Coast to Coast: Days 3-6, Half Way There

Yes, I’m still alive! It’s been an exhausting last few days but I’m still at it.

Day 3: Rosthwaite to Patterdale

I was spent at the start of day three. My trip up and over the fells on the alternative route on day two left me with very little in the gas tank.

Nevertheless, I started out Saturday morning in drizzly rain that never quite dissipated. Right out of Rosthwaite, I started to climb, gradually at first but ending with a scramble up a short rock face. Up and over, I was headed down the secluded rocky valley toward Grasmere.

I visited Grasmere in September during my Dales Way walk. The village is known for three things: 1) the burial place of William Wordsworth, 2) awesome Victorian style gingerbread, and 3) ungodly amounts of tourists.

It was the last village feature I had in mind when I decided skirt Grasmere and just head directly to my next fell, thereby skipping any chance of lunch. I managed to lose one of my trekking poles near Grasmere. Up, up, up in the rain. On the top of the fell was another tarn but as soon as I arrived, the wind pick up and the temperature dropped, so I decided to get off the mountain ASAP.

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After a rocky but relatively gradual descent down, I trudged into Patterdale, very tired and very hungry. Total daily mileage: just over 16.

Patterdale is a tiny village but a jumping off point for a number of popular Lake District fell hikes. I stayed at a pub full of walkers. Unfortunately, I was so spent I ended up back in my room and asleep before 7:30.

Day 4: Patterdale to Shap

Not surprisingly, I woke up early on Sunday morning, 5:30 am, but I had to wait until 8am to get breakfast, pick up my packed lunch (there was no place to stop that day), and settle my bill. I discovered shortly after I woke up that the entrance to the pub was locked until breakfast, thereby effectively confining me to my room with no internet.

After the long awaited breakfast, I headed out of Patterdale to tackle a, you guessed it, another big ol’ fell. At this point, I was very much tired of going over peaks every day. It’s just not the kind of walking I enjoy and it’s something I could easily do at home in Arizona if I wanted. But I knew it was the last fell, so I approached it with a good attitude. The good attitude was rapidly diminished to self-doubt and a little bit of fear when I almost reached the top.

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It had started to rain. So much rain that I was drenched through, despite decent rain gear. Then the wind kicked in, literally blowing me off the path at times. With 20 feet or so of viability, I wasn’t able to distinguish landmarks making my maps next to useless. Worst of all, my GPS system became unusable when my phone became drenched.

I struggled for about an hour and a half, not being sure if I was on the path, not seeing anyone else. I was considering turning back. But just as I was at my worst point, when I had lost the path completely, the fog floated away like a lost balloon in the wind. All of a sudden, I found myself at the very peak of the fell I was aiming for and I could see the reservoir I needed to get to.

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Feeling better, I sat down behind some meager cover and ate a bit and wrung out my soaked socks.

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The path down was rocky and steep. It was a feet and hands descent. Without both trekking poles, my knees were taking a beating. By the bottom, I was in pain and walking awkwardly but as the trail flattened out the pain dissipated.

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After a long hike around the reservoir, I found myself in a delightful mossy and stream-laden forest that graduated to wonderful pastoral grasslands. My days on sole slamming rocky paths were finally over.

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I strode into the village of Shap, passing the ruins of an Abbey on the way. Had lunch with a guy who passed me on the way down to the reservoir (commenting on my gimpy gait). Smoked a cigar, went to bed. Total mileage: 17.5.

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Day 5: Shap to Kirkby Stephen

I was looking forward to Monday’s walk, despite it being my longest distance yet on the trip: 21 miles of flat grassy trail.

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The weather was forecasted to be cloudy but rainless so I left the inn in high spirits but didn’t make it a mile until I was in distress. I assumed the flat trail would mean no more knee pain. I was wrong. My knees, particularly my left knee was worse. Much worse.

Insult to injury, I managed to get lost in the first couple of miles, adding at least 1.5 miles to an already long day.

Every step was wincing pain; balled fist, white knuckled pain. Took some ibuprofen and trudged on trying to get my mind off of it. I started to wonder if I would be able to finish, I decided music might help, and it did. After 8 miles the sharp pain was merely a dull ache and after 18, I was barely thinking about it.

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At a total of 22 miles, I strode into the town of Kirby Stephen, checked in and headed to the launderette to do some laundry.

Kirkby Stephen is a wonderful town. It’s the type of place I loved to stay at on these walks. History and tradition are everywhere. Morris dancers, Norman churches, I love it all. Unfortunately, Monday evenings in Kirkby Stephen mean few open restaurants. I ended up eating a terrible doner kabob and paid the price with a fitful night’s sleep.

Day 6: Kirkby Stephen to Keld

Weather forecast: mostly sunny and mid-60s. Perfect.

I was very worried about today’s walk. While, at 13 miles it was considerably shorter than my previous days, it consisted of a moderate ascent and worse yet miles of muddy bog covered trail which require a lot of jumping, both stressful for my knee.

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Or I should say knees because they both hurt like hell now. Nevertheless, I made it up the hill to the Nine Standards and was delighted to discover that the moorland was not as boggy as described. It hurt but it was manageable and best of all, I managed to get to beautiful Keld in 12 miles and by 1pm, thereby giving my knees the rest they need.

I’m officially out of the Cumbria and in Yorkshire. It’s beautiful gentle country. Half way done.

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Tomorrow is supposed to be an easy day. I honestly don’t know how far I will get with my knees. But I’ll take it mile by mile and do what I can. I’m optimistic, and despite the pain, I’m happy and loving life. The restaurant downstairs is about to start serving food. Two flights of stairs here I come!

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Coast to Coast: Day 2, Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwaite

Today was hard, very hard. I’m sore and exhausted. I estimate that burned about 6,000 calories over 18 difficult miles.

It started pleasantly at 8 am in Ennerdale Bridge. The first mile was easy. Then I arrived at Ennerdale Water, a moderate sized lake that was the scene of Bill Clinton’s first (of many) marriage proposals to Hillary. Not unlike that first handful of those proposals, the trail on the edge of Ennerdale is rocky. For four miles, I stared at little else than my feet, trying not to get tripped up or roll an ankle. It was slow going,

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Ennerdale Water

The lake trail gave way to a half mile of gloriously flat and grassy pastoral path. It would be the last bit of pleasant path I would walk for the remainder of the 18-mile day.

Shortly after the pastoral path, I opted to take an alternative route over the fells. I had one mission: get to Haystacks and visit Innominate Tarn, a small tranquil incongruent pond hidden at the top of rocky fell. Arthur Wainwright, the trailblazer of the Coast to Coast path was so fond of the tarn that he requested his ashes be spread there.

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Looking Down at Ennerdale Water

The alternative route started with a very steep ascent, which only got steeper as it went on.  About a mile long and 2,100 feet of ascent, it took me an hour or huffing and puffing dripping sweat climb, so steep that if were any steeper, it would be unclimbable.

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Today’s Elevation Details

I underestimated how much extra work the fell route would become but once I was at the top of the first peak, there was no way to turn back. There’s no way I could safely get back down that hill. I quickly realized that not only was the second peak higher than the first but that there was a bit of a valley between the two. Down, knees knees knees. Up, quads quads quads.

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Third Peak

The following two peaks were a blur of setting small goals and trying not to stop moving for fear that pain and fatigue would set in. After two hours, Haystacks was in view.

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Looking Down Towards Haystacks

Scaling Haystacks required a few minor rock climbing scrambles and quite a few bad words. The top of Haystacks was unlike the previous peaks. There was a plateau with the occasional small pond. The largest of the small ponds, Innominate Tarn, defies description. Peaceful and pristine. A fitting resting place for a soft-spoken nature lover.

Unfortunately, if began to rain once I finally reached the tarn. I became worried about my descent so I left sooner than I would have liked. Thankfully, the descent, while no walk in the park (still very rocky), was much more manageable that previous ascents and descents.

The last few hours of the trail consisted of focused determination to get to by B&B, and more importantly, the pub next to the B&B.

And then, like that, I was sitting at a wonderful village pub sipping on a delicious beer staring blankly at the wall. Went back to the B&B, took a shower, and went right back to the pub for an enormous meal and a few pints.

