A Hardknott Road Trip: Lake District Scenic Drive from Fell to Coast
The Lake District isn’t all about fell walking. One of the most scenic drives in the Lake District is also one of the most challenging days out. The twin passes of Hardknott and Wrynose offer a wild and windy ride, sweeping drivers away from the Lakeland tourist trails to the quieter, remoter Western Lake District and Cumbria’s undiscovered coast. An overnight journey from Ambleside to Eskdale and back took us from fell to coast, testing our nerve and our car, and throwing up some unexpected treats. In this feature, a sponsored post for Hyundai, we explore the highlights of one of Britain’s steepest ancient routes…
This Lake District Scenic Drive is closed?
The road is closed. Or so a sign says. We have already passed permanent signs warning of the dangers of snow and ice, as well as a gradient of 1:4. I do understand the importance of taking stock of the weather and conditions on a road often labelled as one of the most difficult and scenic drives in the Lake District. But our journey through the southern and central Lakes, along the dramatic Wrynose Pass from Little Langdale, has been problem free. I don’t feel ready to turn back as we have an exciting road trip planned in our Santa Fe 4×4, borrowed for a few days from Hyundai. Hannah, our twelve year old, and her best friend Hermione are looking forward to blasting along these old Roman roads, testing the luxurious seven seater SUV on a landscape that resembles the moon. They have planned to ride a steam railway and explore a haunted castle. They want to stay the night in two little bunk beds. And it’s spring and a school holiday – surely no time for chickening out of a tough route.
Can the hardest nut be cracked?
With a rapid ascent to an elevation of 393 metres, on a single track packed with hairpin bends, Hardknott Pass is a challenge for any driver. Even the hardy guidebook author Alfred Wainwright warned the “stiff climb” must be approached with “the utmost concentration.” There are no signs of ice today, although winter has left behind snow patches on the surrounding hills. Two cars ignore the ‘road closed’ sign and head up the pass ahead of us, quickly looking like little toy cars on a Hot Wheels track. I dither about following them. I am sure the solid Hyundai Santa Fe four wheel drive we have been lent for the journey can handle the water trickling down the road in gentle streams. It can certainly handle the gradient; it feels so much more rugged and dependable than our own car. A nonplussed sheep looks up at me from lunch, its sturdy legs holding it firm against the wind. ‘What’s your problem?’ it seems to say. To these locals, we are just more nervous tourists – the summer will soon bring them here in droves.
Permission to pass go
From nowhere a farmer appears on a quad-bike. The road is open, he cheerfully informs us; the sign was put out for the snow and no one has remembered to take it down again. He accelerates off the road and straight up the fell. The sheep stop munching and start to follow. Within seconds it’s as though the whole mountain is moving to this pied piper’s roar.
Meanwhile I start our more sophisticated diesel engine and purr up the hill, eyes peeled for oncoming traffic and passing places. With blind corners and gradients of up to one in three, I am worried about meeting another car and having to reverse back down a hair-raising slope. Although if I did have to, the Santa Fe offers some helpful features for steep old roads like this. When I select automatic braking on the way up, the handbrake kicks in and holds the car for me as I slow to a halt. The vehicle also holds me safely in its grip on the back of the hills with a clever downhill brake control system; if I take my foot off the brake or accelerator it automatically grabs and controls my descent. For a nervous driver like me, it’s like the car is holding my hand. Mind you, I’m starting to feel in need of a warm hug as the temperature drops.
Into the clouds on the ‘hard, craggy hill’
“We’re going up into the clouds now girls.” I announce, as steep becomes sheer and then sharp. The road is twisty, with hairpin bends that seem to drop away to nothing far below.
“It’s a good test of a vehicle isn’t it?” says Stuart, holding onto his seat. He means it’s a good test of a driver. Low lying cloud becomes an envelope of fog as the road evens out and we push on across desolate moorland. Hardknott wasn’t named by accident; its name in Old Norse is harthr knutr which translates into ‘hard, craggy hill.’ There is only one thing for it on a mountain pass like this in Britain in the spring; we park up, jump out of the car and gather snowballs for a fight.
