‘[It is without any perceptible trace of actual regret that] we regret to announce the cancellation of the 5.01 Northern Trains service to Carlisle’.
At least I think that’s what the announcement said; Margaret and I were too busy exchanging dismayed glances to notice all the details. Fortunately the patient staff at Lancaster found us an alternative service and we’d only be an hour delayed. Unfortunately, they’d also had to find the same alternative for the other 759 people who’d hoped to get the cancelled service, so that when the time came to get on the train it was a very intense experience. The cram and hustle were such that people even lost some of their queuing-related Britishness, and we had to count ourselves lucky to find a place standing by the luggage rack, in more intimate contact than we might choose to be with strangers and crammed alongside 2 large prams, 3 babies (one vomiting) and several harassed parents. ‘Let’s enjoy not having to carry our rucksacks,’ was the best I could come up with, when eventually we managed to take them off. Not the most encouraging start to our pilgrimage.
Still, despite Northern Trains’ best efforts, we did get to St Bees, after a long slow slide over to and then along the Cumbrian West coast. There was a real sense of remoteness, of being far from the familiar: sheep grazed on stretches of salt marsh, and birds dotted the estuaries where sandy mud glinted and no-doubt-treacherous currents created odd pockets of brown, bubbling water. The automated next-station-announcement was out of synch with the actual stations, so that as we shunted past Askam, Millom, Silecroft, Dring et al, we were informed that the next “station stop” was the one we’d been through two stations before. Disorienting. Seascale, Sellafield: definitely better to look out to sea at this point. The Isle of Man was visible and the sky, striped in lemon, pale blue and wedgewood, was decorated with friezes of fluffy, backlit cloud.
St Bees at last! We saddled up and strode along Main Street to our hotel where the lad behind the multi-function bar/reception couldn’t find our booking. Oh dear, again. When the manager arrived, he found a booking for a double in the name of “Finbar” Smith (not my companion’s actual surname, which is not a common one). Oh dear, again, again. Eventually all was resolved, however, and we were invited to eat and drink while they ‘sorted the room out’. We raised a glass to toast the pilgrimage, and acquired local gen about a great pie shop in Cleator where we’d be able to buy lunch tomorrow. The pink sky boded well. All looked good.
My bed had a slight list to port, so that I felt like I had to hold on with my buttocks while lying down, but apart from that the room was fine. We slept well, were up promptly and, as we breakfasted, had our first experience of what was to be a leitmotif for our pilgrimage: the Men Who Cleared Things Up For Us. I should preface this introductory occurrence by saying that the St Bega’s Way—which takes you from St Bees Priory on the coast to St Bega’s church on the shore of Bassenthwaite, 36 miles away—shares the beginning and some subsequent sections of the route with the Coast to Coast path. Despite being told several times that we were doing the SBW not the C2C, the man who’d just finished the C2C was full of insight about what horrors awaited, how tough this section was, how we were doing it the wrong way round, what a mistake we’d made not staying at Black Sail Youth Hostel (‘It was fully booked, actually’), how this was going to lead to a second- if not third-grade experience for us… He then nicked the jug of orange from our table but left us with the reassuring words that we could still “Claim” a certain section of something or other as part of our distance. I mean, what? Margaret and I looked at each other. The host arrived with my Earl Grey—‘What do you want to drink that for? Dreadful perfume-y stuff’—and filled us in on the Sellafield Christmas bash, where people wolf down the Chips and Sandwiches Buffet and drink startling amounts. I had the sense of being in another country, where they did things differently. Time to pay the bill, and get on the road.
The guidebook to the SBW—written by someone I’m going to call Geraldine; she comes in for it a bit, later—is for the most part clear, helpful and interesting. Geraldine starts you off at the Priory. We went in for a look round, and I was struck by the fact that it didn’t, somehow, have that dead sort of feeling common to empty churches. We left by the splendid west door and were soon going through the first kissing gate—not made for those with packs and breasts—and walking across some fields. There were lots of Herdwick sheep about, and (at this point) no other pilgrims. We talked of our hopes and intentions for the walk, getting used to the weight of our rucksacks and the rhythm of each other’s walking.
