Tuesday, 9 August 2011

roman holiday

You get but one chance to do something for the first time. This may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but the point I’m trying to make is that if something is exciting to do, that excitement is not as intense the second time around, because you now know what to expect. My friend Barry is a professional driver, yet until Saturday he’d never driven over any of the Lake District’s most notorious passes. He has now.

Our journey began in Penrith, on the eastern fringe of the Lake District, but the excitement started only when we reached the village of Grasmere, one-time home of William Wordsworth and a tourist magnet for that reason. The road from here to Great Langdale ascends the notorious Red Bank, and we were given some advance warning of the difficulties ahead by a road sign at the turn-off from Grasmere’s main street: ‘DO NOT USE SATNAV’, alongside an icon of a crossed-out wagon. Apparently, a few years ago, a large wagon became stuck on the steepest part of the hill for five days, unable to move either forwards or backwards. Some people have far too much faith in modern technology.

This photo is a general view of Langdale (the modifier ‘Great’ is only ever used to distinguish it from the adjacent valley of Little Langdale). The so-called Langdale Pikes (Pike O’ Stickle on the left, Harrison Stickle on the right) are probably the most recognizable mountain profiles in the entire district.

When we reached the head of the valley, there was only one way to go: over the hill into Little Langdale. This single-track road has a few twists and turns, and one or two steep bits, but I knew that the real test of driving ability still lay ahead. Barry didn’t.

Unfortunately, we reached Little Langdale just in time to see a line of cars heading for Wrynose Pass. It’s time to introduce the first rule for tackling this kind of road: if there’s traffic ahead, pull over for a few minutes to allow it to get further ahead. Most people driving on these roads are visitors who have never been on such roads before, and it’s my guess that many are terrified when they discover how difficult the driving conditions are. If there is a car immediately in front of you, it is important to anticipate that its driver may stop suddenly, particularly on one of the many steep hairpin bends, because they lack the ability to steer around the bend and maintain forward momentum at the same time. By hanging back, you gain the ability to attack the hills without fear of being impeded.

On the Little Langdale side of Wrynose Pass, a road sign warns of gradients up to 30% ahead, but this refers to the conditions on Hardknott Pass. The maximum gradient on Wrynose is probably about 22%.

This photo shows the descent from Wrynose Pass into Wrynose Bottom, which displays the classic U-shaped cross-section typical of glacial erosion. The road up and over Hardknott Pass can be seen straight ahead in the distance. Between the two passes lies Cockley Beck Farm, the most remote dwelling in the Lake District (the only other means of access is a single-track road that comes up the valley from the south and is itself not easy to find unless you know what you’re looking for).

The Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass. The white car is negotiating one of the nastiest hairpins.

On the descent from the summit of Hardknott, the road passes close to the remains of Mediobogdum, a Roman fort built between AD 120 and 138. There are no signposts on the road itself, so most people drive past without realizing that there is anything of historical interest in the area. However, there is room for about eight cars to park, and a detour to view the fort’s remains is well worth the effort:

There is a gate in the centre of each side of the fort. This is the remains of the eastern gate.

The remains of the fort's granary, looking west. The walls in the middle distance are the fort's perimeter walls.

Looking down Eskdale from the fort. This tranquil valley would not have been so picturesque in Roman times.

I cannot visit this site without contemplating what the Roman legionaries might have thought about being stationed in such a wild location, especially as, in line with standard Roman military practice, the garrison came from another part of the empire, Dalmatia in this case. The fort was abandoned towards the end of the fourth century, although the Roman road over Hardknott continued in use as a packhorse trail until the nineteenth century. The present road over the pass was constructed after the Second World War following use by the Ministry of Defence for tank training during the war.

You have been warned! This is where it all starts on the Eskdale side. Note the walls, which have been built without mortar. Such dry-stone walls are a longstanding Lake District tradition.

In the early 1970s, I was hitch-hiking north along the M6 towards Penrith when I was offered a lift with someone going to Whitehaven, on the Cumbrian coast west of Penrith. I asked him how he planned to get there, and he showed me his copy of the AA (Automobile Association) members’ handbook, which in those days was a limited atlas of Britain’s road network, with no details other than the thickness of lines as a guide to the importance of the road. There, he said, pointing to the line indicating Wrynose and Hardknott.

As any hitch-hiker knows, getting a lift is always uncertain, so when you have a chance to get all the way home with the current lift, well, I couldn’t resist. You do realize that some of that road is steeper than 1 in 3, and the bends are extremely tight, and the steepest parts are the bends, I asked. I can recommend a faster way: simply turn left at Penrith and keep going. I like to think that I did him a favour. When I worked in Eskdale around that time, I always took the long way round. Despite being more than 20 miles longer, it was considerably faster than the direct route over the passes. It’s the way we came home too.