Avoiding the Chasm

September 24, 2009

Lessons Learned from the Coast To Coast Walk

Filed under: Life — Tags: — vextasy @ 9:13 pm

IMG_5721The Coast To Coast Walk starts on the west coast of England at St Bees in Cumbria and runs for approximately 200 miles to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire on the east coast. In between it crosses three National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.  It usually takes something between 12 and 18 days to complete the walk with a crossing of, perhaps, 14 or 15 days being the most commonly attempted. The walk was originally devised by Alfred Wainwright as a west to east journey so that the prevailing `weather’ was always behind the walker and, indeed, this is how most people today choose to complete the walk. A smaller number of walkers opt to travel east to west using the argument that the most stunning scenery arises in the west and so an east-west path saves the best for the end.

I recently walked the first part of the walk from west to east and can highly recommend it as a complete tonic. I have done quite a lot of walking in the past, including some long distance walks, but never one that spans more than a single day. However, many of my preconceptions turned out to be completely wrong and so here I attempt to document some of my conclusions. These are clearly just my opinions and are not given in any particular order but are presented here in the hope that they may be useful to someone considering this walk as their first long distance trail.

Use a Baggage Carrier

There are a number of companies that will move your bags each day from place to place. The two most commonly used would appear to be Sherpa and Packhorse. We used Sherpa but the service provided by both would seem to be very similar: you leave your bags at the camp site, hotel, B&B or guest house in the morning and you find them at your new destination in the evening when you arrive. My initial plan had been to carry all of my kit end equipment, but a couple of long trial walks had persuaded me that I would enjoy the walk a lot more if I didn’t have to carry a heavy weight on my back and at just £7 a day I didn’t take a lot of persuading that employing a baggage carrier was a good idea. As well as carting baggage both companies also provide transport to St Bees and from Robin Hood’s Bay and secure car parking. We left our car with Sherpa at their base in Richmond for £2/day and paid the £20/person to be transported from Richmond to St Bees in time to start walking at about 9.30am on the first day of our walk. This worked out to be a lot cheaper than getting public transport to St Bees and paying to stay there overnight.

Accommodation or Camping

If you are considering saving yourself a little money by camping along the route you should take some time to consider what it really means to camp for the duration of the walk. At the start and end of each day you are going to have to pack-up and re-set you tent as you are unlikely to be staying in the same place for two consecutive nights. If you are planning to carry your camping equipment you are going to be either lugging a good number of extra kilos around with you each day or else skimping on luxury items that you might otherwise have had room to bring. If you are using a baggage carrier then you will be expected to have all of you kit packed up by, at the latest, 8:30 each morning and on certain parts of the walk carry the risk of arriving before your tent (this happened to me in Keld). When I complete the second half of the walk I intend to make full use of the excellent B&Bs and bunk barns along the way. Partly this is because I want to enjoy the walking without worrying about getting a good pitch or setting off in good time in the morning. Partly it is because I felt that in sections of the route the coast to coast walk has become an important part of the local economy and I was pleased to be contributing to that. But mostly it is because the advantage of being able to wash and dry tee-shirts and socks overnight, spend a few hours in the local pub eating a heart-warming meal, get a good night’s sleep, enjoy a full English breakfast and then depart in my own time is worth quite a lot to me. Having said all of that, the advantages of camping will appeal to many others. The cost savings made by camping may play a big part in your final decision, of course. I can vouch for the quality of the Pennine View camp site in Kirby Stephen and the Park House camp site in Keld, both of which were very clean and friendly places.

Sturdy Walking Boots

I plan to visit our local branch of Cotswold and thank the helpful assistant (I’m going to call him Mark) who persuaded me not to invest in a pair of lightweight walking boots. I was concerned that my boots were too sturdy or rather too heavy and that they would take their toll on my feet at the end of the day. Many years ago I had walked the 42 mile Lyke Wake Walk in 12½ hours wearing just a pair of old running shoes on my feet (to be fair, I was still a student and they were the only pair of shoes that I owned) and I was under the mistaken impression that a lightweight pair of shoes would be required to complete this walk. What Mark pointed out to me was that there are parts of the walk which remain wet and boggy for 12 months of the year and how right he was. In particular, the section that lies between Kirby Stephen and Keld is likely to be a challenge for anyone without a good pair of watertight boots. My recommendation is to wear good sturdy boots but to make sure that they are well worn in before you start the walk.

