There was a lot of planning for the adventure of hitting the trails with my friend who lives in England. Su had taken up hiking in the last couple of years enjoying the desert and all its beauty while on her annual extended stays to Tucson. But she had yet to trek the trails in England…until this May. Spring seemed like the best time to go given the UK weather. We could only hope for good weather since the typical English default weather is grey skies with rain. As we researched the hiking, there was a lot to choose from, we couldn’t choose, so we decided to rent a motor-home and try to hit all the hiking highlights in England. Not ever hiking in England before, I figured we could learn as we go.
We decided to start our adventure south of London in Sussex, near the white cliffs of Dover. We hiked Seven Sisters, which were high rolling grass covered hills that dropped abruptly off to high cliffs of exposed white chalk all the way down to pebbled covered beaches with dark blue waves rolling in. My first impression of “hiking” in England was that it would be easy. I had researched a lot and no elevation was higher or greater than 4413′. I thought after climbing Mt. Whitney at 14,508′ hiking in England would be a walk in the park. Especially judging from our first hike. It seemed easy. I didn’t even use my sticks.
We continued to travel west along the southern coast. We stopped to hike down to see Durdle Door on the Jurassic coast near Lulworth in Dorest. That was a breathtaking view. The landscape became a little sharper in the up and down. Still hills, but not rolling, they were more pronounced. The rock formations stood with strength providing a different look on the coast altogether different when compared to the chalk walls in Essex. The trails were well worn and often filled in with rocks making the path and steps. The beauty of the coast was luring us to explore. And so far, the weather was nothing but blue skies and sunny.
We drove farther southwest to a small village called St. Just which was just north of Land’s End. Our goal was to hit sections of the Coastal Path. The Coastal Path in England will be the longest managed and way marked coastal path in the world. When complete, it will be 2,795 miles in length. The weather was a bit rough the day we hiked to Land’s End. The coast was dramatic with rock cliffs and pebbled beaches. The winds picked up and dark clouds came in while the seas were getting rough. It was a great day for wet-suited-surfers out in the surf catching the big waves. We made it to Lands End drenched to the bone. I had hiked in jeans that day because it was a cool when we started. Jeans soak up the rain nicely, as I found out, as I walked with wet and heavy pants for about 6 miles. That day I failed to take my sticks thinking it would be like Sussex and I was wrong. It was a steep and tough trail in some areas.
We spent several days in Cornwall camping in a small field filled with green grass and wild flowers situated behind a farm home built in the 1700’s, that was functioning as a bed and breakfast. The village vibes of St. Just and St, Ives, were welcoming with the Pubs all serving fish and chips, Cornish Pasties and local hard cider. There was a special feeling on the Jurassic Coast, one that makes me want to go back again. The next day we headed North and the sun shined on the vibrant wildflowers that decorated the trail. I was hiking in shorts and a t-shirt because the weather was perfect. We did just over 30 miles on the Coastal Path, on three different sections, before we headed up to the Lake District.
The roads leave much to be desired in England. Many are very small, none are straight and the main motorways run more towards the center of the country. So, our journey of 418 miles was over an 8-hour drive. But once we got to the Lake District the long drive had been worth it. It was a completely different terrain than the coast and beautiful in its own right. There are 16 main lakes in the district but there are many water, meres and tarns ( ponds or lakes in the hills) in the area. England is GREEN. Very Green. Every shade of green possible. Given that is was Spring, the blue bells colored the fields in blue and wild flowers splashed color everywhere.
There were plenty of hikes to choose from in the Lake District and we wanted to hit the best. We did Old Man Coniston, which took us through an old mine before we got to the peak. We trekked Scafell Pike which is England’s highest peak at 3,209′ elevation. As we climbed up towards the summit, trees were few and far between. The closer to the peak we climbed there were large rocks of granite covered the hills where we had to scramble for the last mile and half to get to the top of Scafell. Local folk made comment on Scafell Pike hike being boring but Su and I found it to be challenging, technical and beautiful too.
(picture above: Helvellyn with snow and the ridge, Stone steps on path)
I was quickly schooled on the fells in the Lake District National Park, Cumbria. The climbs started at sea level so that equated to straight up to the top to reach each summit. My reality became clear in Cumbria that ‘up is up’ and there was nothing but up to get to the top. My idea of ‘not tough hiking in England’ quickly went to the way side as we were challenged on the designated paths that are laid with stone steps that resembled a stairway to heaven on every hike. I was giving internal thanks for all the times I had trained on the stadium stairs because my legs felt strong climbing up. It was the down part that seemed endless and bothered our knees the most. Water falls were common sounds and sights on the trails as were the sheep that grazed in the endless green hills divided into sections with thick rock walls.
We lucked out again for our choice of camping in the Lake District. We were in a small caravan park that sat right out side of a village called Hawkshead that had one pub and a couple traditional English restaurants. It had a lovely bakery café that made beautiful cakes and scones, and of course served a variety of teas. I did indulge some in almost every carrot cake I saw, made myself the official taster and justified it with my daily hiking. Every village had a church that stood tall with steeples reaching towards the sky and historical graves surrounding the grounds. We had to stay out of the village centers with the motor-home because it was too wide to drive on the streets. So, we did a lot of walking even when we weren’t hiking.
(picture above: Hawkshead, Cumbria, England-Lake District)
We carried on from Cumbria farther north to Scotland to visit the Wallace Monument, which is my name sake. It was remarkable with lots of reverence towards William Wallace and his part in the Scottish history. It was in Stirling were a huge castle stood above the city. The monument and castle rose above the city on the hills (fells) to give the vantage point in war. They suggested that William Wallace had his strong hold and army on the fell in which the monument was built 500 years after he defeated the English army. We didn’t hike a lot in Stirling, Scotland but we sure did a lot of stair climbing. I honestly lost count of how many stairs we climbed but took it all in stride as continued training for our hikes.
(picture above: Wallace Monument and Wallace Shield)
After leaving Scotland we headed to Hadrian’s Wall. It was built by the Romans who forced 15,000 men to build it, in under six years to cover almost 80 miles. It was a vibrant frontier with multi-culture and commerce for about 300 years. Emperor Hadrian’s order demanded the wall built after he visited Britain in AD 122. The wall was used to stop traders coming to and from the south or north to pay taxes before passing through it. It is the most famous of all the frontiers of the Roman empire making the wall a World Heritage Site in 1987. Again, we just did sections of it, but passed through Sycamore Gap which is the most photographed section of the wall. The hike along the wall was up one fell and down the other side for the length that we hiked along the mile markers of ruins of forts where the tax collector gathered to stop the traders.
(picture above: Hadrian’s Wall and looking down at Sycamore Gap)
All in all, we hiked 160 miles and drove 1677. We saw nothing but beauty, blue skies and sun shine. We ticked off the highest peak in England and set our sights on the triple crown of the UK. We want to summit Ben Nevis in Scotland and Snowdon in Wales. We feel the pull to go back to the Coastal Path and see more of the rugged Jurassic coast. Just going on a whim with little “real” information about hiking in England we were pleased with all our choices. We learned so much about hiking in England while doing it and talking to other hikers. Through hiking in England is a little easier than the USA. We met many who were doing long sections of the Coastal Path and Hadrian’s Wall. They all hiked with day packs and dogs. The through hike secret in the UK is to use Sherpas to transport luggage and dog beds from one B and B to the next for the chosen daily mileage each hiker wanted to make. Maybe next time that will be the way we go too!