Lakeland to Lindisfarne is a 190-mile (310km) coast-to-coast between Ravenglass and Holy Island, taking in the hills of the Lake District, the high Pennines and the Northumberland coast.
The low-level Lakeland to Lindisfarne route is not a difficult one: it’s about on a par with Wainwright’s Coast to Coast and much easier than the Pennine Way. The mountain alternative route, though easier than Snowdonia to Gower or the Scottish Coast-to-Coasts, is tougher and would throw out a stiff navigational test to the inexperienced walker.
“A coast-to-coast across the Lake District and the Pennines to the North Sea? Wainwright’s already done it.” I hear you say. But why should Wainwright have all the fun, steal all the best bits, and didn’t he go wrong – just a tiny little bit – on the Cumbrian plains, the flatlands between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors?
My route started life back in the eighties – as Ravenglass to Edinburgh, a 260-mile epic that left England at Kielder and crossed the Southern Uplands to Scotland’s historic first city. But instead of walking it I got married to Nicola, so Ravenglass to Edinburgh was forgotten; put into a dark drawer, somewhere in the loft.
Several years later, Nicola said that she’d like to do a long distance route with me but she didn’t want to do any of the camping on the tops that I had talked so enthusiastically about. We would do the walk in style; stay at B&Bs and eat bacon and eggs, not muesli and tea made with powdered milk. Oh! And Ravenglass to Edinburgh’s 260 miles was too far.
Edinburgh would have to be dropped. Looking at the maps I found that we could come off the hills to one of those castles on the Northumberland coast. But which castle?
Bamburgh might be the place, or Dunstanburgh perhaps? But when you get to the coast you look across the waves to yet another castle – Lindisfarne on Holy Island. How romantic to be stranded for the night on the island colonised by the early Christians, Aidan and Cuthbert.
And that’s three coasts! Wainwright 2 Gillham 3 – so far, so good.
The in-between routes of the Lake District were easy. Muncaster Fell, the hill above Ravenglass, drops you nicely into Eskdale, and Eskdale’s just one ridge away from Wasdale, Lakeland’s most spectacular valley. The next couple of days explores the heart of the Lakes – you could pick from a dozen routes hereabouts. Beyond Ambleside you need to go northwest to find a good line across the flatlands of the Eden valley. Two ways work. For the original book I chose Kentmere and Haweswater (now an alternative for campers). I have since modified the route to go by way of Patterdale and Ullswater. This offers a wider choice of accommodation for non-campers.
In Northumbria good paths were harder to find. Some were non-existent on the ground and not signposted: others were blocked by barbed wire. Many more were made unpleasant by the farmers’ plough or by five-foot high oil-seed rape. Council footpath officers pleaded poverty when asked to reinstate the paths. We were on our own.
But bit by bit the route was pieced together, and we set out on our first crossing.
Damp Days and Ducks on a Coast to Coast without Wainwright
Somewhere amongst that swirling grey mist are some of the Lake District’s finest rocky peaks, though you wouldn’t know it. And somewhere among those rocky peaks are England’s only golden eagles: they’re keeping a low profile too.
Nicola says nothing as we climb the tortuous boulder-ridden path that I told her was a splendid trek to the tops. She says nothing about my attempts to cajole her through the entire width of the English Lakes in three days on what is her first long-distance walk, and nothing about the incessant rain that trickles between our necks and our waterproofs. She says nothing, but I hear it all. After all I am a guide book writer. I invented this route, and I am the expert on what’s fun in the mountains.
We press on; the rain presses on even harder, but the sting cannot match the pain of my embarrassment.
Three days ago we left Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast to the sun and the seagulls. Within an hour of this take-it-easy sort of day we were strolling among the rocky bluffs and the wind-warped rowans of Muncaster Fell; by evening we had our feet up in the outside bar of the Wasdale Head Inn. Lingmell through a beer glass at twilight had never looked so good.
The next morning old packhorse trails took us into those high mountains before depositing us in yet another beer garden; this time at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where we were entertained by musicians playing old Eagles songs.
Yes, this was the life!
Well, it would have been if I’d planned the day to end at five in Elterwater. But I planned it to end at Ambleside, and it was seven-thirty. Nicola said nothing. Ohl, she did mutter something about me asking the landlady for a bath, as we didn’t have one.
The next day saw Nicola limping among Wordsworth’s daffodils, struggling through Skelghyll Woods, and hobbling up the rough Garburn Pass track. Had she battled with her injuries just to be here, in the dampness of Kentmere?
