I took my first English walking tour in 2015 after nearly two decades of daydreaming of such a walk. At the time, I thought it was a once in a lifetime trip. As the summer of 2016 approached, however, I began fantasizing about going back. I thought my wife would not be keen on the idea but to my surprise, she was all for it.
I was back a mere week from my 2016 Dales Way walk when a friend approached me about a group walk in the summer of 2017. Within the course of a week, a group of 5 friends committed to a walk. My enthusiasm for English walking tours was apparently contagious.
As excited as I was for a group walk, I felt like I would be forfeiting my cherished alone time. Another outlandish idea began to form. How about a group AND and solo walk? It was in my 40th birthday that I found the dubious justification that I needed to take two walks in one summer. Initially apprehensive, my wife quickly supported my scheming.
So in the summer of 2017, I took two walks, totally just over 300 miles. I was hardly back from the Cleveland Way when I began to think about this summer’s adventure. It was about this time that I began to reflect and realized that I was happier than I had been in years, maybe decades. I found something about which I am truly passionate. Something I can look forward to every year. I could hardly have a conversation without annoyingly steering it back to my walks. At the same time, I found myself frequently fielding unsolicited questions from friends and acquaintances about my walks. My identity, personally and outwardly, became entangled with my new found passion.
I immersed myself in walking history and literature. My skeletal ideas about walking grew flesh and became more focused and nuanced. I feel like I’ve tapped into something that has been largely forgotten.
As my thoughts turned to summer 2018, I identified a few long-distance trails that were interesting. But another idea began to form: I wanted to ramble. Ramble in the truest sense of the word. No itineraries. No reservations (RIP Chef). Go where the wind blows.
It wasn’t long before my daydreaming took on an absurd scope. Could I walk from the most two most extreme points in Britain? As I tried to figure out where those extreme points were, I stumbled onto “LEJOG.” LEJOG is an acronym for Land’s End to John o’ Groats. While not technically the most extreme points, Land’s End, on the southwestern tip of England, and John o Groats, on the most northeastern tip of Scotland, are the two most extreme inhabited spots on the island.
LEJOG is not a path, it’s more of a challenge. The challenge is simply to get from one point to the other. It’s a very popular cycling challenge but it’s also frequently taken up by walkers. Because there is no set path, the walker is free to set their own course. The shortest route, which is all road, is 838 miles. The inspired walker employs footpaths, avoiding roads at all costs, resulting in a typical distance of 1,200 miles. While it’s possible to cover the 1,200 miles in two months, if you want to explore and not tax yourself, three months is recommended.
Three months. That is a hard sell. At first, it was a fantasy. The fantasy began to annex more and more mental real estate. I started to talk about it with my wife in sincere abstract. To my utter astonishment, my wife began to encourage me to do it. Not mere acquiescence but advocation.
Every time I think about writing this post I feel the need to defend myself. There’s a part of me that feels like I am doing something wrong. By disappearing for three months, I am asking a lot from my wife, kids, mom and all the people who help with keeping the household together – a chore which is amplified by the demanding needs of my disabled son.
It’s a very hard sell. But ultimately it’s a choice that’s up to my wife and I. Most spouses would not even consider taking on so much for their spouse’s midlife fantasies. I don’t know why my wife is such a supporter but she is. And I love her for it.
I’ve reached a place in my life where I am done accepting excuses to forgo the things that make me happy. As long as I have Anna’s support and my absence doesn’t put undue stress on my other obligations, I choose to say yes. In fact, I feel an obligation to say yes.
I have serious reservations about such an ambitious trip. Besides the domestic issues, I don’t know if I can pull it off, physically or emotionally. I’m terrified that I will become bored or injured. I love being alone, but I’ve never been alone for so long. Can I endure it? Will it be fun? Whatever the risks, I choose to say yes. If I fail, at least I tried.
I plan to have friends meet me for discrete portions of the walk, hopefully with enough frequency that I won’t go for more than a month without seeing a familiar face. My wife will join me towards the end to walk a trail that ends in the Scottish town where she was born.
Late June to late September, summer solstice to the autumn equinox. Roughly 1,200 miles, perhaps significantly more. As little road as possible and avoiding cities. I’ve cobbled together a network of footpaths that will take me from the most south-westerly tip of England to the most north-easterly tip of Scotland. More accurately, I’ve cobbled together a number of potential paths I could take, picking and choosing as I go. A true ramble.
In a bid to keep costs low and my itinerary open, I’ll be backpacking and camping. Britain is full of campsites and it’s legal to camp anywhere in Scotland. My biggest challenge will be finding reliable sources of food. While most villages have a pub, they tend to be hit or miss whether they serve food, often choosing not to if it’s busy or they just don’t like your looks. In the rural areas, reliable grocery/convenience stores can be hard to find or open for only a few hours a day.
I’ve outlined a route from which I will detour and rejoin as the mood strikes. This route takes me inland through Cornwall and Devon, mostly along either the Mary Michael Pilgrim Trail and the Lands End Trail. A quick cut over to Cheddar and up to Bath to connect to the Cross Cotswolds Path, Heart of England Way (with a detour through Burton Upon Trent), Limestone Way, Pennine Way, east to Glasgow through Melrose, West Highland Way, Great Glen Way and as much of the John o’ Groats Trail as is traversable in September.
I’m not taking a computer so regular blog posts may not be feasible. I plan on making weekly vlogs with my phone. Otherwise, I’ll try to post to Instagram and Facebook regularly. See the sidebar for links to my social media accounts.
I’ve put in about 500 backpacking miles since January, 300 of those miles in the last month and a half. It’s been difficult. The heat and daily obligations meant that I was up at 4 am many mornings, sometimes earlier. I am about as conditioned as I am likely to get. I hope it’s enough.
