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England on foot

He wanted to run across England, from Irish Sea to North Sea, alone. But he knew he'd need a sensible supporter with a car, a cell phone, a lot of patience - and love.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005

Wind pitched rain sideways. Gusts staggered my steps on an 18-inch ledge curling high over jagged boulders. Ahead lay no discernible path through England's Cumbrian Mountains, and the trail behind me had vanished in a maze of lookalike rocks. A face-peppering hail made it hard to see straight.

Just what I'd wished for:

A vacation a long way from newspapers, telephones and general mundania, a challenging adventure to commemorate turning 60 years old this year.

But now throat-to-belly throbbing had taken over - the adrenaline-driven sensation you feel when things start to go badly or, to put a finer point on it, when you get scared.

A wild spider pinwheeled through my brain, trying to hook any helpful idea. None home. I wondered if it was okay for 59-year-old guys to cry.

The best-laid plans . . .

My wife, Becky, and I have visited England a half-dozen times in the past 10 years. We have friends there, and our older daughter is engaged to a young man from Kent. Each trip reveals something new. But this was our most unusual journey.

The idea was for me to run across England, solo. I had done lots of long-distance events during 28 years of running, but never a multiday effort such as this would be.

The trip would cover a projected 190 miles in eight days. I'd be on the Alfred Wainwright Coast to Coast Path, an unofficial track from St. Bee's on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea.

Becky made my vision of adventure travel happen.

She volunteered to be a one-woman support crew, each day driving within cell-phone range of my path in case I fell on my face. She did hours of Internet research and, well in advance, planned lunch stops. Via e-mail, she booked us into hotels and B&Bs along the way. All I had to do was run.

A pretty theory. But once under way, the story took its own direction. At one point or another, Becky, though she never said so, doubtless would have preferred slam-dunking the scheme into a trash can, followed by a similar maneuver involving her husband.

It began wonderfully the first morning. A well-marked trail twisted along the edge of seacoast cliffs. Guillemots soared and squealed overhead.

To my left, the Isle of Man rose like a blue mist from the Irish Sea. On the right, sheep gazed at me from green pastures, as they would the entire trek. England is among the world's top 10 sheep-producing nations, and lambing season had just ended.

In the afternoon of that day, the trail took me into the Lake District's Cumbrian Mountains.

Closing in on 26 miles, however, I was unable to find a path over a rocky top identified on the map as Loft Beck. And this obstacle was a few miles from the rendezvous with Becky, at a place called Honister Pass.

Storm clouds boiled over the peaks. I thought I might have to spend an unscheduled night at Black Sail Hut, once a shepherd's shack, now billed as England's most remote youth hostel.

Becky, meanwhile, was navigating twisting, narrow lanes, stopping at cold-comfort farmhouses, desperately seeking a spot where we could make cell-phone contact. It proved tough to do in these mountains.

We finally connected and arranged my retrieval.

I hopped in the car and started to rhapsodize: "Wow!"

Becky just looked at me. She didn't have to say a word. I knew when to hush.

A little help from his friends

Next day, she dropped me in the village of Rosthwaite. We were to meet later for tea and scones in Grasmere, home of romantic poet William Wordsworth, 9 miles away. More mountains awaited and clouds loomed low and dark.

"I'll wait here a half hour in case it looks bad and you want to come back," Becky said.

Come back? No way. There was a fine, runnable path beside a stream.

The decision amounted to entering a room, rushing to the first wall socket and plugging in your thumb.

Once into the mountains, the thin trail became a thread of speculation.

At least I had a compass and a map - a bad one. Neither helped when that day's storm swooped, adding hard wind and rain to temperatures in the 40s. All I wore was shorts, a thin anorak and a long-sleeved T-shirt, from San Antonio's 2004 Rattlesnake Run; the chill air cut through the clothes.

Starting to contemplate the possibility of hypothermia while lost, I happened to look up.

Under the dour brows of peaks named Eagle Crag and Helm Crag, I spied moving objects so small they looked like brightly colored bugs. Hey: Bright colors - jackets! Human beings wearing them!