The rain still pours and our tortuous zigzag path reaches Nan Bield, a high windswept pass hemmed in by crags. The rocks are shiny with water and so are we. Finding a wet rock away from the howling wind, I reach for the tea. It’s amazing how good flask tea tastes when you’re out in the open, considering how bad it tastes when you try to finish it off back home. Would we be finishing it off back home? If things were bad here, what would they be like in the Eden Valley, where the map promised only dull flatlands?
Well, the tea got Nicola talking, even if it was just to say her knees wouldn’t bend and her feet were raw. We fumbled down the rocks to the shores of Haweswater. The plan was to walk the splendid paths along its western shores, but today they didn’t seem too splendid, so we put on our nice soft trainers and walked down the lane instead.
After a very slow pint at the Haweswater Hotel we floated down, limbs anaesthetised, to Bampton Grange. Hanging over the bridge, we watched as some of the locals raced plastic ducks down the river – sensible folk on such a day. After the excitement of a close finish everybody traipsed into the Crown and Mitre, our B&B for the night.
We had always hoped for the best weather to be saved for the days spent on high ground but we got it on the next day, which was to be a short one. One little limestone hill and we were out of Lakeland. Basking in sunlight, we strolled across the pastures of Eden on country lanes and riverside paths, through villages with apple and cherry blossom … and into Mrs Jephcott’s at Temple Sowerby.
Nicola needed mollycoddling after her hardships, and Mrs J was the person to do it. Tea and biscuits were waiting on our arrival – just the thing, as we’d had no lunch. Our room overlooked the cottage garden, complete with a red swing, lots of primulas and tulips, and a fishpond with Koi carp in it. Nicola bounced on the bed and wrapped herself in the luxurious pink duvet.
“Pour me a bath, slave.” she ordered. I dutifully obeyed.
Mrs J had taken Nicola’s “no lunch” remark of yesterday very seriously and provided a breakfast to last all day. Huge portions of scrambled egg accompanied the sizzling smoked bacon, mushrooms, fried bread and tomatoes.
It seemed a shame to leave the green fields of Eden, but Cross Fell had been casting its shadow across the fields for a while. We could see fluffy white cloud skimming over its summit. But those pretty clouds meant there was a Helm Wind. This wind builds its strength on the slopes of Hexhamshire Common then unleashes its full force over the edge of Cross Fell. Often walkers caught in Helm Winds are forced to their knees and unable to make further progress. Hmmmm!
At Kirkland there’s nowhere else to go but up. The winds strengthen as we climb to the shoulder of the moor, by which time I look like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame with Ace Ventura’s hairstyle.
A lead-miners’ track takes the route through some of the remotest and complex hills in England, and it is with relief that we descend safely into the South Tyne Valley.
In the George and Dragon at Garrigill, we traded stories with mud-stained Pennine Wayfarers. They talked of their adventures in the peat bogs of Kinder, and we of rocky mountain traverses and a sunset over Wastwater.
From Garrigill we climbed over a dark windswept moor and into the next valley at Nenthead. Today the old lead-mining village was closed, and dreary under the blanket of low grey cloud. A dull day in Nenthead keeps your expectations low and your feet on the ground. There’s a Wright Brothers’ garage, but these brothers don’t fly aeroplanes, they drive buses.
We climbed out of Nenthead past a blackened statue with railings round it, then out of Cumbria.
Northumberland greeted us with more driving rain as we reached the top of the Black Hill.
A Ford Transit van pulled up beside us.
“Want a lift?” the driver asked.
Nicola’s face lit up for a moment, but I said, “No thanks”.
The white van disappeared into the murk, and we turned off the road onto a path ominously signposted, the Black Way.
Everybody talks about blooming purple heather, but on a stormy day out of season, heather can be as dreary as the wet peat it grows in. Today its wicked tangled stalks tried repeatedly to upend us whenever we lifted our eyes to the horizon. This must be England’s bleakest moor.
East Allendale shyly presented itself. First as a sliver of green beneath the black, then as a pretty pastured valley with woodland hiding the fast-flowing river. Narrow paths squeezed through the woods to reveal a fine waterfall, Holm’s Linn, and colourful wildflowers on steep grassy riverbanks.
Northumberland had been as kind as it was going to be today. Raindrops regrouped on the sycamore leaves, then bucketed down our necks. By the time we reached Allendale Town we were drenched.
Allendale Town is really a village, even though its four-storey buildings suggest that it has known greater importance. Our hotel, the Heatherlea, looked posh, so we thought we had better take our muddy boots off at least.