Fields, railway tracks, woods, back onto a road, briefly, where the SBW rejoins the C2C. A car slowed to a halt beside us. Lowering the widow, the driver spontaneously congratulated us on going the right way. ‘May I give you some advice?’ he added (is that question ever anything but rhetorical?), ‘walk on the other side, people come tearing along here’. Margaret and I managed not to laugh until he’d driven away. She told me about a book called Men Explain Things to Me. I resolved to buy it as soon as I got home.
At Cleator we discovered that the pie shop had no pies because of the pie-makers’ annual holiday. Sans pies, but with some cheese-and-constipation white rolls and E-numbers biscuits, we continued. Without even breaking stride or saying a word, a man clocked our rucksacks and indicated The Correct Way through the village. It is, I realised, a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman (or women) in possession of a large map must be in want of instruction. In time to save his gender, though, a middle-aged dog-walker appeared who, while Margaret nipped back to the shop to retrieve her walking pole, asked rather than told me about our walk. I learned more than I wanted to about Alfie’s digestion—more loose bowel movements than actual diarrhoea, apparently—but at least this was someone capable of receive as well as transmit. Heartened, we walked on.
The first bit of real work, now, climbing up Dent fell, initially through woodland—the eerily-quiet, no undergrowth, evergreen kind—and then out on the open fellside. We stopped for lunch, leaving behind us only a scattering of luminous cheese, then tackled a short but very steep section which brought us to the cairns at the top, and the most stunning 360-degree views: Black Combe and the Cumbrian coast, the Isle of Man, Ireland, the Scottish coast, and loads of the high Cumbrian fells. Even with the lowering sky and cutting wind, this was inspiring and pause-worthy. We beamed, sighed, and ate more snacks.
Coming down on the other side of the fell took its toll on my dodgy knee (which had been lashed with tape by a merciless but highly-skilled physio). I was very glad of my pilgrim staff** but reminded that my boots hadn’t been as well fitted as I’d hoped when I’d bought them: my right foot simply didn’t have enough room, and during the long steep descent I realised that The Little Toe was going to be another theme for the journey. Beautiful views, though, sideways into Uldale and then along the delightful hidden valley and Nannycatch gorge, where a clear beck bubbled its way through craggy, brackened fellsides now greening-up again after the recent rain. We crossed and re-crossed the beck—sometimes on cunning little footbridges, sometimes fording the stream—pausing now and then to admire, consult Geraldine, eat something else. I remembered one of the small but lovely things about walking with a known companion: how comfortable it is when you can ask the other to fish things out of your pack for you, thus avoiding the tiresomeness of taking the damn thing off and putting it back on again. There’s something about standing, momentarily passive, while someone else firkles around in your rucksack, which fosters a delightful intimacy.
We stopped at the Kinniside “bogus” stone circle which reminded me, in its tininess, of that bit in Spinal Tap where ‘the children dance to the pipes of pan’ and a seriously mis-sized version of Stonehenge is lowered onto the stage (see photo at the head of this post for a sense of scale). After that there remained only a long slow descent to Ennerdale Bridge. I had a first glimpse of Ennerdale water, where we’d be walking tomorrow, and a slightly disturbing sense that I was now a sort of Frankenstein figure, composed of a set of ill-matched, oddly-jointed limbs which weren’t really working in cooperation with each other. However, we made it to the Shepherd’s Arms, where beer, food and our room awaited us. The double-ended, rolltop, freestanding bath was an unexpected treat, and when my turn came I sank into its perfumed waters with a groan of relief and pleasure so loud they probably heard (and misinterpreted) it in the next room.
Over dinner I was moved almost to tears by the kindness with which the staff treated a woman—clearly a regular—who came in for dinner. She had some kind of dystonia, and watching her eat her meal made me think of Dad, for whom the simplest acts became a slow and painful struggle as his disease progressed. It was beautiful to see how she was treated with consideration and not a hint of patronage. We overheard the waitress reciting the dessert list and when she got to ‘gin-and-lime cheesecake’ Margaret’s head came up, like a retriever who’s just locked-on to a particularly enticing scent. I couldn’t have it ‘cause it was set with gelatine, but the alternative was also good; and indeed the quiet comfort and friendly, impeccable service the hotel offered made it a great place to sleep off our first 9 and a half miles.
All that, and the road to Black Sail awaiting…
*You can read the poem from which this title is taken here.
**I acquired the staff on last year’s pilgrimage: see here and here.