Autumn ramble through wilds of Great Britain

By Jill Hocking

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Jill Hocking celebrates the joys of following writer Alf Wainwright from coast to coast

It is when we take a breather by the rocky shores of Innominate Tarn that we feel the spirit of walking writer Alf Wainwright most keenly.

Mossy rocks, heather and tussocky grass fringe the scoop of still water under the summit of Haystacks; wide green valleys, their fields stitched together with stone walls, rise to rumpled fells splashed with fox-red bracken.

We are in the Lake District, on Wainwright's walk across the north of England from coast to coast.

Innominate Tarn was one of Wainwright's favourite spots. The Lancastrian Borough treasurer spent every spare minute tramping Lakeland, enthralled with its craggy heights and sylvan valleys. He then returned home to meticulously reproduce the landscape in pen and ink.

His Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, maps, drawings and text in minute, perfect script, have sold two million copies.

Wainwright's Coast to Coast path stretches 320km from the Cumbrian village of St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea.

The fell-walking cartographer avoided towns and laced together three of England's most celebrated national parks - the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors - using mainly public footpaths and bridleways.

Wainwright's pictorial guidebook, A Coast to Coast Walk was first published in 1973.

We choose October for our hike, and the weather gods are on our side with little rain.

This is England's most popular long-distance ramble. It is not the Himalayas but neither is it a cakewalk, so for three months beforehand we ratchet up our fitness. We hike for 18 days, averaging around 20km each day.

Accommodation options are as numerous as the walkers silhouetted along Lakeland's mountain ridges. There are plentiful hotels, B&Bs, youth hostels and camping fields. We organise our own itinerary and lodgings and choose Brigantes Walking Holidays to carry our luggage.

Every morning a driver collects our bags and ferries them to our next stop. With our heavy luggage taken care of, we carry light day packs holding wet weather gear, water, first-aid kit, food and cameras.

Wainwright bequeathed certain rituals for his walk: you wet your boots in the Irish Sea, pluck a stone from the beach, carry it across England and hurl it into the North Sea at Robin Hood's Bay.

On a breezy October day, gulls wheeling around us, with light hearts and a couple of pebbles in our backpacks, we climb the red sea cliffs at St Bees Head. Six hours, 15km and many stiles later we are sipping tea at Chapel Nook B&B in Cleator.

Lakeland's Borrowdale, Wainwright's "heaven on earth", is a deep green quilt of fields, enfolded by fells. Humpback bridges span skipping streams and black-faced sheep graze in stone-walled fields.

In the Yorkshire Dales the autumn trees are turning; bracken lights up the hills in a palette of yellow, gold and carmine. On the North York Moors, there's a freedom and sense of wide open space.

The accommodation is marvellous. We stay in chintzy B&Bs with wonky ceilings and mind-your-head doorways, and pubs where we down meals both gastronomic and greasy spoon. Breakfasts are hearty trekking fuel.

Hiking the Coast to Coast can be as solitary or social as you choose. Near Black Sail we meet a young Nebraskan archaeologist who hives off the track to spend the night alone camping in the fells. "I like to be close to nature," he says.

We catch glimpses of the North Sea from the moors but it's several days before our final sweep down the cliff path to the old smugglers' village, Robin Hood's Bay.

We high-five on the beach, and follow Wainwright's lead and dip our boots into the North Sea and hurl our pebbles into the brine. Then it's off to Wainwright's Bar where we raise a glass to a long walk across England.

CHECKLIST

Coast to coast walk: Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk is described as challenging, walkable by those of moderate fitness who are adequately prepared. The main walking season is from spring to autumn. The path can be crowded in summer.

Organised walks: Brigantes Walking holidays will carry your luggage for $13 per bag per day.

Further information: See coasttocoastguides.co.uk; ramblers.org.uk; or wainwright.org.uk.

- NZ Herald

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