To Kirkby Stephen

Melvin and Winfield are finishing a huge Cumbrian breakfast, and they look ready to be off. Jean places a similar feast in front of me, and with determination I complete the challenge, settle my bill, and face the crucial decision of the day, namely what to buy for lunch.

I catch up with the others before the motorway footbridge. Winfield remembers the route, whereas Melvin and I are first-timers.

‘Have you done a lot of walking together?’
‘Not really,’ Winfield replies. ‘We’ve cycled quite a bit. That’s Melvin’s sport. And we play table tennis.’

Their Coast to Coast venture is a forerunner to a hike along the California’s John Muir Trail. Melvin, recently retired, needs to check out his physical condition on a long distance path before committing to the America trip.

‘It’s the feet,’ he says. ‘Well, actually, it’s one foot. It’s not right. I mean, it’s not all right. They’re his old boots.’
He points at his footwear with a look of resigned contempt.
‘Ah, well,’ Winfield counters. ‘If I hadn’t needed special lifts to correct my foot trouble, you wouldn’t have those boots.’ He turns to me. ‘I’ve got a bent toe from a fracture when I was a kid, and it was upsetting the way I walk, so I’ve got these new orthotic things that are supposed to straighten me out all the way up through the ankle and knee and hip into my back. But I couldn’t get into my old boots once I’d had these things fitted.’
‘It’s our age,’ I say. ‘We’re all falling apart. I’ve been using Sorbothane insoles for twenty years and trekking poles for ten, and now I’ve got to wear this knee support too.’
‘Oh, yes,’ says Winfield. ‘Some people don’t realise. You’ve got to look after yourself.’

Along we go into the grey day, leaving behind our views of the Lake District mountains, heading onto a windswept upland that will at last deliver us into the Vale of Eden.

After an hour Melvin and Winfield stop for a snack, but I continue. We don’t need each other for safety or support; I don’t want to stop yet; and I wouldn’t intrude on their walk by assuming I can travel with them all day.

The path drops from the moor onto a road, which I follow for about half a mile. When I take to the field path Terry and Pauline appear ahead, walking south towards Orton. I’m going in the other direction, so that should be my last sighting, but they reappear in the next field.

‘We were going the wrong way ‘til we asked a farmer. He let us come back through his yard, but he said it wasn’t a right of way.’
‘Where are you staying tonight?’
‘Kirkby Stephen. Well, no, actually, it’s a place outside Kirkby Stephen, but she’s going to pick us up when we phone her.’
‘Aye, I’m in Kirkby Stephen. So are Winfield and Melvin. They’re behind me. They’ve stopped for a feed.’

We walk along together, talking about feet. We pass through fields of ewes and lambs. We climb plenty of stiles but no hills. When they slow down I pull away along a green lane bounded by stone walls.

The next section will involve a diversion by road around Sunbiggin Tarn, an important site for nesting birds. I feel I need a full belly before this drag, so I stop for lunch in the lee of the wall. Terry and Pauline pass by with a smile and a ‘See you later’.

Mulling over the Coast to Coast, things are turning out much as I’d expected. The Lake District is so exceptional that today’s country, pleasant and serene though it is, feels nondescript. The walking also is entirely different from anything that’s gone before. It’s easier, and although there are more miles I wouldn’t want to spread them over two days.

Through the gate and onto Sunbiggin Common, a notice board tells me of the ecological importance of the area and the ways to cross it. Good news: I can avoid most of the road walk and shorten the route by keeping the Tarn on my left. Away I go at a brisk pace, light of heart and refuelled with sandwiches.

To my surprise Terry and Pauline suddenly appear to my left, on the original route. I’d expected them to be far away by now. Then it occurs to me that perhaps they don’t feel too sure of their way and are waiting to see what I do. I don’t like to risk offending them by asking whether they know what they’re doing, so I carry on. They start after me, then they stop and head the other way. Oh, they’ll sort themselves out without my intervention!

Once I’ve rounded the Tarn I check with the compass, which restrains me from taking the wrong track. The mist is closing in, making this part of the walk an experience to be completed rather than enjoyed. The underfoot conditions are pleasantly soft, and progress is rapid. The road soon comes into sight, and the long patrol of the fields begins, leading to the archaeological site of Severals village. Failing to pay attention to my map, I miss a stile and find myself on the wrong side of a high wall, so I have to improvise a route for the last half-mile to Smardale Bridge. It’s snack-time again, and down goes the last of the chocolate and water.

Terry and Pauline loom into view and pass by. A handful of day walkers amble along the former railway track. A rucksack appears, dwarfing a man who reminds me of Don Estelle, the actor-singer from the television series ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’. The apparition plods by with a tired smile and a nod.

The final leg to Kirkby Stephen is wearisome without being difficult. The town is winding down late on a Sunday afternoon. Shops are closing, cars deserting the parking spaces in the main street. From inside a hotel, the raucous celebrations of a gypsy wedding suggest that by the end of the day the debris may not be limited to the horse shit already dumped liberally on the pavement.

My digs are delightful: a Georgian house in a side street, with a welcoming pot of tea and homemade cake. Tea in England, when served away from a building site, can be such a civilised ceremony. In a high-ceilinged, elegant room with tall windows that look onto the pink cherry blossoms of a walled garden, I soak up the refreshing liquid and chat with a father and son who’ve just arrived by car for a walking holiday.

The bedroom provides a huge selection of paperback books, enough to keep anyone quiet during a wet week in the north-west, but my priority is beer and food. A walk along the main street reveals the eating options, none of which are particularly exciting The best combination looks like Black Sheep ale and three courses in the same pub. Thus are the bookends to my day’s hike defined: a huge breakfast and an ample dinner, just what the walker needs! After a phone chat with Julia I crash out in the genteel comfort of my quiet bedroom.

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