I’d gone to bed with a not altogether favourable opinion of Shap. But this morning as the sunshine streaked into our bedroom and the birds tweeped and warbled outside the window, I realised yesterday’s sourness was more due to fatigue than anything else. Breakfast was a substantial and friendly affair with a big bowl of creamy porridge that was really all I needed. After several days of the Full English, we three have all come to the conclusion that you can have too much of a good thing. while the Full English is a breakfast with no rival anywhere in the world, sometimes it’s good to give the heart valves a rest.
We’d also come to another conclusion; that today we were not going to spend ten or eleven hours walking all the way to Kirkby Stephen in the heat. This section of the walk is really just a connecting link between the scenic splendours of the Lakes and the Dales consisting of roughly 33K of sheep. While that’s all fine and bucolic and everything it wasn’t going to provide the visual drama needed to keep us on the path. I called a taxi firm and arranged a pickup at Orton in the afternoon, about halfway to Kirkby Stephen.
Somehow we’ve become used to setting off under an achingly blue sky, sunshine already sizzling our necks. We’ve been forgetting that these are the kinds of day to be savoured, especially when you have a day of walking ahead of you in one of the rainiest parts of a country which is already fairly familiar with rain. The weather has been almost surreally good.
We hoisted up our packs outside the Kings Arms and crossed the road to the Coast to Coast sign. It was the first we’d seen in a while. For some reason best known to itself the Lake District National Park doesn’t allow official Coast to Coast signage. Perhaps there would be a danger of visitors actually leaving the park.
Shap watched us leave without any obvious attempt to hold us back. The village straddles the A6, once one of the great north south arteries running from North London to the Scottish Borders. In the days when such a journey was not a one day affair Shap was the kind of place a weary traveller would spend the night. But in 1970 the M6 motorway opened and Shap, like so many other villages, went from bustling to bypassed. It may be more tranquil than it used to be but there is a fine line between tranquility and decline. Shap feels a bit like it never really recovered from the economic hit that came with the false promises of motorway progress.
The path took us through a small housing estate where a shirtless man sitting on his doorstep wished us a good morning. Then past allotments, over the railway line and on to a bridge over the M6. Traffic thundered underneath us at speeds which seemed almost impossible, and completely alien to our slow tracks through the landscape.
A white chalky path took us up to the top of Hardendale Quarry quarry where, eerily, a line of fencing marked the point at which the hill we were walking over disappeared into a void.
We’d been leap-frogging a couple of young women on the same section of the Coast to Coast. They set out ahead, and we overtook them when they took a wrong turn. We were happy to let them pass but whenever we stopped for water, they did the same and we eventually got the impression they were relying on us for the route. They were doing the Proper Hiker thing of using a map and we were following a GPS trail on my iPhone, which is cheating really but as long as the battery holds out, it really works.
We all stopped at the hamlet of Oddendale; the two women sat in the shade of the woods around it while the three of us walked through the trees to see what Oddendale looked like.
It was an ancient, private place no more than a few stone farm buildings but it felt oblivious to the world around it.
It is surrounded by a whole series of Neolithic monuments – stone circles and the like. Somehow we managed to miss all of them. Which is probably just as Oddendale prefers it.
At the edge of the trees flanking Oddendale, the shade ran out and we set out over the moor.
Somewhere here was “Robin Hood’s Grave” but we managed to miss that as well. It’s OK though, there are at least two other places which claim his burial site, so we can always go and pay our respects to the 15th century outlaw there.
The moorland stretched off into the distance, hazy with the heat and it was a long hot plod. We surprised a couple of grouse, blending invisibly into the landscape before clattering off in alarm in front of us.
In the early afternoon we began to descend towards Orton, with the Pennines stretching off at the horizon.
Stone walls sprang up again and there were stands of trees, giving us the first shade we’d had in several hours. Orton was a handsome place with substantial stone houses, broad streets and perfect gardens bursting with colour.
We bought ice creams and cold drinks and watched the world go by, sedately. We’d done about 15K but it seemed a little to soon to stop. There was no cellphone signal but the young woman in the ice cream shop let me use her landline to call the taxi guy and re-arrange our pickup. The hamlet of Sunbiggin was a couple of hours further down the path so we arranged to meet there and set off again.
The sun was lower now, but it had lost none of its intensity. Heat radiated up from the tarmac as we trudged up a long, slow incline looking for our turnoff and wondering if perhaps we should have taken that pickup in Orton after all. The path took us past a stone circle which we did actually manage to stop at for once, but it was very much a farmland route; stile, field, sheep, repeat.
Sunbiggin is basically a farm which spreads across a single track lane. It’s a friendly sort of place with a small summer house surrounded by chairs and tables for the likes of us.
Inside was a fridge loaded with cold drinks, and an honesty box for payment. That’ll be a can of shandy thanks.
It was 4pm and we’d done more than half the route to Kirkby Stephen – around 20K. After several hard days, it felt like enough.
Alan, the cab driver agreed. “Between here and Kirkby Stephen, it’s just more of the same really – a lot of sheep. Save your legs for the Pennines.” We zipped through the narrow lanes to Kirkby Stephen through villages so ancient that their names seemed to be in another language – Raisbeck, Kelleth and Newbiggin-on-Lune. Alan dropped us at our b&b which turned out to be run by his sister-in-law. The building was originally a toll-house with big stone flags on the floor and wooden beams. Now it offers home made cake and tea, and the promise of a lazy day off.