Day 7 – Unfinished Shap-pery

This how we’d left things on Friday evening. Time to pick the trail back up…

I was determined to enjoy the day. It would mean there were no gaps. I’d not liked knowing there were gaps of any size as this was an end-to-end walk, with a few rest days enroute (as I’ve said before, I’ll leave rushing about to those who think pot noodles are food).

As a result of being picked up at the south end of Haweswater (as the access road began to flood, and it must be said, when I was running on empty), I wanted to go back and start from exactly where I left off. So I did. My diversion meant I’d not reached Shap that night but had instead walked extra miles in the opposite direction, which I’d now retrace back past Riggindale.

I walked down the little steps that had nearly defeated me on that Friday and around the western edge of Haweswater. Mardale’s ghost village came to mind again. In 1930, the Lord Mayor of Manchester had detonated the first blast rather than cutting a ribbon or placing a spade.

The only casualty that day was deemed to be one rabbit, but the physical and social impact must have been devastating. Farms were compulsorily purchased and the area was slowly drowned after a decade of building and then two years spent gathering the rain.

At the northern end of the water, there is a curious place, a once-temporary village for the workers that had later fallen into disrepair, eventually being resurrected through grants and bright ideas.

Someone I knew had bought a place here but then found it impossible to sell due to ‘local occupancy’ rules – you’ve to live somewhere nearby to be allowed to buy somewhere near here – a way of trying to tackle the growing mess caused by vacant/second home ownership. It had backfired for them when it was time for them to move on, for the usual reasons, work and marriage.

More lost property reminded me just how cold it had been here, hard to believe standing in the bright sun now. Bramble and fern were the lost words so far today. Fern had been spotted as a child’s name in one of my assemblies. Imagine the infant-outrage on being told your name had been thrown out of the dictionary, no longer seen as worthwhile.

Wrens, the low-down gangsters amongst the grasses and bracken fired their machine-gun songs at me as I passed by. Here’s two minutes of Jackie Morris painting them, Robert Macfarlane writing them and Kerry Andrew bringing their music back to them, here:

I was sorry to have missed the chance to meet Lee, Spike and Heather who were working on one of Lakeland’s flagship conservation schemes, Wild Haweswater, renaturalising this valley through re-meandering the beck. Setting straight things back as they should be, as serpentine streams.

The effects of their work were taking hold quickly, as a range of natural water features returned, where once had flowed a canal-like drain, lacking the riffles, deeper pools and circling eddys that had been engineered away by ‘efficent’ farming. Each feature providing different benefits for specific wildlife, from feeding to spawning grounds to shelter and nurseries.

Grazing techniques were being revised to encourage wider biodiversity and colourful flora. It’s a rarely visited valley – fortunate enough to be a dead end for the usual passing cars, so will in time become one of the wilder parts of Cumbria, just a few hills and miles from the M6 motorway. As in Ennerdale, the relatively small number of landowners had found it easy to agree on a plan for its wilder future.

Tucked away by a bridge was an army surplus-looking  chest. It turned out to be a treasure chest with a great invitation inside from a young lad called Thomas. Genuinely asking for feedback by email. He “hoped we’d like the surprise”. (I did).

I hope he’ll go far.

Those next miles tried to be annoying. Paths around reservoirs aren’t really natural lines of desire. They roll and tumble around the edges and either end up on the wrong side of plantation trees for views or tight up close to a wall.

Beyond the reservoir, the farmland paths were not well marked, and later some signs had been spun 180′ around for the few laughs available, to some, in such a lonely place. A post knocked down. A stile vandalised.  I’d be back with a hammer and some nails one day.

The landscape was starting to change as the mountains were now behind me. A motorway, mainline trainline plus farmland and moorland of variable quality were between me and the last climb in Cumbria.

But there’s a lovely twist in the tail on this part of the walk. I suspect it’s wasted on those who do the Patterdale – Shap as a loonng route-march. It’s probably the leg of the journey that’s second-most complained about (due to exhaustion), after the miserably anti-scenic route out of Richmond.

After five days of phenomenal fells, there just seems to be endless same-same miles towards Shap. Then Shap’s budget accommodation turns out to be at the far end of a miles-long high street, adding insult to blistery injury.

But for me, this last twist worked out brilliantly. Shap Abbey is hidden from view, probably due to the weather, possibly as the monks knew persecution was never far away. A little-known order of ‘white canons’ had built England’s last abbey down by the river, with special permission from a local baron.

Other than being bashed by the Scots (who got much further south than we are taught down here) they’d enjoyed three centuries of relative peace. It’s a worthy bookend for the first week’s walk, reflecting back to the even more ancient priory at St Bees.

But the best bit? Another chest. No sign of Thomas this time though. I opened it and saw what looked like the aftermath of a party. Loads of cider and beer bottles, crisp bags and pop. Why don’t people take their litter home? I thought. At least there were none of the 21st century’s bags of dog poo…but wait!

I realised the bottles had caps on and the crisp bags were full. And the drinks were actually cold, in big wash-baskets.

So I bought some booze and sat by the abbey wondering if the brothers used to brew up there too. This wasn’t bad at all. One of artist Pip Hall’s 84(!) plaques of Eden marks the spot.

I listened to the Spell Songs music via my phone, in the shade of the acoustic arches, all that remained of the abbey’s cellar larder. Then packed up my empties and headed to the village to find a bin.