While I’m certainly not soliciting monetary support, in the past I’ve had people try to buy me beers on the trail as a gesture of emotional support. Therefore, I’ve added a button to the sidebar where you can buy me a pint or 12 and send a little note. One of my goals is to drink enough beer to equal the volume of a UK beer barrel, 288 imperial pints. If you feel compelled to encourage me in this worthy endeavor, I’m all mouth.
You are hereby cordially invited to virtually join me as I embark on my next once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Here’s a short video of my walk on the Cleveland Way.
I love to read. During the course of the last two decades, I’ve had periods of voracious reading followed by prolonged periods of nearly none. I find that it’s not the actual reading that’s a chore but finding the next book. For a long time, I refused to read fiction, feeling I was somehow wasting time on stories rather than facts. Once I mined a subject to my satisfaction, I’d spend months trying to gather enough interest and commitment to tackle something else. Other years, I’d latch onto an author or fiction series and, when done with that, fall into the same trap.
Almost three years to the day, I finished East of Eden. It was in the middle of this Steinbeck kick when I realized there was a trove of rich American literature of which I was completely ignorant. The following weeks were spent searching the internet for an enticing list of classic American novels.
Ultimately I landed on a list of 100 American literature titles compiled by American literature teachers. It’s not a perfect list by any means but it was worthy enough. After a cursory scan of the list, I determined I’d already read a paltry 13 titles and set to begin the remaining 87.
For about a year I plowed through the first half of the books on the list. At which point I lost interest and either picked something else up or stopped reading altogether for a few months. For the next two years, it was an on and off affair, occasionally getting stuck in some novel I truly hated. I put down the list about 9 months ago and watched the small stack of ten or so already purchased books gather dust in the corner of my room. About three months ago, I determined to give it another go. There were a few books in the queue I really didn’t want to read but I pushed on and managed to finally finish this week.
The experience was challenging but more rewarding than I expected. Because the books were picked by teachers, there was a definite preference towards stories about minorities – frankly, books I would have never otherwise considered. It was one of these threads that nearly threw me off the list for good: a group of books bunched together towards the end of the list about 1st generation female latin American immigrants, which often all pulled from the same tired script. I could have done with two rather than six. Also, there were four Toni Morrison books. The first three of which I really did not like. Any time I thought about picking up the list during that last year, a 300 page Morrison book, sitting on top of the stack, mocked my commitment. To my utter surprise, I ended up really enjoying that last Morrison book (Song of Solomon).
Themes emerged. Male African American authors generally decried the racial inequities, while female African American authors more often criticized the dominating violence of the African American patriarchy. Native American authors generally did not write about the evil of the white man but the fear of ostracization from their own community. Almost all the Latin female American stories recounted coming of age in America with traditional parents, sexual awakenings, and the inevitable discovery that their ethnic culture was full of previously unknown beauty and poetry. The handful of plays on the list were very powerful, two day reads that somehow cut to the marrow of man’s fallibility and mortality.
One of my favorite books, Ethan Frome, told a disaster story of a man who decides to leave his wife for a pretty young woman, which was all the more powerful because it followed one of my least favorite books, The Awakening, about a mother and wife who decides she was just not into her family anymore and deserts them to lead a much more interesting and successful life as a budding artist.
The ultimate picture derived from this tapestry of stories reveals a country of outsiders: immigrants, underclassed, poor, heavily occupied and marred by constant war but, more often than not, optimistic and hungry for adventure. The exercise has forever changed my understanding of this country.
If you’re like me and find yourself struggling to settle on new books to start, I encourage you to find a similar list and give it a go. There’s something kind of fun about picking up a book blind, not knowing a single thing about the plot or even genre. There’s little doubt that after some dedication, you will glean a new and unexpected truth.
After a couple of post-list books that I’ve been meaning to get to, I think I might pick up another list. I’ve already found one that’s a bit more ambitious than this one. Wish me luck!
A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
Native Son – Richard Wright
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J Gaines
1. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn- Mark Twain
4. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
5. To Kill a Mockingbird– Harper Lee
6. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
7. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
8. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
9. The Crucible – Arthur Miller
10. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
11. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
12. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
13. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
14. A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
15. The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
16. The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros
17. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
18. A Separate Peace – John Knowles
19. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
20. Anthem – Ayn Rand
21. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
22. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
23. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
24. A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
25. The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd
26. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27. Native Son – Richard Wright
28. My Antonia – Willa Cather
29. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – Frederick Douglass
30. Beloved – Toni Morrison
31. Hiroshima – John Hersey
32. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
33. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
34. Black Boy – Richard Wright
35. Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya
36. Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
37. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences – Truman Capote
38. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines
39. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
40. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
41. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
42. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
43. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
44. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
45. The Chosen – Chaim Potok
46. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
47. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
48. Walden and Other Writings – Henry David Thoreau
49. The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
50. Billy Budd – Herman Melville
51. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother – James McBride
52. Maggie – Stephen Crane
53. Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
54. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
55. Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
56. Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid
57. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
58. Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
59. Fallen Angels – Walter Dean Myers
60. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
61. The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
62. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
63. The Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
64. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
65. Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain
66. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
67. Sula – Toni Morrison
68. When I Was Puerto Rican: A Memoir – Esmeralda Santiago
69. The Namesake: A Novel – Jhumpa Lahiri
70. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
71. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
72. Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
73. The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
74. The Freedom Writers Diary – Erin Gruwell
75. Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo
76. The Light in the Forest – Conrad Richter
77. O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
78. Out of the Dust – Karen Hesse
79. McTeague – Frank Norris
80. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven – Sherman Alexie
81. Dreaming in Cuban – Cristina Garcia
82. Before We Were Free – Julia Alvarez
83. The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Malcolm X with Alex Haley
84. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman – Ernest J. Gaines
85. Caramelo – Sandra Cisneros
86. The Dollmaker – Harriette Anrow
87. Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons
88. Fences – August Wilson
89. A Gathering of Old Men – Ernest J. Gaines
90. The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls
91. Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien
92. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents – Julia Alvarez
93. Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
94. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
95. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
96. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water – Michael Dorris
97. Our Town – Thornton Wilder
98. Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
99. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life – Langston Hughes & Zora Neale Hurston
100. If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin
It’s been a couple weeks since we returned from our fun-packed trip on the Cleveland Way. It was as exhausting as it was fun. Each day we made memories that I am sure each one of us will fondly recall for decades to come. Buckle in, there’s a lot of highlights!
