About the Author: Steph Cooke is a hiker and endurance adventurer living in England with her cat Jess. She loves walking long distances slowly and taking time to explore and take photos along the way. She also runs very slowly sometimes but is definitely not a natural runner. Steph loves to inspire other women to get outside and to show them that you’re never too old for adventure. Follow her adventures on her website (www.endurance-adventures.co.uk), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/enduranceadventures/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/endurance_adventures/)
I didn’t excel at sports as a child. Clumsy and uncoordinated, I spent most of my school career cheering on the side lines or waiting to be picked last for a team sport. I avoided exercise apart from walking along the beach at the seaside resort where my Nan had a static caravan. I still remember the excitement my sister and I felt as the car pulled onto the site and we fancied we could smell the salt in the air, anticipating the promise of days spent making sandcastles and feeding our carefully hoarded coppers into the penny slot machines.
I remained a rather chubby, lazy and inactive child until I was around fourteen. Well, I am still rather chubby but a lot more active these days! My mum and stepdad decided that we would go on a holiday to England’s Lake District for a change. I hadn’t heard of the Lake District before, so had no great expectations.
I was in for a revelation. As we drew nearer to the South Lakes town of Ambleside, I was struck dumb by the beauty of the landscape we were driving through; mountains higher than any I’d ever seen towered above lakes that sparkled in the sunlight. Green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls surrounding solid stone farmhouses. It felt like a slice of heaven fallen to earth.
My first proper walk was an ascent of one of the lower fells- Loughrigg- in ill-fitting walking boots. A steep climb rewarded us with a panoramic view over Grasmere and the fells beyond, and I was hooked- I wanted to keep walking, to explore every inch of this lovely land.
We went back to the Lake District several times over the next few years and I learnt that even when hidden by low cloud and sweeping rain there is a beauty to be found in the high places. Once I had my driver’s licence I set off on solo trips to the high fells, climbing Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.
When I was 24 years old, a work friend asked me to accompany her on a charity trek which involved climbing Britain’s highest peak- the 1345-meter Ben Nevis in Scotland. Although we didn’t get a view- the summit is only clear for a few days each year- we had a wonderful adventure. Looking for more challenges I stumbled across the Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA), a group who promote longer day walks, typically 26 miles or more. The LDWA is made up of local groups who organise ‘challenge events’; these are usually circular routes of 26 miles that must be walked in one day. Checkpoints along the route provide drinks and food, and the successful are rewarded with a hot meal and a certificate.
I completed my first challenge walk when I was 26 and have been hooked on long distance walking ever since. I have completed loads of challenge events and hikes that people have created to be completed anytime. I challenged myself to complete the Bullock Smithy Hike this year- a 56-mile route that traverses England’s hilly Peak District, an area of high moorland and dramatic limestone dales. The event has a 24-hour time limit and starts at 12pm so I had to walk through the night to complete it. It was one of the most exhausting, toughest things I have done but I was so happy to get my certificate.
In recent years I have started backpacking long distance routes, starting with the short and easy Peddars Way in Norfolk. This is a flat path which traces the route of a former Roman Road from the Norfolk border to Hunstanton on the coast, but unfortunately my walk coincided with one of the wettest summers on record, and I slipped on wet grass and sprained my ankle! Not the greatest start to my back packing career…
My most challenging solo hike to date was Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk. This is a two week walk across England, starting from St Bees Head in the Lake District and finishing at Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire. The route takes hikers through three of England’s National Parks- The Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. Every day was different; I climbed the high fells of my beloved Lake District and passed through the pretty green hillsides of the Dales, the River Swale my constant companion. After the flat crop fields of the Vale of Mowbray, the heather-clad hills of Cleveland were reached with their wide-ranging views. Walking down the steep streets of Robin Hood Bay twelve days after I set out, I threw the pebble I had carried with me across England into the sea and reflected on my adventure over a fish and chip lunch.
I don’t always walk solo- I have completed plenty of walks and long-distance trails with friends. We have walked around the Isle of Man and across Scotland on the 78-mile Great Glen Way. I love having company; the chats and the laughter, sharing experiences and stopping for coffee and cake. However, friends with families are limited to the time they can walk, so if I want to walk the longer trails I need to go it alone.
Next year I am setting my sights on the 268-mile Pennine Way, which follows the spine of England, the Pennine Hills, from Edale in the Peak District to the village of Kirk Yetholm just over the border into Scotland. To keep costs down I am going to have to camp for the first time ever- I usually like the luxury of bed and breakfast accommodation so this will be a completely new experience for me.
The more hikes I do, the more I seem to find- far more than I can ever hope to walk in my lifetime. Each English county has a plethora of long-distance routes that have been created by like-minded people. I have recently had a revelation- they don’t need to be hiked all in one go. I can complete them a bit at a time- a day here and there- as and when time allows. If I walk with my friend, we can use two cars to avoid having to retrace our steps. Walking trails a bit at a time has the advantage of being able to see how the path changes with the seasons and gives us more time to explore those hidden gems along the way.
We are starting with some local paths and have plenty of walking adventures planned- bring it on.