Following my climb up Skiddaw on the first day of my holiday, I fancied something a little bit more sedate, though at times no less hair-raising.
After visiting Castlerigg Stonecircle and in keeping with my both laid back approach and fiercely testing idea of approaching my first days off in the year, I decided that I would visit the little-known and no doubt less visited Roman fortress at Hardknott.
Having made a career of visiting to sometimes less than well-trodden path to Britain’s historical monuments, Hardknott certainly is near the top of the most remote sights, despite there being a road that passes by its entrance. The reason being is that the road to get there is the notorious Hardknott Pass which is preceded by in my opinion the even more incredible Wrynose Pass.
It isn’t the difficulty of the driving that deterred me but rather other drivers who in fact I find, generally don’t know how to drive and can make a difficult situation much more dangerous. This opinion was actually verified in my mind by an event l came across later on.
To get there, I passed down the wonderful A591 with the towering Helvellyn over on one side and the beautiful Thirlmere lake on the other and then onwards to the picturesque village of Grasmere before dodging hundreds of ramblers amongst some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere.
The steep inclines and single track roads were both enjoyable and interesting to drive on, and it was nice that in the whole 4 hours, I only came across 4 other motor vehicles and 2 of those were parked up. It was also fortunate at the dry-stone walls would make passing a vehicle seriously testing with one website I’ve seen stating that in places one vehicle might be required to reverse for several kilometres to find a passing place.
Though it is hard to visually tell when exactly the pass starts, technically, it is marked by a rather foreboding warning sign. I thought that as I hadn’t seen anyone so far then it couldn’t be too bad but then taking the road of no return, typically, just 20 seconds onwards I met an oncoming van in one of the narrowest and stretches of the road. With reversing almost impossible, the van driver sportingly drove up on to a sloping rock face and was more or less happy to have his van lean over precariously whilst I folded in my wing mirrors and edged slowly by well aware that his vehicle might at any moment topple over which would be bad for the van driver but likely worse for me as the top of his van was well over the top of my car.
After the initial scare, I made my way onwards. The scenery was tremendously rugged and increasingly wild and remote. Beautiful open vistas with large boulders strewn over the treeless mountains; at places the road was bordered by deep drops on one side and either rock faces or a river on the other. To make things more interesting, there were an increasing number of hair pin bends and as the road inclined at 33%, it was generally impossible to see where you were going or indeed where the road was heading. So there was lots of 1st gear wheel spins, cautious braking and a whole lot of slightly nervous fun.
Though I have never been to the infinitely higher and more dangerous Himalayas, the whole thing did rather remind me of those narrow mountain roads where one wrong move and that would be it, and I am sure if Jeremy Clarkson ever drove here then he must have loved it.
Periodically I would stop to take photos, videos and just enjoy the splendid isolation. After passing through the splendidly Norse named Wrynose Pass, the road goes along a long plateau with yet more fantastic scenery. After a few miles, my satnav decided to tell me that the Roman fortress was absolutely in the middle of nowhere.. physically impossible as it was where there was no land. I ignored it as I normally do and carried on past one of the most remote and windswept farmhouses imaginable and up to Hardknott Pass itself.
There were no cars, people and at last even the hardy mountain sheep vanished. Going up Hardknott from the east, was quite thrilling and I think in some ways easier as going upwards, the slope of the mountain and the road meant it was just a battle to get up, and the drops on the side didn’t really come to my attention. At the top, I got out of the car and congratulated myself on a job-well-done after seeing where I had driven. Then I looked ahead and realised I now had to drive down something very similar going down though this time the road very much seemed to be on a sharper drop with even more unsighted hairpin bends. I double checked that no cars were in sight… there was nothing until the horizon in the valley far below, and so I set off.
I decided to always stick to the inside half of the single track rather than risk the drop. It wasn’t really difficult at all, just interesting, though I did see the remains of several car parts left from various crashes and impacts. I shouldn’t joke too much as someone died on the road just a week before my trip.
Finally, I had reached Hardknott Fort. I can’t say it was obvious where it was. I had a suspicion where it might be from the view from the top but several close-shaves with death later and I had slightly lost my bearings. Then I saw something incredible, a person, real and alive and on two feet.
I stopped the car on the edge of the road which was technically the middle of the road too with it being incredibly narrow. “I don’t suppose you know where Hardknott Fort is?”, I asked the young walker. “You mean this?” he replied as he stepped away from a small information sign.
No part of Hardknott Fort is taller than a person but is quite a vast site and rather complex too with the remains of many rooms, buildings, and walls. The fort is incredibly rugged and picturesque and is both overshadowed but somehow at home amongst the surrounding peaks.
On one side you can look down into the green and fertile valley, a reminder of why the Romans came here at all, to secure the only semi-direct pass from Ravenglass fort and baths on the coast to their forts inland at Kendal.
The ground was both incredibly rocky and boggy at the same time and what was once an outpost of the Roman Empire is now being used by sheep, desperately trying to find nutrition on the thin grass and hiding from the wind, rain and snow behind the various walls.
I couldn’t help feel sorry for any Roman posted here, especially as Roman soldiers to the north of England tended to come from hot climates such as Iraq. They must have wondered what on earth they were doing here.
Despite everything, the Romans did have a bath house, though I suspect nothing like the famous Roman baths in Bath. There were stores, sleeping quarters, central squares, gateways through the outer wall, everything you expect from a Roman site but this one just happened to be here.
I noticed an elderly man had entered the ruins; he was having difficulty in finding a way in without getting his feet wet, so I came over and gave him a hand. He told me how exciting his drive was here, a little too exciting for his wife who apparently did not want to leave the car under any circumstances and was recuperating with a cup of tea.
I could have stayed for much longer even though I had all ready stayed there for quite a stretch of the afternoon. Just by chance I looked up the pass at the windy road and saw a car coming down it rather slowly. Despite the lack of speed, I heard a lengthy screech of brakes and a few seconds later a loud crash. The car hadn’t come off the edge but had either hit a large boulder on a bend or gone into the inside face. This rather made my mind up that I would go home the long way round.
The road down to the valley remained narrow and at first a little testing but soon I was back in the green, and I soon came across a lovely old pub where I decided I need a little reward before I drove home.