My plan was to go up another, even more challenging, alternative route tomorrow. Regardless of the fact that I don’t think I’ll be up for it, it’s not feasible. Wind will be too strong it will be far too dangerous. I’m a little disappointed but mostly relieved.

Coast to Coast: Day 1, St. Bees to Ennerdale Bridge

The Sun. That double-edged celestial force. In winter, it bathes Phoenix in warm, glorious light. In summer, it beats us down, soaking into the cement only to radiate back upwards after it retreats. The Sun: it can make or break your day, depending on where you are, and when you are.

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In St. Bees on a Thursday in May, the Sun shone in all it’s glorious splendor. Radiant, shadow throwing, Sun. Helios, worked some magic today. 17 miles of pure golden bliss.

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The Beach at St. Bees

The day began on the beach at St. Bees. I started with enthusiasm and vigor as I walked north along the first few miles of the trail. By far the most congested part of the trail, I talked to people from Ottawa, Oregon, and even a guy from England.

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As I turned East, the scenery quickly shifted to rolling farmland punctuated by the occasional bucolic village. The locals, true to English form, were out in cheerful force, celebrating the outstanding weather.

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About 8 miles in, I caught up with a couple from Atlanta, stopped for a warm meat pie and potato pie in rundown Cleator and started up the steep 340 meter Dent fell. The descent from the fell was the steepest trail I’ve ever encountered. If I didn’t have my trekking poles, I think I would have had to sit and scooch all the way down. It was Westley screaming “AS YOU WISH” steep.

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From Dent Fell

The bottom of the hill gave way to an otherworldly valley with a babbling brook soundtrack. Soon, I found myself bouncing into the small and charming village of Ennerdale Bridge. I stopped at the local CAMRA recognized pub for a quick pint and am now simmering in cask IPA-induced contentment at the bar in my wonderful hotel.

The next two days are my most ambitious. I could fret about it but tomorrow is hours away. I have a feeling tonight is going to be great. The beer garden beckons, the shadows grow, tonight I shall drink steady but talk very slow.

Coast to Coast: Getting There

The trip from Phoenix to the tiny coastal village of St. Bees was long but blessedly uneventful, even relaxing.

After the redeye into Heathrow, I made my way to Paddington via the Heathrow Express, then the underground to Euston Station. I had an hour to kill, so I had a few beers at a wonderful pub called Bree Louise. After a 3 hour or so train ride to Carlisle, I checked into my hotel, hunted down some dinner and called it a night.

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Bree Louise

I awoke after a restful night’s sleep, made my way to the Carlisle Cathedral, and had a lovely time learning about the beautiful church. I tried to sneak into the local castle a few minutes before it opened but was promptly and politely asked to leave,  so I checked out of my hotel and headed back to the train station.

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Carlisle Cathedral

A couple from Oregon bound for the Coast to Coast was boarding the train at the same time. I have a feeling this trail will not be as solitary I’m used to. At noon, I rolled into St. Bees, had a quiet lunch, and watched the silent paragliders softly corkscrew over the shear Irish Sea cliffs.

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St. Bees has a wonderful Norman church with a very unique history. I spent a half an hour just sitting and listening to the birds in the ancient courtyard.

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St. Bees Priory

For dinner, I stopped at the local pub. Some delightfully foul-mouthed guys from Cornwall and I shared a few pints before I made my way back down to the coast to take and take some sunset shots. I miscalculated the orientation of the sunset, which meant I had to jump a fence and head out onto a very rocky and slippery peninsula. About, 3/4 (and after a few jarring slips) of the way out I realized that I was putting the rest of my walk at risk, so I settled for a spot and managed to get a few lackluster shots before carefully scrambling back to the beach. Stumbled back to the hotel with a few more bruises and went to bed.

I’m about an hour away from starting my walk. Sleep has been adequate. Weather looks promising. HERE WE GO!

Milestones To Milestones, Coast to Coast

My 40th birthday feels like it’s been looming for 3 years, advancing like a crawling freight train of melodramatic midlife mediocrity. I’ve never been excited about my birthdays. To the contrary, I’ve spent most of them downplaying any significance and, more often than not, simply not enjoying the time. Despite being surrounded by my best friends, my 30th, as I remember it, was a particularly morose affair. I just don’t enjoy celebrating my birthday.

40 though. It seems different and significant but I can’t explain why. The first of my parents’ birthdays I can recall is my father’s 40th. I was 5. There was a cake shaped like a woman’s chest. Maybe there’s something there (the memory of the birthday, not the boob cake); that time in your life when you begin to identify parallels in your own and your parents’ life; when memory of your parents’ life and your own begin to overlap.

Dramatic Reenactment

Whatever the deep-seated psychology, I’ve made a decision to celebrate my 40th with intention; to chase enchantment in a bid to banish those useless feelings of self-pity that I usually allow to cloud my attitude this time of year. To that end, I will be taking another walk across England. Quite literally this time. Wainright’s Coast to Coast Walk, the most popular long-distance footpath in England, is a 192 mile long trail that begins on the coast of the Irish Sea in St. Bees, up the steep tarn-dotted fells of the Lake District, through the tranquil hidden valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, and over the heathered-moorlands of the North York Moors, terminating at the coast of the North Sea in Robin Hood’s Bay.

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I plan to walk for 12 days, with a rest day in the middle. At nearly 200 miles, the path is almost twice as far as my longest previous walk. The hike through the Lake District is particularly grueling with abrupt elevation ascents and descents.

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Elevation Profile

It’s going to be a challenge. As my guidebook puts it:

…the most common complaint we’ve received about this book, particularly from North American readers, is that it doesn’t emphasize how tough it can be. So let us be clear: the Coast to Coast is a tough trek, particularly if taken in one go.

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Striding Edge. The “best quarter mile between St. Bees and Robin Hood’s Bay.” – A. Wainwright

I’m not helping matters by attempting to walk in two fewer days than the minimum recommended days. Despite training for the walk, I’m concerned that I’ve bitten off a little more than I can comfortably chew. But hey, is there really a better excuse to prove my vigor than a midlife milestone? It beats buying a Harley.

Alfred Wainwright, celebrated fell walking artist, author, and trailblazer of the Coast to Coast walk, has a lot to say about the trail. A notorious introvert, Wainwright proffered this bit of advice on traveling with companions:

“Preferably go alone and do it off your own bat, for it is the solitary walker, always, who most closely identifies himself with his surroundings, who observes as he goes along, who really feels the satisfaction of achievement “

Who am I to argue with a legendary walker? This will be another solitary adventure.

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Wainwright, Soft-Spoken Bad Ass

If your May is slow, come stroll sea to foggy sea with me. Thank you for all your comments on Facebook, they continue to be a source of encouragement when solitude crosses the threshold into loneliness.

I’ll leave you with the words of another legendary pipe-lipped walker:

I shall not keep you long. I have called you all together for a Purpose… Indeed, for Three Purposes! First of all, to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all, and that [forty] years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable [poeple].

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve….

Secondly, to celebrate my birthday…

Thirdly and finally, I wish to make an announcement: I regret to announce that — though, as I said, [forty] years is far too short a time to spend among you — this is the end. I am going. I am leaving now. Good-bye!

Poof.

Sowing Enchantment: Family Trip To The Fatherland

Limp-limbed, I’m lolled on the couch just starting to reflect on all the amazing experiences my family and I shared over the last two weeks.

My wife was born in Scotland and quite of few close family members still live in the country. She’s wanted to take the kids to meet the Scottish family every year since the tots were born. This was the year everything finally fell into place.

Over half a year ago, when tickets to the UK plummeted, we decided to pull the trigger on 4 tickets. Not more than a few days later, one of Anna’s cousins, unaware that we had already purchased tickets, asked us to come out for her wedding party in March. It just so happened that the date of the party was smack dab in the middle of our ticket dates. Not only would we be in town for the party, but the entire scattered family would be as well. Coincidence? I choose to believe it wasn’t. To make our lives easier, we invited my 16-year old niece to help with the kids. Party of five, bound for Scotland.

The itinerary took shape thusly:

Direct flight to London and head to Anna’s cousin’s flat for two days of capital tourism and travel acclimation. Drive to Edinburgh with a night stop over in the English medieval gem Durham. From Edinburgh, it is a short drive to Fort William, Scotland, which would be our base for the rest of the trip. After a week in Fort William, it was out to Glasgow to catch a connection to Heathrow, then back home.

