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Donkin's World: Coast-to-Coast - A Bond For Life

Richard Donkin goes on the tough walk from one side of England to the other with his son George.

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I’m not sure how the seed was planted but I think the idea of walking from coast to coast in the north of England was introduced as a father and son bonding exercise. Except that George was thinking of a fell walk and I had in mind something a little bit longer than that.

We were in the Lake District and my walking plans had been temporarily curtailed because of a bad back. George was disappointed as he’d wanted to go up one of the fells with his dad. Afterwards I bought Martin Wainwright’s guide book of the late Alfred Wainwright’s walk, saw that it was divided in to 12 day-long sections and mapped out a schedule in my diary. The idea was to do the walk soon after George had finished his A-level examinations.

And there it remained at the back of the mind for many months, until a few weeks before the off I noticed the 12 days were getting closer, still pencilled-in and George had not cried off as I expected he would. It looked like it was going to happen.

We didn’t do much research or preparation. Neither of us wanted to be tied to firm arrangements. George wanted to take a tent. That meant full backpacks and I don’t like walking with a big backpack.It was the weekend of my in-laws Alan and Barbara’s diamond wedding party (which also coincided with the England v Germany game in the World Cup. Eldest son John got over it by watching the drama unfold between courses on his cousin Connie’s iPhone). Looking at the logistics of reaching Ennerdale youth hostel, I realised we would need to start bright and early. Gill drove us to St Bee’s in Cumbria for a 9 am start.

At our first rest around noon, the lady serving bacon sandwiches at the home she had converted in to a café told us an 87-year-old man had done the 192-mile walk to Robin Hood’s Bay the previous year in 19 days. Elsewhere we heard of a woman who had carried a two-year-old on her back and we met a man who told us he had walked the full distance before turning round at the Yorkshire coast and walking straight back.

We met that telly-walking woman, also, looking as fresh as a daisy as she skipped the 200 yards to her waiting quad bike, while her film crew investigated a dodgy theory about the Nine Standards http://www.visitcumbria.com/pen/ninestandards.htm (to be screened in August in a series called Secret Britain http://www.bbc.co.uk/tv/comingup/secretbritain/).

I’m sure that Julia Bradbury has completed the Coast-to-Coast walk at some time. But when she made her film, she was ferried to various locations while spending each night at her base in Keld. Or at least that was the scuttlebutt among the staff at Keld Lodge where she stayed. On the Keld Lodge menus there was a list of the old northern sheep-counting words, some of which I knew:

Yan, tan tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick. That’s one to 10. Bumfit means 15 and Jiggot, 20. Wikipedia has many versions but all equate to the same system that was also used in knitting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yan_Tan_Tethera

Martin Wainwright is no relation to Alfred. I remember Martin, the Guardian’s man in the north, from my days at the Yorkshire Post. He’s written a useful guide book but I don’t agree with his 12-day schedule that is pretty punishing. I wouldn’t have liked to have been facing 20 miles for my last day, set out in the book. Instead we got ahead of ourselves leaving us with just 11 miles on day 12, all knocked off by lunchtime.

Carrying our packs slowed us down to little better than 2 mph so we ferried one of them on some of the days to ease the load. The pack-carrying companies – Packhorse and Sherpa – can be counted on to take your bag to the next destination. Packhorse was the cheaper service by some margin. http://www.c2cpackhorse.co.uk/pack.htm

Sherpa say they have moved more than 30,000 bags so far this year. At £8 a time that's not a bad business. They reckon that something like 20,000 people a year are doing the walk. People come from all over the world. We met Germans, Americans, Australians plus a couple from Halifax. If you want to open a bed-and-breakfast you could do worse than consulting this route.

I’ve done a fair bit of walking and this was a tough one. My feet are still recovering. George struggled too at times so it wasn’t just the old man feeling his age. A lot of the accommodation was booked up in advance so anyone thinking about doing the walk should plan ahead a bit more than we did, unless they are happy to camp. The tent was a squeeze but it was satisfying to have all we needed to survive.

Did we bond? Well we certainly argued a lot and walked apart for much of the time, but I think we learned to respect each other and we have something now that we shared – a whole lot of pain and suffering. Many years from now we can look each other in the eye and say: “Coast-to-coast walk? Yes, we did that. We did it together.” But next time perhaps we should settle for a fell.


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