“Hoody was here,” proclaimed the graffiti on the stone walls of the bus shelter. “Well, he wouldn’t want to be here now.” I thought as I watched the steam waft from my thick red walking socks. At the Heatherlea they gave us the bridal suite, which was nice – there was plenty of room to hang up our soggy clothes.
It’s a short section – just ten miles to Hexham. Normally it would be a quick one too, over the heather moors of Hexhamshire Common and down leafy lanes, and woodland paths.
But today a little spice had been sprinkled into our itinerary. Nicola opened the bedroom curtains and wiped away the condensation on the windowpane.
Mr Bucher, the Swiss chef and owner of the Heatherlea, was driving into Hexham for supplies.
“I’ll give you a lift,” he said.
“No we’re walking.”
It was Nicola who said it this time. I think she was actually enjoying herself.
“Strange people these British.” I could hear Mr Bucher thinking.
With our boots and socks still damp from yesterday, we squelched up the lane into the grey and white murk of the hillside. Primroses poked through the snowflakes of the roadside verges. Through the top gate at the end of the road we could see that any semblance of a path was hidden under a blanket of snow. Here was my chance to regain expert status, something that sadly had been lost on the pretty paths of the Lake District. I did so by getting across safely on a compass bearing, only to lose the compass and credibility together somewhere on the streets of Alnwick.
Hexham’s too fine a place not to dwell in. Its magnificent priory dominates the town centre; its Moot Hall and Manor House add to the market town’s proud history.
“The Railway Hotel is not a suitable place to stay.” Nicola had told me.
“Oh it’ll be OK. The man said he had a fine restaurant.” I had this vision of an old-fashioned ivy-clad inn with a roaring fire in the bar, and I had tried to convince Nicola of this when booking in advance. I was wrong.
“What did you expect?” she said as we looked up to see this horrible red engineering-bricked pub right next to the railway station and a huge car park.
North of Hexham we spent two more days in the rain. Sloshing through the fields of the North Tyne, and climbing through misty spruce forests, we could have done with Wellingtons rather than walking boots. My boots were sad – and leaking: I’d asked of them one trip too many. Their reward was to be discarded in an Alnwick waste bin.
I remembered Alnwick from my misspent youth in bedsitter Newcastle. Like me, it had tidied itself up since then (though Nicola might dispute my part of the claim). A magnificent castle stands out from the town’s Georgian terraces and cobbled ginnels. It’s only 8 miles to the coast at Boulmer.
Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Socks and boots tossed off, and sand in her Elastoplast-covered toes; Nicola rushed for the crashing North Sea waves, and soaked herself in cool surf. She’s always liked the sea. Me? Well I’ve never been much of a water baby – I was content to take in that salty air and search for seafood in the nearest rockpool.
The rugged Northumberland coastline transforms many times. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, set on dark dramatic cliffs north of Craster, are followed by two rocky coves, Newton Haven and Football Hole. Then there’s the long, sweeping sands of Beadnell Bay. Two fishing villages, Beadnell and Seahouses lie between here and Bamburgh. Beadnell’s a rustic place with lime kilns on the seafront, while Seahouses is like a mini-Blackpool, with funhouses and ice-cream stalls. But then you’re back to the rockpools, the sand and the kittiwakes.
The locals call it haar. Before we knew what was happening, this swirling mist had drifted in from the sea, and made mysterious shadows of all around us. Small rocks could have been cliffs, and headlands, mere rocky islets. Wanting to keep our toes sand-free we had been keeping to the east of the dunes. In doing so we nearly missed Bamburgh Castle and a well-earned cup of tea at the local café.
The red sandstone fortress is not as romantic as some, having been modernised many times. People live here in double-glazed luxury. But Bamburgh’s sheer scale cannot fail to impress. From rocky perches it towers over the beach and the village green.
We arrived at Beal Sands. The timetable said that we had enough time to cross safely to Holy Island. A line of poles marked the ancient Pilgrims’ Route, but those sands looked more like mud; deep, deep, “you’ll sink to the bottom if you dare tread on me” type mud. I used the excuse that we didn’t want to be treading all that mud into our nice B&B. Nicola nodded and we followed the easy tarmac causeway instead.
Free of heavy backpacks but filled with tea and scones, we walked the shoreline, passing a little chapel, then some fishing boats. The tide came lapping back onto the sands: the noisy seagulls came with it. In silence we watched the setting sun flickering pink onto the grey North Sea waves and flooding red into the skies behind the castle walls. We remembered Ravenglass. And we remembered Mrs J.
We remembered Nan Bield, but said nothing of that.
This article first appeared in Coast-to-Coasting by John Gillham and Ronald Turnbull