Travel

Crossing off a bucket list item by crossing England by foot

The author in Patterdale, England.

Mairead McGuirk FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The author in Patterdale, England.

When I told people I was walking across England, their reactions were usually the same: “Why?”

Most Americans (and many Brits) have never heard of Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast Walk, an unofficial and largely unmarked 192-mile footpath that stretches across Northern England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea.

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So when I shared my travel plans with co-workers, friends, and strangers, many assumed that the trek was some harebrained attempt at self-discovery — something I cooked up while in the throes of a bad break-up.

While there was some truth in this assumption, the Coast-to-Coast is actually considered one of the 10 best long-distance hikes in the world, something that’s been on my bucket list since I was 18. This April, I finally crossed it off, completing the long-distance hike in 15 days with my best friend and map-reading aficionado Mairead.

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More than a month later, we still can’t stop talking about our experience, which I highly recommend to any active, adventurous spirit looking for an English vacation outside your typical London fare.

Spanning three national parks, the C2C immerses dauntless travelers in the mystical landscapes of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors.

Most C2C walkers begin their journey at St. Bee’s, the most westerly point of Northern England.

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Tradition demands that hikers dip a toe into the Irish Sea and put a pebble in their pocket before setting off along the dramatic sandstone cliffs. We obliged.

Amid the shrieking cries of a variety of seabirds like guillemots and herring gulls, we caught a whiff of gorse, a coconut-perfumed yellow flower that covers coastal grasslands in late spring and summer.

It began to drizzle as we peeled away from the coastline, and we got our official C2C “baptism.”

That first day, we met a woman on a hillside as we approached Ennerdale, a tiny hamlet burrowed in the foot of the Lake District. She was walking a border collie and a terrier mix named “Pip,” and was completely unfazed that it was pouring.

She asked how our walk was going.

Blinking back rain, Mairead and I admitted that we were surprised by how hard it was. We could already feel blisters emerging on every toe.

“Oh, never mind the hard work,” she said, beaming. “Just enjoy the journey.”

This became our mantra for the next 180 miles, and it helped transport me up our steepest summit, Kidsty Pike, a formidable 2,559-foot fell that sits atop the Haweswater Reservoir.

We also repeated it every time we got lost, which was often, but never catastrophically.

The key was not to panic, and to befriend the locals, often a farmer or a fellow walker, who would steer us in the right direction with a friendly nod or an, “Alright then!”

The most we ever got lost was on our descent into Grasmere, a bucolic village in the center of the Lake District, made famous by housing Wordsworth’s grave and oddly enough, a gingerbread shop.

It was a windy, bright day and somewhere around Grisedale Hause, a 1,936-foot peak, Mairead and I started walking toward a cairn (a human-made pile of stones) that was in the exact opposite direction of where we were supposed to go.

This easily could have turned into an eight-hour mistake, but it didn’t. Because people in Northern England are really nice.

A young hiker from Manchester saw our deviation from the C2C path and had a bad feeling, so he sprinted two miles to reach us. He stopped, panting. “Ye alright?” he asked, wiping mud from his electric yellow shorts.

“We actually think we might be a bit turned around,” I admitted.

“I know you are,” he said, laughing.

This stranger, whose name I’m embarrassed to say we never got, hiked the next 10 miles or so by our side, sharing with us his love for American breakfast buffets, his distaste for our president, and the difference between US granola bars and the British version, which are inexplicably called “flapjacks.”

Other lovely people we met along the way included a Mount Everest-climbing Aussie couple; a woman from the Canary Islands who completed the Camino de Santiago in 60 days; and a saint of an innkeeper named Carol, who washed all of our smelly clothes and hung them up to dry on a clothesline in her living room.

In the Yorkshire Dales, we stepped into a James Herriot novel, ambling over rolling green pastures dotted with sheep and stone cottages to spy one storybook village after the next.

We encountered medieval monasteries, castles, and ancient stone circles that span Northern England’s rich history, from Roman rule to the Tudor era and beyond.

Though we experienced our fair share of blisters along the way — and for me, an unexpected allergic reaction to wool socks — an abundance of warmly lit pubs and quaint inns rejuvenated our spirits each day.

I took the most transcendental shower of my life at Knotts View Guest House, a B&B in Borrowdale that was built by monks in the 15th century. At the Golden Lion pub in Osmotherly, a village in the Hambleton hills of North Yorkshire, a piping hot salmon fishcake with chive beurre blanc sauce and a pint of hard cider nearly moved me to tears. Little luxuries like a heated towel rack or a Thermos of hot chocolate take on spiritual significance after walking 28 miles.

That being said, I’d suggest using some kind of baggage transfer service to get your luggage moved from inn to inn, or your backpack will quickly become your worst enemy. We used Sherpa Expeditions, but we met other hikers who seemed equally satisfied using Packhorse.

You could attempt the trek using a fancy GPS device, but Mairead and I survived with one map, a Trailblazer’s C2C guidebook, and a compass that was never used — and Cadbury chocolate bars, which we bought from every corner store we passed along the way.

On the last leg of the trip, we traversed North York Moors, a heather-dotted highland whose windswept silence is only punctuated with the occasional squawk of a startled grouse.

There, we saw the ruins of a 14th century Carthusian priory and met a band of gorgeous palomino and pinto horses that let us stroke their velvety noses and feed them apples.

We finished our journey at Robin Hood’s Bay, a fishing village that seems to fall into the North Sea, where Mairead and I tossed the two pebbles that had weighed down our pockets from the very beginning, a physical admonition to just keep going when the going got tough.

A trio of Italian men took our photos as waves lapped at our feet and I tried not to cry, feeling a little dizzy and emotional from the glass of champagne handed to us by an overenthusiastic bystander.

Our legs were wobbly, but we walked up a winding flight of stairs to the Bay Hotel, a sea-sprayed white hotel where C2C walkers sign their name and a message in a leatherbound book.

Nothing seemed to adequately describe what I felt, so I jotted down, “Best time of my life.” Cliché, but also true.

If I had a little more time to process my thoughts, however, I think I’d quote the trail’s namesake, Alfred Wainwright: “This is something to be lived, not read about. On these breezy heights, a transformation is wondrously wrought within you. Your thoughts are simple, in tune with your surroundings; the complicated problems you brought with you from the town are smoothed away.”

Justine Hofherr can be reached at jhof129@gmail.com.
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