"Haha, first day and it's already raining big time - how very British!", I shout cheerfully as I put on my rain pants at the guesthouse in the village of St. Bees, right on the coast of the Irish Sea. We want to hike the Wainwright Coast to Coast Trail - 190 miles across England in three weeks. It was my boyfriend’s idea. He always wanted to do a long-distance hike. I love the idea, but maybe we could have found a place where it's not freezing cold and pissing rain all the time. Oh well.
At least the hike should be pretty easy. Just a couple of English meadows and hills, we can do
that blindfolded. It will certainly be more like a walk than a real hike. After all, we hiked the mountains of Norway last month.
After the first three miles, my boyfriend is nursing a bleeding head wound, and I am considering just jumping into the sea in near panic. I am no longer so sure this will be a just a walk. And we have no clue yet about the steep mountains or bacteria that are ahead of us.
On our first week on the Coast-to-Coast Trail, it seems the Universe is testing us. Just to check if we are worthy of being called "long-distance hikers".
So let's find out.
"Strike? The cursed British railroads are going on strike tomorrow of all days, when we want to travel north by rail to the trailhead?" I shout, throwing my cell phone on the bed in our London hotel.
Strike? Dude, am I in Germany or what?
We can't change it. The next day, we trudge a couple of miles to Euston Station in London to see what is working—or not working. If we can't start hiking tomorrow as planned, we're screwed and may have to catch up with 20 miles on our first day alreads. We have pre-booked and prepaid 19 one-night places to stay, arranged between eight and 14 miles apart. We did not want to race like mad through the landscape, we wanted to see something. Seems to work out great...
The first train—to Carlisle—is actually running! But the connecting train to St. Bees is shut down. "Nothing’s going north from here today. They're all on strike," a Carlisle official informs us.
“Will there be buses?” He shrugs his shoulders. He doesn't care. We go find something to eat and ask about buses or cabs to St. Bees. Nobody knows about buses and a cab is at least $125. Kiss my ass.
Then my boyfriend is unsuccessfully looking for the restroom in the restaurant, and I feel so tired of all this that I tell complete strangers at the next table just how obnoxious our day has been so far. Surprisingly, the two ladies sitting there know of a bus that we can take! Three hours, two bumpy bus connections, and one short cab ride later we are finally in St. Bees at the hotel. At the starting point for our hike. Only took 12 hours instead of our scheduled six. Thank you, National Rail.
"It can only get better," I say the next morning. It's raining cats and dogs, but I am good at being enthusiastic without an obvious reason. Besides, we have rain gear with us. Ha!
The first mile or two of the Coast-to-Coast Trail leads along costal cliff tops. It's wild and beautiful. Our hiking app says there is a way to go right down to the sea for one last time before the trail heads inland.
"Let's do it!" I shout through the storm.
The path from the cliffs down to the water is full of slippery mud-covered flat red stones. I'm checking my hiking stick when my boyfriend cries out and in the next moment he is on the ground. And he just lies there, not getting up as he usually does.
"Are you alright?" I call out. It's not the first time we've crashed and burned somewhere. He doesn't answer. Then I see the thick stone behind his head. Surely he hasn't hit his head on it?
He did. As I get closer, I see a pool of blood spreading from under his head.
"Holy shit," I yell, flailing my arms around wildly and senselessly, only to almost fall next to him. "You're bleeding big time!" At least he remains conscious and murmurs some kind of answer.
I have to call an ambulance, right? How is it supposed to get down here where there's no road for miles? Do we even have a signal? Where's my first aid knowledge? My head is empty, I'm panicking. What if he passes out now, or bleeds to death?!
I pull a scarf out of my backpack and my boyfriend pushes his hood back so he can put pressure on the wound with the scarf. Blood is already running down his neck. I want to cry and freak out. He is relatively composed. "We're going to wait for this to stop," he says, as if talking about the country rain.
"What if it doesn't?" I am yelling, even though I'm squatting right next to him.
He grins and shrugs as he says, “It will.” Blimey!
After a few minutes, the bleeding does stop. He wants to go on. He simply says, “Scalp wounds bleed a lot.”
"But you let me know if you get dizzy or sick!", I tell him with uneasy concern. I walk the next few miles with my knees feeling like pudding. What a shock.
For the rest of our Coast-to-Coast hike, my boyfriend has a crow's foot scar on the back of his head. Other than that, all is well.
Until we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of mountains. Mountains in England, huh? Yes, in the Lake District National Park, one of three national parks on this long-distance trail, there are real mountains. Sure, not exactly the Matterhorn, but at 2300 feet, they're pretty chunky if you're starting from sea level. Whew. At one point, we have to climb steeply uphill using our hands and feet. This is especially fun when you have a fat backpack on, messing with your balance and strength. Fat packs because everything we need during the three weeks—from toothbrushes to winter jackets—we carry on our backs.
At the top of a mountain, I shout, "Yay!"
I spread my arms. The view is fantastically huge around me! My boyfriend shakes his head. "Sarah,
you don't know how to do this," he says. Then he stands next to me and yells at the top of his lungs, "YEEEEEE HAW!"
Somewhere now, a stone wall is crumbling into the valley. I'm sure of it.
Again and again, we meet other hikers on the path who are also walking the Coast-to-Coast Trail. Sue and Glyn are a couple we meet several times. A few times we even spend the night in the same hotel and talk to them about the trail, about where we come from, and about what thoughts come to mind on the way.
Thoughts such as the realization that it takes a whole day to walk distances that you could drive in 15 minutes. Thoughts about how people used to spend weeks carrying letters and messages over these mountains to communicate with others.
Or how our lives have become so fast and now everyone is used to immediate answers and constant accessibility. Hiking without signal, without laptop, and no mails decelerates your pace and makes you aware of what a noisy, spinning hamster wheel we often live in every day. And for what?
After about five days we are forced to interrupt our hike. Practically from the beginning of our Coast-to-Coast hike, I have been having pain in my lower belly that slowly radiates into my back. I pee all the time. A nonprescription medication for cystitis from the pharmacy helps only slightly. Great. Kidney infection, here I come.
When I finally decide to go the doctor one morning, I find that no English practitioner has a walk-in consultation hour.
“It isn’t possible to see you without an appointment," say three practices, all of which were a cab ride away.
Yes. Sorry. You freaking nutcases. I'm wandering through your infernal country and forgot to foresee that I would have pain this week. Also, I'm not a British citizen, which makes the paperwork even more difficult. I freak out!
After a completely wasted day, a $65 cab ride to the nearest hospital—where they are obliged to
accept you—and later a four-and-a-half-mile trek on foot, I finally have an antibiotic prescription.
We're now about a third of the way through our journey. 65 miles or so. Despite the rain, the mud, the fatigue, the pain, the blood, the delays, the mountains, the frustrations. Despite everything that tried to stop us. In our Bed and Breakfast, we lie snuggled together under a sloped roof looking out the window.
"Can only get better," says my boyfriend.
I want to throw a pillow at him. But hopefully he's right.
More about our long-distance hike through England will appear on this blog soon.
Find more of our hiking adventures here: