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From their food to their villages, the French love to rate things.
The Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, or Most Beautiful Villages in France, consists of 156 villages spread over 21 regions - and given there are over 32,000 villages in France this list might help you narrow down your dream French itinerary!
Many of these villages feature in our range of walking and cycling tours – here’s a few of our favourites.
This “bastide” or fortified village near Albi overlooks the Vère valley and lies in the heart of the Gaillac vineyards. It was founded by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, and its church is home to the reliquary cross of the Counts of Armagnac, adorned with 310 precious stones.
Explore Castelnau-de-Montmiral and other historic sites of the Cathars on our Medieval France: Tarn & Aveyron journey.
Nestled in lush green surroundings, the tiny village of Conques is a must-see highlight on the French Way of St James. A visit here will see you encounter the classic half-timbered house architecture as well as the main attraction, a golden statue covered in gold and precious stones in the Romanesque UNESCO World Heritage listed abbey of Sainte Foy.
Discover Conques on one of our walks along the Way of St James.
Located on the Wine Route, right in the middle of the vineyards, this flower-decked village of Alsace conceals a wealth of treasures and unusual sights: its 16C houses, its fortified church and cemetery, which make Hunawihr one of the few examples of defensive religious architecture, and for a romantic touch, its Butterfly Garden.
Set in the heart of the Alpilles, the region that captivated the Dutch impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, Les Baux-de-Provence is perched like an eagle’s nest boasting views across the Camargue. The town was owned by the Grimaldi family until 1790 and Prince Albert of Monaco still retains the honorary title of Marquess of Les Baux.
Get there on our In Van Gogh’s Footsteps
At the foot of Mount Saint Odile, surrounded by vineyards, this village is the preserve of the Zotzenberg grand cru and bears a definite stamp of its winegrowing culture: from the architecture of its houses opening onto large courtyards flanked by buildings for winemaking to the "Weinschlag", a precious compendium containing a wealth of information about vineyards and wine since 1510 that can be seen in the charming Renaissance town hall.
Moustiers has established its houses and bustling streets in the indentation of a rock, right beside the Lac de Sainte-Croix and the Gorges du Verdon. It is famous for producing pottery (faïence) and the village still has some twenty workshops devoted to that craft today.
Get there on our In Van Gogh’s Footsteps
The fortified village of Puycelci watches over Grésigne Forest from the top of a rocky plateau overlooking the Vère valley. 14C and 15C houses made of stone, wood and brick are revealed behind more than 800 m of ramparts and the rampart walk offers wonderful views of the surrounding scenery.
Explore Puycelci and other historic sites of the Cathars on our Medieval France: Tarn & Aveyron.
Riquewihr is one of Alsace’s gems and its excellent wines match the excellence of its architecture. A medieval museum of a town with fortifications dating back to the 13th century. Many of the old buildings have dovecots and are built round central courtyards.
Walking in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are famed for their soaring limestone towers, consisting largely of a very bright Limestone mineral called Dolomite (calcium sulphite). The scenery is dramatic and a complete contrast to the alps, being generally lower and with only one real glacier around the Marmolada massif. There are several massifs, which significantly change colour throughout the day, separated with bright green alpine meadows flecked with flowers and there are both conifer and mixed forests.
The region is famed for being on a cultural divide, Italian, but perhaps also Austrian, but not quite, as Austria pulled back in the First World War. Now it is partially a semi-autonomous region of the Tirol, known as the Alto Adige. There are also 40,000 Ladins, an ethnic group, speaking an older cruder latin language, and with their own steeped traditions and woodlore. Although Cortina has an Italian feel, other towns are a bit different, and in more Ladino towns you will find buildings with painted facias and complicated carved wood working: towns such as Campitello fit into this category.
When to visit the Dolomites
September is a lovely month with not so many tourists. Late June is also a possibility, but with the chance of being hampered by residual snow. High summer is a busy period often punctuated by dramatic storms; humid air having drifted up from the coast near Venice.
What to expect in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are revered for their ‘Via Ferratas’, climbing cable ways which take people into some remarkable positions. Then there are to famous hard hut walks The Alto Via 1&2, which utilise a bit of the via ferrata network. The Sherpa walks do not involve any via Ferratas, but give a good account of the variety of terrain and the general scenery.
Where to base yourself
Cortina is a popular base in the Dolomites because it is accessible by public transport and many towns in the Dolomites do not have good connectivity. Bolzano is also a popular base for walkers, further to the north.
Prepare for some spectacular but also steep walks and plan your travel well around your flights as it can take a long time to get from point to point.
Sherpa's Trips in Italy's Dolomites
For more information and inspiration on travelling in the Dolomites, visit the region's website.
Shap to Kirkby Stephen - Will Copestake - Coast to Coast. Day 7
Described with a hint of optimism in the guide books as a ‘Recovery Day’ the journey between Shap and Kirkby Stephen stretches 33km across the moors. It was my longest day on my trek but not necessarily the hardest, with the mountains behind more benign Howgill fells awaited.
For the seventh day in a row I begun with a full English fry up, porridge and fruit before waddling out the door to start the day. Navigating to the start of the trail couldn't have been easier, it was directly opposite the door.
The crossing the railway line I left town to wind along farmyard walls into an open field. The roar of cars on the M6 motorway nearby rivalled the stiff wind in the trees. A small bridge spanned the busy traffic leading back into the countryside beyond.
