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August 23, 2005 > Coast to coast

Coast to coast

Margaret Ogle Thornberry conquers England (Part 1)

The family reunion was filled with all of the expected activities; meeting family members from far and wide, visiting scenic and historic venues in Northern England and sampling foods that dispelled the notion that the British are horrible cooks. Margaret Ogle Thornberry stayed at a bed and breakfast that was a bit over six miles from the reunion gathering in Northumberland. The small car that was to transport her was filled by two other guests (also Ogles) and their luggage so Margaret elected to walk.

Following British directions was an adventure in England and she soon found herself walking down a lane with instructions, "If the red flag is showing, the shooting range is open. Stop and let them know you will be walking through." A pleasant young man covered in studs and tattoos met her and she told him of her intention to walk through. He called and she asked if whoever he called had time to let everyone know she would be walking through the area. He assured her that there was no problem. As she traversed the area, there was one gunshot and she wondered if hugging the ground might not be a bad idea. Finally reaching a sentry station on the other side, the person manning it let everyone know they could resume shooting.

Margaret left the family gathering with many fond memories, but not to return home. Instead, an adventure she had been planning for quite a long time was about to unfold. A "coast to coast" walking tour across Northern England would begin with her toes immersed in the cool waters of the Irish Sea at the tiny picturesque hamlet of St. Bees and end 192 miles later with weary feet chilled in the North Sea at Robin Hood's Bay.

If the guidebooks and topographical maps were not enough warning, Margaret's encounter with the British rail system was a harbinger of things to come. A train trip from her reunion at New Castle to Carlisle went smoothly enough. She became accustomed to the speed at which the system operated. "It makes the BART system look slow; they open the door, people get off, people get on, the door shuts and they are gone!" At Carlisle, Margaret asked where the train for St. Bees would board. She was told that it would load on the other side of the station and leave at 12:41. Running to "the other side," hauling her luggage, Margaret met the train at 12:41, jumped on board and heaved a sigh of relief as it rapidly moved away from the station. She wondered a bit since the train seemed pretty large to serve a small town like St. Bees, but settled in for a pleasant trip on the rails.

Looking up, Margaret noticed a sign that proudly exclaimed, "Welcome to Virgin Rail, non-stop to Glasgow (Scotland)." Like it or not, Margaret was on her way to Scotland, nowhere near her destination. There was nothing to do but wait for the conductor to arrive and explain that she had a BritRail pass but didn't know if it was good for Scotland and plead for mercy..."I am on the wrong train." The luxurious, first class train bound for Scotland was hurtling down the tracks at over 100 mph and it wasn't going to stop for Margaret. The attendant for the train came by and graciously let the unintentional stowaway ride to Glasgow and back to Carlisle with meal service and superb hospitality, a two hour detour from Margaret's original plans. Storming back to the station agent who had originally directed her, Margaret asked again, "Where is the train for St. Bees?" This time, she was directed around a corner and there stood a 2-car electric train filled with sheep farmers. There was no doubt about this one.

A paranoid Margaret asked other passengers at every stop, "Is this St. Bees?" Reaching the small town, the other passengers heaved a sigh of relief as the crazy Yank left the train. Hauling her luggage up a hill and tired from her unintended adventure, Margaret met a woman who asked, "Where are you bound?" Hearing that the weary woman and her suitcase were bound for Fairladies Barn, the woman immediately picked up the luggage and ran up the hill with a bewildered Margaret trying to keep pace. It turned out that this was the proprietress of her destination; a 17th century sandstone barn located on the main street of St. Bees that had been converted to a guest house. St. Bees, located on the Cumbrian Coast, is considered a starting point of Margaret's destination, the famous Wainright Coast to Coast Walk.

The next morning, ready to conquer the trail, Margaret with map in hand, managed to find the beach and trailhead. She says the map and a guidebook were part of "the package" she purchased that included lodging along the trail and transportation of her luggage each day to the next evening's lodging.

Days are long in the northern part of England at this time of year. Margaret brought a flashlight, but since daylight lasted from 4:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. had no need for it. "I managed to get back [to the next bed and breakfast] before dark every time." Although natural light was plentiful, Margaret comments that the item of most use was a compass. With map, compass and plenty of enthusiasm, the trail led "up this incredible hill" to a point where "you discover there is a bull in that field who seems too interested in me." The ensuing detour was the first of many when it took advanced map reading and orienteering skills to rediscover the trail. Fourteen miles later, "you stagger into Ennerdale Bridge, find your bed and breakfast and that's your first day." At that point, Margaret thought to herself, "What have I done; but it's all prepaid!"

As consolation, Margaret met a "delightful couple from Iowa" that evening also walking the trail. The next morning they set out together through beautiful scenery and tree farms the British call "plantations." Scanning the topographical map, the contour lines begin to squeeze together and the landscape became very steep. Margaret says that is where she discovered "stone staircases" of loose and treacherous rocks. The guidebook spoke of a "beck" which Margaret discovered is a British term for a creek. According to the book, finding the trail would be easy if you followed the beck. What was not explained in the guidebook was the multitude of trails and paths intersecting the beck. Five bewildered hikers huddled together with 2 different maps and three different guide books to find the way. "If I did not have my compass, we would have been lost." says Margaret. "And so the trek began; those two days were the two longest days." The feeling was that after you accomplished the first two days, "you might as well do the rest."

Note: Margaret Thornberry lives in Fremont and is currently president of the Fremont Cultural Arts Council.

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