York: The House of Trembling Madness
Our flight to Heathrow was delayed just enough that we missed our train to York. We purchased new tickets for a later train and found ourselves with about an hour to kill. So we jumped in a cab and headed towards a pub that I’d discovered before my last walk. The Brie Louise, next to Euston Station, boasts an impossibly vast selection of real ale; we counted 22 casks. We each had a couple of outstanding pints and walked 2 minutes to Euston Tap to enjoy one more pint before our 2-hour ride up to York.
York was brimming over with well-heeled drunk revelers. Britain’s largest horse race had just wrapped up. As we stepped off the train, a throng of wobbly-legged, whimsical hat laden, equestrian enthusiasts staggered on. We dropped our stuff off and met up at The House of Trembling Madness, an aptly named second story medieval pub replete with the skulls of scores of dead things. Perhaps the most well-stocked beer retail store (on the first floor) I’ve ever seen in the UK, we spent the night drinking cans of British and continental NE IPAs and dry hopped sours. Halfway through the night, Bobby, my Australian walking buddy that I met on the Dales Way, joined us. Great reunion and a perfect preamble to the amble of the next dozen days.
As midnight approached, some of the group, exhausted from the trip, retired. Pete, Dennis T. and I headed out into the now quiet cobblestone streets of old York. York is an enchanting place. Its history runs as deep, if not deeper, than any other city in Britain. What makes York so amazing is that it has maintained more medieval architecture than any other British city. The zenith of this old worldness is concentrated on The Shambles, a medieval butcher’s street (coincidentally the street that inspired Diagon Alley). In that brisk midnight air, we sauntered alone down the incandescent lane, buildings slouching toward each other, pinching the visible night sky into a skinny river of stars.
We eventually ran into a couple who were very enthusiastic about the night’s second biggest sporting event. After the horse race, all anyone was talking about was the McGregor/Mayweather fight. The bars in York were reopening at 4am for fight fans. After the usual “oh you’re American!” conversations, they wanted to talk about the fight. Despite the couple having strong yet contradictory opinions about who would win, the husband, the best looking ice cream man I’ve ever seen, put £1,000 on McGregor. The next morning must have been rough for him.
Helmsley: The Night of the Broken Rib
The next morning, a few of us headed out and walked some of Wall Walk (a walk on top of the medieval rampart around the old city) and eventually met up with the rest of the crew, totaling 6 (me, Pete, the two Dennises, Jeremy and Bobby). Before we knew it, the streets of York were absolutely choked full of tourists.
It was with a bit of relief that we found ourself in a private hire van speeding away from the throngs of people towards Helmsley, the official start of the Cleveland Way. For 45 minutes, urbanity gave way to countryside as our driver instructed us on the subtle nuances regarding the various and numerous pejoratives for gypsies.
On the way into Helmsley, we spotted a tiny brewery, and that’s exactly where we headed after we dropped off our stuff. It was a fortuitous stop. Despite Helmsley Brewing’s slightly-larger-than-homebrewers’ set up, they brew some fantastic beer. The first noteworthy beer was a blonde dubbed “Striding the Riding” (“Riding” is an obsolete word that refers roughly to a Yorkshire county), the official beer of the Cleveland Way. Secondly was a stout named “Jacky Boy.” We sat in the uncomfortably warm Helmsley sun happily sipping pints of Jacky Boy, which we later decided, after encountering it at a few other stops along the trail, was the best beer of the trip. Turns out this was their first batch of the beer which they only released a week before we showed up.
We opted for a lackluster Indian dinner. Happily full and slightly lubricated, we set our sights on Helmsley’s two pubs. The first pub turned out to be way too high brow for a bunch of rowdy foreigners so we settled in at the Royal Oak where were we made friends with a funloving couple on a date weekend. We drank and laughed and sang. When the pub closed I wanted to wander. I love wandering villages at night. They are quiet and dark and mysterious. And while it often takes very little imagination to transport yourself back centuries in daylight in these country villages, at night, it takes absolutely none.
We stumbled into a Norman church graveyard, laid down and giggled and waxed drunkenly about the stars and times forgotten. It’s at this point we most certainly upset a ghost because an unexplainable force pulled Dennis T. from upright to ribcage-first over a tombstone. It must have hurt but Dennis played it off. We went back to hotel and we went to sleep. That ghost would haunt Dennis for the rest of the trip. He was in obvious pain every morning. We all worried and guessed at what that ghost did to him: torn cartilage, broken rib, bruised liver. By the end of the trip, not without some reason, Dennis posited that it was his rib AND liver giving him pain. Post-trip Xrays have determined it was a ghoulish and severe bruised rib.
Helmsley to Kilburn: Night of the Nine Pints
Our first day of walking was glorious. The terrain transitioned every half an hour. We toured the most romantic abbey ruins I’ve ever been to and reveled in the cool August air. We happily rolled into Kilburn, addressed our many minor pains and made our way to the only pub in the village: the Forrester Arms. A great meal was had.
