Hardknott Pass - Driving Adventures on a Roman Road

by nickupton

Hardknott Pass in the Lake District national park, England, is one of the most spectacular roads I have ever traveled. Here I recount some of the journeys I have made up the pass.

Hardknott Pass is a very narrow road which consists mainly of hairpin bends as it makes its way over the mountains. For most of its duration the gradient is 1 in 3 and it is unfenced so one can expect a few sheep to either be in the road or cross it at some point in the journey along it. These facts plus its narrowness and a number of rocks that protrude into the road make Hardknott Pass quite a challenging drive; in fact in poor weather conditions it can be quite dangerous and damaging to your vehicle.

However, driving Hardknott Pass can be quite exciting and the scenery is very spectacular.

Hardknott Pass by Nick Upton
Hardknott Pass by Nick Upton

Hardknott Pass 1: A Walk With Dad

When I was a child cars had nowhere near the power that they do these days, put that together with old fashioned suspension, gear boxes, transmissions, cooling systems etc. and the result is that many cars really struggled to ascend Hardknott Pass at that time. My mother was terrified of traveling this road when I was a child and had banned my father from taking our family up it in the old bangers he drove us around in at the time. 

As a result, when I was about 7 years old, my father took me for a walk up Hardknott Pass to watch the cars breaking down and to see the Roman Fort.

One sunny morning my father drove me to the foot of the Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass where he parked the car in the small car park provided and we proceeded to walk uphill alongside the road. The scenery as one heads up here is quite spectacular and even as an adult it makes one feel small, so when I was a kid it felt like being in some sort of dreamland.

It was a pretty hot day so we worked up a bit of a sweat but that was nothing to what the weather was doing to many of the cars that people were attempting to drive over the pass.

The first broken down car we saw had a miserable looking man standing next to it. His misery was no doubt provoked by the fact that there was a cloud of steam or smoke blasting out of the engine of his car. The man replied that the engine had overheated when my father asked him what the problem was and he pointed out that he wasn't the only one. Looking up the zig zagging road we could see several more cars stopped with obvious overheating problems.

As a young child this proliferation of clapped out cars was exciting - it increased the wonder of this legendary road that we only dared walk up and was haunted by Romans (I had decided that there must be Roman ghosts at the fort I had been told about) - but no doubt the drivers and passengers of these cars did not share my enthusiasm for malfunctioning radiators.

The rest of our walk up to the Roman Fort was spent watching the passing vehicles and wondering if they would make it to the top. Some did and some did not.

The highlight was, though, an old bus, lying upside down at the bottom of a steep gulley. This was the final proof I needed that attempting to drive up Hardknott Pass was something akin to a death sentence. The combination of the steepness, hair pin bends, loose gravel, precipitous drops, narrowness and out-of-control sheep was certainly only something that fools would consider.

Finally at the Roman Fort we looked around the old walls and admired the amazing views; to me it seemed as though I was flying above the valley. A little disappointed not to meet a legion of Romans parading around the fort, at least the name, Mediobogdum, was designed to thrill 7 year old boys and give them visions of Romans battling against local tribes and mythical creatures. 

Eventually we had to go back to the car but I knew that I would be back. I didn't realize, though, that I would be in one of those overheated vehicles.

Hardknott Roman Fort

Hardknott Roman Fort from Harter Fell Summit by Nick UptonPart the way up the Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass is an old Roman settlement. It is usually referred to ask Hardknott Fort but that is probably because most people cannot deal with its Roman name: Mediobogdum.

The fort is situated on a quite breathtaking site, sitting a little below the summit of the pass with magnificent views along Eskdale. 

As can be seen in this photo that I took of Mediobogdum, from the summit of Harter Fell, the fort is a ruin but all the rooms and walls of the encampment can quite clearly be seen and English Heritage signs let visitors know where the armory, baths, toilets etc were situated.

The fort was apparently established in the early 2nd century AD, under the rule of the Emperor Hadrian, but abandoned in the 3rd century. So, what did these Romans ever do for us? Well, they left us a really detailed ruin at a fantastic location.

Hardknott Roman Fort, Cumbria, England, United Kingdom
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Hard Knott Fort, Eskdale, Lake District National Park, Cumbria, England, United Kingdom
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Learn More About Hardknott Roman Fort

History & Research: Hardknott Roman Fort
Hitorical details of Hardknott Fort from English Heritage; photos and research.

English Lakes: Hardknott Roman Fort
Details of the buildings of the fort and photographs of the site's surroundings.

Hardknott Pass 2: Hire Car Havoc

In 1993 my friend Rab and I decided to take a road trip around UK, taking in the Lake District as a central part of our tour. I told Rab about Hardknott Pass and what a challenging drive it was and being a driving enthusiast he was keen to try it.

As we drove up the small lane that goes along Eskdale I warned Rab again of the dreadful driving conditions of Hardknott Pass but he seemed to relish the challenge and we both got excited at heading up this spectacular pass.

Reaching the bottom of the pass we checked for traffic coming down and there was none, so Rab put his foot down to get some speed up the ridiculously steep hill so that we had some momentum to get us over the stretches where traction was going to be an issue.