Waterproof Bags

I’ve always used plastic bags to organised the contents of my rucksack and had always assumed that in doing so I was not only simplifying the task of finding anything but was additionally guaranteeing an extra level dryness should I be caught in the hills in a particularly heavy downpour.

IMG_5646 I learned a lesson on the second day of our walk when we were caught on the Ennerdale Bridge to Borrowdale section of the walk by the tail end of hurricane Bill or Brian (or some similarly harmless sounding storm). As we passed Black Sail hut and began our ascent of Loft Beck the winds were so strong that not only was it difficult to remain upright but our rucksack waterproof covers were catching the wind and being whipped free and flapping about wildly. The only solution was to temporarily remove them and store them inside the rucksack.

On arriving in Borrowdale I discovered just what a fool I had been. When they advise the use of plastic bags they don’t mean bags of the supermarket `bag for life’ variety because they contain tiny little air holes to prevent babies and small children from suffocating should they feel a sudden urge to wrap their heads up inside them. The correct kind of waterproof bag can be purchased from any good outdoor shop.

Shower Gel

A surprisingly useful discovery for me was that not only can shower gel be used for the more obvious purposes of washing and shampooing but it also proved to be useful for hand washing tee-shirts and socks and as a washing-up liquid when camping and cooking on the camp site. What a versatile little product.


I’ve never owned a pair of gaiters but I might just treat myself to a pair for next year. It was clear that those walkers sporting gaiters were much more comfortable negotiating the boggy ground, presumably because if their boots sunk in to below the top of the bog they still had several inches of reserve before their socks and the inside of the boots became wet. I also noticed that on a long day of walking in the wet even when wearing waterproof trousers water would somehow find its way down through long inner trousers and socks and into my walking boots but those fellow walkers who were gaitered-up ended the day with drier boots. My conclusion is that they also act to reduce the amount of water that can run into the inside of the boot. I suspect there is a more formal explanation of their advantages elsewhere.

Consider Doing the Walk in Stages

My initial plan had been to complete the entire walk in a two-week period but as we had left our plans to the very last minute there was not enough holiday remaining to complete the walk until the following season. When my wife suggested that we do just the first week I thought that I might feel somewhat unfulfilled or dissatisfied with such a compromise and I agreed but reserved the right in my mind to continue into the second week alone if necessary.

Once I had started to talk to others along the way I was surprised by just how many different approaches people were taking to the walk. Some were doing the entire crossing, others were doing so but taking several days off half way and going home for a long weekend or longer. Others, still, were just completing the Lake District section or the Dales. One walker (a retired schoolteacher from Durham) was picking off a section at a time “whenever the weather was good” and was camping and so didn’t have any accommodation booking complications. Another couple were starting the walk in Ennerdale Bridge and walking for 3 days to Kirby Stephen and then taking a Taxi back to St Bees to do day 1 of the walk to Ennerdale Bridge before returning to Kirby Stephen to continue, simply because they couldn’t find accommodation in the Lake District for the days that they would otherwise have needed to have been there.

When we finished our walk in Reeth we met a couple who were continuing for the second week and who wished that they had chosen to break their walk in two simply because they had really enjoyed their first week and felt that they were unlikely to double that enjoyment by in the second week but would rather have come back at a later date to pick up from where they left off.

So tear up all of your preconceptions about how the walk should be done because as people say “It’s a trail and not a trial”.