Towards the end of the meal, the seventh of our merry band appeared. Jon had been in Buxton on business but couldn’t arrange to meet us in Helmsley. We retired to the patio, started smoking, and began with an odd ritual that has developed on all my previous walks.
It’s been my experience that the first night of a walk is always among the best, and this was no exception. As fate would have it, this modest three pull pub had beer from a tiny brewery I’ve only encountered one other time. On the Dales Way after an 18-mile day, I walked into a very isolated inn with one pull. They just opened the cask: an IPA from a Yorkshire brewery called Pennine Brewing. It was the best beer I’ve ever had on any of my walks. I had three pints in the course of 30 minutes and would have had more if I didn’t have another two miles to walk. It was so good that I unsuccessfully tried to get the brewery to send a pin of the beer to one of the pubs on the Cleveland Way. The beer at the Forrester Arms was not that IPA. It was a pleasant by-the-numbers golden ale. But it was perfect. Quaffable and moreish.
Here’s some math for you. A firkin is a cask with a volume of 10.8 gallons. That’s roughly 1,400 ounces. Due to the nature of casks, you can knock 10% of the total volume off for spillage and murky beer. So the effective volume of a cask is roughly 1,250 ounces. An imperial pint is 20 ounces. We calculate that six of us had nine pints each plus two for Bobby (he’s a wine guy). That’s 56 pints or 1,120 ounces. They opened that cask that day and it’s entirely conceivable that we were the only ones drinking out of it. We put a 90% dent in that firkin. So close, yet so far.
Dennis M. and I, the last standing, lolled on the patio talking to the locals after closing. I finished up a cigar to repeated and exasperated claims that “THAT’S QUITE A BLIFTER!” (in the most slangy English accent, pronounced “bliftah”), a phrase that I have repeated at least a hundred times since.
Kilburn to Osmotherly: Beautiful Walk, Low-Key Night
A beautiful walk that took us through the first dirty purple heather-clad moors, forests, fern-filled magical valleys, and bucolic hamlets. The approach to Osmotherly was particularly beautiful with the best-maintained trail I’ve ever walked, which lead us through backyard gardens, mysterious alleys, and dropped us quite suddenly in the town square. We enjoyed another decent meal but, perhaps mercifully, the beer was not great.
Jon and I walked around after everyone else retired. Drank a couple Auchentoshans in a nod to our British adventure last year and called it a night.
Osmotherly to Clay Bank Top: 404 Drone Not Found
This stage of the Cleveland Way overlaps with the Coast to Coast Walk. It was a strange experience to be on the same trail that I just walked in May. I’ve often wondered if I would be willing to rewalk a trail. Walking on the Coast to Coast again made me lean much further away from that possibility. Truthfully, this was one of the most stunning days on the walk but the surprise of newly discovered vistas was lost. Some of the magic was dulled. I knew what I was in for.
Along with being a popular day hiking stretch, there’s a third long-distance trail that overlaps this section. As a result, the trail was more crowded than any other rural portion of the entire trail. We met a brother and sister from California spreading their father’s ashes along the Coast to Coast, which he walked 10 years prior. A wonderful tribute and testimony to meaning these walks imbue to those who embrace the challenge.
Early on during the walk, Jeremy and Jon lagged behind. Jon brought a fancy drone to shoot video. The resulting video is stunning and there’s a palpable thrill watching the little machine whip through the sky. As the remaining five of us lounged at the Wainstones waiting for Jon and Jeremy we heard the unmistakable buzz of the drone zip above us and fly back to a peak about a mile away. At the top of the peak, we could barely make out the silhouettes of our two friends.
And we waited. And waited. Then the strangest scene began to unfold. We squinted at the ant-sized silhouettes. One of them was climbing down the steep hillside – a few degrees shy of a cliff face. We waited. The cliff figure was gone, presumably in the forest at the foot of the hill. The other figure started lumbering down the path (which was dangerously steep itself) at an excruciatingly slow pace. A few dozen paces. Sit down for a few minutes, repeat.
At this point, we had been waiting well north of an hour. We eventually made out that Jeremy was coming down the path carrying two packs, stopping every now and then hoping Jon would reappear. Jon was nowhere to be found. The drone had malfunctioned, dove in the forest, and Jon went after it.
The Wainstones was a 20-minute walk from the road where we were to be picked up for our accommodation. When Jeremy finally arrived, it was decided that I would go find Jon with his pack and the rest of the gang would go and relax at the inn.
I rigged Jon’s and my packs together and set off down to the forest, calling for Jon at regular intervals. After about half an hour I heard him call back, found him, and joined him in the forest for a fruitless hour-long drone recovery expedition. Jon was staying at another village, the driver for my inn was picking up his last guests for the night, and it was starting to get dark. I left Jon and headed for the pickup point jogging for half of it. Honestly, it was one of the best feelings of the walk, running on the path, pack on and sweating profusely after already hiking over a dozen miles. I have a tendency to view trail runners critically but I kind of get the rush.
I plopped down at the pub just as the boys were ordering. The Buck Inn, owned by an English/German couple specializes in German lagers. A few lagers later and life was back on track. Our food was German-inspired and locally sourced. The portions were enormous. Then we ate ice cream. We retired to the patio, convinced the owner to let us buy the unopened bottle of Monkey Shoulder, and drank and smoked. The bottle empty, we all remarked on all the beautiful things because, at that moment, life was perfect despite (or perhaps because of) the blisters, bruised rib, sore feet, aches, and pains.
Clay Bank Top to Great Ayton: Ukelele Amateur Hour
This day’s walk began in the purple desolation of the moors. It was an endless sea of dull purple from the flowering heather, which only flowers for a month each year. The path was wide and easy. Right around 1pm, we exited down and out of the moors into a little hamlet where we ate a packed lunch on the side of a country road and chuckled at Bobby as he made friends with a curious and hungry horse.
