windermere panoramic
Hardknott Pass Hardknott Pass
Eskdale
Cumbria CA19
 
 
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There are two ways to reach beautiful Eskdale from the Central Lake District.  The easy but longer route is along the valleys south-west of Windermere via Newby Bridge and Broughton on Furness on the A595.  Or you could be adventurous and go via Ambleside Town, Langdale Valley and tackle the mountain passes of Wrynose and Hardknott.
 
This latter route goes over the highest passes in England and should not be attempted unless you are a confident and careful driver.  Both passes are crossed by narrow, single track unfenced roads with 1 in 3 (33%) gradients and tight hairpin bends.
 
Romans built first road here in 2nd Century AD
The Romans were the first to build a road through this spectacular and thrilling scenery in the 2nd century AD.  The road linked Ravenglass Village to Waterhead on the northern tip of Windermere (now part of Amleside) and was guarded by the magnificently sited Hardknott Roman Fort.  Traces of the Roman road remain - it is now a footpath running just to the north of the road through the Duddon Valley between the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes.
 
For centuries the old track was a packhorse route but in the Second World War tanks used the area as a training ground, destroying much of the visible Roman road.  After the war the track received a tarmac surface making it suitable for modern vehicles although motorists are warned not to travel it in snowy and icy conditions.
 
Route from Ambleside across Wrynose Pass
Start by taking the A593 out of Amblewside heading towards Coniston.  Turn left for Skelwith Bridge.  One mile after the bridge, turn right down a small road to Little Langdale.  After passing through Little Langdale take the first left and follow the road towards Wrynose Pass.
 
Detailed instructions for an alternative scenic route through Great Langdale can be found on the following excellent website: Rural Roads - Wrynose and Hardknott passes
 
The road starts to climb up the side of Wrynose Fell, leaving Little Langdale valley behind.  Signs at the bottom warn drivers of what is to come.  At first, the road is fairly straight but steep, then the hairpin bends start but there are plenty of spots to pull off the road and admire the views.
 
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Three Shire Stone marker at 1281 feet
Wrynose reaches an altitude of 1281 feet (393m) before descending into Duddon Valley or Wrynose Bottom as it is also known.  The top of the pass is marked by the Three Shires Stone – a vertical stone marking the spot where the old shires of Lancashire, Westmoreland and Cumberland met.
 
The descent is by a constant series of hairpin bends with fantastic views at each turn - the valley opening up before you with Hardknott Pass in the distance.   The road is so steep that sometimes you lose sight of where it is going and what might be on the road ahead.  Driving requires caution because you might suddenly come upon another vehicle coming in the opposite direction or a mountain sheep dozing in the middle of the road!
 
Old Roman Road at the bottom beside River Duddon
At the bottom there is a pleasant respite as the road meanders along beside the River Duddon.  The footpath running parallel with the road is what is left of the old Roman road.
 
After a mile or so of travelling beside the river you reach Cockley Beck T-junction.  You can either keep following the river south-west to Duddon Bridge and the A595, or cross the little stone arched Cockley Bridge onto the Hardknott Pass road.
 
Hardknott Pass to Eskdale
Another set of warning signs advise the motorist of the dangers of driving in wintry conditions.  The hairpin bends start immediately as you climb up what is effectively the steepest road in Britain.
 
You need to keep your wits about you because mountain sheep wander all over the open grassland and on to the road, oblivious to any traffic grinding up the pass.
 
Another hazard is descending traffic thinking there is room for two vehicles to squeeze past.  The rule of the road is give way to ascending traffic.   There is no need to hurry and frequent stops give the driver time to enjoy the stunning views as the narrow road twists and turns up the steep gradients.
 
Hardknott Pass altitude 1291 feet with glimpse of Roman Fort below
Hardknott reaches an altitude of 1291 feet (just ten feet more than Wrynose).  Just over the summit you get your first glimpse of Eskdale and the Roman fort below you.
 
The descent down into Eskdale is more of the same – the road zig-zagging down the steep gradients, the route visible only by the presence of a car parked on the verge.  About halfway down on the right is a parking lay-by for Hardknott Roman Fort.    A must see stop.
 
Now, for an even more spectacular view, take a short walk up the grassy slope on the right.  After a few minutes, the road disappears and, as you gain the crest of the slope, a new panorama opens up before you.
 
Hairpin Bends
Looking back up towards the top of the pass, you can see the road wending its way round the hairpin bends.  You get a true sense of the Pass as you see the surrounding hills dipping down to the top of the gap, creating the saddle through which the road travels.
 
Turning to the north, you get a view of England's highest peaks which you miss if you stay on the road.  It is well worth the extra 5 minutes walk up the slope. The view of the peaks improves as you approach the top of the steep sided Valley of Eskdale.
 
Try and spend a bit of time exploring and you will be able to see the peaks of Scafell Pike, Scafell, Great Gable, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags.
 
Back on the road the route becomes straighter and wider as it approaches the lush green landscape of Eskdale.  We are back to the rushing streams, old stone bridges and Heritage listed farms.  At the western end of the valley are the Dalegarth terminus of the narrow gauge Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway and the delightful little hamlet of Boot Village.
 
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Mountain Goat Tours
If you would like to experience this fabulous trip but don’t feel confident of tackling the difficult roads, take the Hardknott Pass Day Trip offered by local company, Mountain Goat Tours.  Small group days out at a very reasonable price are their speciality.  You travel in a minibus driven by a local guide.  The writer has personally experienced these tours and can highly recommend them.   Just sit back and enjoy the scenery - Web:  Mountain Goat Tours
 
Google Map - Hardknott Pass