So after months of anticipation, we finally left in mid-March, on the first day of the year we would have turned on the air conditioner. Later, Phoenix.

London

The red eye out of Phoenix was blessedly uneventful. We arrived in London bleary-eyed but excited. Traveling with my son (who is wheelchair bound) provides its own unique challenges but it’s also not without advantages: we were fast tracked through passport control. In record time we were out of the airport, speeding through London with our rented VW Transporter on our way to cousin Alyson and Ayo’s cool and comfortable flat right on the Thames in Battersea. We spent the night munching on Indian delivery and planning our London site seeing day.

Tuesday was an uncharacteristically sunny day. Because of the wheelchair and our lack of time, we opted to use the ubiquitous London black cab (equipt with wheelchair ramps). At our first stop, the London Eye, we were relieved to find a short line and were blessed with a relatively empty compartment. A short jaunt over the bridge (where a horrific terrorist attack was to occur just a few days later) by Big Ben and Westminster Abbey (stopping for a quick pint) , down Birdcage Walk with its host of golden daffodils in bloom, and we were at Buckingham Palace. We then walked up to Piccadilly Circus for a slow lunch at a historical pub. I had hoped to take the kids to the British Museum but ran out of time, so we cabbed it up to King’s Cross station so the kids could see Platform 9 3/4 and the Harry Potter store. Izzy is now the proud owner of a genuine Hermione wand. From King’s Cross, we called it a day and cabbed back to Battersea, left the kids with Megan, and had a nice quiet meal with Alyson and Ayo.

Durham

Wednesday started with a 6-hour rainy drive up to picturesque Durham. This bridge laden medieval city is built around an enormous 11th century Norman Castle and Cathedral. Replete with hidden alleys and cobblestone streets, remote Durham manages to maintain a charm that is usually quashed by an over enthusiastic tourism industry. After we left the kids in the hotel to veg out following the long drive, Anna and I wandered through the meandering streets and took in the crisp cold night air. Perhaps the most prominent feature of Durham is the student body of Durham University, who were frantically parading the streets in outrageous costumes. My CAMRA app pointed us to a great little pub, we had a pint and called it a night.

The next morning we took the kids up to tour the cathedral. They were most intrigued with the pensioner volunteer guide who boasted a conversation with Daniel Radcliffe during one of the Harry Potter shoots on the cathedral grounds.

Edinburgh

About two hours into the three-hour drive to Edinburgh fatigue set in. The kids were hungry, it was a bit cold, and Edinburgh seemed forever away. We opted to stop into the suburb of Musselburgh to for lunch and visit one of only three pubs in Scotland to win CAMRA’s national pub of the year. Unfortunately, the only place we could find food was a Tesco cafe (imagine a Target with a small cafe). But the pub was great and soon we were rejuvenated and headed toward the elegant Waldorf Astoria in Edinburgh (thanks hotel points!). The boys stayed in and relaxed while the three girls did some evening site seeing.

In the morning, the boys woke up early and did some site seeing while the three girls relaxed. The weather was miserable, so Harry and I ducked into a cafe for breakfast and went to pick up Anna’s mom (“Lola” to the kids) at the train station. After a brief visit to the castle, we all met up for lunch and then piled back into the car for a 4-hour scenic drive to Fort William.

Fort William

The house we rented was on the outskirts of town and required a somewhat focused white-knuckle drive through a small 200-year-old tunnel. We arrived, and then, just like that, the house was full of family members that I’d never seen in the same room. Anna’s mom, sister, brother-in-law, uncles, aunts, cousins: family from England, Fort William and other places in Scotland, and three corners of the states. It was a poignant reunion.

The next morning, Anna’s sister and I walked six miles along the Caledonian Canal (the path is aka The Great Glen Way) into Fort William. Later that night was Anna’s cousin’s wedding party, which happened to also fall on our 16th wedding anniversary.

Sunday was a lazy day. Izzy and Bonnie (Anna’s sister) went to church with uncle Iain and later met up with us at the grocery store. Bonnie and I wanted to cook for everyone that day but we had not quite worked out the menu. We ended up cobbling together fajitas and Mexican rice. As soon as we got home, the whole crew showed up. 18 people altogether. Every single member of Anna’s maternal grandmother’s offspring, complete with spouses and children thereof.

The Clan

That rented house in Torcastle, just beyond the tunnels, was a home for a few brief hours.

The next day we slept in. The plan was to visit some waterfalls up at Glen Nevis and meet the cousins for a coffee at an inn on the glen. We accidently went to the inn first, which resulted in a bizarre episode that I will discuss below. After figuring out where the falls were, we made out way there just in time to get driven back into the van by pelting cold rain. Rather than just leave we decided to wait a few minutes to see if the rain would pass. It did.

That night consisted of dinner with the extended family. Adam (the brother-in-law) dusted off his damsel in distress “but I can’t pay the rent” bit to much applause.

Tuesday morning brought snow. Giant dime sized snowflakes, which initially didn’t stick but eventually dusted the landscape like a cheap north pole mall display. Lola and Anna wanted to have some kidless time with the aunt and uncle, so I opted to stay with the kids. At some point, I decided it would be a good idea to dress the kids in too much clothing and set off on a snowy hike down the canal to a cafe a mile down the way. So we set off in the snow. Izzy looked like Ralph’s little brother from A Christmas Story, donned in at least two too many layers. My niece and I managed to get Harry and his wheelchair through a narrow turnstile and up the steep muddy bank to the canal where I enthusiastically marched them towards the promise of hot chocolate topped with mountains of whip cream.

Unfortunately, one mile turned into two, and then three. At one point it started raining and everyone’s “rain resistant” jackets aptly demonstrated their distinction from “waterproof” jackets. I was beginning to get worried about Harry so I jogged him down to the cafe, where Anna turned up just in time for me to run back and find Megan and Izzy. Izzy had to dry off her pants in the cafe’s bathroom hand dryer but, in the end, the promised hot chocolate and aforementioned whipped cream mountains were happily consumed.

The fates rewarded me with a fresh cask of Deuchars Caledonian IPA, a beer I fell in love with over a decade ago but have not seen on cask since (excluding my attempts to clone it at home). I had somewhere between 5 and 7 pints before the day’s end. Anna and I ended up back at the same cafe (but then magically transformed into a “bistro” for dinner service) that night.

Suspense On The Mountian

I mentioned a note about a bizarre episode that began a day prior at Glen Nevis. It was at dinner at the cafe/bistro that the story began to take shape.

We pulled up to the closed Ben Nevis Inn around 2 pm a day prior, under the false impression that the waterfalls we were looking for were within walking distance. It happens the Ben Nevis Inn sits at the trailhead of a trail that summits Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK.

At the trailhead, a map of the Ben Nevis trail is posted. At the map stood a barrel-chested mid sixty-year-old man, decked out in what appeared to be old school hill walking attire. Hoping the map would point me to the falls, I walked up and scratched my head. “Not very clear, is it?” the man commented. We talked a bit but he didn’t seem to know where the falls I was looking for were. However, he did point out the “zig zags” (switchbacks to Americans) and noted that the portion beyond the zig zags was “narrow and dangerous.” We talked a little more, we wished each other luck and I watched him slowly but confidently set on off up the path.

Everyone knew it would snow that night. There was no doubt there would be even heavier snow on the mountain.

It wasn’t until the next day while Anna and I were eating dinner that I thought about him again. Lola had liked a post on facebook about the Ben Nevis rescue team recovering a man who had “spent the night on the mountain” and was in a severe hypothermic state. I joked to Anna, “wouldn’t that be crazy if it was the same dude.” So I googled it and a thumbnail with a picture of the man popped up.

I thought it was kind of funny. But then I read the article. He had phoned a friend towards the top of the mountain to tell them that he was making for an emergency shelter. He never made it. He fell and laid in the snow for hours, covered until the rescue team happened upon him. He was 71, frostbitten, hypothermic, and not likely to survive.

I commented on that rescue post that Lola liked. For the next two days, I checked the news regularly hoping there was something more about the story but there was nothing. I was genuinely worried. He seemed like a nice guy and an experienced (albeit severely under equipt) walker.

Finally, two days after I learned about the story, I was sent a facebook message by his daughter who had seen my comment. She wanted to tell me that he was out of ICU and was going to survive. Good news.