Go to Grasmere

IMG_5685 The guidebooks will implore you to visit Grasmere. I chose not to because, living little more than a couple of hours drive away, I felt I knew that area well and wanted to spend more time on those sections of the walk that pass through less popular spots. I think that was a mistake and I would suggest that the walk is improved by lingering in the Lakes a little longer. The overnight in Grasmere is also the first point on the walk at which your newly found walking acquaintances  will divide into two groups (those that stop and those that don’t) and go their separate ways. This is a good thing because at a stroke it doubles the number of new faces.

You will reach Grasmere after your first three days of walking in which you will have covered 14 miles on each of the first two days, much of it over hilly Lakeland terrain. If you continue directly to Patterdale you will cover 19 miles on your third day. Breaking the third day in two by visiting Grasmere leaves you with a pleasant 9 mile and 10 mile walk on each of days three and four in some of the most delightful countryside England has to offer. You should stop in Grasmere.


One of the most common physical impediments to completing the walk is the development of blisters. Even with well worn in boots, if you dramatically increase the lengths of your walks you raise the chances of finding some part of the boot that rubs enough to generate a sore, which in turn will become a blister unless treated. I came across several people who were suffering even after just two or three days of the walk and one man who was bailing out completely after five days because of the pain from foot blisters.

People seem to talk highly of a product called Compeed which I took with me but didn’t need. In the past, for treating the kind of sores you get on the top of a toe or the back of a heel,  I’ve used corn plasters (or pads) which are little circular or oval raised cutouts about 3 or 4mm high with a hole in the middle and adhesive on one side which stick to the foot around the sore. They work by surrounding and protecting the area of sensitive skin and preventing further rubbing. Another trick that has worked for me for treating those sores that develop on the base of the foot is simply to apply one of those “water-resistant” plasters whose smooth surface prevents the sock from gripping that part of the base of the foot and so relieves that lateral tug which can give rise to painful blisters if left unchecked.

However, by far the best mechanism for preventing any of this, for me at least, is to put in a couple of days of walking with a rucksack loaded to the expected weight about a fortnight before setting off on the coast to coast walk. If you aim to walk upwards of fifteen miles on each day, any parts of the skin that are going to rub will do so and any sores that develop will have time to harden up before your real walk starts. You will also get an indication of the kinds of weaknesses your feet may have and you will be able to prepare appropriately.


We were lucky enough to have sun for all but one of our walking days and when the weather is warm it is surprising just how much water you will need to carry. Many of the walkers that I saw or spoke to had invested in the platypus-style water systems that allowed them to be drip fed by a rubber tube that finds its way out of a rucksack and to a point somewhere near your mouth which allows water to be taken at frequent intervals and in small quantities. I’m told this is considered to be the best way to take on water.

We carry our water in the small clear plastic bottles that spring water is sold in – we re-use them, of course. The advantage of this is that, if you are walking with a friend, you can distribute the water between you in whatever balance seems fair. I tend to carry more water than my wife because I carry a bigger rucksack and she is prone to back injuries and so the small plastic bottle system works best for us.

On a hot day I found that I needed to carry no less than five small (½ litre) water bottles. I’ve heard others quote figures that would suggest that this is not enough but it seemed to work for me.


IMG_5706I am fair-skinned and like to keep the sun off me as much as possible. A large bottle of factor 50 sunblock was in the back of my rucksack and was applied liberally a number of times throughout the day. In general, you are walking towards the sun in the morning and away from it in the afternoon (if you cross from west to east) so special attention has to be given to different parts of the anatomy throughout the day.

A good hat is essential for keeping the sun away from the face and neck. I wear one the the `foreign legion’-style mountain caps with long peak and an adjustable cotton flap at the back that is long enough to keep the back of my neck completely sun-free and if you don’t mind looking like a complete dork (and I don’t mind) the cap is almost perfect. This design has the advantage that it can be dipped into clear cool mountain streams, retaining water in the cotton flap, to enhance the cooling effect to the back of the head and neck.

Mobile Phones

Because of the mountainous and remote nature of a lot of the walk you can easily go for the entire day without a hint of a mobile phone signal. This is great because it guarantees no unexpected interruptions from work or the kids at home but also means that there is little opportunity to make any last minute alterations to your plans once you have left your base each morning. You won’t walk past any phone boxes either, so plan ahead.