A ribbon of road to the Cumbrian sea
I am significantly colder when we resume the drive. Normally this would start a row, as our preferred driving temperatures differ wildly. But in this car I can set my personal heating controls to twenty eight degrees, selecting the heated seat and the heated steering wheel facilities, while Stuart opens his window and sets the cold air facility on his seat. I am sitting in a sauna while he is happily enjoying the arctic. The kids climb forward a row, to enjoy their heated seat buttons on a choice of luxurious leather seats.
Minutes later the cloud lifts and we see a silver ribbon of road winding its way to the Cumbrian coast. We stop by a river and the girls eat chocolate and survey the beauty around us through the sun roof. It’s not just for sunny days you know.
From fog to steam
You can often spot the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway by the smoke billowing from a steam engine. But our Teddy Bear Express isn’t due in for a while so we lunch in the café at the Dalegarth terminus near Boot. We are one of the last families to take our seats for the seven mile journey across the estuary. We choose an open carriage and I hug my coat around me (no personal heating system on this vehicle sadly) and absorb the fresh air and nature. The signalman blows his whistle, the train rattles away and we smell the steam as we take the first bend.
The Ravenglass & Eskdale Steam Railway is one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways in England. It is known locally as La’al Ratty meaning “little railway“ in Cumbrian dialect. The heritage steam engines transport passengers from Ravenglass, to Dalegarth for Boot rising to 210 ft above sea level.
At one with nature
We follow rivers, streams and muddy ditches, watching as the green fields of Eskdale transform into a patchwork of copper coloured fern and grassland, studded with fir trees and holly bushes. Walls that have been gathering moss for dozens of years weave a path to nowhere, while piles of temporary hay bales and wandering cows announce the start of a farm. Tree stumps line the route like old and bent sentries while newborn coppices start to carve out their own terrain and thin tree branches point menacingly like the gnarly fairy tale fingers of an old woman. We roll past station master’s rooms and rusty, dusty tracks that look like they haven’t seen a train for quite some time. Forty minutes on, we arrive at our destination at Ravenglass. The impending coast is signalled by flocks of birds flying overhead as the waterwheel of Muncaster Mill draws into sight.
End of the day treats
Ravenglass is the only coastal village in the Lake District UNESCO World Heritage Site but to us it’s important for its refreshment opportunities. After a quick return journey to pick up the car, we head down to a beach where a catamaran bobs lonely in the water. Hannah and Hermione dance on the waterside and we have dinner in the pub before driving on to our night’s accommodation at Muncaster Castle.
Muncaster, the family castle
You don’t spot Muncaster castle until you are almost upon it, which is probably what its ancient owners intended. On a good day Muncaster Castle has views as far as the Isle of Mann and its enchanting gardens stretch for 77 acres. Overlooking the Esk Estuary, it is run as a not for profit organisation by the Pennington family whose ancestors have continuously lived in it since 1208. The family have stamped their personality on the attraction and are very present during our stay. They welcome us into our warm and modern accommodation, check our tickets for the flying shows and serve us ice cream in the shop. They tell their story with a quirky and humorous touch on the audio guide to the castle, and you get an amusing insight into which ancestors they are least fond of and which ghosts they most fear bumping into on Halloween.
The Fool that goes bump in the night
The house itself is a mixture of charming family home and rambling castellated Cumbrian relic. It doesn’t shy from its horrible history with stories of people beheaded in bedrooms, children crying in the night and a fool that makes his presence felt. There are draughty corridors, a legend surrounding a Venetian bowl and a King, and portraits that scowl and smile down from ancient walls. There’s an enticing octagonal library with more than 6000 books, and a hall that looks great for a dinner party.
Outside, the sun shines on the yellow flowers of spring and the delights of well tended gardens. If you are staying in the house you get free access to the grounds and standing on the terrace a couple of hours after dawn has broken, looking across this vast, empty countryside, I feel more than alive. Hannah and Hermione run wild and free; we can hardly keep up with them around the maze and in the gardens where rhododendrons make the land blush with colour. Iona Frost Pennington’s great-grandfather Sir John Ramsden, was responsible for what was believed to be the largest collection of species rhododendrons in Europe. The acidity of the soil, the proximity of the Gulf Stream and the steep-sided valleys of the landscape all provide the perfect conditions for the tumbling displays of pink from March onwards.
