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On the Coast to Coast: Part 1 of 3

Posted on Friday, 30 May 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes:) It has been six months since I finished last year’s reviews with a sodden stretch of the Pennine Way in the Peak District at the end of October. Usually I would start reviewing again in March but I was glad to have waited until relatively late this year before starting again. May often brings stable weather in the UK and as I had hoped I was treated to a little warmth in the wind and plenty of dry days.

This first reviewing week saw me returning to the Coast to Coast to review the middle stretch from Kirkby Stephen to Danby Wiske (days 7 to 10 of the full trek).

Open walking high above Swaledale

Introducing the Coast to Coast
The Coast to Coast is one of my favourite and most frequently recommended long distance routes in the UK. When people ask me which long distance footpath I enjoy most my mind always returns to this one because of its many changes of scenery.

Last year’s review of the Pennine Way introduced me to a wider variety of different moorlands than I had previously appreciated could be found in the UK. Ultimately, though, all moorland does have a similarity. In comparison, the Coast to Coast broadly splits into three very different sections as it crosses three of the UK’s National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors.

Each of these National Parks looks gloriously different. It prevents any boredom building up from walking through similar scenery day after day for an extended period of time. Instead the views change completely just as you become accustomed to them.

The Lake District grasses are tough, clinging onto the rocks of the crags, but still glowing with a pale green. The craggy rocks here give the land a distinctive lumpy appearance that can be recognised instantly.

Crossing into the Yorkshire Dales the lumps melt away and the hills become lower, smooth and rolling. Classic English countryside. Meanwhile the colour changes too. The grass, now on thick and fertile peat, becomes a deeper, lush green.

Finally you climb steeply up onto the glorious North Yorkshire Moors. This is my favourite section of the route. A natural inland cliff edge provides a guide as you walk along this elevated moorland. Wide, flat and surprisingly dry moors, coated in heather, spread out like a pale green and purple carpet.

For my first review week I tackled the Yorkshire Dales. I chose to start here to give me with a gentle warm-up to the review season, leaving the worst climbs until a little later in the year.

Kirkby Stephen to Keld
Starting out from Kirkby Stephen I quickly made my way up the long, steep but steady climb to Nine Standards Rigg. This was only the second time I had been treated to clear visibility while on this summit and I found it made staying on the route much easier than usual as I picked my way through the peat hags keeping watch for marker posts ahead. Even several dry days had failed to make a difference to the wet peat and marshy ground which is some of the wettest terrain on the entire Coast to Coast. Fortunately the rest of the day was drier underfoot as I gently contoured around the edges of valley bottoms to reach the tiny village of Keld.

The cairns on Nine Standards

Keld to Reeth
Leaving Keld the next morning to walk the length of the Swaledale valley I elected to review the official high-level route rather than the low level alternative that Alpine Exploratory has provided through the valley bottom. This quickly took me up onto the moor tops and away from the classic Dales dry-stone field system. It is a relatively short day, but despite this the two climbs of the day are definitely designed to get your heart pumping. The first challenge is to get onto the moor top and then, soon afterwards, you have to drop steeply to cross Gunnerside Beck near some old ruined mine buildings and climb equally steeply up the other side.

Climbing steeply out of Gunnerside Beck with boulders either side of the path

Mining is the theme of this day from Keld to Reeth. Crossing the moors I passed many ruins of old mining buildings, chimneys from old smelting mills, and wide stony areas that have been left as barren moonscapes long after the mining has left. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be reminders of what was once one of the main industries in this area.

Reeth to Richmond
Taking the crossing from Reeth to Richmond there is a definite sense of departure from the Yorkshire Dales. Using a series of green and lush valleys, each broadly parallel to the next, the route takes a diagonal approach. First traveling along the valley from Reeth before climbing briefly over the ridge into the next valley to resume this gentle walking in the valley bottoms or partway along the hillsides surrounding the valley until you are pushed out through a funnel into the wilderness of the land beyond the Dales.

My favourite part of this day’s route is the woodland of Whitecliffe Wood. This is a meandering wander through classic English deciduous woodland, filled at this time of year with fragrant wild garlic and a carpet of blue from the bluebells. It is also the equivalent of passing through a magic doorway.

Applegarth Scar on the way into Richmond

As I entered the trees I looked back for a final view along the cliffs of Applegarth Scar and the rolling green hills of the Dales. Emerging just a few kilometres later the scenery had changed dramatically. Suddenly there were no hills in sight. Instead, beyond the pretty market town of Richmond, a vast flat plain lay ahead of me – the flat lands across to the Yorkshire Moors. Distantly visible through the mist the Moors reared out of this flat field system. A climb for another day.

Richmond to Danby Wiske
This was a day for earning my keep as I trundled along long stretches of tarmac under clouds heavy with threatening rain. Days across agricultural land are often my least favourite as a route reviewer. Unlike moorland, fields have a tendency to change with alarming regularity. Field boundaries are removed periodically while stiles and gates move, change, appear and disappear quite frequently. All of these changes have to be recorded as I go so that I don’t lose track of how many gates or stiles I have passed. Often these days become days of regular stops and starts.

This particular day usually has the pleasant benefit of spending the first half of the day enjoying field paths beside the ever-widening River Swale. It was particularly pleasing to find that many of the old, broken and unstable stiles that used to characterise the route out of Richmond have been replaced with clean new gates. A number of clear wooden signposts marking the Coast to Coast had also sprung up – great news for any walker.

Low, flat fields in the Vale of York

Unfortunately a few diversions had also appeared. Major roadworks on the A1 have created a long diversion for walkers along a farm track and a main road to reach Catterick Bridge, removing a pleasant riverside ramble and adding some extra tarmac miles to a day that is already long for the Coast to Coast. Fortunately this is advertised as only being in place until September this year. Further on, quarry works have been extended, permanently shutting a permissive footpath and again diverting walkers out to the road and away from the fields. This year I was reviewing the main route, rather than the alternative options offered by Alpine Exploratory. This took me along a section of the route that seems to me to be some of Wainwright’s least inspired route-finding. Instead of a pleasant route from Ellerton Cross to Danby Wiske mostly along fields (a route now adopted by many guide books and an alternative offered to Alpine Exploratory’s clients), Wainwright chose the simpler but foot-pounding alternative of nearly 7km along roads. While they are not busy roads, my feet were certainly aware of the miles of tarmac by the end of the day. I cannot recommend the field alternative heartily enough, unless you are determined to stick to Wainwright’s original route!

Wildlife on the route
This was a lovely time of year to be out in the Yorkshire Dales. The characteristic dry stone walled fields were still filled with young lambs. Many were old enough to have recently started to boldly venture away from their mothers and explore their enclosures. Despite that they would quickly run back to the ewes if I started to approach across the field.

Meanwhile the moors were home to ground nesting season to the birds. Everywhere I went, ground nesting birds would fly up out of the grass and heather to try and draw me away from their nests. Some, like the grouse and peewits, both with very distinctive calls and markings, I recognised. Many others I didn’t recognise and only got close enough to see their markings for the first time on this trip.

Bluebells in Whitecliffe Wood

Looking forward
I have two weeks of the Coast to Coast left to review. Next time I’m out, at the end of May, I will be walking my favourite stretch. Starting out from Danby Wiske I will be walking over to Robin Hood’s Bay on the East coast.

Have you walked the Coast to Coast before? If so, what is your favourite section? Do you also love the wideness of the Yorkshire Moors or are you a fan of the rugged Lake District? Let me know through the Alpine Exploratory Facebook page!

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