The noise of the motorways was soon muted behind the hills to be replaced with the swish of wind across the open moors. The steaming chimneys from the nearby quarry tailed upward above Shap.
Hopping over a stile at Hardendale quarry I was blown along the dusty track toward the small community of Oddendale. Skirting the low walls at the edge of town I wandered along a large limestone pavement jutting from the grass. Somewhere nearby two concentric stone circles stood illusively hidden, they were the first of many interesting archeological sites I would pass during the day.
Heading onto the moors
Despite the onset of curtained rain which hammered against my side in the wind I chose to linger and explore the deep fissures in the rock known as grikes. They form fascinating micro habitats with each crack filled with a unique array of ferns.
As the limestone pavements petered out I returned to following a wide and well marked trail across a long heather moorland, there was a certain deja-vu to the Scottish Rannoch Moor about the stretch. Focused on my feet to keep the rain from my face I found many a frog relishing the abundance of puddles.
The lone boulder on the Moor
Hidden in a cleft a small cairn announced my arrival at 'Robin Hoods Grave.' Although almost certainly not the resting place of the man who's namesake is held to the walk the hollow did provide a well needed shelter to sit down for a morning lunch.
The grave of Robin Hood
Another stretch of open peat hunched against driving rain brought me to a small lime kiln above Broadfell farm. Below I could make out the little community of Orton which as an optional extra to the Coast to Coast is described as one of the few 'lost' villages en-route. Sheltering inside the lime kiln I decided upon a quick check of the map to move onward toward Sunbiggin tarn instead.
Sheltering in the Lime Kiln
The trail took upon a new character entirely, the open moors suddenly replaced with walled fields and numerous stiles to cross. It was a welcome respite to shelter behind the wall stone walls as I marched with a squelch down the farm roads and through flocks of sheep hunched in the fields. Occasional points of interest kept the track interesting such as an old abandoned barn to clamber through and explore in the company of the local Barn owl. Yet another stone circle also appeared in a nearby field which prompted a very muddy detour.
Views in the rain
Following the farm tracks
Leaving the fields back to the moors I ventured onto Sunbiggin tarn. An important bird sanctuary it was clearly signposted to stay on the tracks. Aside from a few intrepid curlews which soared past it seemed all the birds were hunkered down to shelter from the wind. Far in the distance I caught a glimpse of two familiar walkers on the horizon, I pushed the pace a little faster to re-join some friends on the road.
Locals past the tarn
Following from moor to walls again. Can you spot the people in the distance?
A tempting detour
Catching up Stephen and Suzanne at Severals Village Settlement we cheered in greeting before exploring the important archeological site. Although there is little but a few furrows and grassy walls to be seen by the untrained eye it is supposedly one of the most important historical sites in Britain.
For us however it was the turning point to cross a large stone bridge and our final uphill before descending to Kirkby Stephen.
Caught up at last
Rising upon the far side of the hill the effort was lost to conversation while we chatted about our day so far. The end of the valley was dominated by Smardale Gill viaduct, in the foreground an interest feature known as 'The Giants Graves' tempted us to wander upon their true formation, it is thought the long mounds were prehistoric rabbit enclosures.
Looking up to the viaduct
As if in an instant the rain stopped, the clouds parted and a warm wave of sunshine washed over the hillside. A whole new day appeared to have begun, in the distance the brooding blue of the distant rain hung with wonderful contrast against the Pennines.
Waving goodbye to the storm
Following the walls on Smardale Fell
We soon found ourselves re-united with the Australians. As a small troop of friends we descended in the sunshine along the long limestone walls into Kirkby Stephen in the valley below. The sun started to dance across the fields with a warmth pouring through my damp jacket.
Finding beauty in the small details I was fascinated to discover the entire all to which we strode was comprised of beautiful fossilised pipe worms, a reminder to limestones coastal origin.
Re-united on the way down
Looking down toward Kirkby Stephen
We swapped maps and booklets to navigate mostly on group consensus. Although for the others their approach to Kirkby Stephen marked the heart of the coast to coast and the (almost) half way mark, it was the end of the journey for me. It felt fitting to have started alone but descend with new found friends.
Friends from the road
Heading down a small road via a quick detour to pet a few friendly horses we aimed toward the distant church spires that marked the town. A small tunnel in the railway ahead marked the final kilometre before reaching town itself.
Crossing the final fields.
A gentle amble through the final few fields brought us into town. I dropped my packs at the friendly Jolly Farmers guest house before running along the street to catch up with the others.
Welcomed by the locals
The Jolly Farmers
After a quick explore of Kirkby Stephen we all settled into the Kings Arms pub for a final farewell pint. Reflecting over a cool ale I thought back to where I had come. It had been only seven days but so crammed with adventure felt like months, I had wandered atop tall cliffs above the sea, meandered through fields and pasture, scrambled across narrow ridge lines and even made a few friends along the way. As we rose our drinks in cheers there was just one thing to be sure, I would definitely be back for more. . .
At the end of the journey.
Patterdale to Shap - Will Copestake - Coast to Coast Day six.
Clambering upward in an already warm morning sun I was soon breaking sweat. Below Patterdale baked in dappled sunlight between woodland and stone walled fields. Stopping for a break and a quick drink at a grassy ledge known as Boredale Hause I looked down over the last view to Ullswater, it is said the lake inspired Wordsworth's poem ‘Daffodils.’