It started to rain just as we entered another forest. We picked handfuls of wild blackberries, every other berry just ripe enough to be more sweet than tart. A few of the party straggled behind so those of us up front sat down under a large tree and listened as the heaviest rain of the whole trip fell. The sound was soothing. Wild berries, rain on leaves, great company in no hurry – bliss.
When the group was whole and the rain let up, we made our way a quarter mile up to a particularly prominent Captian Cook monument, and one our Australian was thrilled to visit. We called our innkeepers, and they came to pick us up in two comically small vehicles.
This was the low point of the trip. Everyone seemed to have some sort ailment. Pete was fighting a nasty flu/cold and his feet hurt, Jeremy’s boots were causing him serious grief, a ghost was constantly stabbing Dennis T, Bobby, nearly a septuagenarian, was starting to feel all the miles, and Jon was crestfallen over the loss of his drone and fighting a fierce case of plantar fasciitis. Dennis M. was holding up but that was to be short-lived. There was talk of some people bailing out for the next leg.
Despite all the physical issues, spirits were high. We had a wonderful meal and settled into our inn for the night. We were delighted to see what looked like a folk band coming in for a good old-fashioned foot-stomping country jamboree. Our enthusiasm slowly dissolved into disappointment when we realized the gathering consisted of nearly a dozen ukelele beginners playing American songs – over and over. Ugh.
Despite the setback, those of us not sick or exhausted made do. We convinced the bartender to let us coach him through making us a round of something resembling old fashioneds. It was truly a cultural experience. By the end of the night, Dennis M., Jon, and I were sipping out of outlandish goblets full of berries and gin, making friends in perhaps the drunkest pub I’ve ever been in. We sipped as the pub closed (this was becoming a habit) and headed to bed.
Great Ayton to Saltburn: The Night of Questionable Decisions
We woke up that Friday morning ready for the day. Every single person was going to hike, no matter how bad they hurt. True grit.
Early in the day, I fell behind with Bobby and we talked about life and his art. Dennis T.’s hip flexor went haywire. He told us to go ahead and he would go at his own pace. At lunchtime, we reassembled at a strategically placed pub on the trail. Dennis M. rolled in with his hand taped up. He slipped in some mud and sliced his palm open. While he was cleaning his wound, Dennis T. hobbled in and called a cab for the day’s last five miles. The rest of us set off for Saltburn, eager to see the coast and say goodbye to the moors.
Right before we walked into Saltburn we crossed under an impossibly tall Victorian red brick viaduct.
Saltburn is a cool place. A Victorian city with a grand train station, beautiful main street, an old-school funicular, and a bunch of seaside restaurants. Jon and I bought whimsical hats on the way in.
One interesting nugget the people in Great Ayton told us was that the women of Saltburn could be characterized by a marked lack of moral virtue. Of course, this information was bundled in colorful English slang. Whether the good people of Great Ayton’s assessment of Saltburn was true, we never found out. But we did manage to have a fantastic night in Saltburn, regardless of the moral fiber of the ladyfolk.
Saltburn was the biggest town on the path thus far, so we’re hoping for some Friday night live music. We were in luck. One of the seaside pubs was hosting a band called the Beer Dogs. Perfect. The band was great and by the end of the night, almost everyone in our party had been on the dance floor.
As the pub closed, Jon and I wanted to find another spot to party. We ask a number of people where to go. A single theme emerged: Redcar. The problem was that half the people said Redcar was where the party was and the other half adamantly advised we not go there. We got the distinct impression it was not a nice place. So we asked a cab driver who was waiting for her rider. She said it was fine and she could get us there in half the time that anyone else could.
We started to head aimlessly down the quiet streets of Saltburn when that same cab came flying around the corner: “I’ll take you to Redcar. Get in.” Jon and I shrugged at each other and jumped in only to discover that there was another rider: A 20 something woman that lived in Redcar. I got the impression we were the cab driver’s way of giving the local a free ride home.
Not knowing where we wanted to go other than the name of the town, we solicited the woman’s advice. She suggested someplace and said that she could take us. Score, a local guide.
We rolled up to a modern bar with a DJ and dance floor and a ton of craft beer and liquor. Total score. Jon and I, bedecked in hats could have had two heads for all the staring we received. It became apparent that Americans were a bit of novelty in Redcar. Our guide suggested we get some shots of tequila, so we got a round and sat down to watch the gyrating Redcar locals do Friday night. Jon and I downed our shots (which I should note are half the volume of American shots). Our guide took a sip and her face went all twisty. “Have you ever had tequila before?” Her “No.” I guess she suggested it thinking that’s what we do in Arizona. A sentiment that was somehow echoed in the drunken “There’s a sneck en my boot!!” yelled repeatedly at us in an incongruous southern accent from our booth neighbor.
The night ended in a shrug and a 3am McDonalds drive-through visit. Here’s something you may never have considered: speeding home in the back of cab at 3am after drinking too much is not made any more enjoyable by roundabouts.
The next day, by far the longest day of the walk, was not made any more enjoyable by our late night shenanigans.
Saltburn to Robin Hood’s Bay: The Long And Winding Road
Saturday was a day shrouded in uncertainty. We wanted to walk to Whitby, which by itself would have been a very long walk, but because it was a weekend and Whitby is a popular vacation spot, all the accommodations required a two-night stay. Our solution was to book two nights in the next destination (Robin Hood’s Bay), reasoning that we could walk to Whitby and bus or taxi down to Robin Hood’s Bay and bus or taxi back up the next morning and hike the trail back to Robin Hood’s Bay. It was a clumsy solution and one that became impractical for everyone.
