Hardknott Pass is a hill pass that carries a minor road between Eskdale and the Duddon Valley in the Lake District National Park, Cumbria, England. It is the most direct route from the central Lake District to much of West Cumbria; however the road approaching the pass shares the title of steepest road in England with Rosedale Chimney Bank in North Yorkshire: both have a maximum gradient of about 1 in 3 (about 33%).
The pass is a single track road in its entirety. It runs from Eskdale in the west to the edge of the neighbouring Wrynose Pass in the east. As the pass leaves Eskdale it passes ruins of Roman walls and the remains of the Hardknott Roman Fort at a height of around 200 metres (660 ft), and there are a few parking places for drivers. At the top of the pass the road goes between the fells of Hard Knott (probably from the Old Norse harthr, "hard", and knutr, "craggy hill") and Harter Fell; once again there are a few parking places which are usually used by fell walkers who wish to start their walk at a height of 400 metres (1,310 ft) or by tourists who want to admire the views, which on a clear day include the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.
The road reaches a height of 1,281 feet (390 m) at the top of the Hardknott Pass before descending steeply at a gradient of 30% (1 in 3) to the Duddon Valley. Cockley Beck farmhouse, built in the 1860s and currently owned by the National Trust, is at the eastern end of the pass, following which the continuing route is the Wrynose Pass, which also ascends to 1281 ft on its way to Ambleside.
The road was originally built by Romans around AD 110 to link the coastal fort and baths at Ravenglass with their garrisons at Ambleside and Kendal. The Romans called this road the Tenth Highway. The road fell into disrepair after the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century, although it remained as an unpaved packhorse route thereafter. The road was originally used entirely for military traffic, but following the Romans' retreat from Britain was used to transport lead and agricultural goods. By the early Middle Ages, the road was known as the Waingate ("cart road") or Wainscarth ("cart pass"): there is an 1138 record of a party of monks traversing it in an oxcart.
In the 1880s an association of hoteliers, the English Lake District Association, financed improvements to the road in the hope of encouraging tourist excursions by carriage; by 1891 the scheme was judged to be "not the success that was anticipated". Nevertheless the route had some popularity with cyclists and early motorists, with the Cyclists' Touring Club 1911 Guide to North-West England describing the old coach road as "difficult going West, cruel coming East". The first motor vehicles were taken over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, from the Eskdale side, in 1913. In 1936, the Cumbria Highways Committee considered, and rejected, a proposal to make the pass more accessible to motors by laying down a new road surface and making other improvements.
The War Office used the area for tank training during the Second World War and this completely destroyed the existing road surface. After the war it was decided to repair the damage and rebuild the road with a tarmac surface to give a direct motor route between Ambleside and Eskdale for the first time. However, the Roman route and the modern road do not generally coincide, the Roman route lying generally to the north of the modern road west of the summit, and to the south on the other side.
The pass has been described as one of the most challenging in Britain. Harry Berger, landlord of the nearby Woolpack Inn in Eskdale, has said "it doesn't matter how many circles you put on a map, you don't realise how steep it is." Drivers of heavier vehicles are advised not to use the pass.
The pass has a series of hairpin bends which make visibility difficult: the road ahead is difficult to see in places on the descent. Drivers are expected to give way to oncoming traffic that is ascending the pass, as advised by the Highway Code. The pass can be closed for long periods in winter, as ice makes the bends treacherous.
In popular culture
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- Brown 2010, p. 290.
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- Corfield 2010, pp. 13,15.
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- Brown, Jules (2010). The Rough Guide to the Lake District. Rough Guides UK. ISBN 978-1-848-36698-5.
- Corfield, David (2010). Roads with a View: England's Greatest Views and How to Find Them by Road. Veloce Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-845-84350-2.
- Kirkup, Rob (2011). Ghostly Cumbria. The History Press. ISBN 978-0-750-95989-6.