Side Trip: Loch Ness/Urquhart Castle

We slept in again on Thursday. By the time we were headed towards Urquhart Castle at Loch Ness it was already lunch time. We stopped into an upscale hotel restaurant in the fantastically charming canal side village of Fort Augustus. This turned out to be the best meal of the trip, owing largely in part from oysters from the nearby Isle of Skye. After our unrushed lunch, we arrive at the ruins of Urquart Castle just before they were closing. We ran quickly through the ruins and were back in the car within a half and hour, a little annoyed and unimpressed.

As we drove back to the house, the weather broke just as the sun was beginning to set. We stopped at the Spean Bridge commando memorial for a bunch of pictures. A few hundred meters drive down the road, we stopped at the cemetery where Anna’s grandparents are buried. Both the kids seemed to understand the somberness of the occasion, punctuated by Izzy standing at the grave of her namesake.

Side Trip: The Isle of Eigg

Many families have a member that, because of their interests and preoccupations, is the keeper of family history. I am that person in my family. Maybe it’s my love for history or my own tentative history to my past (having been adopted my father), but, for whatever reason, I consider myself charged with keeping a fire that will burn out with time if no one tends to it. Luckily, I became that person before my grandmother passed a few years ago and was able to record a trove of history about my mother’s family. The fire of the McIntosh line of my family will burn for generations because of the work I’ve put in.

Eight years ago, after I was laid off from the law firm, I set out to spend my severance period sinking my teeth into family history. Part of this venture resulted in an epic east coast genealogical excursion. During this period, while in Florida at Lola’s house, I picked up a book off her coffee table and started reading.

The book was about the Isle of Eigg, the tiny Hebridean island from which much of my wife’s family hails from. Generations of that side of the family, lived, labored, and died on that small oddly shaped rock. Lola spent her summers there and uncle Ian was born there. What started out as a mild interest in the island, transformed into a genealogical obsession. After reading the book cover to cover (a feat that, while many copies were scattered across the family, had never been accomplished), I began a correspondence with the author. A few years ago, Anna and I were flying to Vegas when she pulled out an issue of National Geographic Traveler from the seat back when I noticed that Eigg was on the cover. That Christmas, I bought a large print of that photograph, which is now prominently displayed in our home.

Isle of Eigg, Photo by Jim Richardson

Eigg, Photo by Jim Richardson

As soon as we bought tickets for our UK trip, I started thinking about Eigg again. Getting to and from Eigg this time a year is difficult. There’s a ferry but it only runs a few days a week and leaves almost as soon it arrives, leaving the tourist no time to explore. This meant I had to find and hire a private boat to ferry us to and from the island.

I’ll spare the reader the details but after three days of delays due to weather, we finally had the green light. Eigg for Thursday, weather looks good.

Getting to the port town of Mallaig from Fort William is a breeze. There’s a train that starts in Fort William and ends in Mallaig. You’ve probably seen the train that runs the track in the summer. It’s the steam engine used as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. The iconic Glenfinnan viaduct is also featured prominently in the movies.

The train ride was scenic. We arrived in Mallaig had some locally baked treats and boarded our boat. In no time, we were sailing toward Eigg on the calmest and sunniest days in months, water as smooth as glass. Our boat captain was an amiable local who had sailed on the water outside of Mallaig for 30 years. He was barely older than me.

Upon arrival at the pier in Eigg, we (Anna, the kids, Lola, uncle Ian and I) were greeted by two men: John, the current owner of the old family homestead and Charlie, “taxi driver” (or, a dude with one of the few cars on the island and some spare time).

In the US, our houses are designated by numerical addresses but in the UK, many houses, especially in the country, have names. There’s a house that looms large in the lore of my wife’s family: Craigard. The modest dwelling, one of a handful on the east side of the island, is the focal point of the family’s island history. Lola spent her summers there. Uncle Ian was born there. The family lived in that home for nearly 150 years, and quite possibly much longer on the same plot of land. The house is visible in the picture of Eigg above. Just right of the white lighthouse, in the middle left of frame.

I’m a little unsure how the family lost the house because I’ve never had the nerve to ask. Every time the subject comes up, there’s a distinct bitterness and hurt concerning the circumstances involving its sale. It’s been owned for a few years by John, one of the men who met us on the pier. John graciously let us visit the property.

I got the impression that John may have been a little apprehensive about some far-flung tourists wanting to come see his house but after a few minutes, whether he just warmed up or realized the deep connection Lola and Ian had with the place, he was eager to share details about improvements and ask questions about things he was curious about.

We budgeted three hours on the island. Nearly half of that was spent at Craigard. I could see the flood of childhood memories dance across Lola and Ian’s faces. We spent time talking about certain bushes, door latches, and recently discovered WWII-era graffiti in the attic (attributed Ian and Lola’s uncles). Clearly updated, Craigard still was very much the place the two of them spent their carefree summer youth.

Dougal, John’s Falkor-esque golden retriever amused the kids while we soaked up the sun and talked about Craigard’s secrets. It’s most interesting secret sat unceremoniously on the garden wall. John picked up a seemingly unnoteworthy rock and told us how a recent rain and a perfect ray of sunlight revealed long hidden writing on the stone. He had an archeologist come and look at it and send some pictures off to some experts. It turned out the writing was runic and probably 8th-century. Just sitting there for 1,300 years. The jury was out on the authentic translation but John happily accepted a proffered vulgar explanation.

From Craigard, we drove a mile or two to the other side of the island, Ian and Lola swapping stories with John about the families that lived in every house along the way. We met a local ambling up the road. He was straight out of central casting, wiry frame with a long scraggly gray beard and hair. John stopped to chit chat mentioning that, due to the outstanding weather, it would be a great day to tend the garden. Our wayfarer responded with the thick brogue and insistence that only a hearty Scot can deliver, “IT’S A GOOD DAY FER DOIN’ NOTHIN’.”

As our three-hour window was rapidly closing we made our way to Kildonan, site of a 7th-century massacre of Saint Donan and his followers, the ruins of an 11th-century church, and the island cemetery, where Ian and Lola’s uncles and grandparents are altogether in a family plot, likely on top of family members of generations past. The weather on Eigg is not usually pleasant but during our visit, it was magnificent. Standing there at that cemetery in the breeze and the sun, overlooking the bay with its the snow capped mountains running the length of the eastern horizon, I’ve never experienced a more peaceful scene. Isolated, beautiful, ancient, poignant.

Kildonnan

We returned to the boat at exactly 3pm. Two unfortunate germans who had missed the return ferry the day before hitched a ride back to Mallaig with us. It was a quiet ride back. We were all tired and happy to take in the great weather. Back in Mallaig we had a lackluster meal, boarded the train and sped home in twilight, drowzy and satisfied.

Fort William, Continued And Onward Travel

For our last morning in Fort William, we visited Anna’s cousin Nicola, who works at the ski resort in town. After a gondola ride up the mountain, we had lunch, played in the snow, and headed back down the hill. We stopped by Lola’s sister house to say good by to the aunts and uncles and then headed to Glasgow.

After a long and tired drive to Glasgow, we arrived at our hotel. Anna is usually pretty good about picking our accommodation but this place was a dump. Just awful. So I got on the phone and found out a much cleaner chain hotel closer to the airport. We set the kids up at the hotel and met with cousin Carol for Indian. We saw three foxes on the way to the restaurant, had a solid meal, went back to the hotel, and fell asleep immediately.

I love Indian food but it can mess with me. Our alarm woke me out of a dream in which I was riding a flying carpet time machine through Edinburgh with Benjamin Franklin to meet up with Dolly Parton. In hindsight, I think maybe my sub conscience was beckoning me back to America by dream casting two of the most American personalities.

Our flights back home, while extremely long, were uneventful.

Conclusion: Sowing Enchantment

Childhood family trips are when cherished lifelong memories are made. I have little doubt that my kids will grow up with the fondest memories imaginable of this trip. But just as important, I hope this trip instilled in them a sense of 1) identity: understanding their roots, and how deep they go, and 2) enchantment: understanding that there are places in this world that can fill the soul with a sense of wonder and magic that eclipses the saccharine manufactured enchantment offered by commercial experiences.

Enchantment is worth pursuing. It does not often come to one accidently. It’s my sincere hope that the seeds of enchantment were sown with this trip and that one day those seeds will bloom in my kids and my niece and spur them on to adventures of their own.

