Kendal had long been established as a centre for the wool trade and we’ve already seen that hundreds of journeys were made each year from there by packhorses carrying locally-made woollen goods, woven, and later knitted, all over the country. During the medieval era it’s likely that the great monastic houses with interests in the wool trade helped keep packhorse routes and essential bridges maintained in the Westmorland Dales.
From the Elizabethan era, the country’s population grew steadily as did trade and industry. From 1555, each parish in the country was made responsible for the maintenance of its own roads. This often proved beyond their capabilities especially if they had no direct economic interest in a long distance route, so for centuries, most of the roads in the Dales were probably in an appalling condition, particularly in the winter and many were really still only suitable for packhorses well into the eighteenth century.
Poor roads hampered the movement of goods in large quantities and by the eighteenth century, people with an economic interest in the wider area, large landowners and traders, began to realise that a better solution needed to be found for maintaining good roads suitable for wheeled transport, especially over the winter months. A well-built wagon pulled by changing teams of horses could shift heavy loads between towns in hours rather than days.
The idea of the turnpike was born, where private investors paid for the upgrading of a major road and were then allowed through an Act of Parliament to collect tolls from people using the road in order to recoup their outlay and then continue to keep the road in good repair. A Turnpike Act might last for 21 years before it was assumed that the investment would have been paid off but most of the private trusts formed to carry out the work applied to renew their Acts several times.
The earliest turnpike created in Westmorland was the important north-south road to Scotland which passed through Kendal and Shap. The treacherous high-level route across Shap Fell had long been a major barrier to the movement of people and goods. Paul Hindle quotes an account by three soldiers who made the journey from Penrith to Kendal in the middle of the seventeenth century :
“…through such wayes, as we hope we neuer shall againe, being no other than climing and stony and nothing but bogs and myres and the tops of those high hills, so as wee were enforc’d to keepe these narrow, loose, stony, base wayes though neuer soe troublesome and dangerous…on wee went for…the space of 8 miles travelling a slow marching pace.” Quoted in Paul Hindle (1998) ‘Roads and Tracks of the Lake District’ p154
A hundred years later both armies in the 1745 rebellion encountered similar problems attempting to cross Shap Fell, so it’s no surprise that this important north-south communication route was one of the first to be turnpiked in the north in 1753. The new turnpike ran from the southern Westmorland county boundary at Heron Syke; north through Kendal and Shap, finishing at Eamont Bridge just south of Penrith. A 1932 account of its history is quoted on the British History Online website as follows:
” HERON SYKE, KENDAL AND EAMONT BRIDGE.
It would appear that almost immediately after the Rising of 1745 a scheme was set on foot to obtain a Turnpike Act for this road; meetings were held in both North and South Westmorland but on account of considerable opposition the scheme was delayed. Lancashire settled the question first and obtained an Act, 24 Geo. II, 1751, for repairing and widening the road from Preston to Lancaster and from thence through Carnforth, Over Kellet, Borwick, Priest Hutton and Dalton Park to Heron Syke. Two years later Westmorland obtained its own first Turnpike Act, 26 Geo. II, c. 52, 1753, for widening and repairing the continuation of this road northward, that is from Heron Syke to Kirkby-in-Kendale, and from thence through the town of Shap to Eamont Bridge. The preamble states that “Whereas the road is very ruinous, and some parts thereof almost impassable and could not, by the ordinary course appointed by the Laws then in being for repairing
the highways, be amended and kept in good repair unless some further provision was made. . . . May it therefore please Your Majesty etc. etc. The names of the Commissioners are set forth, their powers and duties are stated, the tolls authorised to be taken, the penalties for omission and evasion and so forth, but as these do not differ materially from the provisions usual to all Highway Acts, it is not necessary to notice them. After the space of twenty-five years a second Act was obtained, 19 Geo. III, c. 108, 1779, for enlarging the terms and powers. The third Act, 40 Geo. III, c. 22, 1800, continued the term for another twenty-one years, but after fifteen of these years had passed it was found necessary to apply for the fourth Act, 