Hard Knott

Published 11 April 2021

The summit of the Hard Knott Pass – the start of a walk up Hard Knott

It’s September 2020 and after a year full of lockdowns, cancelled holidays and just general chaos, I unexpectedly found myself in the Lake District for a week. Day one was spent near Borrowdale, the second in the wonderful Newlands. That was followed by a splendid day around Grasmoor, a soggy visit to Tarn Crags, and an exploration of the fells round Crinkle Crags. My final day in the Lakes started with my final fell in Langdale, before a soggy visit to a fell I’d failed to bag some years earlier.

June 2012. It’s a two day Bank Holiday Weekend thanks to a rich man with a rich mum who had an important job purely because of who her father was, was getting married. Being a staunch republican I have no interest in such things. But a Bank Holiday Monday followed by a Bank Holiday Tuesday is not to be sniffed, at even if it was for a royal wedding. So I’ve packed my bags, and leapt on a train and am heading to Eskdale.

The plan is simple. Travel up on the Saturday. Then spend the next three days exploring a part of the Lake District I knew nothing about. And after that, travel home.

I’d timed my train from London to see me arrive early afternoon. I could pitch my tent at the campsite in the hamlet of Boot. Then I would wander the couple of miles up the road to do my first fell, Hard Knott. It’s a standalone fell. Not particularly high. Should be do-able and still get me back to the campsite at a reasonable time for tea.

That was the plan. It was a good plan.

Sometimes though, things don’t go according to plan.

The rail line going north was abruptly closed due to an incident. My train’s progress north stopped. Rail replacement coaches were ordered. But all these things take time. And it meant I turned up at Boot three hours later than intended, and without the time I needed to do Hard Knott.

The rocky tops to the Hard Knott summit area

In the years that followed I would study my list of uncompleted Wainwrights and glance at Hard Knott. And I’d wonder when I would get a chance to do it. I’d done all the other fells in Eskdale. Apart from Hard Knott, I had no particular reason to visit the area. And bagging it is not even a particularly big walk. If you set off from the top of the Hard Knott Pass as Wainwright recommends, the ascent is a walk of only three quarters of a mile. It has no connections with other fells. Whilst not impossible, it would be hard to build into a bigger walk of any value. The reality was that I’d need to do long drive to do a walk that would likely take me little more than an hour. I filed it in my “awkward fells” list and never came to a solution.

Until one day eight years later. It was early afternoon. I’d walked Rossett Pike and had run out of fells to do in Langdale. The forecast wasn’t great. Rain was likely. But I needed something to do. As I rested on thee way back to the National Trust campsite, I stared at the map and noticed a road.

In my mind, the road down Langdale ended abruptly near the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub. But the day before I’d realised this assumption wasn’t true. The road carried on, turning along the western side of Lingmoor Fell, and then met another road from Little Langdale.

A cairn marks the way to the top of Hard Knott

I hadn’t thought that much the day before other than “Oh, that’s interesting.” But now I began to wonder where that other road went.

It turned out it became the Wrynose Pass. And staring at the map longer I spotted the Wrynose Pass met with the Hardknott Pass. It would be a bit of a drive. Eight miles there, eight more back. But it was doable. It seemed I had a plan.

The GPS app on my phone laughingly told me the drive to Hard Knott would take eight minutes. Eight minutes along normal, clear, straight roads at a constant 60mph speed, well perhaps. Along narrow, winding single lane roads in the Lake District, less likely. And that was before we factor in the 25% gradients. Oh, and the sign saying that people shouldn’t drive this way in the winter. And then there was the rain. Ah, the rain.

The rain was always a risk. The forecast was pretty awful. But by the time I arrived near the top of the Hardknott Pass, it was bucketing it down.

The view from Hard Knott

The rain was so heavy that I managed to drive over the highest point where I needed to stop, without noticing. I pulled in at the small car park near the ruins of Hard Knott Roman Fort. I contemplated getting out and having a look. The amount of rain coming down, persuaded me to do otherwise.

Making my way back to the top of the pass, I parked up, and sat again, wondering if this was the best time to be doing this. On the other hand, I was here. I’d made eight years after first planning on doing Hard Knott. If I didn’t try now, when I was at the foot of the ascent route, when would I next be here?

Besides, the rain was beginning to ease a little. This seemed like an opportune moment. I rushed out of the car, pulled my hiking boots on, pulled on my waterproof jacket, and set off.

Thinking I wouldn’t be too long, I’d not bothered with waterproof trousers. I had left them in my rucksack, and I’d left that in the boot of the car. Quite why this seemed a good idea to me, I’ll never quite understand. But it proved to be a mistake. The rain started coming down even harder and I was soon absolutely soaked. Well from the leg down anyway.

Yet another view from the top of Hard Knott

A large group of walkers passed me, and I was sure they were looking at me in bafflement. A soaked walker, with no rucksack, roaming up a hill path. Yeah, definitely a good look. Although on the flip side, their presence confused me. It looked like they had come up from Eskdale with big rucksacks. They had bypassed Hard Knott’s summit, and were heading east. Where were they heading to? We were all miles from anywhere. Wherever they were going, they had a long way to go to get there.

With that puzzle, I went in search of Hard Knott’s summit. Wainwright’s instructions were pretty simple. He didn’t even see the need to provide a diagram of the route. Leave the road, follow a grass track up to rocky outcrops and then go to the summit by following an “indefinite ridge”.

Sounded simple. But when you find yourself surrounded by rocky outcrops and it’s raining, finding the tallest one isn’t always the easiest. I wandered around, popping up onto higher ground every now and then hunting for the top. Then I realised that all I had to do was follow the very indistinct path – and ignore all side paths – and it would take me there.

You can’t go wrong with cairn on a rock.

And there it all was. A cairn, some rain, and a view. It was quite something. Looking along the Hard Knott pass in both directions, nearby fell tops surrounded by cloud. The rusting reds and browns of the heather. It would be a stunning place in the sunshine. But there was something quite special about this view even in the pouring rain. Just how much better it would have been if I had been wearing more appropriate clothing.

Getting fed up of the rain, I headed back to the car. Another walker was coming up the hill. One also without a rucksack. And without waterproof trousers. As we passed, we exchanged a simple nod. I know what you’re up to, I thought. How long was your wait to do this fell? How many miles had you gone out of the way to do it? Questions.

Can you guess what this is?

I got back into my car, grateful to be out of the rain at last. Drying out in a metal box, I drove back along the same narrow, winding, twisting roads of the Hard Knott Pass. Back to Langdale. Back to the campsite near the Old Dungeon Ghyll. Back to my tent.

My tent now being surrounded by a quagmire of mud. The whole field was like a swamp. The tent seemed to be leaking a little.

I was due to head home the following afternoon. If the weather had been better, I would have stayed. If I’d had a room in a hostel somewhere, I would have stayed. If I’d been able to spend the evening supping a pint, dry and cosy inside a nice, friendly pub, I would have stayed. But I was camping. The pubs nearby were only offering outdoor refreshment due to Covid. Most of the local hostels were not open.

I sighed, and rather rashly packed up the tent into the car.

And as I drove out of Langdale, the sun began to shine. And everything looked lovely once more. That was the Lake District for you. I shrugged, said farewell, and began the long drive home.

Soaked to the bone, I went back to dry out back at the car.


Raymond Wilkes

21 May 2021 at 12:02 pm

You can get a 2 oz waterproof skirt which fits in your cag pocket. It is not a perfect water proof but much better than none, especially if you are in shorts. In very hot showery weather it can be used as a cape. Some people may think skirts are for the ladies, but I am told Scotsmen wear them so that is good enough for me

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