We were just shy of two weeks and two-hundred miles into a walk across northern England, from the Cumbrian seaside town of St. Bees on the island’s West Coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the East. A couple more hours and we’d march—or, in my case, limp—across the finish line of the itinerary popularized by the famed rambler and guidebook author Alfred Wainwright in his 1973 A Coast to Coast Walk, a copy of which I had in my back pocket.
The path now led gently down to the headlands above the North Sea, a blue plain stretching towards a horizon flecked by oiler tankers. To our left Whitby Abbey, the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, glowered, as Gothic ruins tend to do even on a sometimes sunny day like this one.
Alan’s concentration was elsewhere. He was on his phone to a piper. He’d called him two hours earlier with an urgent request: could he identify a melody that Alan, now fifty-six years old, had heard repeated dozens of times twenty-nine years earlier when he had led a group of cyclists from Land’s End on the Southwest tip of England to John o’ Groats at the very top of Scotland? After ten grueling days on the bicycles, Alan had secretly organized for two pipers to surprise the cyclists by playing the peloton over the last rise and down to the sea. That euphoric feeling of ceremonial arrival had stayed with Alan lo these three decades and the tune had too. I suspected that the tune was the feeling, and vice-versa.
For the present adventure, however, Alan wasn’t on two wheels but on two battered and blistered feet. His excellent ear and agile lips were in fine shape. He’d whistled the tune into the music-identification app Shazam, but no title was forthcoming. He’d whistled the tune to me hoping I might be able to identify it, but I couldn’t help either.
He knew I was musician, as I’d been regaling him with stories of how my hiking partner Annette Richards and I had been putting down our packs periodically to play organs along the way—the churches unlocked and welcoming. In the on instance where it was locked, ferreting out the “hidden” key was easy enough.
Twelve days earlier, on our walk down to the beach at St. Bees under sunny skies with our feet fresh and backpacks filled to bursting, we fell into step and conversation with a woman in shorts and sandals. She was the vicar in the ancient Anglican Priory of St. Bega whose tower we could see a quarter mile away. The main attraction she advertised was not God, but an exhibit about St. Bees Man, a six-hundred-year-old specimen exhumed during work on the church. The geezer was perfectly preserved right down his skin, nails, and hair. Probably some—not least myself—wouldn’t look half as good after a dozen days of walking over some rough country, through sweltering heat with numbing intervals of mist and rain.
The vicar was leaving the next day with her husband, kids and in-laws for an American holiday, first to Yosemite (fires!) then across the country to Disney World (an unnatural disaster). The vicar would need her faith to get through those trials. Was there a deal to be struck with the Mouse House for the story rights to St. Bees Man, I wanted to ask her, but by then we’d already arrived at the church. She had to get ready for her trip and disappeared into the sprawling vicarage, so we had a go on the large and glorious William Hill organ from the 1899, still capable of delivering the Victorian glories of Onward Christian Soldiers in spite of the ravages of a century and some of salt air.
Across Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales, and North York Moors, we stopped in most days at one church or another to have a look and listen and to help ourselves to the offerings of tea and goodies provided the Wainwright walkers: from the Methodist Chapel in the 19th-century mining town of Keld and farther down that same valley to St. Mary’s in Bolton-on-Swale (in whose churchyard is buried Henry Watkins, who claimed to have reached the age of 169 in 1670), to the cavernous Catholic church of St. Hedda’s in Egton Bridge in Yorkshire where we had to pump the organ by hand, cajoling the thing to life while surrounded by wooden Nativity statues covered in pigeon shit, the beaks and claws of bird skeletons poking out of the mouths of the façade pipes.
Annette and I first read about the walk in an inflight magazine thirty years ago, not long after Wainwright’s death in 1991. That we got the idea from a seatback in the Friendly Skies proves how not off-the-beaten-track this trek is. But walking long distances is not for everyone, and even in the height of a (pre)-post-pandemic summer one encounters not so many who are undertaking, never mind completing, the trip. You meet folks who’ve started out at about the same time as you have and are following a similar schedule laid out by Wainwright and subsequent annotators.
In his 1973 guidebook, Wainwright expressed reservations about the project of publication, since after laying out the scheme and describing it with such curmudgeonly charm, he suspected that eager crowds of ramblers would soon appear. He could feel “the world pulling on its boots.” Dead or alive, Wainwright cannot have it both ways: you can’t popularize and then make a show of yearning for the good old days of solitary wandering and the joys of traversing a stretch of Olde England devoid of tourist infrastructure. Nowadays a latte macchiato can be had every ten miles, twenty at a stretch. One can pretty well guess what Wainwright would think of such amenities, but he shares more than a little of the responsibility for such developments.
