HomeBBC NEWSTravelThe Hardknott Pass: Britain's wildest road

    The Hardknott Pass: Britain’s wildest road


    Built by the Romans, it is considered one of the most “outrageous” roads in Britain, full of sharp turns and the width of a bridleway.

    If I drove hard at a hairpin turn, I would drive straight into the fearfully rickety grade that rose up in front of me like a tidal wave. Rain poured down the middle of the rugged road like a mountain stream. I reached to change gears, realizing I was already in the first one. Just then, a rambunctious sheep slipped out in front of me, causing me to slam on the brakes.

    Technically, the Hardknott Pass in the Lake District of northwest England is the most direct route from the Central Lake District to West Cumbria, but it is so steep and difficult that outsiders are often warned to take an hour-long detour to avoid braving the winding, single-track obstacle ski up the mountain. Described by The Guardian as one of Britain’s “most heinous roads,” locals are full of stories of cars failing to brake, drivers freezing from the challenge, skidding and miscalculating, causing cars to run off the narrow carriageway.

    It begs the question: should the extraordinary 13-mile stretch between Butetown and Ambleside be closed to traffic, or should it be celebrated as a national treasure?

    Hardknott Pass has been called Britain’s “most outrageous road” (Credit: Steve Fleming/Getty Images)

    Every year, visitors head west from the elegant tea rooms of Ambleside’s tourist center, hoping for a pretty potter through England’s largest national park, the UNESCO-listed Lake District. Instead, they head straight for one of the most challenging sections of road available to British drivers. A series of steep switchbacks climb desolate mountainsides.

    Appropriately, you’ll find this “most hair-raising” road winding around the highest peak (Scafell Pike) and deepest loch (Wastwater) in the Lake District’s western mountains. Many consider Hardknott to be a danger. “We discourage guests from coming over Hardknott Pass,” says local vacation home owner Greg Poole matter-of-factly.

    Heather Butcher, a spokeswoman for the Advanced Motorists Association, said, “Based on the experience of the rider or driver, this may be a situation that should be avoided. We do not recommend putting yourself or others at risk …… You can read online reviews from a variety of sources confirming that this is a challenging road, exciting road, etc., but we advise all riders and drivers to approach such a road with caution.” Neil Graham, communications officer for Cumbria County Police, added, “People should not be looking for roads that challenge them.”

    For others, however, the daunting route is a milestone worth celebrating. A challenge to be attempted.

    The Pass twists, slaloms, dips and climbs for 13 miles through the Lake District (Credit: Westend61/Getty Images)

    Peter Frost-Pennington, owner of nearby Muncaster Castle, has driven Hardknott hundreds of times and calls it “one of the most exciting and incredible roads in the world to drive, cycle or walk. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.” While Poole may warn his vacation guests away, he chooses to take the road himself, saying, “I love to drive. It’s exciting, challenging, beautiful, sometimes scary but never boring – and you certainly don’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

    Does this infamous stretch of road actually enjoy driving? As Hardknott and its preamble, Wrynose Pass, climb up from the gently sloping Greenburn Beck Lake, the road signs warn drivers, “Narrow road. Severe curves.” But if you’ve made it this far, there’s no alternative route or turning back. You’ll be faced with a ridiculous series of hairpins, horse trails that wide, constantly disintegrating pavement and unguarded drops falling hundreds of feet down the mountainside, straight into rugged moorland, rock and gravel.

    You may also be interested in:
    • Route E69: Norway’s icy marvel of engineering
    • ‘Captain’ Gallagher: The legend of Ireland’s ‘Highwaymen’
    • The world’s lonelinest bus route

    The hardest part of Hardknott, towards the top, lasts less than a few miles, but ascends 1,037 feet. Several hairpins reach 25% of the gradient, and the final cliff is a breathtaking 33%. The “not for caravans” sign is a humorous understatement.

