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Off-season in the Lake District

Come in May and avoid the crowds, but beware of the weather



Many of the single-track roads of Cumbria were built in the first century, during the Roman occupation of Britain. They were designed to accommodate foot soldiers – not vehicles. Some, like the road to Hardknott Pass, have since been paved and, as a concession to changing modes of travel, occasional pullouts where two vehicles can pass have been added. Not much else has changed.

Alan and Pat, a couple of our native UK friends, were showing us around the Lake District of northwestern England and, despite a freak snowstorm two days earlier that dashed our plans to go hiking, Alan was determined we should at least see the high country. The four of us piled into a rented Austin and set out from Ambleside for Hardknott Castle.

Where Alan turned off the main road a sign warned of steep (1 in 3) grades ahead and I wondered how our little Austin would fare in the snow. Negotiating the narrow single-track roads is a matter of timing and luck. The trick is to meet oncoming traffic where one car or the other can duck into a pullout. But just below Hardknott Pass, on the steepest part of the road, our luck nearly ran out. Labouring in low gear our Austin, barely able to handle the grade, was crawling upward when a car appeared above us. Headlights flashing wildly it was coming much too fast. Its frightened driver had probably been riding his brakes until they overheated and faded. Alan barely made it to a pullout in time to let the runaway car flash past and disappear around a corner below us. Whew!

When we tried to get started again the tires spun out on the steep wet pavement and left us sitting in a cloud of acrid rubber fumes. A push from three of us got the Austin rolling and we chased it up to a relatively flat spot where Alan stopped and let us back in. To my amazement, we eventually made it to Hardknott Castle, where patches of snow still lingered on the lee side of rock walls. The mountains above us were completely white.

The "Castle" turned out to be little more than a few rectangles of crudely fitted stones, foundation rocks that were too big to be carted away by local scroungers. It takes some imagination to visualize the ruins as they were when this was a command post on the northern frontier of the vast Roman empire. But the reason for building here is obvious. Situated on a rocky crag near the top of Hardknott Pass the location provides sweeping views across the upper Eskdale valley to the Isle of Man. To the north Sca Fell, the highest mountain in England, rises to a 3,162 foot summit ridge and Harter Fell, only slightly lower, provides a massive natural barrier on the south. But it must have been a miserable place to live. We hiked up to a rocky spur above the ruins but the cold, biting wind off the North Atlantic sent us shivering back to the car and winding our way back down to the comforts of Ambleside.

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