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Ancient Feet: 74 - England's Green And Pleasant Land

...The Coast to Coast Walk is a wonderful experience, so my advice is don't delay, do it now...

Alan Nolan concludes his gloriously entertaining and amusing account of a long walk with his friends.

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Signed copies of the book are available from Alan http://apn.thelea@yahoo.co.uk

Since Alfred Wainwright devised the Coast to Coast Walk over thirty years ago, many thousands have followed in his footsteps across this beautiful country of ours. What is truly amazing is that, on this small, over-populated island, here is a walk which avoids crowds and main centres of population. On several days, walkers do not pass through any towns, villages or even hamlets, and it is possible to walk for hours on end without seeing another human being. If you like the countryside and enjoy walking, this walk is a must for your 'things to do before I die' list.

The great thing about walking is that almost anyone can do it. It is not restricted by class or age or anything else really. This is apparent from Country Walking magazine which features regular columns from such diverse characters as Lord (Chris) Smith and Stuart Maconie, the latter being a Radio 2 disc jockey, or do they call them radio 'presenters' these days? Whatever, neither DJ nor presenter adequately describes the job. A non-English speaker translating from a dictionary might deduce that a disc jockey is someone who rides a horse round a flat thin circular object and a presenter is someone who donates gifts.

'I play records and CDs on the radio and, in between, I talk about anything that comes into my head really, although sometimes I have to interview celebrities, usually because they want to publicise their latest record or film or whatever and I have to pretend I'm nterested.'Well, I can see why it is easier to say 'I'm a DJ'.

Interestingly (for me at least), Mr Maconie's column in early 2005 described his New Year resolutions which included doing the Coast to Coast Walk and climbing Jack's Rake. Although I know very little about Mr Maconie, I know that we have a number of things in common, the main one being a love of the Lake District. Being a native of Wigan, only twenty miles from my own home town of Southport, he is a fellow Lancastrian. Perhaps his love of the Lakes is influenced ever so slightly by the fact that the southern part of the Lake District was in our home county of Lancashire until 1974, when Cumbria was formed from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, the northern bit of Lancashire and a bit ofYorkshire. The photograph accompanying his column suggests that he may not be old enough to remember that but the relevant point is that he loves the Lakes and the walking.

His resolutions aroused my attention because one of them had already been crossed off my own 'to do' list, although only fairly recently. Jack's Rake is a route to the summit of Pavey Ark, one of the well-known Langdale Pikes in the Lake District, and is very definitely a climb, rather than a walk. Walkers ascending from New Dungeon Ghyll view the sheer rock face of Pavey Ark across the waters of Stickle Tarn, and an impressive sight it is. It is a fearsome precipice and one which only a madman would attempt to scale. As young Stuart wrote in 2005, 'this really is the year that I will climb Jack's Rake. Every time I find myself at Stickle Tarn, it leers down at me condescendingly with its jagged scar of a smile. I've spent many a happy afternoon ... gazing up at the tiny figures ascending the rake, moving at an agonisingly slow pace along the defile, clearly in the grips of paroxysms of anxiety and self-doubt. While I find this as hugely enjoyable as the next man, I am nagged by the fact that it really should be me up there proving my alpha male credentials.'

Like young Stuart, I had often gazed across at the precipice and thought I should attempt the ascent of Jack's Rake, but had always opted for one of the easier routes. That is until the day I walked up to Stickle Tarn with my old pal, Tom. He would have been sixty-five or sixty-six at the time, so I would have been about fifty-six.

'Now, we've got three options here,' I said, as we took in the view across the tarn, 'we can take the path up to the left to the saddle between Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark, or we can go to the right and work our way round and come up Pavey Ark from the other side, or we can take Jack's Rake up the cliff face.'

I should have known better!

