Hardknott Pass in England’s north-west Lake District is, technically, the most direct route from the central Lake District to West Cumbria, but it’s so steep and difficult that outsiders are often warned to take hour-long detours to avoid braving its twisting, single-track slalom up a mountainside. It was described as one of Britain’s “most outrageous roads” by The Guardian newspaper, and locals are full of tales of cars suffering brake failures, drivers “freezing” with the challenge, and of skids and misjudgements causing cars to plunge off the narrow “track”. There have been serious discussion as to whether this extraordinary 13-mile stretch between the towns of Boot and Ambleside should be closed to traffic completely, or celebrated as a national treasure.
The original route was laid out by the Romans around 110 AD, and it led to a dramatic stronghold at the top of the pass known today as Hardknott Fort. The remaining stone walls of the fort are an English Heritage site, with sweeping views across the fells, and are all that’s left of one of the most remote Roman outposts in Britain. After the Romans left in the 5th Century, the road lingered on as an unpaved horse and mule route until the local hoteliers association paid for improvements to the road in the 1880s, hoping to encourage scenic horse and carriage trips. A few years later, that scheme was abandoned and it wasn’t until 1913 that the first motor vehicles drove over the pass, from the easier Eskdale side. Later, Hardknott’s steep gradient was used to test tanks during World War Two. Their steel tracks chewed up the road so badly that it had to be rebuilt.
Britain’s Institute of Advanced Motorists‘ spokeswoman Heather Butcher said: “Depending on the rider or driver’s experience, it could be one to avoid. We don’t recommend putting yourself or others in danger….You can read reviews online from various sources confirming that it’s a challenging road, a thrill, etcetera, but we would advise all riders and drivers to approach roads like this with caution.” And Neil Graham, a communications officer for the Cumbria Police added, “People shouldn’t seek out the road just to challenge themselves.”
What is this notorious stretch actually like to drive? Signs warn drivers: “Narrow road. Severe bends” but, by the time you reach them, there’s no alternative route, and no turning back. You’re about to face a sequence of ridiculous hairpins the width of a bridleway, a constantly disintegrating road surface, and unguarded drops plummeting hundreds of feet down the mountainside towards rough moorland and rocks. Hardknott’s hardest section, towards the top, lasts less than a couple of miles but rises 1,037ft. A few hairpins reach a 25% gradient, and the final “cliff” has a breath-taking 33% gradient. The “Unsuitable for Caravans” sign is a humorous understatement.
These gradients are steeper than most alpine routes, and exceed the famous extremes of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Europe’s other grand cycling tours. The fitness of the few elite cyclists who manage to scale the pass is put into perspective by a 2019 Eurosport documentary called “England’s Toughest Climb”. An “average” cyclist was given a strict six-week expert training regime as preparation for tackling Hardknott. To the programme maker’s horror, he still failed to make it up the pass.
In this age of smart motorways and self-driving cars, Hardknott represents a flashback to a time when you had to concentrate on the road as if your life depended on it (it does) and wonder if your car will make it (it might not). Unlike the vast majority of Britain’s roads, this short track offers a memorable driving experience every time. It’s England’s ultimate motoring anachronism.
Today, the road is best tackled on a sunny day – but that’s rare in the West Cumbrian fells. An average day features horizontal rain, buffeting side winds and slippery surfaces. On a bad day, the road becomes impassable.
The driver’s reward for all that steering and gear changing, however, is access to an untouched mountain landscape of rare, wild beauty. The waterfalls, sheer rock faces and sudden stunning views across the fells must be much as the Romans saw them. Cliffs soar into the clouds on either side, while hardy sheep wander confidently across the road. They don’t worry about the traffic. After all, cars are the outsiders here.
Another Bucket List adventure, if you are feeling brave!