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Shap is best known for three main things; it’s geology, road and railway.
The geology here is varied. The ancient volcanic rocks such as the famous Shap pink granite, which is still quarried and can be seen as erratic boulders strewn over the countryside. This is a beautiful rock with large pink feldspar crystals in a matrix of quartz and mica.
Bio-hornfels, a variety of the Borrowdale volcanics often referred to as ‘blue’ is quarried for road stone.
Carboniferous limestone is the most predominant stone, with most of the traditional local buildings being constructed from it and two quarries extracting it for a variety of uses
Shap is a very ancient place, the oldest examples of human activity being the remains of the great serpent temple referred to as The Shap Stones. This is considered to have been of great importance and on a par with the famous serpent temple at Avebury, Shap lies on one of the famous lines linking ancient sites – the Spine of Albion which runs from the Isle of Wight to the north of Scotland, passing through many famous archaeological sites. All that remains of The Shap Stones today consist of a partial circle bisected by the Westcoast mainline railway, several named avenue stones in the fields and traces of a burial mound.
The settlement was originally called Heppe, believed have been derived from a word for ‘heap’ referring to the stones, but there are other possible origins. The name then changed to Hep, Yhep and Shappe before its present name.
There has been a church in Shap since the 8th century on high ground to the east of the village, this was rebuilt it in stone in 1150. It has seen several changes over the centuries with major reordering in 1899, and more internal changes in recent years.
The Premonstratensian canons established an abbey on the west bank of the river Lowther a mile from the village in 1199 the last abbey to be built in England. It flourished in the wool trade, the canons also acted at priests to several local churches such as Shap and Bampton. The abbey was finally surrendered to the Crown in January 1540 – the last in England to be closed. The peaceful ruins are well worth a visit.
Following the dissolution, the abbey lands were granted by the Crown to the Wharton family who among other things granted a market charter to Shap. The manor was then sold to the Lowther family who still hold the title of Lord of the Manor of Shap.
The village or town of Shap was the northern part from Townhead near the Kings Arms Hotel in the south to the Townend near the Skew Bridge in the north. This included the area around the church. Until the early 20th century there was another small community near the Greyhound Hotel named Brackenber Township, which has now been absorbed into the village we know today.
There has always been roads and trackways running through Shap, as it lay on the main route to the north and Scotland. The Heron Syke Turnpike had a Tollbar near the junction of the A6 and the road to the M6. The road over Shap fell was always notorious especially in the winter months. Shap had several coaching inns and other hostelries to cater for travellers. There were also droving routes to the east and packhorse routes to the west. As a result the village thrived with many businesses being established. Even within living memory the bad winters saw lorries backed up through the village and stranded drivers taking shelter in the Memorial hall catered for by the WVS ladies.
Just as the coming of the railway sounded the death knell of the turnpike and droving routes, so the coming of the M6 did the same for heavy haulage when it opened in 1970.
The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway was begun in June 1844 and opened in December 1846, at the cost of £1,250,000. The navvies were based in a village of sod huts near the summit of the line. There was a station close to the Greyhound Hotel which closed in 1968. The sight of steam trains ascending Shap Bank made it a Mecca for rail enthusiasts and the occasional steam excursions today still draw the crowds.
The advent of the railway led to the opening of Shap Granite works in 1865, as it gave the opportunity for the company to have rail sidings for their own use. They established quarries to extract the pink granite and blue roadstone as well as a concrete works that produced flags kerbs and pipes. This was the main employer in the village and they constructed many houses to accommodate the work force. Several ownership changes have seen the operation become much smaller.
Further quarries were established to extract limestone; Harrisons at Shap Beck in the 1930s now owned by Hanson, and British Steel at Hardendale in the early 1960s. The latter with its large kilns now belongs to Tata Steel.
The West Ward Union built a workhouse to the west of the village in 1877, this replaced the poor house at Townhead. Subsequently the building became a children’s home, then following the Second World War it was acquired by the granite company to accommodate a workforce of displaced persons from eastern Europe. It was then altered to form separate houses and became part of the general housing stock. All the properties are now in private ownership and known as Brackenber Lodge.
There were three schools in Shap, A boys school formerly the grammar school, a girls and infants school replaced a dame school that was housed in the market cross, and Wickersgill which served children from Wet Sleddale, the granite works and outlying farms. The latter only taught children until the age of eleven when they transferred to the two schools in Shap. In 1955, the primary age children of both sexes were amalgamated on the site of the boys school which continues as the primary school today. The former girls school became a secondary modern school for pupils that had not passed for the grammar school in Penrith, some of the pupils came into Shap from surrounding villages and gained a good reputation, this closed in 1962 when the Tynefield and Ullswater schools were built in Penrith. The main building next became a magistrates court with the rear classrooms becoming a youth club, and a sports hall being added. Following the closure of the court, the youth club used the ,man building, before it became the library. Ownership was then transferred to a management group who renamed it The Old Courthouse. The building now serves as a venue for gatherings, concerts and exhibitions; it maintains a library hub.
The market hall, had a porch added and this was opened in 1920 when it was renamed the War Memorial Hall in memory of the Shap men who fell in the First World War. Land to the west of the A6 formerly known as the Gayle Fields became the memorial park with ornate gates dedicated in 1951 as a memorial to the men who were lost in the Second World War. The War Memorial in the churchyard records all the names.
The 1930s saw the flooding of Mardale to create the Haweswater reservoir supplying water to Manchester, the burials from Mardale churchyard were exhumed and reinterred in a special section of the new churchyard in Shap. In the 1960s Wet Sleddale suffered a similar fate when many ancient farms were destroyed and a dam was built.
The post war period saw new social housing, with Croft Avenue being built in 1951 and Gayle Avenue shortly afterwards. More council housing was built on West lane in the 1960s. There has been several private developments during the 1990s. This has seen the village expand greatly. Shap holds onto its history and continues to thrive, catering for its residents’ needs whilst still welcoming travellers, many now on foot as they tackle the Coast to Coast long distance walk. It offers many attractions from ancient places to walking country. Why not come and discover it for yourself?
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