For years walkers from all over the world have enjoyed a long distance love affair with the Coast to Coast route. Now, thanks to the Sherpa Van Project, many of these walkers are doing it light weight and in style. Ed Kenyon caught up with 'the van that can' (and does) in the Lake District.
The year is 1973 and a new walking book, entitled A Coast-to-Coast Walk, trickles into the book shops. Alfred Wainwright, the author, has spent many years putting together a viable walking route across the north of England, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. He has no idea how many copies it will sell.
Fast forward to 1998. It's a sunny Tuesday morning in the middle of August and at least a dozen figures can be seen loitering on the beach at St Bees - a small town on the Cumbrian coast. The waves roll in from the Irish Sea and, one-by-one, the figures walk forward and dip their toes in the cold water. They then bend down, pick up a pebble and put it in their rucksack. It's a ritual they perform in reverential silence.
This is just another day in the history of the Coast-to-coast - now Britain's most popular long distance footpath - and some more souls are already threading their way north along the coast, clutching Wainwright's Coast-to-coast bible and following in the footsteps of thousands. Only 190 miles to go.
At closer inspection, certain members of the group appear to be struggling under the weight of huge packs, bulging at the seams with waterproofs and Kendal Mint Cake, while others stride out purposefully with barely a day sack on their shoulders. Some of these people are getting a helping hand - or should I say a helping van - and it's not hard to guess who.
Only a pebble's throw from the beach at St Bees, a white van glints in the morning sunshine. The Sherpa Van Project is about to start its own coast-to-coast journey as luggage mover, but not shaker, for those walkers who wish to do 191 miles without the kitchen sink on their back.
Keith Fowler puts the van into first gear and heads for the first pick-up of the day - a B&B in St Bees. Keith has been the Lake District driver, along with Dave Taylor, for the Sherpa Van Project since it began in May of this year. He has seen a steady increase in the number of walkers who want the ultimate convenience of having their bags delivered every day to that night's accommodation.
"When we started, I'd be spending a couple of hours every day at the beach in St Bees handing out leaflets and publicising the service, then I'd be calling in at B&Bs along the route," explains Keith. "Many were sceptical at first, but now they welcome us with open arms," he says smiling.
Humping other people's bags along popular walking routes is not a new idea, but Sherpa (the project is an off-shoot of Sherpa walking holidays) spotted an important gap in the market - a door-to-door service. Other services deliver to set places along the route and, if your B&B is half-a-mile away then that's your problem. So Sherpa decided to deliver to any hotel, B&B, hostel and campsite as long as it was fairly close to the route.
The Sherpa Van Project was the brainchild of Sherpa boss Frank McCready who sees the Coast-to-coast route very much as a beginning. "The Project is tremendous PR for our core business and I think the Coast-to-coast route will double in volume for us next year. The plan still is to have a national network, but we have to build it up slowly," says Frank.
As Keith drives the first set of bags off to Ennerdale Bridge, a popular first night on the Coast-to-coast, he explains that "Frank had the initial idea and then we modified it." He continues, "we've built up a good relationship with the B&Bs over the summer and by the end of the year most of them will be sending our details out with their confirmation of bookings."
The Sherpa Van Network is split into three areas that together cover the Coast-to-coast and other criss-crossing trails. In addition to the Coast-to-coast, Sherpa helps walkers and cyclists doing the Cumbrian Way, the Dales Way, the Dales Cycle Route, the James Herriot Trail, a section of the Pennine Way, the Cleveland Way and the Coast-to-coast Cycle Route - that's a lot of bags!
Keith is an ideal advertisement for Sherpa -always ready with a smile for a formidable landlady or help and advice for a walker. He is a keen walker himself, lives near Kendal for eight months of the year and has first-hand knowledge of the Coast-to-coast. "We set off on Easter Sunday three years ago and enjoyed pretty good weather. We did it in 13 days and raised £5,000 for charity - it was fabulous," remembers Keith.
As the van meanders along the lanes to Seatoller and Rossthwaite, where there are more bags to pick up, I ask Keith how he managed to get the job. "I saw an advertisement for the Sherpa Van Project in Trail magazine. Yep, I've been reading the magazine for a couple of years!" he exclaims. "Anyway, I phoned Frank up and asked if he needed a driver for the Lakes. I met him, had a chat and now here I am."
The Coast-to-coast walk is now a huge operation and brings a substantial amount of money into the local community. One pub landlord told me 80 per cent of his trade in the summer was Coast-to-coast related and 80 per cent of those were using some form of baggage-carrying service.
Keith told me how the system works.
"People phone our London office and make a booking in advance or they can phone us the night before they want their bags moving. All we need is the address of where the bags are and where they're going to.
"We're very flexible and can include people at the last minute. I get the details from London in the evening and work out my itinerary for the following day. I keep in contact with the office via a pager.
"We get a lot of Americans staying at the posh hotels and they tend to come earlier in the season. We also get the people who say they are going to do it all without any help, but they soon give in; I did!" Keith says with a smirk.
