Series 2 – 07: Three Passes: Hard Knott


I have several memories that are shrinkingly-embarrassing, and that I’ll never tell to anyone in my life, no matter how close. The memories of my family’s first walk, or rather my part in it, should be equally embarrassing, but instead I look back on them with amusement: not funny ha-ha, but funny deeply ironic.
I’m sure it took place in 1966, though that would mean my sister was only just four when our parents first tied us firmly into walking boots and threw us out of the car to climb Hard Knott Pass.
Hard Knott was the way out of Eskdale without driving down to the coast, a steep, narrow fell-road rising diagonally, with hairpin bends, over the side of the valley. My parents remembered it well from their courting days, when Dad drove a motorbike, not a car: though the road underfoot had been improved, neither Dad nor his elder brother would drive on Hard Knott. From a perspective of  forty years later, I can sympathise with them.
We didn’t take to the tarmac, but made our own, more direct ascent, angling up the slope, near the beck, with the road well to our left. Dad navigated by compass, picking a landmark on the correct degree and leading us there before selecting our next target, until we emerged on the top of the Pass. I kept casting envious glances at the cars making their cautious way up the road – they were sitting down! – until I got to the car that went across from left to right then a couple of moments later, came back, right to left: not a failure of nerve but a strict hairpin.
I complained every step of the way: perhaps not every step, there being limits to my parents’ patience, but it must have felt like that to them. It was too far, my feet hurt, it was too steep, the sun was too hot, it was too difficult, I needed water, my boots were uncomfortable. Meanwhile, my infant sister bounded on enthusiastically.
Coming back, we stuck to the road. Even though we were now going down, I was still a pain. When a diversion to the Roman Fort – over level grass – was proposed, I sulked out of going, sat by the road, waiting for them to come back to me, until boredom and loneliness sent me looking for them. It felt like giving in, and it was, made worse by not being able to find them, until I was surprised by voices behind me when in the middle of one of the former inner rooms.
It would be embarrassing were it not for what I became, the avid solo walker, going further and higher than 10 year old me would have ever feared: the one out of the four of us that completed the dream of all the Wainwrights.
In later life I did drive over Hard Knott, taking first the long, sylvan ride up the Duddon, then switching to the steep, narrow, shorter slopes of the eastern section of Hard Knott. This left me the steepest parts – 1 in 3 – to descend, very carefully, with the brakes employed almost constantly in the parts that need it.
The photo is of the ascent to the Pass from the Roman Fort on a sharp evening of strong light and shadows, the conditions I remember of our very first walk. Don’t attempt to drive this way without plentiful experience of fellroads, and preferably in dry, sunny conditions. This is the steepest road in the country.

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