The climb up
Already high above the valley floors the track wound like a thread across the open grassy slopes leading across toward the distant ‘High Street’ peak. Passing close to several Wainwright peaks along its route I decided to make the best of the glorious weather and stride to the cairn of each as I passed.
View from Angletarn Pikes
Winding up the ridge
From the summit of Angletarn Pikes I wandered back on route before passing Angle tarn itself. The upland lake was nestled in a sheltered bowl on the mountain side. Barnacle geese called and flapped atop a small island above the glistening waters, in the heat it was suddenly very inviting.
Strolling to the waters edge I tested it to decide if it was worth a swim, it was warm enough but with the arrival of a large crowd of hikers I decided a quick skinny dip might not be so appropriate. The gradient levelled out for a short stretch along the open uplands, with a short detour via the summit of Rest Dodd I wound upward toward The Knott another small peak ahead in the sun.
View from Rest Dodd
From the small unassuming summit of The Knott I joined the steady stream of fellow hikers and wandered along a now impressively wide mountain trail. Once a roman road the track was wide enough to walk three aside with other walkers and chat along the way. Arriving at the junction between the route down on Kidsty pike and the route up to ‘High Street’ I decided to prolong my time high on the ridge.
Looking back from The Knott
A quick detour to summit High street and return back to the coll took an extra 30 minutes onto the days journey but rewarded with superb views back to the fells to which I had walked over the days before. To my surprise from the summit of High Street I could see the seaside on the west coast for the first time since day one.
View of the coast from High Street Summit
Heading back to the Coll
The wall along the Roman Road
Back on track once more I followed around the edge of a deep corrie to Kidsty pike. The summit at 784m was the highest point on Wainwrights original coast to coast route. From the cairn stunning views back to the northern cliffs and ridges leading from High Street all the way to Haweswater reservoir below.
I glanced around looking hopefully for ‘Golden Boy,’ England’s last remaining Golden eagle which purportedly has its eyrie in a nearby cleft. The only gold I saw was the sun dappled over the ridge descending ahead. It was time to descend to the inviting waters below.
Views from Kidsty Pike
Descending to Haweswater was short but steep and somewhat jarring on the knees after a long ascent. Thankfully the view and warmth radiating from a ground baked by an entire days sunshine meant regular breaks on the way down. Reaching the waters edge the trail forked toward the dam 5km in the distance.
Fellow hikers on the way down
Enjoying the view
On the way down
The last steep section
In 1929 a bill was passed to authorise use of Haweswater as a reservoir to serve Manchester’s increasing demand. With the dam constructed and valley flooded a community was lost to its depths forever. Mardale a small settlement remains to this day submerged beneath the water, including a church of the holy trinity. It was difficult to believe that England’s very own atlantis was just beneath the tranquil surface as I wandered along the undulating track to its side.
There is a village somewhere under there.
A short steep rise brought me over toward a woodland which wound with refreshing shade from the sun toward the dam ahead. To my delight I caught up Steven & Susan yet again and could walk in company for the remaining 4km to the end of the reservoir.
The trail along the lake
Leaving the couple to amble upon their own pace I wandered onward into the rolling fields. Approximately 6km remained to Shap but with almost no ascent it would be a fast walk to reach the end. It was clear I had left the Lake District as I arrived in the small community Burnbanks as signs appeared reading C2C at every turn. Wandering between the homes each resident all of whom were mowing their lawns would stop to stroll over and briefly offer their own advise and well wishes to my journey.
Passing the waterfall Thornthwaite Force I was on the right track, it meandered along a trickling brook into the fields. After the few days in the mountains the open space ahead seemed vast, I found myself enjoying the open skies and endless rolling hills in the distance almost as much as the crags I left behind.
Farmyards replaced mountains
Chasing lambs which hopped in little clusters with springy leaps and bounds I passed a series of barns and clambered over many stiles on stone walls. The length of the day was starting to become apparent as the soles of my feet ached on the hard trail. I continued to follow narrow tracks and coast to coast signs toward Shap Abbey in the distance.
First view of Shap Abbey
Rising from another stone wall I caught my first glimpse of the impressive Shap Abbey nestled in a hollow amongst a small woodland. It was the last Abbey to be founded in England and built in 1199 by the French St.Norbert. Also known as 'The White Canons' the french abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. Today only the ruined shell of a once great building stands, never the less its tall walls and beautiful masonry is very impressive. No longer is it guarded by people but instead a troop of chickens which roam free around its base.
Friendly farmer at Shap Abbey
A final kilometre along a narrow road hemmed in with tall stone walls brought me into the little town of Shap. Stretched along a long road it is a pleasant community with an interesting market hall built from the recovered masonry from the Abbey. Arriving at the lively Kings Arms Hotel I rejoined the Australian couple, Steven & Susan to share stories of the day over a cool pint and huge fish and chip supper. We prepared for a long day to Kirkby Stephen in the morning.
Grasmere to Patterdale - Will Copestake - Coast to Coast Day 5
The morning started in bright sunshine and high hopes for a view later in the day. As I left the Chestnut villa stuffed with bacon & eggs I waddled uphill toward Grisedale tarn. There were three different route options to choose from once I reached it, the lowland, Helvellyn or St.Sundays crag. But first there was 500m ascent to reach the coll.