The lanes around Seatoller get narrower and narrower and, as many of you will have experienced, the Lake District roads do get a tad busy in the summer. I ask Keith how he copes with the hordes.
"We steer clear of the passes because of the tourists," affirms Keith, "but they have their place in the Lake District," he concedes. As he weaves carefully between walkers on both sides of the road Keith tells me "you've got to be a rally driver, a grand prix driver and all sorts." In true racing-driver style Keith, and fellow driver Dave, have given names to certain parts of their route. "We're just turning down Red House Corner, this is Tour Corner and we'll shortly get to Keith's Corner... Well, you can't see the 'give way' sign until the very last second," laughs Keith.
Keith regularly covers more than 200 miles per day in his quest to get everyone's bag to their accommodation by 4pm and, luckily, there have been very few hiccups. "I had a nasty moment on Honister Pass when I skidded on some gravel - they were like marbles - and I went off the road, uprooted a corner marker with a big lump of concrete and hit a boulder," recounts Keith. "Luckily there was very little damage and I carried on for the rest of the day. It didn't hit me until I got home."
When pushed, Keith can only remember one mix-up of bags. "It was on my first day," he admits. "There are two B&Bs opposite each other and I delivered the bags to the wrong ones. However, the respective landladies didn't speak to each other. They ended up shouting at each other across the street!"
Keith is unloading the bags at Patterdale Youth Hostel when a young couple walk down the drive with tell-tale small daypacks. Sure enough, they're on day five of the Coast-to-coast and are using the Sherpa Van Project. "We booked Sherpa for the first half of the trip and we're pretty sure we'll use them for the second," they tell me, as satisfied smiles spread across their faces. "It's worth paying for the door-to-door service and we've been able to phone in on the freephone number."
Keith explains to them how other drivers look after the service in the Dales and North York Moors and then he gives me a knowing wink as they head into the hostel. "Customer service," he says.
Keith only has Shap and Kirby Stephen left on his itinerary and all my nattering has slowed him down. We drive along the edge of Ullswater, picking off the caravans one by one, and I ask Keith how this first season is going. "I have enjoyed this summer very much indeed and I will be doing the same again next year," he says with conviction.
As we passed through the holidaying masses in Pooley Bridge my thoughts turned to the morning and how I'd dipped my toes in the Irish Sea. I was determined to pay homage to Wainwright and complete my own Coast-to-coast- after all, I had just started it. Having seen Keith and the Sherpa Van Project in action for a day, I know when I do undertake the 191-mile trek from St Bees to Robin Hood's Bay, I will be securing the services of Sherpa and its band of drivers to ferry my luggage.
I told Keith as much and he replied, "By then we'll have a license to carry paying passengers so we'll be able to move you and your baggage if you fancy a day off"
Now there's a thought.
Your very own Sherpa
Every walker likes a challenge, something to aim for and motivate them. For some, it may be reaching a certain prized summit or overcoming a difficult scramble; for others, more ambitious or with more time to spare, it could be climbing all 214 Wainwright tops in the Lake District, or ticking off the 3000 ft Munros in Scotland.
In 1972 Alfred Wainwright set himself a target, which was to walk across England from coast to coast, using public rights of way. Naturally, he started in the Lake District, and strode on across the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors to reach his final destination at Robin Hood's Bay. The route has a certain beautiful simplicity about it; you start with your boots in the Irish Sea and stop when the land runs out on the North Sea shore.
Since Wainwright first did the walk, the Coast-to-Coast has become one of the most popular long-distance routes in the world, although it still has no official status. It is difficult enough to present a challenge, yet most people can complete it with a little determination. It is the right length to fit into a fortnights holiday, and all along the route there is accommodation of high standard in B&Bs, inns and Youth Hostels.
As an added bonus, if you are put off by the prospect of carrying a heavy rucksack every day, the good news is that you don't need to! There is a service that collects your heavy bags and moves them on each day to your next hotel or B & B, so you need only carry a light pack with your waterproofs, fleece, hat and gloves, map, compass, camera, food and drink. Your bags will be taken from door to door, and will be waiting for you when you arrive at the end of your day's walk.
Of course, the Coast-to Coast is only one of the long distance trails waiting for you to take up the challenge. Others in the North West include the Cumbrian Way, the Dales Way, and the oldest of them all the Pennine Way. Or if you are a cyclist, there is the C2C route from Whitehaven to Newcastle. On all of theses journeys, you can make use of the baggage transfer service provided by the Sherpavan Project. So now there's no excuse! Take up the challenge and set yourself the target of completing a long-distance walk this year.
For more information on the Sherpa van baggage and accommodation booking service, ring: 020 8569 4101, or for reservations only 0800 731 4729.
The Sherpa Van Project has been running for the last two years, and in that time has established itself as a proven and reliable back-up service for walkers on long distance trails in the UK. In the year 2000 it will run from mid-April to mid-October.