Meeting the extended family
In the warm sunshine we meet some of the other inhabitants of the castle; eagles and owls who make us duck as they soar inches above our heads. We hear how the tawny owls adapt their colour to match the silver birch of surrounding woodland and we are invited to seek them out.
“If you see a path today explore it. You never know what you will find,” says Anna, the owl handler. We watch the eyelids of the milky eagle owl blush pink with excitement of a good meal as she swoops above us and we watch the long eared owl fly like a butterfly, his camouflage feather tufts making him look like a broken branch when he lands. And we reappraise our views of vultures as one of nature’s most efficient clean up crew is put through its paces.
Back on the road to infinity
We leave before the heron feed as we have to renegotiate Hardknot and Wrynose. It’s a sunnier day so there’s more traffic around, but nothing like the tourist throng of the central Lakes. We set the satnav and cruise control and settle in for the ride. As we retrace the path of the little train, the blind spot detection sensors in the wing mirrors of the Santa Fe warn us not to pull out into the path of cars that are in much more of a hurry to get home. The advanced smart cruise control applies the brakes if we get close to another vehicle in front. I will feel reluctant to give up these kind of luxuries at the end of the week.
Flying like a kite
On Hardknott, the world spreads out to infinity and beyond on a silver ribbon of road. We buzz easily along like one of the kites at Muncaster. The cyclists out training for the Fred Whitton Challenge in May seem even more at ease as they glide upwards, but I suspect their muscles are screaming.
From fell to sea in two difficult passes
At the top of the ascent, we park up using an array of dashboard cameras to help us, and survey everything we have done and everything we have yet to do. Our white car glints in the sun, now feeling like a faithful companion. From fell to sea; the Lake District has never seemed so impressive, so atmospheric and so remote. This road less travelled really should be travelled more. But don’t tell anyone I told you. I quite like having it to myself.
Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway
Trains run regularly on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. You can get on at either end and do a single or return journey. You can buy tickets online in advance or at the stations on the day. At time of writing an adult return is £12.70, Child (5-15) return is £6.35, Child under 5 are free. A family (2+2) return costs £36.00.
There are seven request stops if you’d like to make a day of it. Look out for special offers; on the day of our visit children travelled free if they had a teddy bear in their possession.
A general entrance ticket for the castle, gardens and hawk and owl centre is cheapest if booked online in advance and then costs £12.33 per adult with children priced at £6.21. Kids under five are free. You can buy dual attraction tickets for the castle and the railway.
The castle is closed most Saturdays.
You can stay in the Coachmans Quarters at Muncaster Castle, in the old stable block. There are ten bedrooms with family rooms from £110 per night (for 2 adults and 2 children sharing).
Bird of prey flying displays happen twice daily in the main season, and once daily in low season. The World of Owls is at 11.30am in the Old Rose Garden arena, in the Hawk & Owl Centre. The Sky Hunters bird of prey display takes place at 2pm daily on the Meadow at the foot of the Castle front lawn during peak season and 1.30pm in low season (mid-Feb to Easter and end-October to Dec 23rd). The wild heron feed takes place all year on the Cannon Bank, introducing visitors to centuries of heronry on the estate. (4pm in peak season and at 3pm in the winter months.)
The displays are included in the price of the Gardens ticket. The Hawk & Owl Centre is run in association with the Hawk Conservancy Trust.
More Ideas for Great UK Ancient Route Road Trips
Want more ideas for great UK road trips?
Check out Gretta Schifano’s pilgrim post on her road trip of How to Explore the Pilgrims’ Way by car
Take a look at Ting Dalton’s post on a four day exploration of Dorset and the Jurassic Coast
Have a read of Nichola West’s post about Exploring the Great Stones Way
And finally follow Cathy Winston’s road trip through East Anglian history
For another of Cumbria’s best kept secrets check out my post on 20 things to do in Kirkby Lonsdale
Disclosure Note: Hyundai provided a car for us to test drive and compensated us for writing this post. The route was our own choice and we chose and paid for the accommodation, attractions and refreshments mentioned. All driving, riding railways with teddies, and ducking to avoid an owl crash was our own, along with the opinions and photography in this post.