Forecast at Chestnut Villa
Leaving the farms
Two Australian walkers follow behind
The trail wound through farmyard tracks before forking around ‘The Great Tongue’ giving the choice between steep and short or long and gradual to the top of the tarn. Choosing to get the ascent out of the way I marched upward on the steeper trail. As I rose the mist descended, by the time I reached the top I was immersed in a dense fog.
Two familiar faces appeared from behind, Steven & Susan a middle aged couple whom I had played cat and mouse with along the trail all the way from St.Bees. No longer strangers we walked together to the end of the tarn to relish the occasional glimpses in the cloud.
Steven & Susan in the mist
I sat down to throw on some waterproofs and distill a plan. The junction at Grisedale tarn was where the decision would have to be made to which of the three options I would choose to hike. Although most walked the lowland route would mean arriving into Patterdale before midday but both other routes were likely to be in cloud all day. Finishing a cup of tea from the flask I concocted a compromise with the map. I would run to the top of Helvellyn, scramble along striding edge ridge then descend to just 1km before Patterdale. I would then jog back up toward the tarn where I could cut up to the summit of St.Sundays crag. From here I would descend to Patterdale on the ridge having experienced all three routes.
Leaving Steven and Susan I set off uphill at a jog. The wide cobbled path proved excellent to keep a fast pace and required little navigation toward the ascent, none-the-less I hiked with compass and map in hand just in case the path faded out. Passing the second team of path repair volunteers between a wisp of mist I thanked them for their dedication even in the poor weather.
Hard at work so we can enjoy such great tracks: National Trust Volunteers
By 800m the trail had levelled out significantly. I wandered onto a wide grassy plateau which rose toward the first of two Wainwright peaks preceding Helvellyn itself. Both were marked with small cairns shrouded within the thick cloud but yet easily located without a compass simply by following the wide trails.
As I rose the path became a track before developing into a road, as I neared the summit it could have been a runway for a plane… not a far cry from the truth. A small plaque bears memory to two very brave pilots who landed their Avro plane upon the mountainside, John Leeming & Bert Hinkler managed to not only land their plane but have a short stay on the summit before flying all the way home to Woodford. They became the first men to ever land a plane on a mountain in Britain.
A memorial to brave pilots...who survived!
Within sight of the plaque a large plus shaped structure stood as a wind shelter for hikers. It was in good use with roughly 15 separate walkers huddled out of the wind enjoying their well earned lunch. This was the summit shelter of Helvellyn, a few meters above a small unassuming cairn marked the true highest point.
I headed straight for the cairn and eagerly claimed my first English Munro, somewhat an easier challenge than the 282 in Scotland as England possesses only four.
Helvellyn Summit: Note the windbreak in the top right
After a brief break in the summit windbreak for lunch I descended toward Striding edge. It was the section described by Wainwright as the best stretch of hiking between St.Bees and Robin Hood Bay, I eagerly anticipated finding out if it would live up to the reputation. The start of the ridge is marked by a large slate memorial. It reads:
Beneath this spot were found in 1805 the remains of Charles Gough.
Killed by a fall from the rocks his dog was still guarding the skeleton.
Walter Scott describes the events in the poem ‘I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn.
Wordsworth records it in his lines on fidelity.’
The stone plaque reminds the walker not only of the dark events which unfolded one sad day in 1805 but also of the risk they may take ahead upon the ridge. It is essential to take care along the way.
The Memorial to Charles Gough
The descent begun with a thrilling rocky scramble to the main ridge, the ground was steep but dissected with a narrow winding trail which snaked in hairpins between the rough ground. Out of the mist ahead a narrow triangular shadow loomed in the murk, I could only assume this was the full splendour of Striding Edge itself.
First glimpse of the fun ahead
The rock was grippy to the touch even in the wet and had no shortage of holds to grip upon. I aimed to scramble the hardest route I could create along the way and to stubbornly stick to the very top of the ridge line. Where the ridge grew steep I climbed, where it levelled out I carefully set off at a jogging stride to honour its name. Even with the abyss below shrouded in cloud there was a tremendous sense of exposure, it gave a fantastic buzz to help spur energy along the way.
Hanging over nothing
Teetering along the ridge
Another reminder of the perils of being complacent on the rocky precipice appeared by way of a small Iron plaque. It read: In memory of Robert Dixon of ... on the 27th day of November 1858 following the Patterdale Foxhounds. I couldn't help but wonder how a fox would find itself on the ridge let alone a troop of dogs.
This time the fox won the hunt.
Beyond the memorial the ridge became wider and less technical. Large slabs replaced narrow ridges and before long I was returning to a fast descent on more grass than stone. To my delight I escaped the cloud by about 700m.
Looking down to Patterdale
I returned to a swift jog to descend to the bottom of the ridge. I still hoped to return up the valley and cut across to St.Sundays crag which stood brightly on the far side in dappled sunlight. A deafening roar suddenly erupted from above. A jet passed by barely 100m from my head before an impressive turn took it bravely low into the valley to buzz past Patterdale. I was glad it hadn't passed while I was on the ridge, it would have given quite the shock.
A close fly-by
A low pass over St.Sundays Crag
Recovering from a thumping heart care of the surprise jet visit I moved a little faster onto the cobbled trail leading gently down the slope to Patterdale. Passing walkers of all ages along the way it was clearly a well used route into the mountains. Views across the valley were tremendously worthwhile after the ridge walk, I was keen to return to winding along the narrow stone walls which criss crossed the fields below.
