To Shap

‘We need rain. There’s been none to speak of since March 21st. The grass isn’t growing. If it stays dry the ewes won’t have enough milk for the lambs.’

I’ve always had a soft spot for hill farmers. I suppose it comes from having spent so much leisure time in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Lambing time wears everyone out, but luckily this year’s crop has been plentiful. Feeding them in even a short drought is another matter: January’s downpours mean little by mid-April, and yesterday’s drizzle will make no perceptible difference to the grass.

It’s a case of ‘one man’s meat’. Dry weather suits me, though I’ll be even happier if the clouds lift above the tops.

Breakfast features a good-sized coil of spicy Cumberland sausage, which Terry and Pauline leave untouched. They are quickly away from the table, and Pauline’s red coat crosses the valley while I’m still clearing my plate.

For the farmer and me, the weather constitutes an inexhaustible topic. We dispose quickly of the stormy winter and the dry spring, the reduced frequency of snow, and the pros and cons of Greenbank’s shelter from the prevailing wind and its open easterly aspect. Then I ask about their photo, taken on a fine day several years ago when he and his son traversed Patterdale for charity, climbing both Helvellyn and The Knott, a heck of a walk for a young schoolboy. After that we chat about routes to Haweswater, and they give me a tip about finding the way over High Raise.

A track up the valley side meets the Trade Route from the village. Yet again Melvin and Winfield cross my path, and we head into the cold breeze. The harsh crags of central Lakeland recede behind us. The distinctive Patterdale fells, smooth and grassy, fall steeply to narrow tributary valleys, a fine landscape with an atmosphere all its own.

We turn a corner and bump into Terry and Pauline, who seek reassurance as to the correct route. With a couple of minor exceptions, navigation proves straightforward despite mediocre visibility. Straggling along towards The Knott, which stubbornly clings to its misty shroud, we’re joined by two other pairs of walkers as we enter a chill world of drizzle.

Ahead looms the wall where I shall leave Wainwright’s route, so I stop to check the map, take a bite, consult my route card and set the compass. With a cheery ‘See you in Shap!’ I head across the tussocks towards a gap in the wall. From there the broad track above Rampsgill Head leads to a faint path over High Raise and Low Raise. The coarse brown grass is wet, but the gradient is generally downhill, and the ground is kind to the feet. Views there are none, so I sing to myself as I stride out, and it seems no time at all before Measand Beck appears with its lovely waterfalls. Below the mist the day is pleasant and dry. It’s time for lunch and fresh socks.

I’ve bypassed Kidsty Pike and the hike beside Haweswater because I’ve been there often. There are several routes between Patterdale and Shap, some of which include High Street and Harter Fell, but my selection has the triple merit of being new, short and easy. It makes sense on a day when the cloud base is low.

Mardale is so unlike Patterdale. The hike through the mist has been akin to a railway journey under the Pennines: having emerged from the tunnel, I find myself in another world. The steep mountains and natural lakes have gone. Boundary walls here were designed by municipal engineers, not local dry stone wallers. Despite the expanse of water on my right, this no longer feels like the Lake District. Predictably, I feel a sense of loss.

Burnbanks, a village created for the building of the reservoir, is buzzing with power tools. Skips and builders’ vans announce that house renovation and rebuilding is big business. Nature survives too: there are red squirrels. I’m passing a feeder when one pretty little creature races up a tree. It’s a rare sight for me. I’m enchanted too by flashes of sunlight through the alder branches, brightening the unfurling leaves and emerging blossoms in the woods by Haweswater Beck. It’s a wonderful start to a gentle and easy walk through fields and beside streams to Shap.

I’ve seen no one since leaving the other Coast to Coasters near The Knott, but ruined Shap Abbey has drawn a few visitors. I roll into the village and head straight for my digs at The Hermitage, where my bag is on the doorstep, alongside that of Melvin and Winfield. Nobody answers the bell, but in the nearby fish and chip café they are happy to take me in and serve me a ridiculously large feast. It’s then time to meet landlady Jean.

I take up residence in a room proportionate to my recent meal, spreading my belongings far and wide. After a leisurely bath, I stroll a mile to the south end of Shap. Young men race up and down the main road in their hotrods. Others hang around outside the pubs, looking like undertakers in their black suits. Small Town, Saturday Night: not much to do except challenge death or wait for its proceeds. Time for a little reading and an early night.

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