I first encountered the old Shap Road (A6) in 1963 during a 10 day cycling holiday to the Penrith area from London. In those days, before the M6 was built, it was the main link between north-west England and Scotland, rising to some 1400-1500 feet above sea level at its summit. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate its grandeur. I had been in the saddle for nine days already; my gears (relatively primitive by today’s standards) had broken down on my first day out of London and I had been forced to ride a single gear fixed wheel for the remainder of the holiday, including a a 73-mile day in the southern pennines when it had rained non-stop. I was knackered, and the final ride from Kendal to a village 6 miles north of Penrith, to meet my parents, was almost the last straw, the shortest option being over the long uphill drag of the Shap pass on the A6 (then a busy trunk road). At least it didn’t rain. The years since have deadened the pain, and now the memories have shifted instead to a sense of achievement.
Since I moved to Cumbria a few years ago, I have had frequent opportunities to return to the old Shap Road, closeted in the comfort of a car. Now that its traffic has largely been taken by the M6, the old A6 must be one of the most scenic rides and quietest ‘A’ roads in England. Its a magical route; no journeys on it are ever the same. (The photos illustrating this blog-post were taken yesterday). The light varies constantly and the views assume a different perspective from minute to minute; the climate varies from hour to hour …from sunshine at the bottom and snow showers at the top, even in spring/early summer…a real challenge on a cold winter’s night. The scenery starts with pleasant wall-enclosed lowland pasture at its southern and northern extremes, rising to open tree-less moorland inhabited by cotton grass and other hardy upland plants, sometimes scarred by pylons and stone-quarries that are also features of the area. At night, if you are lucky, the reflective eyes of Red Deer can be spotted in your car headlights.
If you’ve never ridden or driven it, I fully recommend it. If you are on a bike …. congratulations and good luck. If you are in a car make sure that you stop at some of the many parking places, and at least get out of the car at the road summit to experience the views, the sunshine, the wind, rain and snow. Bring a map, compass and wet-weather gear; take a walk on some of the footpaths that cross the road. If you fancy a circular drive, after reaching the summit on the A6, I can recommend joining the M6 just south of Shap village (junction 39), head south and perhaps stop for refreshment at Tebay
services, the best motorway service station in England, run by Westmorland farmers, and then drive through the spectacular Lune Valley alongside the Howgill Fells, before exiting for Kendal at junction 37 on one of the few motorway slip roads that has a cattle-grid across it. Very civilised!