    These gradients are steeper than most alpine routes and exceed the famous limits of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and other major European cycling tours. A perspective. One “average” cyclist underwent six weeks of rigorous expert training to prepare him for Hardknott, and to the horror of the programmers, he still failed.

    Hardknott Pass’ sharpest sections are steeper than the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia (Credit: Steve Fleming/Getty Images)

    My first experience of Hardknott Pass was as a passenger with a super confident team from the RAF. As part of the Three Peaks Challenge, we headed to Scafell Pike, where participants attempt to climb the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales in 24 hours. Like many unsuspecting tourists, we were shocked to discover the true nature of the trail when, on a stormy morning, we hit a hairpin in the swift current. The driver struggled to cope, and the engine screamed as the wheels repeatedly lost traction.

    We made up for it in a tsunami of Special Forces vows. As we climbed to the top, the driver stayed in the car to recover. After that, he chose a longer route back.

    My second visit was to meet an older businessman in his proud new Jaguar. I had warned him about the descent, but was overruled. Of course, he said, his shiny Jag could handle the small slopes of Cumbria.

    Within seconds of reaching the edge of the pass, however, he was walking up a road he had never seen before. His wide, soft limousine was totally out of place. Red-faced and gasping for air, he leaned against the rocks to regain his breath. We were moving at several miles per hour to the base of the mountain.

    A missed gear can leave drivers rolling backwards (Credit: Ashley Cooper/Getty Images)

    Then a few years ago, I started tackling the pass issue with my own car – an unassuming 20 year old Volvo.

    Yes, sometimes I feel like I might go backwards, but if your car is 100%, the weather is nice, and you’re revving and shifting correctly, I find it’s entirely possible. (My main tip: don’t hesitate even if the road is rising like a wave in front of you. Missing a shift could send you rolling down the driveway.)

    In this age of smart freeways and self-driving cars, for driving enthusiasts like me, Hardknott represents a time warp where you have to focus on the road as if your life depended on it (which it does) and wonder if your car will make it (which it probably won’t). Unlike most roads in the UK, this short road offers a memorable driving experience every time. It’s England’s ultimate motoring mistake of the era.

    Indeed, this trail has a long and colorful history. The original route was laid out by the Romans around 110 AD and led to a dramatic stronghold at the top of the pass, known today as Hardknott’s Fort. The remaining stone walls of the fort are an English Heritage Site, offering panoramic views across the hills, and is one of the more remote Roman outposts in Britain. After the Romans left in the 5th century, the road languished as an unpaved horse and mule route until the 1880s when the local hoteliers’ association paid for improvements to the road in the hope of encouraging scenic carriage travel. A few years later, the plan was abandoned.

    The Pass leads to Hardknott Fort, a remote Roman fortress (Credit: 221A/Getty Images)

    It was not until 1913 that the first motorized vehicle was driven over the pass from the easier side of Eskdale. Later, Hardknott’s steep slopes were used to test tanks during the Second World War. Their steel rails wore the road down so much that it had to be rebuilt.

    Today, it is best to fix the road on a sunny day – but that is rare in the West Cumbrian mountains. An average day is characterized by horizontal rainfall, side winds and slippery surfaces. On a bad day, the road becomes impassable.

    However, the driver’s reward for all the steering and gear shifting is access to unspoiled mountain vistas of rare wild beauty. The magnificent views of waterfalls, sheer rock faces and sudden hills must have been the same as those seen by the Romans. Cliffs tower on either side, while strong sheep cross the road with confidence. They don’t worry about traffic. After all, cars are the outsiders here.

    Latest articles

    The royal roots of Quebec’s French

    Quebec French has long been ridiculed for its gruff sound, but this version of...

    Why Apple is ditching the physical SIM card

    The days of microsurgically removing a small SIM card from the small tray of...

    Brazil bans sales of iPhones without USB power adapters

    Brazil says it is banning the sale of iPhones without power adapters. In a statement...