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Early trade routes through Shap

Friday 22 May, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

The small town of Shap lies on what has been for millennia an important long-distance north-south trade route. To the north lay Eamont Bridge and Penrith with Scotland beyond. To the south, lay Kendal and routes to west coast ports and London. Today the M6 thunders over the notorious Shap Summit and the town itself lies hidden below it, but the modern A6 still mostly follows a much older route which took advantage of Shap’s geographical position.

A look at a topographic map shows how Shap is placed at a natural ‘entrance’ to hill passes running south between the Cumbrian and Howgill Fells. It is perfectly sited to take economic advantage of people passing along these early routes through the hills. We can still identify a couple of early, probably medieval, north-south packhorse routes from Shap. One heads towards Kendal through a gap in the Shap Fells, skirting the aptly named Packhorse Hill then running due south past Hause Foot and High Borrow Bridge. Later on, the same route was consolidated into a turnpike road and later still became the modern A6. Another early but less clear route leaves Shap and heads south east towards Shap Thorn hill, a prominent landmark and site of a probable prehistoric burial mound. From there it may have crossed Birk Beck at Salterwath, a name which indicates an early ford used by packhorses carrying salt. It heads south along Birk Beck’s little valley past High and Low Scales, and ends up at the village of Roundthwaite. This early route is described by John Curwen as being replaced by the eighteenth century turnpike route which ran from Shap to Orton and then on to Grayrigg:

“The Orton to Shap [turnpike] road took the place of the old track that came up from Grayrigg, not crossing to the east of the Lune at Tebay, but which went straight northward via Roundthwaite, Birkbeck and Scales to Shap Thorn and the Stone Heaps. ”
John F Curwen, ‘North Westmorland: Main roads’, in The Later Records Relating To North Westmorland Or the Barony of Appleby (Kendal, 1932), pp. 3-8. British History Online [accessed 20 May 2020].

The name Shap is apparently derived from an early word for Stone Heap so we assume this is what Curwen was referring to.

It’s easy to see why Shap grew up along this route with its busy traffic north and south. It was also a convenient place to shelter in and wait if snow closed the highest part of the route over the fell.

However, Shap has a much older story to tell about trade. Its name is a clue, the ‘heap of stones’ may be a reference to the extraordinary collection of standing stones in and around Shap which together form the remains of a remarkable prehistoric stone alignment or avenue, at one time, second only in size and length to the famous West Kennett Avenue at Avebury. Today only fragments remain but it once stretched for 1.5 miles as a double line of standing stones made of the local pink granite. There were probably hundreds of stones originally. At its southern end was a stone circle, now almost completely destroyed by a railway line. To the north was a bowl barrow at Skellaw Hill. The avenue then either continued on a tangent north-westwards or the remains of a second avenue can be traced, ending in an area of disturbed ground beyond a huge glacial erratic known as the Thunder Stone.

Early antiquarians witnessed the wholesale destruction of the avenue, stones were blown up to be used in house foundations in Shap or cut into gate stoups. Enclosure of the land in the early nineteenth century saw more stones moved and incorporated into field walls.

'The Shap Avenue' a sketch by Lady Lowther 1775, from the south. Unknown source.
‘The Shap Avenue’ a sketch by Lady Lowther 1775, from the south. Unknown source.

Archaeologist T. Clare surveyed the remains of the avenue in the 1970s as part of work undertaken to stabilise one of the larger stones, known as the Goggleby Stone. He concluded that the monument most likely dates to the later Neolithic period. Read his full report in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (TCWAAS)

The Shap Local History Society have posted a comprehensive list of the various surviving stones with directions on how to view them from public rights of way and plenty of photographs to help you find your way.

Across the fields to the Goggleby Stone
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Nigel Homer -
Across the fields to the Goggleby Stone
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Nigel Homer –

Shap Avenue is a remarkable monument by any standards but an examination of the landscape around it, and specifically on the high land either side of the passage south through the Lune Gap reveals a whole series of prehistoric monuments: burial mounds; stone circles; ring cairns and barrows. The Shap Local History Society have published a useful interactive map showing the locations of many of these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites.

The concentration and complexity of some of these ritual places tells us that the communities that built them were able to invest a great deal of time and resources in them. The placing of the imposing avenue of standing stones at Shap, at the entrance to the geological routeway through the hills seems to be no coincidence.

By the Later Neolithic, long-established lines of exchange were in use. Scarce commodities like salt and polished stone axes had value and were moved long distances. Axe roughouts from ‘factories’ in Great Langdale in the Lake District have been found the length and breadth of the country. The roughouts were polished up into their final beautiful forms some distance from where they were quarried. Sea routes seem to have been the main way these axes travelled such long distances and roughouts have been found at the Humber Estuary and along the west coast of Cumbria. There is also a concentration of axe roughouts around Penrith to the north and in the Aire Valley to the south. It isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to see the Lune Gap as lying along one of the southerly routes for these sought-after axes and other essentials like salt.

Controlling access to the route or the items which moved along it or even just being a staging post, would have given communities around Shap status and power. Erecting a grand processional avenue would have been a reflection of that status. Power and privilege was reinforced for those who participated in whatever rituals took place along the avenue.

Part of Shap Avenue. (c) Sandy Gerrard
Part of Shap Avenue. (c) Sandy Gerrard

The Shap Avenue is a Scheduled Monument. Read the full Listing Description here: Shap Stone Alignment. The listing includes a downloadable PDF map showing the location of the remaining fourteen in situ stones.

< Previous A Way Through blog post Turnpike Roads: Kendal to Shap

Next A Way Through blog post Way-finding in Neolithic Westmorland >

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


4 Replies to “Early trade routes through Shap”

  1. Bonnie Scott says:

    Map with shapes

    • Hi Bonnie – not sure which map you mean but if you click through to the various sources you’ll find maps and plans of pretty nearly everything mentioned in the post?

  2. Prof Paul A. Carling says:

    ‘shap’ is the cumbric dialect word for stone, although the Scots word ‘staine ‘was also used and I heard staine used by a locally-born man aged c. 82 in 2021. So the name Shap probably refers directly to the Avenue. The stone heaps or ‘heaps’ are actually shown as cartoons of heaps of stones on old maps – roughly where the link road is between the A6 and junction 39 on the M6. These were likely land clearance cairns. Given they were mapped, suggests they were prominent although incidental route markers. In 1870 there is documentary evidence such clearance masses of rocks were still frequent along road sides in Lancashire, but disappeared as they were used as road metal as the roads were improved.

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