'Yeah, yeah,' he replied almost before I had 'rake' out of my mouth. Like me, this would be a first for him as well. We made our way round the tarn and, ten minutes later, stood at the foot of the rake peering up the rock face. Rock chmbers will scoff at Jack's Rake, being the easiest of climbs and not even requiring ropes, but Wainwright's description pointed out that 'as a WALK it is both difficult and awkward: in fact, for much of the way the body is propelled forwards by a series of convulsions unrelated to normal walking, the knees and elbows contributing as much to progress as hands and feet. Walkers who can still put their toes in their mouths and bring their knees up to their chins may embark upon the ascent confidently; others, unable to perform these tests, will find the route arduous.' I think I can say with some confidence that it had been many a year since either of us had put our toes in our mouths, but do you think we were going to turn back now?

It was at this point that I remembered reading an old guide book which cautioned walkers that Jack's Rake was for chmbers only and should be avoided by walkers at all costs. I seemed to recall that the warning concluded with the words 'especially by two old farts on a wintry February day' but this could have been just my imagination.

Just before we reached the foot of the cliff, a young couple set off up the rake with climbing ropes slung over their shoulders and, as we stood awaiting the right moment to begin our own ascent, were surprised to see them come down again after ascending only about thirty feet. They explained that they had already completed one climb that day and had decided against tackling another. Perhaps this was their very oblique way of avoiding discouraging us, thinking that saying 'it looks too tough for us' would have caused us to abort. As if!

Eventually, we set off and enjoyed an exhilarating forty-five minute climb to the summit, with wonderful views as we stopped from time to time to look down. Despite the warnings, it proved to be far less difficult than the guide books had led us to believe, although there were one or two tricky bits. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I did it again the following year!

I cannot recall any of Mr Maconie's subsequent articles confirming that he kept his 2005 resolutions but, if you haven't yet been up Jack's Rake, Mr M, I urge you to do it soon. After the first time, you'll be up and down there on a regular basis, I'm sure.

As for the Coast to Coast Walk, I will be very disappointed if I learn that this resolution was not kept. It is an absolute must for any walker.

Strangely, perhaps, although the Lake District is the most rugged section and where no human habitation is passed on most days, this is also the busiest in terms of the number of people out walking. Paradoxically, it is also where walkers are most likely to go astray, as a result of the plethora of paths within the National Park and the absence of signs within its boundaries. Certainly, this is where map and compass and, possibly, GPS have to be carried. There is a strange phenomenon on the fells of the Lake District. In reasonable weather, it is unusual to walk for more than an hour or so without seeing other walkers but, if the weather changes and the rain starts to fall, all other walkers seem to disappear. Where do they go?

Once through the Lake District, most walkers should find that they can manage with a good guide book, even though other walkers will be few and far between. Indeed, in my experience, it is rare to see anyone other than fellow Coast to Coasters and, as most of those are travelling in the same direction, the only time you see them is when either they or you stop for a break.

It is clear that this great adventure is becoming more and more popular, not only with British people, but also with foreign visitors. There seem to be a great many American, Australian and Dutch walkers undertaking the trek, and we met one German couple on our recent exploit. So, the word is travelling far and wide. Most of the visitors have told me that they learned about the Coast to Coast by word of mouth, but I have heard that it is on a website somewhere which lists the ten best walks in the world. I know that readers of Country Walking magazine voted it the second best walk in the world (behind New Zealand's Milford Track), but this may not be representative, being a British magazine. Whatever, it is now an extremely popular walk.

Popularity brings its own problems though and, in this case, accommodation is going to prove more and more difficult to find. Camping is one answer and provides plenty of flexibility, but the big downside is having to carry so much weight on the back, particularly in very hot or in very poor weather. With the recent warm summers, almost all the campers I met were struggling in the extreme heat and, I imagine, it would be just as hard in wet and windy weather.

Youth hostellers will find it increasingly difficult to take advantage of their membership with the closure of the hostels at Kirkby Stephen and Keld and this will put even more pressure on the B&Bs along the route. What we are likely to see are more B&Bs away from the route either offering to pick up guests and return them the following day, or arranging taxis at guests expense. Foreign visitors will, no doubt, book early and the agents, such as the Coast to Coast Packhorse, will take many of the beds available, so there will be increasing difficulty booking suitable accommodation.

The Coast to Coast Walk is a wonderful experience, so my advice is don't delay, do it now, before Tom decides to do it again with a gang of over-seventies, taking up all the available beds. Oh, and don't forget to eat plenty of pasties.


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