Bobby was already booked into a different village entirely. No one, myself included was willing to commit to the 28-miles of the undulated coastal path in a single day. For my part, I wanted to do as much as I could, at least try for Whitby: about 20 miles. But I was operating on too little sleep and had partied a little too hard the night before to make any solid commitments. Feeling a little antisocial, I pulled out from the group, breaking into the stride I usually walk. It took about 10 minutes. I was happy and energized.
I chewed up the miles. I flew. I was undeterred. At mile 9, I rushed into enchanting Staithes, picked up two meat pies and some juice. The butcher laughed at me for thinking I was going to make it to Robin Hood’s Bay before nightfall. The rest of party stopped for lunch in Saithes resulting in only Jeremy and Jon continuing the day’s walk.
I don’t drink red bull. Like seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever had one. I drank two. Holy shit, I flew. I ascended hills like they were nothing. I felt superhuman. I logged my fastest walking mile ever: just shy of 14:49 minutes (no jogging). Other than the drinks and pies, I only stopped briefly to buy an ice cream cone from an ice cream truck parked on the path.
It was a beautiful path. The path drove straight up to a plateau for a couple miles and then plunged down into a hidden coastal village, scenery fit for adventure novels. Hidden beaches, caves, waterfalls. It had everything. But I wasn’t stopping for anything. I was going to try for Robin Hood’s Bay.
Luckily, I’d been to Whitby before so I knew where to go. I had to fight the urge to push the ambling holidaymakers out of my way, I was so single-minded.
At mile 26 the gas in the tank began to go. I walked this small portion on the Coast to Coast – in fact, it was the last three miles of the Coast to Coast. I remembered the frustration of knowing that Robin Hood’s Bay was so close but yet unseen.
At almost exactly nine hours (6pm) after I left Saltburn, I arrived in familiar Robin Hood’s Bay, phone at 1%. I was tired but after a shower and some facetime with the fam, I was ready to eat. The Dennises, Pete, and I had a wonderful meal outside while we waited to hear from Jon and Jeremy. Jeremy stubbled in around 8:15pm, went to his room and passed out.
The remaining 4 of us made our way down into the old part of Robin Hood’s Bay and discovered 3 bars I managed to miss on my previous two night stay there. The night ended when Jon showed up at 10:30 (having spent some time in Whitby), much too late to check into his B&B. Luckily (or unluckily as it turned out) it was the same place I stayed at in May so I hoped I could smooth things over with his host by being a familiar face. Not so much. I don’t recall ever being so thoroughly dressed down by anyone. His host was PISSED – and not entirely unreasonably. After a tense tongue lashing, he let Jon in. In the morning the two made up and everything was rainbows.
Jeremy’s app calculated 28 miles, mine 29 and Jon’s 27.5. We’ll call it 28 miles.
Day of Rest: I Hate Fish and Chips
Sunday was a much-needed respite day. We took the bus up to Whitby. Jon and I stopped into the first legitimate cocktail bar on the trail and had some late morning Singapore Slings then met up with everyone else (sans Bobby) at Whitby Brewing, right in the shadow of Whitby Abbey.
After a couple of failed attempts for lunch (Whitby was an absolute zoo), we settled on some nondescript fish and chip shop. I was hoping they had a fish sandwich, a Whitby favorite, but we were all stuck with fish and chips. I really don’t know who likes this stuff. It’s greasy even when it’s “not greasy” and bland. No amount of vinegar can fix that problem. Blech. Can’t stand it. I vow to never eat it again.
After lunch, we hit up a “micropub” I’d read about but missed on my last visit. We each had a well-served pint and chat with the affable owner. He gave us a few tips about Scarborough, the next town on the trail.
After a beer, we were all feeling a bit sluggish so we boarded the bus back to Robin Hood’s Bay. The remainder of the day and night consisted of meeting back up with Bobby, pub hopping, a solid meal, and an embarrassing showing in the local quiz night. After the pub closed, Jon and I entertained a young woman and the pub bartender on the patio of our BnB.
I hauled some sour beers from York and I was happy to share with two very strange people. The girl who, despite being in England for two weeks, had developed a distinct English accent, was the poster child for millennials. Full of opinions, lacking any factual basis for said opinions and oozing victimhood despite clearly coming from a very privileged background. She was on her way to “work with the land” on her family’s Scottish estate for 6 months. The bartender was a misanthrope who defined his world by naming the things he didn’t like. It was a weird hour.
Despite this minor hiccup, Robin Hood’s Bay charmed us. It’s a place that defies accurate description. I’ve stayed there a total of 4 nights now, making it my most visited place in England after London. It’s full of secrets and ghosts. An old smuggling port, the winding dark alleys, the bulwark seafront, the old weathered shops- it’s enchanting. I’d love to go back.
Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough: Parsley, Rosemary and Surprise Cantillion
The walk to Scarborough was a pleasantly uneventful stroll along the coastline. Jon, Jeremy, and I pulled ahead of the group. When we reached the outskirts of Scarborough we stopped for some delicious ice cream and sauntered to our hotel. Scarborough is not currently a nice place. At one time the town was a bustling vacation hub, the very center of sophistication of the Yorkshire coast. The sad town has all the infrastructure of a once prominent destination but now feels like a rustbelt town. Like Pittsburg meets San Francisco.
We met up with Jon’s Buxton buddy Jamie at a little beer bar, had a beer or two, and hunted down some dinner. I think we must have been particularly loud that night because we caught a few servers snickering at us. It could have also been that we ate a staggering amount of food.
