‘It’s all uphill from here, lads,’ a taxi driver at Oxenholme Lake District railway station said when he spied me and my chum Colin clipping in to our road bikes in the car park.
A quip? More a statement of fact. The Lake District, after all, is distinctly lumpy.
Though ‘very uphill’ would have been more accurate for us, as we had arrived via an Avanti Pendolino from London Euston to conquer one of the most outrageous lumps of all for UK road users – Hardknott Pass. A 1.38-mile-long (2.2km) single-track road with gradients of up to 33 per cent.
It’s not strictly the steepest road in the UK – that honour goes to Ffordd Pen Llech in Harlech, Wales, which ramps up to a mouth-drying 37.45 per cent.
Still, Hardknott Pass is wild enough not just to strike terror into the hearts of cyclists – even drivers find negotiating its vicious ramps and hairpins a nerve-shredding experience. One Tripadvisor driver labelled it ‘hell on Earth’.
Ted Thornhill cycled up Hardknott Pass (above, looking east) in the Lake District – a 1.38-mile-long (2.2km) single-track road with gradients of up to 33 per cent
A November attempt at this lung-busting, thigh-rupturing beast was abandoned due to high winds – so strong we feared we’d be blown over on the descent (which is not for the faint-hearted).
We returned this June – a much safer bet weather-wise, but in the absence of robust meteorological excuses I would have to deploy the back-ups in the (almost inevitable) face of defeat – being 49 years old, having a dad belly and never really having enough time to train, beyond a few cycling excursions to the ‘Kent Alps’, a handful of 5km runs, and cycling to work and back through London (not known for its hills).
Stage one on day one was cycling from Oxenholme railway station to our hotel in Ambleside – Rothay Manor.
Colin routed us along delightful lost lanes that wound through picturesque villages including Brigsteer and Crosthwaite before we joined a main road down into Bowness-on-Windermere, where we paid £2 for a ferry crossing to the west shore of lake Windermere.
A plaque on the vessel informed us that previous Windermere ferry passengers have included William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, with services dating back to the 13th century.
After an artisanal coffee and millionaire shortbread at the coffee hut on the other side, we rode through the chocolate-box villages of Sawrey – where Beatrix Potter lived – and Hawkshead, and alongside Esthwaite Water, before gliding into the boutique-y haven of Rothay Manor Hotel.
Our quarters? A plush suite in the recently launched ‘Pavilion’ annexe, festooned with cushions fit for royalty and boasting a classy rain-showered-equipped en-suite with Brooklyn vibes.
All things considered, a fine HQ for our potentially over-ambitious cycling endeavours. Always important to have somewhere nice to collapse in.
Ted’s Lake District odyssey saw him cycle from Oxenholme Lake District railway station to Windermere (above), where he caught a ferry to the west shore
The Windermere ferry travels between Bowness-on-Windermere and Far Sawrey (above)
The following morning, after a sinew-bolstering breakfast of porridge and kippers with poached egg, we launched our assault.
There was no pre-amble, our route was a 40-mile circuit, with imposing Wrynose Pass rearing up within around 30 minutes of pedalling west.
It’s a 2.5km- (1.5-mile) long single-track road with sustained, vicious gradients of up to 25 per cent – wild enough to weary even the fittest of cyclists, with a 19 per cent hairpin at the bottom near Fell Foot Farm providing an hors d’oeuvre for the breath-sapping main course.
On the way up we paused for breath and admired the dramatic scenery as a cyclist walked past us on the way down – ‘I don’t trust my brakes,’ he said – before climbing out of the saddles to push ourselves over the 25 per cent ramp at the top to the summit, which lies 393m (1,281ft) up and is the meeting point of the historic counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland.
The first big climb of ‘Hardknott Day’ was Wrynose Pass (above), a 2.5km- (1.5-mile) long single-track road with sustained, vicious gradients of up to 25 per cent
A road sign at the bottom of Wrynose Pass warns of the nervy conditions ahead. Pictured right is Ted half-way up Wrynose Pass
My time? It took me 32 minutes exactly, with an average speed of… 3mph. Woefully slow. But better than my 33-minute 45-second time in November, when I averaged 2.8mph.
How fast do the best cyclists go up Wrynose? British Hill Climb champion Andrew Feather has registered a time of nine minutes and 26 seconds on fitness-app Strava, with an average speed of 10mph.
What goes up, must, as they say, come down – and the Wrynose Pass descent west is short, but very steep.
After Wrynose Pass the route undulated along a stunning landscape (above)
At the bottom the riding was sheer joy, with our route undulating along a stunning landscape seemingly lifted from a Postman Pat set – we bobbed and weaved alongside stone walls and through the hamlets of Cockley Beck, Seathwaite and Hall Dunnerdale, before turning right at Ulpha village and up Birker Fell.
After a few steep and cheeky hairpins we arrived, well, apparently in the middle of nowhere – a lofty land-before-time wilderness area where the views stretched for miles to crags on the horizon wrapped in moody clouds.
Improbably, there’s a great café up there, The Crosby Cake Cupboard, positioned by a tumbling river.
After a coffee and egg roll there we hurtled down the thrilling Birker Fell descent, dodging startled sheep and zooming past buzzards.