Up rocks, through crevices, across a tumbling stream, I lurched, kicked, scraped, huffed, splashed, spat, climbed, groaned, jumped, cursed. I caught up because these lovely humans had stopped to inspect their good Ordnance Survey maps and to munch sandwiches. None of the group seemed surprised as I stumbled up.

"Are yeh a fell runner, then?" asked one, referring to the hardy men and women who race up and down Great Britain's peaks as a hobby.

"Um, no," I gasped. "I'm from Florida."

They were four men and four women about my age - "in our middle youth," as one put it. They were from Ayrshire, Scotland, the 2004 British Open golf venue. They planned to take a week to walk half the trail, or about 95 miles.

"He's shivering," a woman named Jean quietly noted to the expedition leader, Alan. They made me drink hot water from a thermos. They lent me rain pants and a warm, fleece jacket.

"People underestimate our mountains," Jean said. "They are not high, but they're nasty. A lot of people have died on them."

But my new friends knew what they were doing. I happily would have carried any of them piggyback the rest of the way, just to hang around.

Becky, meanwhile, waited several miles away in wind and rain at Grasmere's Travelers Rest, a pub on a highway about as busy as U.S. 41 near, say, Floral City.

To pass the time, she watched Neverland on a DVD. And she waited. And waited.

And of course, our cell phones would not connect.

My group, meanwhile, happened upon a flock of sheep strolling down the middle of a road, herded by two men aboard tractors. Cars crawled until they could pass.

Occasionally, sheep would veer away. Responding to a whistle from one of the men, a dog that looked like a hairy greyhound jumped from one of the tractors, harried the sheep into line and hopped back aboard.

We were told later the dog was a "lurcher," probably the offspring of a greyhound crossed with a bearded collie. Such beasts often are used for "coursing," or hunting hares.

Still high in the rocks, I was way late for my Grasmere date. Becky had no idea where I might be.

Ken, another member of the group that had collected me, slipped while crossing a rocky stream, banging his knee hard and gashing his head. He sat dazed, and we feared he had received a bad concussion. But after a few minutes he rose, wiped off blood, grasped two walking sticks and hobbled the final miles, never uttering a word of complaint.

I finally reached the Traveler's Rest, looking like the cat tossed in the swimming pool.

Said Becky: "I don't know whether I should kiss you or kill you."

Chased by the incessant, pelting rain and wind the weather people said gusted to 55 mph, we headed for a warm hotel in Penrith, a town in Cumbria of about 14,000.

After two days, my quest had reached a turning point.

"I'm sitting for hours," Becky said. "You're overdue. I'm in the car, waiting. Eating chocolates. Frantically worried and aging rapidly.

"We have to rethink this thing."

I could continue on the Wainwright path, probably with others, mostly walking, and perhaps complete half my intended distance in the remaining six-day window.

Or we could adjust the route to consistently runnable terrain and I could press on toward the North Sea. We spent a restless, weather-bound day in Penrith.

Late in the afternoon, we found a neolithic stone circle called Long Meg and Her Daughters. In its way, the sprawling ring is as entrancing as Stonehenge, and without the crowds.

We wandered a silent pasture, alone with the rocks. It had stopped raining. Droplets still glistened on damp grass. A scent made me think of an elderberry drink I'd sampled.

An oddly shaped, short limb poked upright from a mound, as if planted there. It reminded Becky of something she had read about: "Gypsy sticks," placed to tell travelers they are welcome.

We saw a couple of magpies; two together, British lore says, portend good fortune.

"Where the signpost isn't'

In the morning, I struck out on a lightly used back road. From here on, we decided, I'd run on lanes and country byways more easily navigable.

At a crossroads a few hours later, I missed the turn to a village called Kings Meaburn.

After a mile or two, my compass began supplying suspicious information. I stopped a man on a tractor.

"Back to the crossroads," he said. "Look where the signpost isn't, and go that way."

A perfect directive.

At the turn, one signpost arm pointed to Maulds Meaburn, toward which I'd mistakenly headed. Only a jagged, metal shard remained of the other directional arm. Pockmarks and tiny holes suggested it had been shotgunned away.