The trail down
Looking on to Patterdale from above
The temperature change from the ridge to the valley was incredible, out of the wind I had to stop to de-layer as soon as I reached the lowland track. Looking around the views up to the crags above seemed just almost more impressive as they had seemed when standing upon them. Looming over the track tall dark walls hung over the track which wound gently between hawthorn trees back up toward Grisedale tarn.
Looking back up to Helvellyn.
The trail down to Helvellyn
The road toward St.Sundays crag
Returning upward along the valley floor I set off at a slow jog to the tune of birdsong from the nearby woods. Spotting a zig zag trail leading upward along the spur to the northern end of 'The Cape' (The summit of St.Sundays Crag) I ascended in a single steady push to the ridge. Wainwright rated the ridge on St.Sundays as a fell for connoisseurs, with spectacular vistas over Ullswater lake below and a sun dappled 360º panorama of the lakeland fells it was well worth the extra effort to ascend.
Looking back to Ullswater and Patterdale from St.Sundays Crag
Views to the fells
From the ridge it was a short 200m stride to reach the summit of The Cape. The terrain was filled with interesting rocks and crags to explore along the way, there were few places where the foreground didn't rival the stunning views behind. From the summit cairn I could gaze across to Helvellyn which had entirely cleared from the cloud, to my south Fairfield peak rose from the ridge. A small flurry of rain scattered across the peak, it was time to head down for the evening.
View from The Cape
The trail into town wound gently along the ridge before descending in forgiving hairpins into the woods. The scenery behind distracted any effort in the knees after a long days hike, before long I was wandering onto the roads and into Patterdale itself.
The final descent.
Passing a tall church as I entered the town I soon found my way to The White Lion Inn where I had been booked to stay.
The White Lion Inn
Settled in for the night I could reflect on the highlights of the three options.
Route 1: The Lowland Valley - Grants spectacular vistas above to the cliffs on St. Sundays crags and Helvellyn, wonderful stone wall wanderings and the ever present gurgles of the nearby brooke.
Route 2: Helvellyn & Striding edge - Worth doing if you are un-perturbed by mild exposure and seeking the most adventurous route possible. Grand views and technical enjoyment are the highlights of this option.
Route 3: Slightly less ascent than Helvellyn offers possibly the best angle to view Ullswater and in my opinion the grandest view of the day, this could be bias as most of Helvellyn was in cloud. The descent into the woods is not to be missed and was a highlight of the day.
As the bar closed in the pub the barman procured a bottle of wine from behind the bar, would you like a taste? he offered. A New Zealander he had perfected home brew wine which was as delicious as many store bought bottles I have tried, a superb end to a long day in the hills.
Stonethwaite to Grasmere- Will Copestake - Coast to Coast Day 4
Breakfast in Knotts view was a unique way to start the day, how often can you enjoy local eggs on toast while watching red squirrels eat just meters out of the window! The rustic home which only joined the electric grid in the 1960's was such a part of the landscape the squirrels simply saw it as an extension of their woodland home.
Red Squirrels at Knotts View Guest House
As the squirrels departed so did I. Waving farewell to owner Mrs Jackson I set off along the puddled roads to follow the mossy stone walls and head uphill to Grasmere. I was starting to discover that in an area where rain is the norm there was beauty to be found even in weather which might be off-putting to some. A light drizzle drifted mist like through the valleys and around the nearby Eagles crag looming across the trail. The thin veil of moisture clung in crystal droplets on the mossy stone walls and drooping branches in the native woods. Duke of Edinburgh groups past along the way who new to hiking they were dressed in cheap plastic ponchos, which as they were staying low were adequate to explore the valley floors.
Leaving Stonethwaite alone the walls
Looking ahead past the river Greenup Gill
Passing the drumlins
The trail wound upward past a gurgling brooke. Waterfalls rumbled as I climbed into pools hidden below huge boulders, I often strayed aside the well cobbled trail to peer down to see what was there. As the route ascended I joined with another couple on the trail, Ian & Mary. Poor Mary had taken quite ill and was struggling to keep balanced, she insisted on continuing to find a bed in Grasmere with an irish determination. There is a wonderful sense of community along the coast to coast trail, should you get into trouble there is seldom long to wait until someone wanders by. It just so happened that someone this time was me, Mary's going to hate me for this, but do you mind helping us up the steps? Ian asked. So at a slow but steady pace we helped each other rise into the mist.
Lending a hand up the steep edge
Up the steps into the cloud.
The trail steepened into steps to reach the top of the climb before flattening into flat blog. There was a remarkable similarity to the Scottish moors, I felt contently at home wandering the peat hags between occasional cairns leading the way.
Navigating the upland moors
Delighted to discover that the cloud shrouded only upon the top stretch of the path we descended together to tantalising glimpses below. Reaching the junction between the low or high route to town Ian & Mary joined another small group to descend together, I would proceed to explore the recommended high route to Helm Crag.
The view appearing
Far below a criss cross network of expertly crafted stone walls spread like a spiders web across the lush pasture. From the rocky ridge I was in a different world entirely. Wainwright described the route as having 'many geological and geographical features of unusual interest' but the crags, tarns and cairns along the way seemed to beg differently. Seldom was there nothing to explore or enjoy, even when the mist descended.
