This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. His challenging 190-mile walk across Northern England has grown to be by far the most popular long distance trail in the country.
What is not generally known is the influence that the Dales Way had on Wainwright’s original creation.
Wainwright first had the idea for his Coast to Coast Walk after walking the Pennine Way, shortly after this first National Trail had been officially launched in 1965. Wainwright wrote his popular Pennine Way Companion (published in 1968), but admitted that he had not really enjoyed the trail. This set him to thinking of devising his own, “superior” walk.
He came up with the idea of a walk across England, from coast to coast. He fixed the start and end points, St Bees Head and Robin Hood’s Bay and drew a line with a ruler from one to the other. His bee-line route crossed three National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.
Wainwright was confident of devising a route across Lakeland, but looked for inspiration elsewhere to two already existing long distance trails. The Cleveland Way was established in 1967 as the second National Trail and the Dales Way was unveiled in 1969.
During this time Wainwright was spending a lot of time in Yorkshire, working on two new books: Walks in Limestone Country (published in 1970) and Walks on the Howgill Fells (published in 1972), so it is not surprising that he came across the Dales Way early on. The fact that it was an “unofficial” route, created by individuals from the West Riding Ramblers, no doubt added to its appeal as this mirrored his own project.
Wainwright began his project in earnest though on the North York Moors, an area he didn’t know. In April 1970, a month after he married his second wife Betty, he wrote to his friend Molly Lefebue: “Incidentally, while honeymooning at York, I paid a visit to the North Yorks Moors area. Not bad, not bad. I might yet do a COAST TO COAST WALK, St. Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay, crossing Lakeland, using the newly-created Dales Way into Yorkshire and ending with parts of both the Lyke Wake Walk and Cleveland Way.”
There were two problems Wainwright faced with the Dales Way route between Windermere and Sedbergh – the way into Yorkshire. The first was that the Dales Way was quite far south of his nominal straight line. The second was that the Dales Way is essentially a riverside path and Wainwright preferred high-level treks.
It may well be that he had in mind a high-level route shadowing the Dales Way, rather in the same way as his Coast to Coast route between Keld and Reeth shadows the “Royal” riverside route along the Swale by taking to the moor tops. He would have chosen a high-level route, perhaps following the Whinfell Ridge to then cross directly the Howgill Fells above Sedbergh, and possibly on to Mallerstang and Swaledale.
He certainly researched these options whilst thinking about his Coast to Coast Walk. These options were covered in detail in his Walks on the Howgill Fells (1972). You can practically trace the route of his potential “other” Coast to Coast mid-section through this book.
In the end he opted instead for a more northerly route across the Westmorland Fells, which brought its own problems with issues of trespass (but that’s another story).
His Coast to Coast Walk was published in 1973.
Walks on the Howgill Fells was originally published by the Westmorland Gazette (1972). The current edition is published by Francis Lincoln (ISBN 9780711222380), priced £12.99.
Tony Grogan (September 2013)