Sharp curves lead to a terribly steep slope. The crumbling asphalt seems to rise like a tidal wave in front of you.
A stream of rainwater falls down the middle of the road like a mountain stream.
The last time I tackled the road, I reached the steepest section, I crouched down to change gears but discovered that I was already in first place. That’s when an indifferent sheep walked in front of me.
On a rainy day it seems incredible that Hardknott Pass, in England’s Lake District, is officially classed as a normal public road. It’s so steep and difficult that drivers are often warned to take huge detours that can double the distance and add an hour to the trip.
Now some are asking drivers to avoid the road altogether.
The forks on the east face of Hardknott Pass, a road that can take drivers by surprise
The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) advises road users: ‘It has steep gradients and is a single track road so, depending on the cyclist or driver’s experience, it could be a road to avoid . We do not recommend putting yourself in danger.’
IAM spokesperson Heather Butcher says: “You can read reviews online from various sources confirming that it is a challenging, exciting road, etc., but we advise all cyclists and drivers to approach roads like this with caution.” .
Even Cumbria Police say “people should not look to challenge themselves.”
“We discourage guests from coming to Hardknott Pass,” says Greg Poole, local owner of several holiday homes, and even Gill Haigh, CEO of Cumbria Tourism, warns: “We advise anyone to check the weather before setting off, as well as taking into account the time of year, as the high points can be treacherous.’
A recent Tripadvisor reviewer who innocently drove up to the pass with his family reported that he “thought we were all going to die.” Her ten-year-old son asked for her inhaler because of a panic attack. “Do yourself a favor and walk,” she wrote.
The west face of Hardknott Pass, which has gradients of up to 33 percent. The Institute of Advanced Motorists advises road users: ‘It has steep gradients and is a single track road so, depending on the cyclist or driver’s experience, it could be a road to avoid. We do not recommend putting yourself in danger’
At the same time as all these concerns, the infamous route has become something of a landmark. Some consider it to be a rare example of an old-school road that should be celebrated.
Hardknott is a short stretch in very hilly terrain just behind England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike, and our deepest lake, Wastwater.
The colorful owner of nearby Muncaster Castle, Peter Frost-Pennington, drives through Hardknott regularly and calls it “one of the most exciting and incredible roads to drive, cycle or walk in the entire world”, adding: “It should be on everyone’s wish list. .’
And Greg Poole, owner of a Lakes holiday home, may warn his guests to take a different route, but chooses to take himself to Hardknott. “I love driving,” he says. “He is exciting, challenging, beautiful, sometimes terrifying but never boring; you certainly won’t fall asleep at the wheel.”
This stunning image shows the view west from Hardknott Pass towards the village of Eskdale.
The problem for Hardknott is that naïve tourists depart from the refined atmosphere of Ambleside’s tea rooms for a nice drive west. They often head straight for Hardknott, one of the most challenging stretches of road in Europe, with a sequence of every third hairpin bend.
What is it really like to drive Hardknott Pass?
The road approaching Hardknott initially climbs gently from a small lake. Signs warn drivers: ‘Narrow road. Severe curves.’ By then it will be too late. There is no alternative route.
The road soon becomes a sequence of ridiculous curves the width of a bridle path, with a constantly disintegrating surface and unguarded drop-offs of hundreds of feet.
Hardknott’s most difficult section is less than a couple of miles, but rises 1,037 feet (316 m) with a 25 percent grade. The terrifying final section is an impressive 33 percent. The “not suitable for caravans” sign next to it seems like a humorous euphemism.
These slopes are steeper than most Alpine passes and surpass the famous mountain stages of the Tour de France cycle race.
Some elite cyclists manage to climb the pass. Mailonline travel editor Ted Thornhill bravely attempted to get on two wheels last summer and told how he was forced to get off and push his bike at several points.
Wild Road: A recent Tripadvisor reviewer who innocently drove to the pass with his family reported that he “thought we were all going to die.”
A 2019 Eurosport documentary followed a rider through a strict six-week training regime to prepare to take on Hardknott. In the end, probably to the horror of the show’s creators, he still didn’t make the pass.
My own experience at Hardknott was as a passenger in a car in super-safe military gear headed to climb Scafell Pike. Unaware of the dangers of the pass, we reached the hairpin bends amid torrential rain in the early hours of the morning. The officer driving struggled as the wheels spun repeatedly and the engine screeched.
Amid a tsunami of special forces profanity we made it up, but the driver stayed in the car to collect himself while we climbed the top and then took the long way back.
My second visit was on the way down: with a businessman in his new Jaguar. He had warned him about the Hardknott descent, but he thought his shiny Jaguar would easily tackle a small Cumbrian incline.
Mailonline travel editor Ted Thornhill (above) bravely attempted to get around on two wheels last summer.
However, within seconds of reaching the edge of the pass, he discovered a style of road he had never encountered before. His spacious luxury limousine was completely inappropriate.
He stopped at the rocky edge to catch his breath. Red-faced and silent, she advanced to the foot of the hill at a speed of a figure of kilometers per hour.
Finally, I set out to take on Hardknott both down and up in my own car.
Yes, sometimes it feels like you’re going to fall backwards, but if your car is at 100 percent, the weather is good, and you rev and shift well, it’s all pretty fun.
For drivers in this era of health and safety, smart highways and autonomous vehicles, Hardknott seems like a throwback to a time when you had to concentrate as if your life depended on it (it does).
The reward for all that frenetic gear-shifting is access to a wildly beautiful mountain landscape. The waterfalls, steep rock faces and views must be the same as those of the Romans who first built the road.
Cliffs rise into the clouds on either side of Hardknott as hardy mountain sheep wander confidently along the road. They don’t care about “traffic.” It must seem to them that cars are the outsiders.
Devon Moods: Devon Inspired Landscape Photography, with images by Gary Holpin and words by Simon Heptinstall, is out now and available through Amazonpriced at £15.99.
Devon Moods: Devon Inspired Landscape Photography, with images by Gary Holpin and words by Simon Heptinstall, is out now and available through Amazonprice £15.99