As for me, I’ll be forty soon. Seems like a good reason to hunt some more enchantment of my own.

Until May…

The American’s Guide To Planning A British Walking Tour, Part 3: The How

So you’ve decided a walking tour is for you and settled on the perfect trail. Now what? There are three ways to work out all the details: DIY, Easy Mode, and Hybrid. DIY means you personally plan and reserve every service and accommodation yourself. Easy Mode means you hire a self-guided tour company to work out all your details for one large fee. And the Hybrid method, as the name implies, is somewhere in between.

Do It Yourself

The DIY method requires a moderate level of planning acumen. There are many moving parts and you must be flexible and able to understand how each part affects the whole. You will be required to juggle emails, place numerous international phone calls, and make decisions about services or accommodations without a ton of information.

There are two advantages to planning the trip details yourself:

First, cost. Planning yourself can be significantly cheaper than hiring a tour company. Particularly if you are going by yourself, most tour companies will charge an extra fee on top of the quoted price because their price assumes at least double occupancy in each booked room.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you are planning to go with a larger group of 4 or more, planning yourself can also be considerably cheaper by finding rooms that can accommodate a larger group, thereby consolidating the number of rooms booked and saving money.

Secondly, by planning every detail you will force yourself to research the route to a much greater degree. Likely you’ll be consulting your guidebook and websites to research each town in which you plan to stay overnight. Through this exercise, you will familiarize yourself with each village, its history and what services are available therein.

Initial Planning

Before you begin to make reservations, buy a reputable guidebook for your trail. I recommend the Trailblazer Guide series. Your guidebook will contain most of the information you need to plan your trip and will also serve as your go-to map on the trail. Additionally, many of the trails have websites that are run by societies dedicated to that specific trail. These websites often contain planning information, including route detours, route planning information, and accommodation information. One site that is particularly helpful is Sherpa Van. In addition to providing reliable baggage transfers (discussed below), Sherpa Van’s website contains a wealth of content written by walkers for most of the accommodations in villages along the most popular routes. Tripadvisor is also helpful but be sure to filter your reviews to show reviews by walkers.

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After you have received your guide, the first order of business is to determine how many days you will be walking. With a guidebook, this becomes somewhat organic. The routes often work the best with a walk planned around a certain number of days based on the terrain and distance between villages.

Now that you’ve settled on a walking duration you must determine how many travel days and rest days you want to have. You need to afford yourself enough time to get the trailhead and be ready to walk first thing on the morning of your first day. It is highly recommended that you stay near, preferably walking distance to, the trailhead the day before you start. Not only does this make getting to the trailhead a no-brainer, but it will also make your baggage transfer easier.

Rest days are helpful but not always necessary. I like a rest day after the last day of walking. You can also plan a rest day in the middle of the walk. Make sure you pick a place where you can be entertained for a night and entire day. Some villages are very small and may not have businesses open for lunch.

You should now have a total number of days needed to accomplish your walk. My Dales Way walk looked like this: Day 1: fly overnight direct to Heathrow. Day 2: connecting flight to Leeds. Land, taxi to Ilkley. Day 3: Hang out in Ilkley Day: 4-9 walk to Windemere on Bowness. Day 10: Rest in Windemere on Bowness. Day 11: Travel to Manchester. Day 12: Depart from Manchester. I need a roundtrip ticket for a 12-day window.

I afforded myself enough time on Day 2-3 to get to the starting village and relax before beginning. This bumper time became crucial when my plane was delayed and I missed my connecting flight, with no chance of picking up another flight to get to Ilkley on time. I ended up ditching the airport and finding a train that got me into town way off schedule but with plenty of time to sleep before starting. Plan for delays.

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Air Travel

Because air travel is likely to be the significant cost of your journey, much of your planning will revolve around when you can find the cheapest ticket. I do not have many tips regarding finding the cheapest ticket. There are many dedicated air travel websites that can help you with the tips and tricks. I will say, though, I’ve had good luck with booking multicity round-trip tickets, for example, flying into Heathrow but out through Manchester. Airlines call these “open jaw” tickets. Also, the further out you plan, the higher the chance of scoring that awesome ticket. I like to set up Google Flight alerts for a few different options.

What exactly is a cheap ticket these days? The unavoidable fees and taxes associated with international travel these days are egregious. I booked one ticket direct to Heathrow using points. The fare was free but the fees and taxes were still $650. It appears at the time of writing this that taxes and fees have been reduced to around $400. After the Brexit vote, there seemed to be a bit of a panic and I was able to find tickets with very low fares, some $150 or less. Total price: $800.

Flexibility will be the key to finding the best ticket price. Plan early and be willing to leave and return at unpopular times. BA flies direct to Heathrow from PHX once a day, but it’s a red eye. It’s a tradeoff I’d gladly put up with — missing a few hours of sleep to not be traveling for 15+ hours.

 

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Timing Is Everything

 

Once you’ve found an affordable ticket, don’t book it. Reserve it. You need to make sure you can secure accommodations before you commit to a ticket. Of course, if your trip is planned for a less popular trail or is still over six months out, you’re likely going to be able to secure accommodations for any trail and can pounce immediately on a good ticket. Just don’t wait long to try to book your accommodations.

Accommodations

By now you should have a rough idea the area you want to sleep in after each day’s walk. It’s time to start researching your accommodations. For purposes of this post, I will not be discussing camping options. While camping is definitely an option, I’m not experienced enough to comment on it. Just know that with camping, baggage transfer (discussed fully below), which makes your walk much more enjoyable, will likely not be an option.

On the trail, you will find a few different lodging options. Commonly, in the villages, you will find family-run inns (a restaurant or pub with attached apartments) or bed and breakfasts. In between the villages, there are country houses with rooms for rent. Occasionally, in a larger town, there may be a small hotel. Most accommodations offer a full English breakfast built into the cost.

It’s important to realize that most of these accommodations are owned and operated by locals and are modest. Rooms are not always the most comfortable or hotel pristine. If you don’t feel like the guide or websites are giving you enough information about an accommodation try Trip Advisor. Not all rooms are “en suite.” En suite means that there is a private bathroom in your room. If the description does not mention en suite, it’s likely that the bathroom is shared with other guests.

One of the elements of a good accommodation is the personality running the place. The innkeepers can make your night. Pay attention to this detail in the reviews.

Break out your guide and start contacting your preferred accommodations, starting with accommodations in the area towards the beginning of your trip. Work your way through the days to the last days of your trip. Most accommodations answer emails within a day. You may need to call some accommodations. Many, but not all, room reservations require a deposit. Don’t put a deposit down until you have determined there is accommodation availability for the duration of your walk. Be sure you have directions to each accommodation.

If you can’t find an accommodation right on the route, consider looking for accommodations a few miles off the route. Many accommodations will pick you up from and drop you off at the trail. Some will even drive you into town for dinner.

I like to have email confirmations of all my reservations. Once you have reserved all your lodging for the walking portion of your trip, you can confidently purchase your air travel.

Lunch

Breakfast is usually included with your lodging. Dinner is usually available around your accommodations. Occasionally, lunch might be tricky to find. This can happen for a couple of reasons. First, there might not be a single restaurant or store on the route until you finish for the day. Secondly, while there might be a pub or two, they don’t serve food all day. Many pubs are not open for lunch and those that are, often stop serving food at 2pm. To address this issue, many accommodations provide simple packed no frills lunches for an extra fee. If you think you need a packed lunch, it’s important that you make arrangements before you check in.

You may also be able to buy a premade sandwich and other vittles in the occasional village convenience store. On the Dales Way, I was enjoying one such lunch. As I was chewing on my bacon sandwich I was thinking about how much of a badass I was for not stopping for lunch. Unfortunately, I was walking so quickly that I was breathing pretty hard. The result was a big lump of chewed up bacon sandwich in my windpipe. Eyes bulging, I managed to finally cough it up. Lesson: you’re not a badass for walking and eating at the same time.

Baggage Transfer

Remember, a British walking tour is not like a wilderness hike in the U.S. This is intended to be a pleasant walk, not an endurance challenge. One of the great services provided along the British footpaths is baggage transfer. When you hire a baggage transfer company, they pick up your baggage in the morning from your lodging and drive it to your next accommodation. This allows you to travel lightly with a day pack and a few necessary supplies.

