To Ennerdale Bridge

The dark profile of the Isle of Man slides behind a bank of sea fog, fading like a half-remembered dream. April’s sun soothes and subdues an idling zephyr with the smiling promise of a benign day. Languid wavelets shush and sough on the shingle, rhythmic as the sleeping breath of a sated lover. The tide, seductively high, tempts me to ceremonially dip the toes of my boots.

But I’ll not be distracted by such romantic tosh! Nor shall I carry a beach pebble 192 miles just to throw into the North Sea. Let the cavorting dogs of St Bees slaver on their stones and drop them where they will. I’m into more serious business.

A path of dry red earth leads to the wild flowers of the cliff top, where seabirds scream around their nesting ledges. Effortless aerobats, they soar on invisible updraughts, mocking my earthbound plod in the footsteps of two strolling women.

‘Do you know the name of this flower?’ one asks me.
‘You’ve found my weak spot. I’m no botanist.’
‘They’re beautiful,’ says her friend, then, with a shy eye on me, ‘Are you local?’
‘No. I live in Derbyshire. Our flowers are way behind yours.’
‘Oh really? I suppose it’s to do with the sea.’
‘Are you going far?’
‘Oh no. Just a short circular walk round by Sandwith. You’ll be going further, I suppose?’
‘Aye. Ennerdale Bridge today, and Robin Hood’s Bay next week.’
‘Ooh! Are you doing it for charity?’
‘No. Just for pleasure – at least, I hope it’s pleasure. I’m taking it steady. Staying in B&Bs and using baggage transfer.’

Striding through the sheep pastures is pleasant enough, but it’s no more than a warm-up act. This loop round the headland towards Whitehaven and the forthcoming trudge across a former back-lot of the Industrial Revolution will do little for me. The main attraction waits in the wings: my first sighting of the distant misty hills confirms that the real show will start tomorrow.

About half a mile behind me two couples are marching my way in businesslike style. I’m not yet ready to fall in with fellow travellers, so I increase my pace over the ill-drained fields near Stanley Pond, which have dried into a hoof-sculpted, sun-baked obstacle course that threatens to turn an unlucky ankle. What an anticlimax that would be.

Beyond the terraced houses of Cleator I sidestep off the route to eat a sandwich. While I’m airing my socks the other walkers pass by, oblivious to my presence as they converse intently on the steepening gradient of Dent Hill.

The hot climb on a grassy path comes as a pleasure, a thankful goodbye to the coastal fringe. At the summit cairn a lone figure sits staring east. We exchange a nod and a smile.

‘Grand day, now.’
‘Aye,’ he replies. ‘How well do you know the Lake District hills?’
‘I used to think I knew them, but it’s a while since I’ve been here.’
‘See that summit, the one just peeping over the ridge yonder? Do you know what that’s called?’
I can see the one he means. It’s beyond Whiteside and left of Hopegill Head. The only thing I can think of is part of the Skiddaw range, but it looks too close.
‘No,’ he says with certainty. ‘It’s in the wrong place for Skidda.’
He then trots out a recitation of every other peak in sight. He’s better versed than me.
‘Are you local?’
‘At the moment. Depends if I can find a job.’
‘You wouldn’t want to leave this, would you?’

He just shrugs. I suppose plenty of others have had to do that very thing.
We sit contentedly in silence for a few minutes, gazing towards the compact mass of mountains, huddling like sheep in a storm. Eventually the hard stones of the cairn drive me off my backside, and I lope downhill towards my lodgings.

In the steep-sided narrow valley of Nannycatch Beck two of the walkers who passed me earlier are standing by a wall, looking hot and slightly bemused. One mops his bandana-wrapped brow while eating a banana. The other takes a long drink from a water bottle.

‘Na then.’
‘Ow do.’
‘Coast to Coast?’
‘Aye. Yerselves?’
‘Aye.’
‘Where are yer stayin’?’
‘Low Cock How.’
‘See yer there.’

We speak a similar dialect, which is more than can be said when I meet George, the farmer at Low Cock How. His Cumbrian speech demands all my concentration as we drink tea in the yard, while his dogs and cats nose round me, analysing the odours emanating from my day sack.

The other walkers arrive. Melvin is short of stature, smartly attired, very fit and muscular. Winfield is of average height and build, and even without his bandana he exudes an air of eccentricity. We soon establish we’re all in our sixties, and we pass the time identifying people and places we know around Otley and Leeds. They entertain me by endlessly nagging each other. It seems their relationship is founded on good-natured banter, spiced with Melvin’s mock indignation and mellowed by Winfield’s calm deflection of his colleague’s protestations.

After a farmhouse dinner and an hour by the fire our heads start to nod, and we make for bed as the fell ponies are driven out to graze on the common under a cold night sky.

                                                                                                                                                                           To Borrowdale >>