Even in 1973 not all was pastoral and pleasant. At the start of the walk out St Bees Head (initially heading, counterintuitively and counterdirectionally, west rather than east) one can’t shake the notorious Sellafeld nuclear power station from the viewshed for much of the first day. More than a week in, a terrifying four-lane highway must be rushed across, far more dangerous than descending Striding Edge, the sharp, boulder-strewn ridge leading down from the most climbed peak in England, Helvellyn in the Lake District. From the York Moors the smokestacks of the industrial city of Middlesborough spread below. In the Vale of Mowbray agribusinessmen have removed the lovely stone walls and put up barbed wire and other hazards to contain and discourage Coast-to-Coasters.
The landscape counts as iconic: you recognize the Cumbrian Fells from pictures books and poetic postcards, the Yorkshire Dales from All Creatures Great and Small and holiday gift calendars. Walking into the icon reveals ruthlessly deforested and overgrazed reality. Conditioned as we are to the Picturesque charms of patchwork dales and the Romantic sublimity of the rain-lashed heath, we are reflexively uplifted by these sights. The long views are sublime to behold, but one has to stoke the myth by suppressing the evidence at your feet: every other footstep lands in sheep shit. Critics have lambasted the granting of UNESCO status to the Lake District in 2017 as giving aesthetic and ecological imprimatur to what could be better characterized as a kind of heather-clad desert. Some attempts at nurturing scrub and even forests are being attempted, but there is much desolation—which accrues a kind of beauty too, not least because of the marketing of these images as intrinsic to the Idea of England. There are few birds and little signs animal life, beyond hikers, holiday makers, and the ubiquitous sheep.
The English “countryside” is a commodity, but given the density of the population it is astounding how ardently it is safeguarded at least as painterly, poetic, and photographic image. For days we saw no cell phone towers across endless views over the moors.
The walk is less about the natural world or scenery, even when assiduously construed as archetypally English, than it is about the people.
Alan was one of those people. We’d encountered him and the three other members of his group outside of a place called Shap, home to another ruined abbey. I assumed the name meant sheep, but was informed that it derives from the Norse word for heap—probably of stones collected to form the ancient burial mounds still encountered along the way. Alan’s foursome came from Kent down in the Southeast of England. They were diverse in age, gender, and interests beyond the love of walking. I called them the Kentish Quartet. A longtime cyclist and motorcyclist Alan had taken up walking during the pandemic. He had proposed to three other members of the large club he’d joined—Pascale, Claire, and Steve—that they do the celebrated Wainwright Coast-to-Coast together. The four made their pact in January and the planning began.
But that planning had not extended to a closing theme song, and Alan was now on the job.
He’d started googling pipers ten miles from Robin Hood’s Bay, the endpoint of the walk. He reached one who said he could help but was just then (it was Saturday) on his way to play for a wedding. He said he’d call Alan back. By now we were at the headlands, the shoreline visible through intermittent gaps in the gorse and the tide pulling back over the shale and coastal sandstone shelf.
Alan’s phone rang. After a few explanatory words he started to whistle the tune. The piper got it after the first few notes: “The Green Hills of Tyrol.” (I refrained from telling Alan that the title was fitting since the Tyrol was almost as badly overgrazed as the Lake District.)
A product development engineer who loves his job but said more than once that he’s exactly four years and four months from retirement after which time he’ll have more time to walk, Alan commands a flashing, generous sense of humor which he deploys often, as when watching me nearly topple a ten-foot-tall, 800-year-old cairn up on the Nine Standards Rigg atop the Hartley Fell in the Pennines, or when commenting on the gut-busting dimensions of the Steak-and-Guinness pies of England’s third-highest pub, the Lion. (I kept telling these people: “We’re in England, it’s not about the height of your ‘mountains.’”)
Now was not the time for jokes. Alan thanked the piper sincerely, then pulled up a performance of the tune on his iPhone.
He caught up with the other members of his Kentish Quartet in time to stride down the steep, narrow central lane of Robin Hood’s Bay with its the quaint houses with their mullioned windows and red roof tiles, its sweet shops, B & Bs, places selling boogie boards and plastic beach toys. The Kentish Quartet marched four abreast in time to the virtual pipers buzzing out of Alan’s iPhone, the tourist throngs parting for these hikers sporting Osprey packs and undauntable spirits.
They each tossed a pebble picked up back at St. Bees onto the North Sea beach then headed in for their richly deserved Wainwright® Golden Ale at the nearby bar, a long way from the Green Hills of Tyrol.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)