Looking down (Note low track to left of river)
Looking on to the crags
It was a pleasant ridge to follow, from Calf Crag the trail undulates in intriguing changes between grassy levels, rocky rises and shattered craggy bumps. Despite the saturated ground there was seldom a bog to navigate between and little chance of loosing the route. With good ground and high spirits I arrived onto the summit of my first ever Wainwright! Perhaps a dangerous thing to be starting a whole new list of mountains to dream of achieving someday in the future, the worst that might happen would be years of fun and exploration to come. Gibson Knott was a stunning start to the 214 other peaks to tick. To add to the reward two peregrine falcons soared in rising circles around the summit.
Summit of Gibson Knott
From the first Wainwright it was a short down and up hop to reach the summit of Helm Crag. The famous pinnacle standing on the top pointed upward in the sunlight.
Looking ahead to Helms Crag
As soon as I reached the top I dropped pack and scrambled to the summit. Reaching the top of the pinnacle was a short scramble with little technicality but sufficient exposure to render exciting. Click Here for a Video. Known as The Lion & The Lamb after the crags appearance from the valley below the pinnacle is also often referred to as The Howitzer. The views back to where I had come had cleared entirely of mist and offered a grand vista to the ridge I had followed. Alone on the summit I lingered to explore the boulders in the warmth of the sun for over an hour before starting to descend.
Triumphant on the summit
View from the summit and ridge following up to the left
Looking back to The Lion and the Lamb from second summit
Looking down to Grasmere
Rested and somewhat on a vertigo induced high I decided to jog to the valley floor. Once off the ridge the trail became wide, cobbled and fast underfoot. Within a few fast minutes I arrived into the dense woods below.
The trail on the way down.
To end the day I meandered along The Poets Walk where many a verse was written by such poets as Wordsworth. Winding between the Lancrigg woods between some of the tallest and mossiest walls I had seen yet the air was filled with birdsong and the pungent smell of wild garlic.
The last stretch to Grasmere
Garlic in the woods
Picking twigs from my hair after a short detour into the woods to watch another red squirrel I wandered down the narrow cobbled streets into Grasmere itself. The town is the first larger village since St.Bees and felt like a bustling metropolis despite being relatively small. Cafes, bars and hotels lined the pretty streets which were filled with fellow walkers ending their days in the fells. Grabbing a pastie and an ice cream I headed for The Chestnut Villa.
On the way into town
The Chestnut Villa
With boots drying in the guest house care of the friendly owner Mike I headed 50m down the road to spend the evening in The Swan. A grand portion of Fish & Chips paid tribute to my Scottish food heritage before a cool pint, I was surprised to discover that by announcing I was staying in the Chestnut villa that a 10% discount was placed upon my charge... a good excuse for another pint to prepare for the journey toward Patterdale in the morning.
Ennerdale Bridge to Stonethwaite - Will Copestake - Coast to Coast Day 3
Fuelled on the biggest fried breakfast I have had in a long time I left the Shepherds Arms hotel with more of a waddle than a walk. Almost immediately I was walking alongside another, he was on his way to work on maintaining the trail ahead. Several people had advised along the road to take the northern side of Ennerdale water and follow the forestry track, the south trail (the original route) is terrible they would add with warning. There were a large group ahead and a steady procession of fellow hikers in procession to the southern side, ignoring the warnings I joined them.
Contrary to advice the track was superb, it was wide well gravelled and initially very dry. A few hundred meters along the loch was an optional fork ascending 100m to the top of a small spur, it would mean detouring a tiny fraction off the trail but in reward a spectacular vista awaited.
The track on the way up
Sure enough from the top where the grassy slope gave way to craggy buttresses and near shear drops to the track below the view was remarkable. Looking to the far end of Ennerdale lake which shone dazzlingly bright under beams of sunlight striking through the cloud I could see the valley to which I would walk. Below hikers wandered like ants along the little trail toward the end.
A short stumbling slide back to the path and I was again walking in company. Filtering between groups of young cadets, D.O.E groups, middle aged hikers and young ramblers there was always the chance to seek social hiking rather than alone. A steady stream of Thank yous were passed to the maintenance team as we teetered past in turn.
Following in gentle undulations the trail followed the waters edge, it gently lapped on the shore and scattered in cats paws under gusts from above. From a sheltered vantage in warm dappled sunlight beneath a birch wood the cool water looked inviting. Thankfully the endless puddles and already soggy boots were a keen reminder of how cold it really was.
Arriving at the end of the Lake I sat to enjoy a snack and make a tough choice. Ahead the trail would split into two equally enticing options. Option A: The lowland route, or Option B: The high route.
My instinct urged to clamber high and relish the views over the valley from the craggy ridge line, unfortunately there would be no view. The ridge was a thick band of cloud shrouding the summit out of view, it would of course be more challenging than the valley but also would leave little but mist to the memories. Instead I opted to tackle the forestry trails leading through the woods, the original and more trekked alternative.
The route described in the guide a ‘a long plod’ seemed to under appreciate a different beauty in the woodland walk. Keenly glancing through the mossy trees in search of a red squirrel which remains in a final stronghold in the Ennerdale valley I ambled on.