I’d been thinking about the time that Friday’s walk had taken. Monday’s was far longer on paper, and I’d arranged an evening talk for the good folk of Kirkby Stephen, where I’d also be staying. I didn’t need to stop in Shap, and fortified by the abbey’s honesty box  booze, I thought I may as well keep going. It’d save me some time on Monday somehow, but I wasn’t exactly sure how yet. I think I was giggling to myself by then, after all that cider in the cloisters.

Shap’s name is derived from the word “heap”. So, it’s not known as a romantic place, but does have all kinds of unique quirks. Shap summit is one of the infamous travel report locations you hear about, like Snake Pass. The highest stretch of motorway over it with buzzards above the traffic. Up there it gets cold. Which is why the sign for Shap’s open-air swimming pool always makes me smile. The schoolchildren use it weekly, but I think they wait until it thaws first (round about June).

Just before I was born, this had been the main route north before the motorway opened. The strip of shops, pubs and more was slowly becoming housing. I admired their pluck with a welcome sign of “stepping stone to the lakes” but I imagined most people took about a stepping stone’s amount of time to pass through nowadays. Left the place in peace.

The street had some great signs made by the local children, so I felt good about using their bins. Wasn’t in the mood for that ice cream they advertised.

The phone box intrigued me. Quite often these discontinued boxes contain heart defibrillators now. But Shap’s had a multilingual library, a floral display and no shortage of mindfulness and affirmations. It was a much nicer welcome to the village than the prat who shouted from the pick up rather than dabbing his footbrake or that over-optimistic village sign. Usually village signs ask you to drive carefully.

I’d never realised how boring this was until I visited Castle Carrock in north Cumbria and reversed back to re-read their village boundary sign. In the place of the usual ‘please drive carefully’ the community had instead asked people to ‘please dance’. It still makes me feel good about the place, and tell others about it even though I’ve not been for years.

Around Shap the area is dominated by their pink and blue granite quarries but away from the dust, there’s real history in ‘them thar hills’. Signs of the Romans. A bronze cavalry helmet was found half an hour east of here by father and son detectorists. As it was deemed ‘non-precious’ for just being bronze, it wasn’t officially treasure and they could sell it. So they did, for £2.3 million.

I walked up over the M6 motorway and past another huge quarry, with enough warning signs to cause a flashback of the terrifying public safety adverts from my childhood. Grandads falling off a chair whilst changing lightbulbs. Kids throwing frisbees into electricity pylons. Fireworks. Me and my friends would have definitely played in here.

There didn’t seem to be much to hang about for as a grown-up though, unless you were into geology. It should be said it’s a pretty cool spot for rock fans. You occasionally see the most hair-raising student field trips pinned flat against the rock wall of the A6 as 60mph traffic blasts downhill past them. Must be some pretty special stone and strata to make that seem a good idea, worth the risk assessment..?

The next valley’s name had always tickled me, Oddendale. I didn’t see a soul for hours up there. Couldn’t find the stone circle shown on the map (unless I did but they’re no longer much to look at). One of only fifteen of its type apparently. It’s good to miss things though. Something to look out for next time you’re passing. I’ve been to Rome a few times, but never found my way into the Forum. Funny thing, that.

There was Robin Hood’s Grave near here that I missed too, continuing the theme set in Ennerdale with Robin Hood’s Chair. Surely I couldn’t miss the final Robin Hood of the route? His Yorkshire bay, at my journey’s end.

The route suddenly swerves south to Orton and its little chocolate factory, completely skirting the magnificent limestone of the Asby scars. I’m not sure why, especially at this time of year. The area is a mecca for wildflowers that love limestone.

You pass old lime kilns where rocks where once burnt to feed the land with minerals and reverse its acidity. There are horrendous stories of travellers who succumbed to kiln fumes and got terribly burnt whilst trying to keep warm, as well as the usual accidents that cast shadows on all manual work, back then.

It wasn’t a bad walk and it was certainly somewhere I’d never been, but it was starting to be a bit overshadowed by the mountains and passes of the past week and I knew enough about the next few miles to know this was a bit of a bland starter. A tomato soup of a trail.

I crossed through a farmyard with just the right amount of ramshackle menace, rusting car parts and muck to make you feel a bit edgy. To remember that film with the banjos. I came down to the lovely village of Orton and sincerely appreciated the friendliest footpath welcome sign I’d ever seen. Better than the bizarrely hectoring sign two miles north, in the middle of the moor that asks if you’ve been to the toilet before you set off. Which had annoyed me so much, I decided to pee on it.

It’s got a lot going for it Orton, the kind of place they still have old black and white road signs, not one but two village becks and buildings up to 400 years old. And a chocolate factory. One of the pioneering Quakers had been born here, an incredible fixer who negotiated at the highest level to stop the mindless persecution of this peaceful movement.

I’d have possibly missed Orton out if I hadn’t been exhausted on reaching Haweswater and pressed blindly on, that Friday. It’s funny how a setback like that could turn into something as pleasant as an hour or two exploring a dales village. I was really glad things had worked out they way they did. And did I mention there’s a CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

But for now, over the two days of catching up on my miles, I only thought about how much I’d really missed calling in at schools. I hadn’t realised just how much seeing the children each day had fuelled my walking and lifted my mood. I was really looking forward to tomorrow.

Monday. A school day. Yaay!

(I’d never said that sentence before).