Having said that, Hardknott Pass can be tackled in most family cars, under the stewardship of confident and competent drivers of course. There will be hairpin bends, impossible-looking gradients, crumbling road edges and meandering livestock to negotiate but it's all part of the adventure and the indisputable fun!
I've driven this route in all manner of different cars over the years; from an Austin Mini, 700 & 900 Series Volvos to a 1971 Range Rover MK1. However, I must confess, I did shy away from attempting it with my father's 1989 Bentley Eight because I wouldn't risk a beautiful car on such a steep and twisty road. The Bentley Eight is no mountain goat.
No bad roads
My first Hardknott driving experience was in a 1971 Range Rover MK1. As I headed out of Ambleside, the fabled lakeland rain had lashed the region for 48 hours solid. But my trusty Range Rover was perfect for the job. With its roaring, petrol-gulping (14mpg) Rover 3500 V8 and 4-speed manual transmission (with a low ratio option) no task was too great. There's no such thing as bad roads - just the wrong cars! But, for me, the perfect choice.
The Wrynose & Hardknott Pass are infamous English legends. In places it's so steep that the locals frequently advise 'outsiders' to take lengthy detours to avoid the single-track slalom course that meanders up what was once described as Britain's most "outrageous'' road. Locals always have plenty of tall tales of visiting motorists suffering brake failures or ending up stranded in wintry conditions. The question has often been asked as to whether this extraordinary route should be shut to all traffic except for local access. I personally reckon that this amazing road should be celebrated as one of Britain's most scenic drives.
Bearing in mind that I'm from rural Wales, I'm no stranger to such barren, windswept mountain passes. Steep gradients and sheer drops don't phase me unless there's snow and ice involved. However, each year, lakeland visitors set off from genteel lakeside tearooms thinking they're in for a picturesque jolly through some 'butterfly and daisies' biscuit tin scenery. Instead, what they encounter is one of the most challenging stretches of road in the UK. However, under normal weather conditions, negotiating this road shouldn't be beyond the capabilities of most competent motorists.
This great "outrage" of an English road winds its way around England's tallest peak, Scafell Pike. You'll also find England's deepest lake, Wastwater, lurking murkily in this mountainous corner of the Lake District. Many locals still insist that the Hardknott poses a hazard to sedate, tea-sipping townies. Having seen for myself some fine examples of cack-handed driving along this route over the years, I'm not entirely surprised. I recall having to step-in to rescue a couple who were stuck halfway around a steep hairpin in their brand new (but half-cooked) Ford Scorpio. The challenges of the Hardknott had reduced both into whimpering wrecks, completely overawed.
After witnessing that particular debacle, I guess it's not worth putting yourself and others in danger if you feel less than one hundred percent confident of your driving abilities. These days, there will be plenty of online reviews which will reaffirm the locals' stance about Hardknott. Even Cumbria Police recommend that the passes should be approached with due caution.
To others, this somewhat daunting route is a celebrated feast of glorious vistas. It represents something utterly unique. Those who have driven Hardknott hundreds of times still regard their local road as being the most exciting and incredible road to cycle, drive or even walk. Whilst locals might be inclined to try and keep the most 'green-behind-the-gills' holiday drivers away, many regularly choose to take the route themselves rather than opt for lengthy detours.
So, what's this notorious road actually like to drive? Well, in my 1971 Range Rover, it was an absolute doddle. Having said that, I've never found it particularly difficult in any car. I don't regard myself as being some kind of super-dooper driver but I'm seldom phased by anything other than other people's recklessness - and snow.
The Hardknott & Wrynose Pass climb from Greenburn Beck, where the signs warn "Narrow Road" with "Severe Bends." But if you've come this far, it's kind of a point of no return. Get ready, because you're about to encounter a bit of a roller-coaster ride. There are crumbling road surfaces and unguarded drops that spectacularly plummet hundreds of feet. The most extreme section is less than two miles in length but well over a thousand feet high. Some of the hairpins are on a 25% gradient with the final climb rising over a 33% gradient. The "Unsuitable for caravans" sign provides some comedy relief.
The Hardknott's gradients are steeper than most alpine routes and exceed the famous extremes of the Tour de France. But my old Range Rover made light work of it. I didn't even need to go into low ratio as the mighty V8 and low gearing were perfectly matched. However, like many of those unsuspecting tourists, I was taken aback when I discovered how extreme conditions really do get.
Torrents of water
We arrived at the first hairpin amid torrents of water cascading down the road. It was easy to see how the road edges get undermined as such frequent torrents wash them away. Indeed, the incessant rain and powerful winds relentlessly pounded the Range Rover as we slowly wound our way to Hardknott's highest point. Despite everything, the basic but nevertheless excellent heating system kept us toasty in the spartan interior of the MK1. There's no carpets, plush leather or soft cloth upholstery - just heavy-duty PVC floors and seats. But it was still sublimely stylish and more to the point comfortable, airy and undeniably practical.
Point is, we made it! Admittedly, the conversation en route was awash with expletives but the climb hadn't phased the Range Rover. The secret is to keep the revs up and select the correct gear. Also, try to predict the moves of some of the headless chickens sitting behind the wheels of oncoming traffic.
Back in my cosy Ambleside hotel, I read that the Hardknott route has a colourful history. Originally laid by the Romans around 110 AD, the road led to a fortress at the top of the pass. Known today as Hardknott Fort, it boasts sweeping views across the fells. Beyond Roman times, the road remained as an unpaved mule route. In 1913, the first motor vehicles drove over the pass from the less extreme Eskdale side. Today, despite being fully paved, the road is best tackled on a sunny day. But sunny days are a rare commodity on these West Cumbrian fells. Expect the horizontal rain, buffeting side winds and slippery surfaces as experienced in my Range Rover.
But, your patience and driving skills will be amply rewarded with views of wild, unspoilt beauty. Sheer rock faces with foaming waterfalls remain just as the Romans saw them. Cliff faces soar into swirling clouds either side of the valleys. It just has to be seen!
My 1971 Range Rover MK1 takes on Cumbria's Hardknott Pass
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