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.