Although no squirrels appeared I was delighted to see a Jay fly past with a burst of blue in its wing, waterfalls rumbled through gaps in the trees. The Pillar, a huge rocky buttress and popular climb dominated the skyline above through wisps of mist, there was a certain temptation to try and reach the top but I reminded myself there was still quite a way to go.
Fun for the whole family
Again in company with a group of friendly middle aged hikers I emerged from the trees to settle in the shelter behind Black Sail YHA. It is one of the more remote youth hostels and had a wonderfully wild feel about it, the small stone home reminded me of the much loved Scottish Bothies. Sipping a cup of tea from my flask I gazed around at the mountains, they seemed to surround us entirely looming over the valley floor with their craggy scree covered slopes.
Of course the steep surrounding slopes meant one thing, it was time to climb. A short section of steep ascent on superbly laid steps lead upward to the northern ridge. As I climbed I was delighted to watch the cloud suddenly part before disappearing entirely from the ridges to the west. I could see delighted walkers one by one scrambling down the high route ecstatically looking around to the view.
I too was high upon the ridge, the rewarding view from the steep ridges down to the lakes below was well worth the effort to climb the steps. It was somewhat similar to Scotland only more vibrant in colour. Cairns lead the way ever five to ten meters, it would be difficult to get lost along the wide and well trodden trail leading toward the descent to Borrowdale.
Strung out in little groups were numerous other walkers to lead the way down to Honister quarry. Grass turned to slate underfoot as the path widened. Far below black and white sheep dotted the fields which in the words of one young girl looked ‘like rice crispies and coco pops.’
Honister quarry was filled with cars, people and the sound of still running slate cutters slicing through the rock behind closed doors. Filtration pools, shattered stone and a small iron train dotted the carpark outside. To my surprise there was a cafe inside which prompted a cheeky stop for tea and cake.
Contentedly refuelled I set off with nothing but a gentle amble down the hill to the valley floor before reaching camp. I joined another Duke of Edinburgh group who were also heading to the grass below for a well deserved rest. It was a pleasure to walk and talk while taking in the increasingly stunning views as the little town of Seatoller approached.
Seatoller was a quiet little town, its white walled stone houses nestled amongst the trees as if they had belonged there as long as the landscape itself. We giggled at the sight of some baby lambs in the field,amusing not for their playful bounds but for their attire. You can tell it is one of the wettest places in England when the lambs wear raincoats…yes really, little orange raincoats! Check out the pic at the top of this post.
We parted ways and following the road along tall stone walls I ventured onto a final gravel track into Stonethwaite itself. A small narrow road wound between the tall stone farm houses, above the crags hung over the town which seemed tiny in their impressive stature. The Knott B&B was where I sheltered for the night, a wonderfully rustic country house which more like a home than a hotel. Just down the road was the Lanstrath Country House Inn which waited for a well earned pint and the best barman sense of humour I have ever seen.
St.Bees to Ennerdale Bridge Will Copestake on the Coast to Coast Walk: Day 2
Rain pattered on the windowsill outside Fairladies barn. Devouring a full English breakfast to prepare myself for my first days walk I scanned my route on the map at the table.
My day would begin following the coast to St.Bees lighthouse before heading inland toward the lake district hills. Despite the rain the visibility was good, after so long in the hills I was excited to follow along cliffs and take in the salt air once more.
I crammed on fresh dry boots and flung my wonderfully light bag onto my shoulder, it was the first time I had ever had the luxury of baggage transfers between 'camps' beaming ear to ear I thought, I could get used to this! as I left.
Leaving Fairladies Barn in the rain
Following along the same road I had wandered the night before I passed the Queens pub and splashed through puddles past the Priory. It's red sandstone walls which had stood since the 12th century poured rainwater from high above onto mossy gravestones in the gardens. This was the turning point to the coast and where I would leave the roadside.
Just 1km into my journey and my boots were blissfully caked in a thick red mud. Hopping onto the coastal promenade I clattered through rounded pebbles as I aimed toward a narrow ribbon like path leading to the top of the cliffs.
Out at sea waves rolled in with a rhythmic thunder over a wide expanse of sand. Far in the horizon the Isle of Man drifted to and fro from the mist. As per tradition with some hikers I grabbed a small pebble to carry with me on the journey ahead as I past the "Mile 0" mark on the map.
Looking back to St. Bees
From the higher vantage of St.Bees head I looked out to the south to what seemed an endless ribbon of surf on the shore. Looking inland rolling green pasture gently undulated into a deep blue cloud far on the distant horizon. The towering cliffs at the edge of the trail reach up to 90m (300ft) high, far below fulmars, guillemots and Cormorants soared through the rain between exploding waves over rocky platforms beneath. I was escorted from my final view of the start by a ewe and her lamb, from here on I was aiming toward St.Bees lighthouse ahead.
Last view of town.
St.Bees lighthouse stood white like a pearl on the thin ribbon of cliffs, I have always like the look of the traditional stone lighthouse, it reminded me of its counterpart on the Mull of Galloway which on a good day would be visible to the north across the Solway Firth. The lighthouse serves as a a mark to warn ships to change their course, for the coast to coast hiker the prominent structure signals the final stretch of coastal cliffs and the time to turn inland.