Upon seeing where the signpost wasn't, I took off in the direction toward which it didn't point.

Now a farming village with a pub, Kings Meaburn had been the 12th-century home of Hugh de Morville, conspirator in the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

At an on-time lunch, Becky and I sipped steaming vegetable soup at the Lemon Grove cafe in Appleby-in-Westmoreland. It's a market town in the gorgeous Eden River Valley, a region somehow often overlooked by tourists. We were a week early for the Gypsy horse fair, an Appleby event since 1685.

From then on, the countryside rolled like an emerald ocean, field after field in a dozen shades of green, separated by hedgerows or mossy, 200-year-old drystone walls - drystone meaning the rocks are set atop each other without mortar.

The scent of wild, roadside garlic penetrated essence of silage and ordure. An occasional sign warned motorists to be wary of horse-drawn vehicles. Another said:

"Lambs ont road, tek care.'

Litter is virtually nonexistent. But graffiti showed up, scrawled on BritRail overpasses: "Fight the ban," referring to Parliament's action last year to outlaw the traditional country pastime of fox hunting.

During the next few days, we passed places called Crackpot Hall, Hutton Rudby, Low Row. We crossed the Yorkshire Dales, a series of valleys and heather-covered hills cut by the River Swale, a winding stream of waterfalls and plush, grassy banks.

In the old lead-mining village of Reeth, its pubs and tea rooms built around a green, we spent a night at the Buck Hotel. We watched on TV as Liverpool won the European soccer championship.

Thirsk is the setting for the bucolic novels of James Herriott, veterinarian Alf Wight's pseudonym. Becky visited the Herriott museum and got to pull a metal calf out of a metal cow, perhaps the trip's high point for her. The exhibit's idea was to see if you are strong enough to do a vet's delivery job.

We didn't see a tourist bus until the trip's sixth day in Richmond, a castle town the Normans founded in 1071 on a riche mont - or strong hill.

Onward to the coast

The trip's best lunch turned out to be a roast chicken purchased at a co-op food store. We set up on a picnic table at the nearly deserted train station near the village of Kildale, swapping stories with a Newcastle family enjoying a three-day weekend in the North York Moors.

Bronte country offered mile after mile of hills blanketed under brown heather, which turns a deep purple in summer. Here, windswept is not a trite descriptor: The gale blew my glasses off and turned progress up the lip of Gisborough Moor into a slog, as if through a bad dream's quicksand.

We stayed at the Lion Inn, considered one of England's most remote pubs. The brochure claims it was built in the 15th century by the Order of Crouching Friars. I suspect that name had something to do with the brothers' posture as they worked in the wind.

The elements whistled all night around stone walls. Television reception was bad; we wished for a copy of Wuthering Heights.

The next day, I caught a first glimpse of the North Sea across a golden rapeseed field near the village of Ugglebarnby. It was a grand feeling.

At the top of a hill descending to Robin Hood's Bay, and journey's end, a busker incongruously sang and strummed Ghost Riders in the Sky.

Becky met me. We slapped palms, then gripped hands, jogging together down a final slope.

I pitched into the North Sea a pebble I'd carried from the Irish Sea, and I told Becky all her patience and work had turned this peculiar travel tale into a kind of love story.

Our friends Bob and Joan Nicholls drove three hours from Carlisle, bringing champagne. Their daughter had baked a chocolate cake. We partied at the Victoria Hotel.

Love's limits

Our younger daughter and her boyfriend joined us for the next leg, a bhodran-banging respite in Ireland. We lost ourselves in a sea of music and Guinness, and Becky and I marked our 29th wedding anniversary.

My only coast-to-coast regret: the Cumbrians beat me. But our friends gave me a book. It's called Feet in the Clouds, and it's all about mountain racing in England.

I think Becky has hidden it.

- Jon Wilson can be reached at 727 893-8567 or


To read about Alfred Wainwright, the Coast to Coast Path he plotted in 1973, and other first-person accounts, go to and

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