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The Hardknott Pass (Cumbria)

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Lake District route linking the West Coast with Ambleside.

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      09.09.2011 22:20
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      An amazing driver through the best countryside in the land.

      I've always been a fan of going for a nice scenic drive, and always been a fan of the Lake District. So the last time when we were on holiday up in Ambleside, we decided to bite the bullet and attempt the infamous Hardknott Pass.

      The Hardknott pass itself is a minor road in the heart of the Lake District, which links the west coast and the Eskdale Valley with the Duddon Valley, and then Ambleside in the heart of the national park. It is often in competition with Chimney Bank in Yorkshire in the battle for the steepest road in Britain. It is classed as a 1:3 climb and in places it is even steeper than this, and reaches a maximum height of 393 metres. In addition, it is characterised by several series of extreme hairpin bends, which when taking the degree of the hills into account provide a very challenging driving experience.

      The road follows the route of the old Roman road, which was built in the second century during the occupation of Britain to link up a series of forts from the west coast in Ravenglass to Ambleside and the Romans knew it as the Tenth Highway. The road was then used as a packhorse route after the Romans left Britain for many years. The majority of the old Roman track was destroyed during the Second World War, as the whole area was used for tank training exercises, and it was only after the war that a decision was made to rebuild the road with tarmac to provide access from west to east. The road doesn't follow the exact track of the old Roman one, as the path of the old one criss-crosses the newer one. For those interested in the history of the area, there are many little lay bys to stop off in, and the remains of the old road are still visible in some areas, although I would suggest getting an old map of the area from one of the tourist shops in the Lake District so you can trace the route of the Roman road.

      So what is the pass itself like? Well on discussing the idea of going over it with the owners of the B&B that we stayed in, they issued us with the cautionary tale of an older gentleman losing his nerve half way up, and other road users having to prise him out of his car and move it off the road to allow others to get passed. To be fair this shouldn't really be a typical experience as there are no really sheer edges that you are going to plummet over, and as long as your brakes work well then you should be all right. I wouldn't recommend attempting this pass in anything bigger than a people carrier, and even these are a pain in the neck to meet and pass. Anything larger than a minibus is banned from the road, and if looks like wintry conditions are a possibility then avoid this road like the plague!

      In my experience the majority of the traffic tackles this pass from east to west heading into Eskdale. As a result you are likely to meet less if you choose this option, and also have the pleasure of the stunning views at the top just before you descend into the Eskdale Valley below. There are several passing places and wider bits to pass on the ascent this way, and I would seriously advise anyone to keep a look out as far ahead on the pass as you can, and if you se another vehicle, then simply find the next passing place and wait for it to go past. This will result in a lot less stressful, and more enjoyable driving, as this isn't a route you use if you're in a hurry, its for the sheer enjoyment of the scenery. The ascent isn't particularly arduous going up from the Langdale side of the pass, and as I previously stated, there are more passing places on this side, however the hairpin turns are very, very sharp and it is pretty steep, so extra care should be taken on them, especially if manoeuvring around other cars on them. The pass has been resurfaced in places recently, but there are still areas which have rubbed quite smooth due to wheels spinning if due care isn't applied.

      At the top of the pass there are further little passing places and lay bys for you to stop in, as well as little grassy areas for you to pull off the road. A walk up here is highly recommended if you are into your fell walking, with many books suggesting routes starting up here. The highest point of the pass is 393 metres, so you are already a fair way up some of the peaks in the region.

      For me the most exhilarating, and trickiest part of the Hardknott Pass is the descent into the Eskdale Valley. Firstly I find it easier on very steep section to be going uphill for some reason, and secondly, the hairpins are that little bit sharper, that little bit narrower and are on even steeper slopes, so it can be very unnerving at times when the actual road disappears from view beneath the left hand side of the car, and you are down to judgement at times as to when to start turning into the bend. All this is made a little bit harder if you happen to meet something, as there are less passing places, and so its skilful manoeuvring to the fore again! After the worst set of hairpin bends, there is a large lay by on the right hand side with a small plaque which is the parking place for the old Roman Hardknott Fort, which is about a 5 minute walk from the road, and is well worth a stop as one of the best lesser known attractions in the Lake District.

      I know I have painted the picture here of a road from hell, and many of you may be thinking why the whatsit should I want to go over there. Well it really isn't as bad as it sounds, and you like a challenge don't you? It is a great get away from the road rage filled motorways and town centres, as there really is a great camaraderie between drivers up there. Everyone to a car obeys the rule of giving way to cars coming up, and everyone we passed waved to us. It's simply a case of taking your time, looking and planning ahead where possible and most importantly enjoy the most amazing drive in the whole of the United Kingdom.

      So would I recommend doing the Hardknott Pass? Well simply the answer is yes. It really is stunning in every way, and if you keep in mind that you are never in any physical danger you will be fine. The road does get busier as the day goes on, especially on clear days in the summer holidays, so I would recommend going over quite early in the day so you can get the best enjoyment from my favourite road in the country.

      Thanks for reading this review, and it may also appear on Ciao under my same username.

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