The smell of salt in the air was quickly swallowed with pasture and farmyards. I wandered along a narrow track into the rolling hills to arrive at Sandwith the first small settlement since leaving St.Bees. I was not alone, a large group also walking the trail had joined from behind, they were attempting the entire crossing in 12 days to raise funds a Golden Ambulance Appeal. Soon after we met another couple also walking the trail. Compared to Scotland this suddenly felt like a busy road, but this was by no means a bad thing. We were all doing the same way, and could filter between each other to enter each as strangers but all arrive at our destination as friends.
Our newfound partnership became somewhat useful as we navigated a particularly boggy section known as Stanley's Pond. We split into two groups and I with the couple headed off on route toward a nearby track while the larger group forged their own trail elsewhere. We laughed, joked and sang 'Mud glorious mud' as we squelched our way onto the disused railway track leading to Moor Row.
Seeking the path least boggy past Stanley's Pond
Regular yellow arrows marked the route wherever I went making navigation easier. Occasional signs or large spray painted boulders read C2C (Coast To Coast). Hopping over a few fields via some wide gravel tacks I stopped in the next town of Cleator for a steak pie at the local Family shop.
A more rustic approach
It was time to tackle the first hill of the journey. Dent stood 346m high over the rolling fields all around, in my head I told myself it was the same as the average difference between two Scottish Munros on a ridge and plodded upward toward the woods.
To my delight as I entered a thick forestry plantation and crunched my way along the gravel road I watched the mist ascend from the summit above. Hope of a view suddenly rose.
Passing through the lush woodland.
Emerging from the dense canopy onto the final hundred meters of open grassy ascent I was amazed to find sunshine had appeared as if by magic. A cacophony of Skylark fluttered over the fell as if to sing my journey upward. Stopping to admire the view near the summit I gazed out to the Isle of Man and along the coast to the gigantic industrial complex of Sellafield power plant. The view out to the west spanned the route I had taken around the headland and across the pastures, each town seemed tiny in the vast expanse of green. St.Bees looked satisfyingly far from where I sat.
Near the summit
One by one the groups re-appeared from the woodlands, we were soon all chatting over the cairn. A new pair of hikers had arrived in tow and eager to continue we set off together down the far side of the hill.
As described in the guidebooks a steep style took us over a tall deer fence and onto a steep grassy descent from Raven Crag hill. Still wet from the rain my descent was closer to a sloppy attempt at skiing than walking.
Steep slope down
The bottom of the valley at Nannycatch we headed due north up a narrow valley. The river which had swollen vastly in the heavy rainfall seemed to have taken over much of the track and gurgled with a glittering tranquility in the sunlight. The colours had changed in the landscape too, there was less green and more rustic browns as steeper slopes gave way to brackens and shrubs.
The shelter from what breeze there had been meant that the valley seemed remarkably warm, for the first time in months I was walking in a t-shirt.
The path was gentle and wound along beautifully crafted stone walls between the gurgling beck and tall birch trees. Wrens and Robins skipped along the rocks at the tracks edge hoping to find a worm dislodged by our boots. This was the home stretch to Ennerdale bridge and nearing the end of our days hike.
Following the walls
Emerging from the valley into the open fields once more I caught a glance at the Lake district hills for the first time. They looked wonderfully familiar to those of Scotland, they were tall, steep and covered in craggy boulders, scree and heather. In the sunlight they were inviting to venture forth and climb, for now however I was ready to descend to town and rest for the day.
First view of the hills
Following a trail at the side of a small single track road I descended into the quiet town of Ennerdale Bridge.
Track into Ennerdale Bridge
The views from town itself were stunning. Ennerdale seems to sit in a hollow surrounded by hills and mountains alike, watching the sun shining on their faces seemed the perfect way to finish the first and somewhat soggy day.
View Behind Ennerdale Bridge
I arrived at The Shephards Arms hotel to a wonderful welcome, inside my bag delivered while I hiked was waiting in the lobby and behind the next door the bar with a cool pint to end the day in the last of the sunshine. The barman gave promising news The weather in the morning looks like sunshine!...
Arrival in St. Bees - Will Copestake on the Coast to Coast Walk: Day 1
The now popular coast to coast route is the legacy of Alfred Wainwright. Unlike other long distance trails which might follow existing boundaries such as Hadrian's wall or Offa's Dyke his path has no dependence to a single route. The freedom to vary route along a whole range of public rights of way allow an option for whatever mood or when the weather may dictate.
Whisked from my Machair to Munro expedition in the Scottish highlands by train and taxi I arrived in St.Bees to tackle the coast to coast trail. The evening sun lit the little coastal town in a hazy warmth, surf rumbled in the distance and newborn lambs frolicked in the fields nearby. Compared to the cold winter browns of the Scottish Moors the lush green English pastures seemed positively tropical...not to mention the sun!
Taking a short stroll in the evening light to stretch out my legs I ambled to the top of a small hill nearby. The red walls of the local priory stood tall over the narrow streets along the road.
Quiet streets of St. Bees
With a warm welcome by owners Will & Nicola I settled into the Fairladies Barn, the luxurious room far trumps my little green tent.
Searching for somewhere to eat I was directed by Will to The Queen’s Hotel, ‘ Turn right, If you can’t find it you probably shouldn’t be walking the trail’ he chuckled. Sure enough a few hundred meters down the road I stepped inside for a cool ale, surf and turf seemed the perfect way to start the coast to coast.
The Queens Pub
Surf and Turf for a journey from Sea to Pasture
I returned under the glow of the streetlights to the Fairladies with an excited spring in my step. In the morning the hike begins.