Dennis T. had read in an old beer guide that there was a pub that specialized in Belgian beers. Tired of English beer, we happily trudged to the pub. “We read you have Cantillon. Is that true?” Bartender: blank stare. “Let me ask.” The affable lady publican enters. “Ya’ll got any of that Cantillion.” Publican: “Oh no. We stopped trying that. No one here ever bought the Cant-a-Lon. Sorry.” Bummer. Publican: “Let me check downstairs and see if there’s anything laying around.”
A few minutes pass…
The Publican enters with her arms full of Cantillion and Gueze Boon. Publican: “I found these but I’m afraid they’re all dusty so I can’t sell them to you.” Blank stares. “So, just put some money in the charity jar over there.” Us: “Wait. What?” Publican: “These are out of code. I can’t sell them. Just leave a donation.” Disbelief.
Sit down, check date codes, roughly 5-8 years old. Where the hell are we? What is this magical bizarro world? Commence drinking.
20 glorious minutes later, enters Publican with another armful of sours: “These are out of code too. Just leave a donation. I can’t sell these here. People just complain about them.” More drinking, more disbelief.
We left the pub in a state of stupid wonder. We wanted to check out another pub we had heard about but it was closed, so the group broke in two. Jeremy, Jon, Jamie (jinglehymershcmit) and I headed heedless into the heart of the town while the rest of group went back to a pub we passed a few blocks back.
Triple J and I found something resembling a cocktail bar. It had respectable cocktails on the menu but the execution was terrible. Cloyingly sweet and undrinkable. We hit a couple more unremarkable pubs and turned in for the night to charge for our last day of walking.
Scarborough to Filey: Sometimes, You Make the Fun
Our last day of walking was our shortest day. The forecast promised rain but delivered relatively dry dramatic and overcast skies. We walked slowly along the coast, only stopping for an occasional picture. As we reached the marker for the end of the walk, I think we were all glad to be done.
Everyone worked hard to finish. Not a single person didn’t have to overcome some ailment but by the end, everyone had worked past the pain and made it to the finish. It’s cliche but true: it’s not the pain that we’ll remember from this trip. It’ll be the mosaic of memories we intentionally forged by getting out there and doing something different and challenging.
That night was fantastic. It was our last night with Bobby, a man our entire group grew to love and admire. We had a lovely tapas dinner, administered by the wonderfully attentive Spanish owner of the restaurant. It was a blur of amazing small dishes, banter, and wine. Later, we came within one tiny point of tying for first in the local pub quiz. We made friends everywhere.
As the end of the night drew near, we knew we had one last hurrah left in us. But where to go? There was only one answer. Every single person told us, “this pub is great, that restaurant is good,” but unanimously and forcefully warned us not to go to the Three Tuns. It had to be the Three Tuns. In minutes we found ourselves in a divey pub with terrible beer, glaring natives, a digital jukebox, and a small pool table. It was loud and it was not clean. I think one of us saw a drug deal go down.
But with 5 songs for a pound and hours to kill, we made it our bar for the night, to the chagrin of a miserable looking lot in the corner (although a couple of the locals warmed up to us and joined in on the party). We drank shitty tequila, yelled out lyrics to shitty music, and sent Bobby off with a bang. It was a perfect ending to a great walk. Last call, we staggered to our wonderful BnB and slept the sleep of the satisfied.
Newcastle: Delightful Surprise
In the morning, Bobby left for the states, Jon and Jamie headed to Manchester and the rest of us got on a train headed to Newcastle. Why Newcastle? I have no idea. We looked at a map and saw a familiar name. Newcastle is situated in such a way that you’d never accidentally end up there. It’s not on the way to anything, the last outpost of North East England with a old crumbled wall to keep the barbarians out.
We had absolutely no expectation. As we stepped out of the train we were confronted with beautiful architecture and a city full of bars and restaurants. It turns out Newcastle is a bit of a college town, playing host to two large universities.
After we dropped out stuff at the hotel, we discovered a brand new shiny hip craft beer bar on the ground floor of our hotel building. And then next door to the beer bar was another craft beer bar. We were gobstruck.
Someone in the group found us a promising BBQ joint to hit for lunch. As we walked to the restaurant, the scale and beauty of Newcastle really struck me. It’s a very vertical city where the streets seamlessly incorporated medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and modern architecture. The restaurant was in some sort of medieval building with long winding corridors and tiny rooms. The men’s restroom had an old school fireplace in it.
After a power nap, we hit the city excited to see the nightlife. Turns out though, that school was not yet in session so the city was subdued. We had a few beers, ate at a Greek place and had a few more beers. At this point, the trip caught up to me. I was exhausted beyond measure and called it a night.
I’d love to see Newcastle again.
Darlington: Quiet Bliss
In the morning, we took a short 30-minute train ride down to a charming little market town called Darlington. There’s really nothing to see in Darlington. It was simply the closest train station to the CAMRA national pub of the year, George & Dragon, in tiny Hudswell, 15 miles away.
Nevertheless, we gave Darlington a lazy walk. It’s a charming little place. As we sipped on some coffee, I noticed that the restaurant next door was advertising Mexican food. We browsed the menu and decided some apps didn’t sound half bad.
I am still confused about what we walked into. The menu was half Mexican and half Cajun, really playing on some cartoon morbid connection between voodoo and dias de los muertos. But what really threw me was the bar. It had a huge selection of spirits. More bourbon than I’d seen in any British bar. Cocktails? Yes! A true blue, oddly themed cocktail joint.
Before the bouncy bartender handed us the cocktail menu I asked if they could make a Paloma. “Of course.” It was fantastic. A round of cocktails, and maybe a second round for me, and I was right as rain. We walked around the town a little more. Visited a pub or two and went for a nap.