Hiring a transfer company is easy. I recommend Sherpa Van but there are plenty of other providers. The cost for Sherpa Van is roughly £8 per day, per bag. You must work out all your accommodations before hiring a baggage transfer company unless you use the Hybrid method discussed below.

Easy Mode

If you don’t have the time or inclination to get bogged down in the details of your walk, consider hiring a self-guided tour company to take care of your arrangments. A tour company will send you the necessary maps and guides, arrange all your accommodations, hire baggage transfer providers, and provide support along the way if needed.

I’ve used Mac’s Adventure. They were great but there are many other companies out there. You will still need to arrange your own airfare and transportation costs. Do not book airfare until your tour company has confirmed your trip.

Hybrid

While booking my Coast to Coast walk I stumbled onto a Sherpa Van service of which I was previously unaware. In addition to baggage transfer services, and for a small fee, Sherpa Van will contact any accommodation listed on their site to make your reservations for you. In the event that your preferred accommodation is not available, they will arrange an alternative for you. This method allows you the freedom to pick your accommodations (subject to availability) while not needing to contact them each directly and juggle dates, reservations, and confirmations. The fee is per person. For 14 nights worth of accommodation, I paid roughly $50 to make all the arrangements. Money well spent.

Transportation

Whether you do it yourself or hire a tour company, you must arrange your own transportation to the trailhead and onward after you’ve finished your walk. The UK has a fantastic public transportation network. Trains can get you close to almost any part of the country and, when they can’t, taxis or buses take you the last few miles from a train station. Sidenote: while some of the bigger cities have Uber, it is virtually non-existent in the rural areas.

If you land in Heathrow, there’s a great (albeit expensive) new train, the Heathrow Express, that runs directly to Paddington Station (note: book online in advance to save on Heathrow Express tickets). Otherwise, the underground is a lower cost, much slower, alternative. From Paddington, the country is your oyster. Buying train tickets well in advance can save you money and make your transportation experience slightly less stressful.

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Consult your guidebook concerning transportation to your trailhead. A good guide will have information on closest airports and train stations. Google maps also is a great source of public transit routes, times, prices, and links to buy your tickets.

Gear

Luckily, with baggage transfer, you won’t be bogged down with unnecessary gear during your walk.

Essential Gear

First and foremost, the most important element to your gear is your shoes. Nothing will ruin your walk faster and more thoroughly than miserable feet. Robust hiking boots are not necessary but you will need more than tennis shoes. Many trails have very steep elements. You will need traction. More than traction, you need water resistant shoes. Britain is wet. Very wet. Some trails include miles and miles of bogs. Get shoes that can resist a lot of water and mud. Wet feet are not happy feet.

Likewise, wool socks are highly recommended. Preferably with an extra pair or two in your day pack. Wool will not only keep your feet warm but also dry relatively quickly should your shoes fail.

Simple first aid items are helpful. Motrin, blister pads, moleskin, anti-chaffing bar, and a spare ace bandage have all helped me in the past. Don’t forget the toilet paper.

You will need a daypack with a water bottle. A small 20L-30L backpack is fine. I really like having pockets for my water bottle on the side. A bladder will work as well but I prefer to just buy a liter or two of water rather than having to ask to fill a bladder. If your daypack is not waterproof, buy a cover for it.

It will probably rain. You need rain gear comfortable enough to walk in for an entire day if necessary. I like a waterproof, light, wide-brimmed Boonie hat, a rain shell jacket, and wicking material hiking pants. It’s important to be able to get your rain gear on quickly; the weather can change fast.

While most of the trails are very well way-markered, a good guide and/or map are essential. On a long, less well way-markered trail, consider a detailed map and compass.

Keep a folder with all your travel info handy. Include travel insurance information, accommodation directions, and email confirmations. Do not count on your phone.

Nice to Have Gear

Hiking clothes are nice to have. I have a single pair of hiking pants and a handful of hiking long sleeve shirts that I wear and wash while walking. Clothes made for hiking are breathable and dry quickly.

Walking poles make ascents and descents a little easier. I started with a cheap collapsible one and upgraded to more robust poles.

It doesn’t get terribly cold in the summer but having a few layers on hand can make your walk more comfortable. I have a fleece, pair of gloves, and beanie handy.

One item I highly recommend is a digital map. They are not cheap, but a Harvey digital map can save you miles of unintended wandering. Follow the instructions on the website to load it to your GPS enabled phone and let it track your position while you walk. With a 5 second glance, you can determine whether you’ve strayed from the preloaded highlighted path. I will not hike without one of these maps.

Odds and Ends

There are a number of small items you should consider taking care of before you head out.

Travel Insurance

The main purpose of travel insurance is to reimburse you for any accommodations or transportation reservations that get canceled. That’s all fine and good but one of the other perks of travel insurance is more relevant to our endeavor. Travel insurance provides emergency services, such as airlifting and other ambulatory services. There’s nothing terribly extreme about a walking tour, but some of these areas are very remote. If something should go wrong, you will be covered. World Nomads is what I use.

Cash/Credit Cards

Carrying cash in the countryside is generally advised. Most small businesses prefer cash. Generally, the threat of pickpockets and thieves is much lower than in the touristy spots. Most villages will have an ATM. A good guidebook will have information about cash withdraw services.

When you do need to use a credit card, try to use a card that does not impose foreign transaction fees. The U.K. is light years ahead of us on touchless (or as they say, “contactless”) technology. Apple Pay, Google Pay, so on offer quick and easy payment options.

Phone

Set up international roaming service for your phone or you might encounter a nasty bill. WIFI is available in most pubs and accommodations but you may find yourself with very spotty or nonexistent service occasionally. Also, data signals are very sporadic. I find with a data plan and an eye out for WIFI networks, I can find at least one place to make a call a day. If you have an unlocked phone, you can pick up a £30ish sim card loaded with a generous data plan at almost any wireless store.

Beer Tourism

I love real ale. Finding a pub that serves a proper pint is a big deal to me. Unfortunately, not all pubs are equal. There are some truly awful establishments out there. Also, there are many local looking pubs that are owned by huge restaurant groups that produce a dining and drinking experience on par with Applebees. If you want to find the best traditional pubs and the best traditional beer, you must do research beforehand.

The Campaign For Real Ale (“CAMRA”) produces a number of products that will put you on the right track. If you want to do a good bit of research for your trip, buy the most current version of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. The beer guide is an amazing resource that has led me to a number of gems I would have never found otherwise. The problem with the guide is that it’s too big to carry around. Luckily, CAMRA recently released a fantastic new app that contains all the information in the guide plus a ton more. In order for the app to work, you must pay and small annual subscription and have access to cellular data.

Education

A little bit of education will enrich your experience. Learn about the villages that you intend to visit. An overview of history and architecture will not only put context to your environment but you may impress a local by demonstrating a genuine interest in their culture. As an American, you’ll be walking through culture older and richer than anything you encounter at home. If you can put meat on the bones of history, the British countryside will become more than a pretty or charming place.

This concludes the American’s Guide To Planning An British Walking Tour. Click here for Part 1: The What and Why and here for Part 2: The Where, When, and Who.

The American’s Guide To Planning A British Walking Tour, Part 2: The Where, When, And Who

The Where

You’ve decided you want to take a walking tour but you’re not sure how to pick one. This is where the fun begins! Now the daydreams take form, colored in by the information your about to sift through.

First, determine how many days you want to walk and how much mileage you are comfortable walking in a day. Multiply your desired walking days by the daily miles and you’ve arrived at a rough mileage goal for your walking tour. Now that you’ve narrowed down some variables, it’s time to start researching.

If this is your first foray into a walking tour in the U.K., start by looking into one of the U.K.’s national trails. National trails are well maintained by the government and are therefore well signposted, providing the walker with a trail that will require little navigational skill. Additionally, you should have no problem finding information, including detailed guidebooks, lodging and travel information for a national trail.

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The distance of the national trails ranges from 80 miles all the way up over 600 miles, with most in the 100-200 mile range. Narrow your choices down to trails that meet your mileage goal. Now research each of the trails and see if any are particularly interesting. Would you prefer pastoral countryside or rugged coastline? Scenic villages or historically relevant cities? Wales? Scotland? Find a trail that excites you.