Ted and his chum Colin paused on Birker Fell (above) to take in the incredible scenery
Ted’s headquarters for the trip – boutique-y Rothay Manor Hotel in Ambleside
Hardknott Pass wasn’t far off, but nothing on the approach foretold of the impending drama – we rode past children enjoying ice creams in campsites, the quaint Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow-gauge railway and an inviting pub, the Woolpack Inn.
The start of Hardknott Pass is marked by a disused red phone box and a sign warning of a ‘narrow route’ ahead with ‘severe bends’. Another sign says: ‘Road suitable for cars and light vehicles only. Unsuitable for all vehicles in winter conditions.’
I braced myself, because from here – there is no warm-up. It’s up and over a little bridge and then you’re in the hurt locker, discovering that Hardknott Pass’s reputation is well deserved.
Hell on Earth? Hell up and down Earth.
On the plus side, the scenery is jaw-dropping.
The quaint Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow-gauge railway is one of the sights Ted passed on the way to Hardknott Pass
The gradient map for Hardknott Pass on Ted’s Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS unit (left) is mostly red. On the right – Ted tries to get his Hardknott game face on
Ted is all smiles half-way up Hardknott Pass – because he’s stopped pedalling
Ted arriving at the 549-metre- (1,801ft) high Hardknott Pass summit. Picture courtesy of an affable – and much faster – fellow cyclist resting at the top
Ted beams at the Hardknott Pass summit. Would he cycle up the pass again? ‘I doubt it,’ he says
This stunning picture shows the view west from Hardknott Pass towards the village of Eskdale
Ted grinds up the steepest section of Hardknott Pass
First up is a series of horrific hairpins – I walked one of these – but then you get some respite with a low-gradient section.
You need it, because after this comes the 33 per cent section of legend – a brutal ramp followed by a hairpin and another morale-splintering stretch that takes you to the summit.
I managed to cycle up the hardest section after a short rest, leaning over the handlebars to avoid pulling wheelies, my thighs in agony.
I stopped four times in total, but cycled enough of the pass to feel euphoric at the 549-metre- (1,801ft) high summit.
At least I avoided toppling over on the steep bits, as many cyclists do. That, to be honest, was a huge personal victory for me.
My time? Twenty-eight minutes and 48 seconds, with an average speed of 2.8mph.
The ‘King of the Mountain’ fastest Strava time is held by Mr Feather, who took just nine minutes and 15 seconds to reach the top thanks to an average speed of 10.4mph (16.7kph).
Which is just ridiculous. Of that you can be assured, dear reader.
Also ridiculous is the descent. Again, the scenery pulls the jaw towards the ground, but there was little time to enjoy it while negotiating a hairpin road so steep and narrow that I had both brakes jammed on all the way down.
The terrifying eastbound Hardknott Pass descent – a series of extreme hairpins
The view from Ted’s helmet-mounted Insta360 camera of the eastbound Hardknott Pass descent
The stunning view east to the summit of Wrynose Pass, which lies 393m (1,281ft) up and is the meeting point of the historic counties of Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland
Hardknott Pass is wild enough not just to strike terror into the hearts of cyclists – even drivers find negotiating its vicious ramps and hairpins a nerve-shredding experience. One Tripadvisor driver labelled it ‘hell on Earth’
Ted’s 40.97-mile (65km) Lake District route, mapped out on fitness-app Strava
Hardknott Pass and its wiggly trajectory mapped out on Strava. Both routes to the top are tough
Ted’s scenic Oxenholme to Ambleside route
Returning to Rothay Manor required a little sojourn up Wrynose Pass again – this time in reverse of course.
This meant a slightly easier ascent but a slightly more terrifying descent, with that 25 per cent gradient at the top transformed into a minus 25 per cent gradient.
I walked that top part, I don’t mind admitting. My nerves were frayed after the Hardknott descent.
I got back on my bike for the relatively relaxing minus 15 to 20 per cent section a bit further down.
We arrived back at the hotel having covered 40.97 miles (65km) and climbed 5,364ft (1,634m).
And boy were we ready for a drink.
Would I like to tackle Hardknott Pass on a bicycle again? Probably not. Would I try to dissuade anyone else from having a go? Definitely not.
It’s an iconic pass. But remember, it’s not just very uphill, but very downhill too.
Follow Ted on Strava at www.strava.com/athletes/16377946.
An Avanti Pendolino train captured crossing the Docker Viaduct in Cumbria
Ted was hosted by Rothay Manor Hotel. Full review to come.
Avanti West Coast
Ted used Avanti West Coast to reach the Lake District from London with his bike, travelling between London Euston and Oxenholme Lake District. Visit www.avantiwestcoast.co.uk.
Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM GPS unit
Ted navigated his way around the lumps and bumps of the Lake District using the excellent Wahoo Elemnt Roam GPS unit. Visit uk.wahoofitness.com/devices/bike-computers/elemnt-roam-buy.
Thanks to Insta360 for a loan of an Insta360 One RS camera, which comes with two lenses – a 360 lens and a regular 4K lens.
Ted’s bike is a Trek Domane SL 6, which he purchased from Balfe’s Bikes. Balfe’s has 12 stores in and around London. Visit www.balfesbikes.co.uk.
Thanks to Le Col clothing.