The first few corners were fun, with Rab wrestling the steering wheel as we flew around them, both of us cheering as we rounded each one; sheep staring at us as we raced along, threatening to rip off their wool with our speed, whilst narrowly missing rocks protruding into the narrow road. The drop into a stream bed on our right didn't bother us at this point and a bit of wheel spin on one corner with a loose surface was a little alarming but added to the adventure.

However, suddenly the car was not behaving as it should and was REALLY struggling for traction on the hairpin bends which were on 1 in 3 gradients and had loose gravel on them, so much so that Rab had to reverse back a little and have a second go at one. Hurrah! We got past that one.

The next corner was different story though.

We ended up with the same problem, wheelspin, but this time with the added amusement of sideways sliding - towards a steep drop into a gulley! Thankfully Rab stopped and we were stuck there. A little reversing and a second try resulted in the same mess; this was not fun any more! Our previous grinning and whooping faces had now turned into worried looks and a catalogue of swearing.

Not only were we struggling for any grip but the clutch on our dreadfully abused hire vehicle was slipping and burning. I urged Rab to go back to somewhere a little flatter and less loose but steam coming out of the engine made us realize that we were not going anywhere else, certainly not uphill. We found ourselves obliged to park the car as best as possible and expose ourselves to the amusement of other drivers managing to negotiate the road successfully.

Rab & Overheating Hire Vehicle by Nick Upton
Rab & Overheating Hire Vehicle by Nic...

After some cooling time the car seemed okay and the only way forward was back. Hardknott Pass is only just wide enough for two cars to pass so the thought of doing a three-point turn on a 1 in 3 gradient with a long drop on one side was not much of a laugh. Rab did the honors while I let him know how close to plummeting to a fiery death he was. In the end a 53-point turn was negotiated and we headed back down to Eskdale with our tails between our legs.

Hardknott Pass 1 : Hire Vehicle & Two Fools 0

Rab tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack in August 2008. Writing this story and looking at this photo bring back a lot of happy memories of him.

Have You Driven Up Hardknott Pass?

Hardknott Pass & Roman Fort
Hardknott Pass & Roman Fort

Hardknott Pass 3: Chauffeur To My Wife

In August 2007 I decided to take my wife on a camping trip to the Lake District. We stayed in campsites in Eskdale and Langdale and when I suggested a drive over Hardknott Pass she was very keen.

As we approached Hardknott Pass after having already slipped and slided all the way up Wrynose Pass I was a bit apprehensive about the drive over the mountain. The wet weather had turned the surface of the narrow road into a stream bed and my old Citroen did not really seem to have the power to deal with the steepness of the road without having to resort to first gear and possible engine overheating trouble. However, my wife is from Thailand, which means that idiotic driving is in her blood and she egged me on to go over the pass; quite frankly it was drive over Hardknott or a very very long detour.

I sped up as much as was safe to get some momentum for the first steep stretch and managed to keep the car going in second gear for the first few bends; the steepness meaning that I had to lean forward a lot to see ahead, around the bends. However, a sheep, stupidly, stood in the road apparently determined to make progressing uphill as difficult as it could and I had to hit the brakes and shift down into first gear. The screeching of the spinning wheels scared it off when suddenly we got some grip and shot forward. 

Not wanting to end up wheelspinning and having to reverse down the hill I kept the speed up and the rest of the drive consisted of frantic gear changes, as if I was stirring a pudding, wrestling with the steering wheel as I whipped the car round the bends and blasting of the horn to scare off the sheep. All this was done to the tune of my wife cheering ever corner, slip and gear change.

When we got to the summit of the pass I stopped in order to take a rest. The drive had required a lot of concentration and many times it had felt like I like car was slipping out of control, but keeping the vehicle in second gear as much as I could had prevented the engine from straining too much and we had not overheated. We had, however, proved that driving over Hardknott Padd in the rain, in an old car with old tyres is not such a good idea.

On the other hand, the journey had been quite exciting and on my wife's request we drove over Hardknott Pass another three times in the next few days - all in drier weather though.

Visit The Lake District

Lonely Planet Lake District (Regional Guide)
$7.46  $3.48


If you are visiting Hardknott Pass or any other part of the Lake District national park this guide to the area is really useful. With information on all of the Lake District's top attractions and most picturesque villages as well as driving tours and walking.

An extremely useful guidebook when planning a trip to England's most spectacular national park.

My Long Walk In Eskdale

The Lake District in Cumbria, UK, is a fantastic place for long walks in wild areas. Here is an account of a ridiculously long walk I went on, starting in Eskdale, in July 2007.
Updated: 10/08/2017, nickupton
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Please Leave Comments About My Stories Or Your Own Experiences On Hardknott Pass

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blackspanielgallery on 07/24/2015

This looks like a beautiful place to visit.

jptanabe on 04/16/2015

Great stories and beautiful scenery! Reminds me of the hairpin bends on the old road to Aviemore in the Cairngorms that we drove often when I was a child. That one was really treacherous in the winter!

whitemoss on 10/17/2014

We got stuck in a traffic jam there once when someone panicked and couldn't move. Some off duty policemen drove the frightened person's car and sorted us all out !

sheilamarie on 04/30/2012

I love your stories of driving over the pass, and the countryside is breath taking. I wonder how you'd manage our British Columbia passes. Certainly not in a Citroen!

katiem2 on 04/30/2012

Sounds like the sort of twisting turning adventures you see in major films. Love the pictures and well written thrills of the hardknott pass.

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