If there is a trail that you’d love to walk but it’s too long, don’t be afraid to walk the most interesting stretch. Many people walk trails in segments. There are no rules here.

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Another great way to research trails is to look at websites selling self-guided walking tour services. These sites often have great descriptions of the trails with pictures and reviews. Also, these sites will advertise popular, safe and well-marked trails that are not necessarily national trails. I particularly like Macs Adventure. If you want to really geek out, visit The Long Distance Walkers Association website, which details over 1,400 routes in the U.K.

Keep in mind that not all mileage is created equal; some trails are more challenging than others. Make sure your research includes an understanding of the terrain you will be walking.

The When

The walking season in the U.K. is generally April through late Septemeber or early October, with August being the busiest time of year. If you decide to try for a hike in Spring or early fall, check historical weather data for the area. Temperatures averages can change significantly week to week during these months. Winter hiking is not unheard of, but many accommodations shutter during the winter.

Whenever you go, be prepared for rain. There’s simply no way can guarantee a dry walk but historical weather data is helpful hedging your bets.

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There are a couple considerations when deciding which day you should start walking. First, plan to stay near the trailhead the night before you start. Secondly, consider starting on a day other than Saturday. Saturday is a popular starting day. Not only do you run the risk of a lot of traffic on the trail but lodging along the trail will be more difficult to reserve.

Planning a walking tour requires quite a bit of planning and making reservations. Generally, it’s not something you can do a few weeks before you leave. On the popular trails, during the summer months, you’ll likely need two months at a minimum.

The Who

Do you need to be in shape to walk a long distance British footpath? Yes and no. Yes, you should be able to walk at least 10 miles a day. No, you don’t need to be an athlete or experienced hiker. Remember, British footpaths are generally not nearly as rugged the average mountain trail in the U.S. Most of the time you will be walking through cleared pasture, which means there are very few obstacles. Many people well into their 60s and 70s can be found on the footpaths. On the last mile of the Dales Way, I encountered some Americans (the only Americans I ran across the entire trip) just finishing up the same trail: a group of rotund Alaskan women near their sixties. How fit do you need to be? As fit as a rotund Alaskan woman near her sixties.

Common sense rules here. Comfortable hiking gear and walking distances you know you can handle will make the difference between a wonderful stroll and a mildly taxing hike. Know your limits and learn to take your time and enjoy the journey. If you’re just plain out of shape, don’t try to walk 15+ miles a day and choose a trail that is not hilly or boggy.

I love walking alone. I encourage anyone who thinks they might like walking alone to give it a try. For those who would rather be with other people, limit your group to roughly four people. Many of the accommodations on the trail have limited lodging. The more people in your group, the more difficult it will be to secure lodging for the whole group in the same area every night.

This has been Part 2 of The American’s Guide To Planning A British Walking Tour, for Part 1: The What And Why, click here, and Part 3: The How.

A Quickie UK and Ireland Adventure

A few weeks ago, a buddy of mine invited me along on a whirlwind trip that can be best described as a reverse brewery tour. His brewery, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. (AZWBC), brewed a beer in conjunction with Jimmy Eat World’s new album. The idea was that the brewery would host tap takeovers in the same cities the band was playing. So rather than visiting local breweries in a foreign city, we took an Arizona brewery to said foreign cities. We didn’t tour breweries, we took a brewery on tour.

I’ve been a fan of Jimmy Eat World for two decades. I first saw them at the Che Cafe in San Diego in 1996 and, for the following few years, every chance I got. They were an integral part of the music scene that largely defined my identity in those years. The band has been on constant and regular rotation through the albums and decades.

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Not Our Child

So, presented with the opportunity to follow one of my favorite bands through a country I’ve grown to love while promoting and drinking great beer… seemed like a no-brainer.

The itinerary was simple but demanding. A different city every day. London, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester, Buxton, and then back to London.

I met Jonathon and Patrick, owners of AZWBC, at Sky Harbor on Saturday night. The red eye was uneventful. I scored an emergency row seat and slept most of the 9.5-hour flight. Good thing too, that was the best sleep I would get the whole trip.

We landed in Heathrow, met up with Matt, a photographer documenting the trip, and checked in. Evening rolled in so we headed to dinner with the bass player of the band. The rest of the night was fun but uneventful. Turns out London doesn’t party on Sunday nights. We ended up back in the hotel in the wee hours of the morning eating chicken wings that had been sitting out for a day, but we didn’t die. So there’s that.

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Photo: Matt Coats*

The next day we flew to Dublin. I had a score to settle with the city. Years ago, Anna and I and another couple spent the last day of a great trip in Dublin. We were all set on an epic pub crawl through the city’s historic pubs but every single pub was closed. Turns out, there’s one day every year that it’s illegal to sell alcohol in Ireland: Good Friday.

After checking into our hotel we made for a historic pub and bellied up to the bar. I noticed the two guys next to me sounded American. They were from Gilbert. Of the 8 people at the bar 7 were American and 1 was Irish. He drinks for free. Just a prop.

We tried a number of different Irish Pubs©. They all had the same contrived atmosphere. As we opened pub doors, stale U2 covers wafted liberally therefrom. Blech. Off to The Olympia for the show.

The Olympia is a cool ornate historic theater with two cool bars inside. The band hooked us up with a great box. We drank, sang along and made some friends. The rest of the night mirrored the beginning: terrible bars with terrible U2 cover bands. I met a radio DJ who wanted to pick a fight about how bland the Jimmy Eat World show was. I finally defused his hostility by bringing up Randy Newman. We emphatically agreed Randy was the best thing ever and parted friends. It was not the best Monday. Monday, bloody Monday.

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Jimmy Eat World @ The Olympia Photo: Matt Coats*

The next morning we made our way to the train station for a remarkably pleasant train ride to Belfast. We picked up our rental car and headed for the north coast. It rained all day but we were finally out of urbanity and into the countryside. After a quick stop at the old Bushmills distillery, we headed for the Giant’s Causeway. Pictures. Rain. Chinese tourists. Shenanigans. Back to Belfast.

Our night in Belfast was magical. We all were feeling a bit run down and melancholy after the dud that was Dublin. The show venue was terrible and the band was not 100%. We hung around for a few minutes and decided to head out. Some in our party wanted to call it a night but we decided we owed Belfast at least one drink. So we headed out, walking aimlessly into Belfast’s alleys.

The name of the game was cocktails. We nearly passed a nondescript blinking neon sign before someone noticed that it looked like it might be a cocktail bar. As we opened the door, the Doors… “this is the end, my only friend, the end…” We stepped into a bar directed by Wes Anderson: ironic 70s decor with deep velvet couches and tassels hanging from every conceivable edge. Our bodies sank into the couches as we ordered a round of safe cocktails. Home run. More cocktails, more home runs, more fantastic vintage analog tunes. The bartender was a magician. Not just great tasting drinks but he wielded visual alchemy with waterfalls of blue flame and novelty glassware that seemed to be made specific for each drink.

We headed out about midnight, found a proper foot stomping Irish pub, went on the prowl for food, and managed to find a cool little pizza joint with super friendly employees. We took our pizzas back to the apartment, ate, had a few more drinks. Pat and Jonathon retired and Matt and I decided that we should check into the election. We managed to tune in right at the moment when the world was realizing that Clinton was not a lock. We watched, mouths agape, as commentators started to unravel. It was surreal. We crashed around 4am and awoke to a new world. Luckily, I made a shirt just for the occasion.

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The next day we headed to Glasgow via a little prop plane. Our first stop was recommended by Matt: a tour of the Auchentoshan distillery. Our tour was administered by a delightful, knowledgeable, and hilarious guide. As soon as he determined that the brewers in the party weren’t your average visitors he pulled out all the stops: “don’t tell anyone I let you do this…” I’ll honor his requests here, but needless to say, it was awesome. We bought an awesome bottle of scotch for the road and headed to the beer event.

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The beer bar was cool and the locals were friendly and warm but… next door was a cool ramshackle tiki bar. We shared a great volcano bowl and Matt and I headed to the venue. I’d been looking forward to the Barrowland Ballroom show ever since my Glasgowegian cousin Carol enthusiastically endorsed the venue as “one of the most iconic venues in the U.K.” It was a great venue and fantastic show. I met up with Carol and her friend, both of whom we had to coax to come out for one drink after the show but managed to hang with us until about 3.  We crashed with Carol and headed to the train station for Manchester in the morning.