55 Geo. III, c. 37, 1815. A very interesting meeting of the Trustees took place on the 23rd December, 1817, when the chairman took a comprehensive view of the funds of the road. The annual income he stated to be £2068 and the actual expenditure £1200, leaving a clear available surplus of £868. Of this sum £800 belonged to the portion of the road from Heron Syke to Kendal and only £68 to the northern section from Kendal to Eamont Bridge. It would appear that it was the usual custom to assist the northern out of the earnings of the southern section, but at this meeting Christopher Wilson contended that . . . . as it appeared reasonable that the southern section might suffer shortly a material depression from the effects of the Lancaster Canal being completed to Kendal . . . . it would become advisable to erect a new toll bar on the northern section, at or near to Shap, which he calculated would produce £382, rather than divert the southern surplus any longer. This was agreed to. As an application for an Act to enclose the Shap Common was to be brought before Parliament, a correspondent in the Kendal papers for November 28, 1812, suggested that the Trustees might divert the road so as to cross Wasdale Beck by a bridge higher up, by which the declivity to the Demings and the dangerous descent to Wasdale Bridge would be avoided. So it is interesting to note the Trustees advertising for this diversion on 12 June, 1819; and on 30 October following advertising for the diversion of Thrimby Lane through the village of Hackthorpe to Warren House Lane and so avoiding the ascent and descent of 80 feet over Hackthorpe High. The old line of road can still be traced crossing the “Burrow flu” at the ancient High Borrow bridge and following the west bank of Crookdale beck to Hawse Foot. After climbing 1240 feet from Kendal the road now descends and a quarter of a mile beyond the summit it can be seen returning and crossing the modern turnpike diagonally toward and over Wasdale Old Bridge. From here it passed by Bleabeck Bridge and through the present Granite Works, west of Shap Thorn and the “Stone Heaps” to the old Greyhound Inn where the track joins the present road. On 15 July, 1850, the Royal Assent was given to the 6th Act, 13, 14 Vict., to amend the previous Acts and to continue the term.”
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 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/n-westmorland-records/vol8/pp3-8 [accessed 12 March 2020].
The turnpike road built in 1753 thus followed the line of the original main high level packhorse/droving route north, just widening it and improving its surface. It was only later, in 1822, that the Turnpike Trust chose to upgrade and reroute sections to avoid difficulties such as overly steep inclines. The modern A6 road mostly follows the line of the 1822 rerouted turnpike road. Notably it completely bypasses the Lune Gorge and people can still remember the perils of travelling on the A6 in winter snow before the M6 was built through the lower level route past Tebay.
The work involved in rerouting parts of the turnpike was let out to tender as this advert shows.
The erection of the new tollbar at Shap is recorded in the Westmorland Gazette. Collection of the tolls was ‘farmed’ out to the highest bidder on a regular basis, any tolls collected above and beyond the initial bid could be kept as profit.
A toll keeper was paid to collect the tolls which varied according to the type of transport or animal passing through the gate. The name ‘turnpike’ comes from the method of placing wooden pike shafts across the toll road to stop travellers. The pikes were soon replaced by hinged gates which were quicker to swing open to let the mail coaches hurtle though – they didn’t have to pay tolls and the toll keeper could face a hefty fine if he didn’t get the gate open in time. A toll house once stood just south of Shap at the junction of the turnpike with the later turnpike road from Orton. It has long since been demolished but Colin Smith has published an old postcard of it, taken long after the turnpike gate itself had been removed.
There seems to have been a regular gang of roadmenders employed to keep the road surface in good repair, clean out ditches and cut back undergrowth on the verges as this peculiar item in the local newspaper implies. We wonder however if it’s actually a sly dig at farmers returning home from market the worse for drink?
There would have once been a whole series of stone mileposts along the turnpike as required by law but only one remains, in the centre of Shap, hidden behind a later cast iron version. The cast iron mile markers are quite numerous along the line of the modern A6 and date to 1825 shortly after the turnpike was rerouted. Presumably the old stone markers were removed at the time to avoid confusion.
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