Our cab arrived at 4:30. He drove us to the George & Dragon. We walked into an empty pub, the publican stabbing and stocking the first fire in months (it was a coal fire even). I’d been the George & Dragon before, twice in fact. In May, I learned the CAMRA national pub of the year was a few miles off the Coast to Coast trail, so I plotted a poorly planned path to the pub (say that five times fast). I had such a great time that I spent the following day, my rest day, there as well.
After we’d had a pint, I ran into the publican on the way to the bathroom. “You were here from the Coast to Coast weren’t you?” “Yes. Cool! you remembered me.” It’s the little things in life.
The publican promised there was a brown ale next in line if we blew a cask. So a thunderous applause broke out when the copublican (the previously mentioned publican’s wife) blew one of the beers. It was brown the rest of the night. Fresh, delicious brown, on a cool, drizzly Yorkshire night.
It was a quiet night. At one point while talking to the husband publican: “Your son’s in a wheelchair right?” I don’t remember having this conversation. I must have been extremely comfortable during my last visit. We had a great talk. Such a warm and intelligent couple. We ate and soaked in the peace and analog pleasure of spinning records.
Dennis M. joined me in the cold drizzle while I smoked an hour-long cigar. We talked about some very deep things. Parts of me I don’t share with anyone. At some point, the publican joined us and taught us about a historic pub game they still play there. It was a special night.
On my way back into the pub, I got pulled into a conversation with two local women. They were extremely nice but man, did they like to argue. With me, with each other, with anyone listening. It was kind of fun.
Our taxi arrived four (or was it five) hours after we arrived and shuttled us back to Darlington. It was 10:30ish, so I wasn’t ready to call it a night. I have a tradition that I like to find an old-fashioned after I finish a walk. I resolved to head by to the voodoo Mexican cocktail place. Dennis M. and Jeremy joined me. We drank our drinks and headed back to the hotel.
But I wasn’t done. Sensing Jeremy and Dennis were too tired for more, I unexpectedly ran out of the elevator and out down the street. Everything was closing at this point, so I asked some locals and they pointed me to a colorful pub up the street.
A local guy, enamored that I was American, proceeded to pepper me with a million questions. That was also kind of fun. As that pub closed, I called it and headed back to the hotel.
London: End of Trip Blues
After a two and half hour train ride back to King’s Cross station, we found ourselves right back where we started the trip. One day left, we dumped our stuff in the hotel, and Pete took off to check out Shoreditch. The Dennises, Jeremy, and I headed the British Museum for a quick jaunt around the exhibits. We then walked around London, hitting a prominent pub before settling on a blues bar that Dennis T. had previously visited. After a good time, we went back to the hotel. I met up with Jon and couple other familiar faces for a couple final cocktails in England. Woke up, got on plane and immediately fell asleep.
Conclusion: A Different Kind of Joy
Truth be told, I was apprehensive to take anyone on one of my walks. I really enjoy the solitude that these walks bring. There was only one day where I felt close to the kind of wholeness that I get on my solo walks but the trade-off was that I was never lonely and I had a ton of fun. My fondest memories of my solo walks occur someplace isolated where I can fold into myself. My fondest memories of this trip will likely be all of us huddled around a dimly lit pub table laughing hysterically. We were loud and happy and ourselves. At its best, we were unrestrained, living life to the absolute fullest. I regard it as a total success.
I crossed my 500th-mile hiking in England on the last day of the walk (cue The Proclaimers) and I am still just as enchanted as my first few miles. I expect I will be satiated for a few months, but come Spring, I know the itch will return. Then, perhaps I will walk 500 hundred more. Until then…
Last September, I set off for my second English walk to hike the Dales Way, which was followed up by a spontaneous UK and Ireland adventure in November, then an enchanting family trip to the island in March, and finally ambitious walk across the breadth of England in celebration of my 40th birthday in May.
Not long after I came back from the Dales Way my good friend, Jeremy Jones, contacted me about going on yet another walk with a group of friends. Within a matter of hours, a committed group of 6 had been assembled. I was surprised to see how eager everyone was to set dates and book big ticket items. A chance comment on facbook led to a conversation with Bobby the Australian, who I met on the Dales Way, and he joined the party.
We settled on the Cleveland Way, a 110-mile national trail that skirts the outer boundary of the North York Moors National Park in the northeast of England, just north of York. Coincidently, the Coast to Coast overlaps the Cleveland Way for about 10 miles, so I got a nice preview of the trail in May. Half the trail follows the coast. There are many coastal trails in the UK but I’ve alway been leery of committing to more than a week of walking with invariable coastal scenery. This trail should give me a taste a coastal trail without committing me to a full week on the coast.
The North York Moors contains the largest expansive heather moorland in England and Wales. According to the North York Moors’ website:
Heather – an evergreen shrub with twiggy stems – covers our open moorland. Usually lots of heather plants grow together, forming a thick, bushy carpet, sometimes up to half a metre tall. This helps the plant to survive strong winds. Heather also has tiny, narrow leaves shaped like the needles on a Christmas tree, which stop the plant from losing too much water as the winds blow across the moors.
Nectar from heather flowers makes excellent honey, and local beekeepers often bring their hives on to the moors in late-summer when the heather comes into bloom.
Heather moorland in the middle of a bloom is breathtaking. We will be walking during the blooming season.So here I am, a year from planning my Dales Way walk and I’ve been to the UK 4 times since with another trip planned for late August. Not too shabby.
Part of my goal with this trip is to play the role of tour guide. I’ve learned quite a bit about booking these trips, and who knows? If there’s enough interest, a walking tour to the England with some eager friends might be feasible annually, as long as I can still figure out a way to get out by myself. I’m looking forward to sharing
I’m not sure if I’ll have enough time to keep up with the blog along the way. I suppose that most of the people who follow it will be walking with me this time. At any rate, I’ll post when I can. I expect there will be enough shenanigans this trip to keep me otherwise occupied.