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Photo Matt Coats*

On the way to Manchester, we had to change trains at Preston. We decided to find a local pub for a proper pint. I sifted through a few locals on the CAMRA app and settled on a place called the Continental. On the way to the pub, I got a little turned around and decided that we might need to jump a few fences. Our little off road excursion turned into a mini adventure as we made our way through spooky old buildings and down into dripping tunnels with their own victorian street lights. The pub was as hoped, and we shared a few real ales and dinner.

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Preston’s Underworld

I was just in Manchester a couple months prior at the end of my Dale’s Way walk. I really like this city. People are friendly and there’s an energy that resonates with me. We skipped the Manchester show and headed to the beer event at a really great beer bar (Beer Moth). After the event, we stumbled into a basement bar aptly named Crazy Pedro’s Part-Time Pizza Parlor. A tequila and mezcal cocktail bar, Crazy Pedro’s randomly and regularly handed out free slices of pizzas to the pulsating pack of patrons. At some point, I went out to smoke a cigar and had a dozen Trump conversations. Jonathon and I headed back to the apartment around 4.

Since Jonathon proposed this trip, his enthusiasm for the town and people of Buxton was apparent. AZWBC and Buxton Brewery have a special relationship. It was clear shortly after our arrival in Buxton that this relationship went beyond a mutual love for brewing, and ventured into a deep friendship complete with its own unique code and ritual. We headed straight for the hills to the folly known as Solomon’s Temple. I’ll state simply that many hijinks were had on that hill.

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Smokin and jokin. Photo Matt Coats*

The rest of the night was spent bouncing between the Buxton Brewing tap room and a cocktail bar called the Monk. We ended up singing and dancing at the Monk until about 7. As we walked to our BnB, dawn broke. Three hours later, we headed to the airport for a short flight back to London.


We were spent. We were done drinking. We were going to crash in London. But, alas, we ended up back at the King’s Arm drinking and carousing – not even a little board. The last night was a blur of new friends, bars, and clubs, finally getting to sleep about 5. In the morning, we were a disheveled sight to see. We shuffled to Heathrow and headed home.

A fast and furious trip, suited for people half my age, it’s good to know that those gray whiskers are just gray whiskers.

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*Matt Coats is a fun guy and takes great photos. See more of his stuff at http://mattcoats.com and https://www.instagram.com/mattcoats/

The American’s Guide To Planning A British Walking Tour, Part 1: The What And Why

During my walks, many of the British folk I meet are baffled why I would come all the way across the ocean to hike in their backyard. They have a point. The United States is unmatched in terms of pure natural aesthetic and diversity. From the Grand Canyon (virtually in my backyard) to the coast and virgin redwoods forests of California to the bucolic farm country of New England, there’s really no place like the U.S.

Of course, natural beauty is not the only reason to go for a hike. Before I discuss why someone may want to take a British walking tour, I want to briefly talk about what a British walking tour is exactly. (See my post from last year for a more detailed explanation.)

Generally, the type of walking tour with which this blog is concerned is a self-guided hike on a long distance end-to-end British footpath. While these trails generally dip in and through rural farmland and villages, they never really stray too far from civilization. A day’s walk will usually include breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different and distinct villages. Every night, a walker will lodge in a B&B, inn or the occasional hotel. This is not the type of wilderness hiking we are accustomed to in the U.S.

So why go on a British walking tour? I’ll give you four reasons:

Tangible History

Most Europeans I’ve talked to don’t share the American’s fascination with historical sites. When you grow up in a place where there are remnants of Neolithic settlements, the Roman empire, and medieval societies, history loses its novelty. With the exception of the isolated and sporadic native American ruins, there are very few signs of human history in the U.S. A 100-year-old house is considered historically significant enough to exempt the owner from certain real estate taxes in some U.S. states. Meanwhile, living in a 300 old structure in some European cities not uncommon.

In England, I can walk through neolithic long barrows, iron age hill forts, Roman ruins and maintained medieval structures, all in a single day. Walking into a slouching 17th-century pub and having to crouch to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling, teaches me more about the nutrition of 17th century Europeans in a more tangible way than any museum exhibit could. It’s a study in living history that just doesn’t exist in the U.S. (Sidenote: in looking for a picture of a tall man in a pub, I found my English doppelganger.)

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Tall man, short pub.

In the Dales, I visited a 12th-century Norman church that was built on the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church, which itself was built on the remains of a Roman settlement. In the church stood three 9th-century Anglo-Saxon crosses covered in flowing designs and, in the corner, were two 4th-century Roman altars discovered in the oldest part of the foundations of the church. It’s such a thrill to see and physically touch the tangible continuity of culture. I could run my fingers along grooves in stone carved by an ancient Roman. Real. Tangible. History.

Infrastructure, Physical and Legal

English and Welsh law recognize a unique principle  known as “Rights of Way.” This right grants the walking public access to a network of public footpaths and bridleways that honeycomb the countryside. These footpaths are trails that often run through private property. In Scotland, a walker has the “Right to Roam” over almost any private land as long as they act responsibly. Over the years, long distance paths (each often referred to as a “Way”) through and to points of interest have developed. These trails, while often passing through protected wilderness areas, most of the time, pass through rural but largely uninhabited areas that are dotted with villages and towns.

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Contrasted with the American system of trails, where we generally hike there-and-back routes through rugged and remote virgin nature, the British walking experience includes interaction with people, culture, and history. The British walking tour means, more times than not, you’re in a small village, each with a unique history and feel, for lunch and another village for dinner. In the U.S., if you find a trail that passes so regularly through inhabited areas, you’re likely to find yourself eating at Burger King and staying in a Motel 6. Not quite the same experience.

British long-distance footpaths are well marked with regular waymarkers. The waymarkers are regular enough that you could almost get away with walking an entire 100-mile route without a map. That being said, there’s a thriving British walking trail guidebook market. These guides provide the walker with detailed maps as well information on local points of interests.

With established routes, the locals have fostered a cottage (literally) industry of services that cater to walkers. B&Bs, inns, and the occasional hotel, offering comfortable lodging and hot meals, are conveniently located along the trails. Baggage handling services are available on many trails (more on that later).

Lastly, unlike the U.S., most of the trailheads for a long distance footpath are accessible by public transportation. The country has an outstanding train system that will likely get you within walking distance of a trailhead. In rare cases where a train doesn’t run to a trailhead, a train can get you within a few miles and buses and taxis can take you those last few miles.

Active And Authentic Cultural Experiences

For the American, Britain offers all the benefits of experiencing a different culture without the stress of an insurmountable language barrier. True, American and the British are not that different. But they are different enough that we can confuse each other whilst speaking the same language, and that’s kind of amusing. Alright, mate?

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Walking the countryside is an excellent way to bypass the crowds, high cost, and gimmicks of the tourist honeypots and actively experience the history and culture of Britain firsthand. Exploring the ruins of an off-the-beaten-path hill fort or simply chatting with a local over a pint of real ale brewed down the street will result in a more authentic and more memorable experience than passively whipping around on a double-decker site-seeing bus in London.

Beauty

While we don’t need to leave the U.S. to experience bucolic beauty, rural England has it in spades. Thatched roofs, dry stone walls, and cobblestone bridges, the British countryside reflects the charming reality of the absurd rococo romanticism of Thomas Kinkade.

 

There’s something very special about sauntering through an old sheep field, into an ancient forest, and then into a picturesque British village.

Thousands of years ago, Britain was more or less a giant forest. Over the millennia virtually all the forests were felled. What was left was a land sculpted by men. Asymmetrical property lines resulting in patchwork landscape. We tend to think of nature as a place unmolested by humans, but in England, there are very few places that can claim such a description. Nature in England has been tamed and domesticated. But it’s an ancient domestication, resulting mostly from the hands of ancient people rather than the earth churning mega machines that spit out strip malls that we have in the U.S.

There’s nothing quite like it in the states.

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In summary, Britain offers a unique and accessible walking experience not available in the states. It’s a uniquely beautiful place filled with history and culture that an American can experience without feeling isolated by a language barrier.

This has been Part 1 of The American’s Guide To Planning An British Walking Tour, click here for Part 2: The Where, When, and Who and Part 3: The How.