Rainy Days

IMG_5651 Be prepared for a few rainy days. If you can stay reasonably dry then most things will remain manageable and so, for this reason alone, a good set of waterproofs is essential.

One of the big advantages of staying in B&Bs is the opportunity they give for completely drying out both you and your belongings.

On a typical day you can expect to be walking for between six and nine hours, often with little chance to take shelter. If you are uncertain about whether your walking gear will cope with a long period of rain but don’t want to invest in anything expensive you could purchase a bottle of one of the readily available re-proofing treatments. They typically cost about £10 and come as either a liquid that you spray-on or one that you add to the washing machine and wash in to your waterproofs.

I found that a very wet day could have quite a demoralising effect on us. We were absolutely soaked to the skin with boots and rucksacks full of water. But after drying out overnight, and especially helped by beautiful weather the following day, things took on a new light again.

Take it Slowly

I noticed that I had a tendency to want to rush and that some effort was required, at least in the early stages of the walk, to resist the urge not to be left behind. Most people who have slept overnight in a guest house or a camp site will be up and on their way by about 8:30 to 8:45 in the morning. Although there is some variation in the routes given in the numerous guide books they do all pretty much tend to direct people the same way with the obvious consequence that if you walk at an average speed and you start at the same time as most people you will invariably find yourself walking amongst other coast-to-coasters. There are advantages to this if you enjoy that kind of walking. If you prefer to walk without the crowds, and you are not a particularly slow walker, then the best approach is probably to enjoy your breakfast and not to rush off.

I met one couple at one of our overnight stops who were both fit and fast walkers and who would linger for a couple of hours in the morning at each of their stops aiming to start walking each day at between 9:30 and 11:00 in the morning. They said that they found that by doing so they had a lot of the scenery to themselves.

Socks and other Underwear

My guidebook says “Three or four changes of underwear is fine. Any more is excessive, any less unhygienic”. I had to re-read that sentence a couple of times and, to this day, I’m still sure that this must be a misprint. Perhaps I’m old fashioned or out of touch but why would you want to economise on underwear? It’s not heavy or bulky or otherwise expensive and it is the bit of your clothing that comes into contact with your body and therefore does need changing. My advice is don’t skimp in this area.

Of course, if you are staying somewhere that gives you access to a washbasin and a good drying radiator then you can take the opportunity to wash and dry socks and underwear. I knew a couple that were travelling light who discarded their underwear as they walked the coast to coast (not outdoors, but properly in dustbins) and who re-stocked when they reached Richmond.

Whatever you do, my advice would be to take at least as much as you would normally wear at home unless you can confirm with one or more of your bookings that washing facilities will be available and then you can plan around that.


I felt that the quality of accommodation on the walk was excellent and was also aware of how important the supply of coast-to-coasters is to the local economy in many of the places that the walk passes through. I suspect that this quality is maintained partly as a result of the exchange of information on internet discussion forums which gives positive and negative feedback on many of the possible choices of accommodation. The result of this is that those places that get good reviews also getting good business and those that don’t provide a good service soon start to lose custom.

In general, everywhere but the camp sites will make you up a packed lunch for the following day if you remember to ask for one the night before. In my experience these are easily enough to keep you going through the whole day.

We stayed at the following places and would stay at any of them again. They are all to be recommended:

Low Cock How Farm – Ennerdale Bridge – Friendly bunk barn and small number of twin or double rooms. Wood burning fire in guest lounge with plenty of opportunity to dry boots and clothes. Wholesome farmhouse food in large quantities.

Gillercombe – Rosthwaite – Clean and friendly family run guesthouse.

Borrowdale Youth Hostel – Rosthwaite – Modern, clean, large well-organised hostel. Single-sex  dormitories of 6 people. Good evening meals with choice of beers, excellent self service multi-course breakfast and large hot drying room.

