone landscape, the bygone era of steam crosses the Coast to Coast in beautiful Smardale. Here the striking arches of the distant viaduct form a backdrop to a three-hundred-year-old packhorse bridge and dry stone walls continue to line field boundaries. Within these walls lies a geologists paradise with some fabulous fossils, millions of years old, to be spotted and admired.
The terrain in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is more forgiving than that of its predecessor. However, with the accumulated tiredness and a potential growing collection of aches and pains, the days can seem equally challenging to some. With more gently rolling hills the only significant ascent is after the friendly market town of Kirkby Stephen. This is up onto the nine standards, the series of towering cairns which also happen to be on the line of England’s watershed. From here on in all water flows East to the North sea.
As the Coast to Coast continues it picks up the river Swale, one of the fastest rising rivers in England. With its summer flower meadows, lead mining ruins and old cow barns, a wander through Swaledale, is one to be savoured. And the cream tea at the Muker tea rooms is truly legendary. After passing through a series of quietly welcoming hamlets, where roses grow around front doors and people make time to chat, the small market town of Reeth is reached. For James Herriot fans, the landscape will not disappoint.
Following the swale to Richmond and beyond, the Yorkshire Dales give way to the Vale of Mowbray. Richmond, founded in Norman times with its great castle, is now a busy thriving market town with Georgian and Victorian heritage. It is well worth an explore and is often the place for a well-earned rest day.
On a clear day, the view from the castle tower can evoke a swell of emotion as the ardent walker looks West to where they have been and East, to the promise of where they are going.
After one or two days of far easier terrain, the North Sea suddenly feels a whole lot closer, as the third and final national park; the North York Moors rise up abruptly from a patchwork of arable fields. From this point, the walk should be savoured even more because somehow the Coast to Coast seems to speed up. In fact, on a very clear day, it’s possible to see the sea from the top of the moors.
With its roller-coaster start, the heather-covered moorland is a series of steep sharp peaks, which it shares with the Cleveland Way, before evening out on the aptly named Roundhill. Meeting with the disused Rosedale Iron Ore railway steeps the route once again in industrial heritage. This time born from the sweat, blood and tears of the nation’s Navvies. Late summer into early autumn is by far the best time to see the vibrant pink heather in bloom here. And a good season sees swathes of magenta carpet the hillside.
The Lion Inn, a sixteenth-century pub high up on the moorland is a welcome sight on a long day’s walk and an experience not to be missed. From here the route follows a few miles of road walking before dropping steadily downwards and picking up the river Esk through to villages such as Glaisdale and Grosmont (pronounced Grow-mont). Yet more places you’ll likely wish you could stay longer.
On the final day, the little Beck Woods are the perfect place to slow down and reflect on all that has been. All the landscapes walked through, people met, wildlife encountered and adventures had. There is a strangely calming influence amid these humble trees. And there is yet more industrial evidence with slag heaps of alum once more reclaimed by nature. With one last moorland stretch, the ruins of Whitby Abbey come into view and before long there is nowhere East left to walk as the North Sea shimmers below. From here, on the swell of the finishers tide, the final hop along the cliffs soon brings Robin Hood’s Bay into view and with its striking red roofs the coast to coaster is drawn downwards to the journey’s end.
Fall in love with the Coast to Coast with its myriad of places and spaces. There are the changing scenes and the fickle weather; the mountainous highs and the dales below, the people you meet and the wildlife that unfurls before your eyes. Feel the wind in your hair and gaze out to the never-ending views and the history steeped in the very steps we tread.
But most of all I love how I feel in my heart and in my mind when I think of the emotions and feelings this long-distance walk evokes; How you can start on day one, dipping a toe in the Irish sea and walk all the way across suspended in time until you emerge on the other side so absorbed into the simple daily routine of walk, eat and sleep that you don’t want it to end.
Walking the coast to coast takes commitment and resilience, yet it is a magical connection to something bigger. To the amazing changing landscape, to the trees, the birds and plants; to the people you meet along the way, to the many souls who have trodden the path before you and to those who have yet to come. But if you have slowed down and really felt what it is to be alive, then perhaps the most magical of all is your deeper connection to you.
As guides, we are often asked this question and there is no simple answer. At any time of year, the weather can close in and whilst rain every day is unlikely, so too is wall to wall sunshine, even in the height of summer. A better question is what do you want to see? If the answer to this is birdlife, then springtime is by far the most productive – with sea birds such as cormorants, shags and guillemots nesting on the cliffs above St Bees and ground nesters such as Lapwings and Curlews further inland. Wild flowers are around for longer, with perhaps the most impressive meadow displays in early summer. If it’s the thought of the North York Moors alight with sweet-smelling heather – then late summer into early autumn usually shows the best display. Whatever the season, whatever the weather, there is always something special to witness along the way.
Has this blog piqued your interest? We run a guided small-group tour that hikes the most spectacular sections of Alfred Wainwright’s epic England Coast to Coast trail over 13 days. Check out the departure dates below. You can also book it privately with your own party.
Learn more about the author, Jo Roberts, and her writing on her website, Writing Inside Out.