White Lion – Patterdale – Pub with good food and beer and helpful staff. Clean rooms with excellent views and very hot radiators – perfect for washing and drying.

Greyhound Hotel – Shap – Friendly hotel with comfortable bar. Excellent food – the locally sourced Cumbrian Lamb Henry was the best lamb I have ever tasted. Large comfortable en-suite rooms.

Pennine View Caravan & Camping Park – Kirby Stephen – Clean and tidy site. Good showers and washroom. Dishwashing facilities. Mostly caravans but plenty of space for tents too – level pitches. Helpful and friendly staff. A two minute walk from the Croglin Castle pub.

Park House Bunk Barn & Camp Site – Keld – Small friendly tidy family run campsite. Very comfortable bunk barn with space for 7 in two rooms. Simple evening meals available. Superb location next to the stream and waterfalls. Five minutes walk from the bar at Keld Lodge (the old Youth Hostel) but take a torch to find your way back after dark.

In Summary

Do the walk. Either on your own or with a friend or group of friends. Whether you walk for two weeks, a week or for just a few days you will get a tremendous reward from the experience and, as a result of the continuously varying landscape and outlook, a feeling of having had a holiday quite unlike any break you may have taken before. I’m looking forward to starting the second half.


September 15, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job: Comparing GPS Devices

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 10:11 pm

I have just walked the first 100 miles of the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk; the section between St. Bees and Reeth in Swaledale. Before setting off I was keen to ensure that, as well as the obvious set of guides, maps and compass, I had a good GPS device to help with navigation when visibility got poor. I’ve been caught out in dense fog on a high fell in the Lake District and I know how difficult it can be to find the right route down in such conditions.

I already own two GPS devices: an iPhone and a TomTom GO 730 both of which are excellent devices and purchases that I am entirely happy with. I have seen a lot of discussion in online forums about the merits of various handheld GPS units and was aware of more and more software for the iPhone that made use of its built in GPS hardware. I wanted to know if either of my existing two devices could be usefully used on a trek or if I needed to invest in yet another gadget.

After much research I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was very very happy with it. I carry an iPhone all the time but I wouldn’t even bother switching it on if I had the Garmin with me. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its uses. For example, RouteBuddy have released a series of Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale maps of the UK National Parks which are stored on the iPhone and so can be viewed even when out of network contact. Their free iPhone application `Atlas’ can also be used to view the free OpenStreetMap map of the UK (and the rest of the world) and of course there are the excellent iPhone Google Maps and Google Earth applications. All of these are good for browsing in the pub or at home.

There are, however, a couple of big problems with the iPhone when used outdoors. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. With location services enabled to allow a GPS fix I estimate that you would be lucky to get more than two or three hours of continuous service from it, possibly less. A separate battery pack might extend that by a factor of two or three but you’d still be worrying about your chances of lasting for a good day’s walk and you would have the additional inconvenience of having to lug the weight of the battery pack. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously as far as safety is concerned, you will find that the iPhone is useless in the wet because when you are wet you won’t be able to operate the touchscreen. I discovered this inconvenience on a particularly wet day when I needed to call a Youth Hostel to book a bed for the night.

The map that comes with the Garmin is hopelessly basic, but if you download the free contour maps from the Scottish Mountaineering Society website and install (either manually or from the Internet) some routes and waypoints or POIs onto the Garmin it is an excellent hiking tool. Oh and it’s waterproof to 1 metre depth of water, its GPS is considerably more accurate than an iPhone and having it on continuously for 100 miles of walking it only got through 4 AA batteries. I’d rather have the combination of a paper map in a waterproof case (or one of those waterproof laminated ones) and a handheld GPS than risk having my map in the GPS. At least then if the device fails you still have a map (and, it goes without saying, a compass). The Garmin will give you a very accurate grid reference to read off on the map.

My advice is stick to the right tool for the job: iPhone for indoors, Garmin GPS60CSX for outdoor on foot and a TomTom (or similar) for the car. I don’t think any of the devices work well in the wrong environment.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.