To cel­e­brate the Lake District’s hard-fought quest to clinch UNESCO World Her­itage Site sta­tus we don’t shy away from the chal­lenges of Hon­is­ter and Hard­knott Passes


Af­ter a lengthy quest, 31 years in fact, the Lake District has fi­nally ac­quired the pres­ti­gious ti­tle of be­ing a UNESCO World Her­itage Site. We tackle some of the in­fa­mous passes that lit­ter the land­scape to cel­e­brate the na­tional park’s lat­est ac­co­lade.

The Lake District is like that old friend I haven’t seen for ages: years may pass but from the mo­ment we’re re­united it’s like no time has gone by at all. When­ever we get to­gether, there’s al­ways a story to tell. Of course, it doesn’t al­ways work out that way with mates. Some­times, things do change that can af­fect your re­la­tion­ship. It might be a change in sit­u­a­tion, job or fam­ily life. Cir­cum­stances may change, on ei­ther side. You just hope nei­ther changes too much, and if it does, it’s for the bet­ter.

Which brings me to the Lake District, which, in July, fi­nally won a tu­mul­tuous 31-year chase to be­come a UNESCO World Her­itage Site (WHS), join­ing the likes of Aus­tralia’s Great Bar­rier Reef, China’s Great Wall and Amer­ica’s Grand Canyon in an il­lus­tri­ous list of over 1000 nat­u­ral and cul­tural mon­u­ments and places of “out­stand­ing universal value” to hu­man­ity. UNESCO – the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion to give it its full ti­tle – and the WHS ‘in­scrip­tion’, as it’s known, brings a whole new level of global aware­ness to the park. You’re happy for your old friend and their new lofty ti­tle. You hope they don’t change be­yond recog­ni­tion.

Park life

Richard Leafe, the park’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, is con­fi­dent this new­found sta­tus means only good news for Eng­land’s largest and ar­guably best­known na­tional park. He re­cently cel­e­brated 10 years in the job – a plum po­si­tion for this ge­og­ra­phy grad­u­ate – and played a key role in what he says was a team ef­fort in get­ting the nod from UNESCO. The Na­tional Park Au­thor­ity he leads was one of 25 or­gan­i­sa­tions in the Lake District Na­tional Park Part­ner­ship that sub­mit­ted the win­ning bid last year, se­cur­ing it un­der the ‘cul­tural land­scape’ cat­e­gory – cri­te­ria that was only added in 1993 in re­sponse to the Lakes’ nom­i­na­tion.

We were keen to get un­der the skin of the in­scrip­tion, con­coct­ing a ride that touched on the themes of why the Lakes be­came Bri­tain’s first na­tional park to garner WHS sta­tus. Th­ese in­clude Iden­tity – a land­scape shaped by man, par­tic­u­larly farm­ing, over cen­turies; In­spi­ra­tion – pro­vided by, among oth­ers, the Lake Po­ets in­clud­ing Wil­liam Wordsworth and Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge; and Con­ser­va­tion – the birth­place of the Na­tional Trust and na­tional parks move­ment. Richard, a su­per-keen roadie, would prove the ideal foil on this voy­age of dis­cov­ery.

Of the many times I’ve vis­ited and cy­cled in the Lakes, it re­quires just the one hand to count the times where the sun has shone, so it was a nice sur­prise to be greeted by blue skies at our start at the Lang­dale Ho­tel near Am­ble­side. I knew hav­ing Richard along would have its perks, I just hadn’t bar­gained on his in­flu­ence ex­tend­ing to pulling strings with the cli­mate. The Lakes might be like an old friend, but it’s an un­pre­dictable sort who in­vari­ably spells trou­ble. You cross your fin­gers they’re on their best be­hav­iour.

Our first port of call was Gras­mere, which I know best as the cur­rent home of the Fred Whit­ton sportive – a May event where I’ve seen the

Lakes’ weather at its piti­less worst over the years – and from the lyrics to The Smiths’ song Panic, an ap­pro­pri­ate ear worm to sound­track a 145km ride through the Lakes.

To­day, our Gras­mere ren­dezvous was all about a visit to Dove Cot­tage, home to poet Wil­liam Wordsworth in the late 18th cen­tury. Wordsworth, along with the likes of Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge and Robert Southey, be­came known as the Lake Po­ets, and the cot­tage was a creative hub. The moun­tains and na­ture sur­round­ing the town hugely in­flu­enced their work, par­tic­u­larly how hu­mans in­ter­act with the nat­u­ral world.

With Gras­mere in the rearview we as­cended over the gen­tle in­cline of Dun­mail Raise, the top of which is said to mark the burial spot of the leg­endary, epony­mous last king of Cum­ber­land. The last time I was here in early 2016 the road was look­ing less than regal, hav­ing been ripped apart by one of the most sav­age weather events in re­cent years, Storm Des­mond, the pre­vi­ous De­cem­ber. Richard is try­ing to get a cy­cle path built down Dun­mail Raise into Gras­mere, which would com­plete a bike-friendly route from Keswick. At the mo­ment, he’s £600,000 shy of fund­ing.

Val­ley view

Down the other side is Thirlmere, one of 13 val­leys in the park that’ll each, even­tu­ally, get a plaque to re­flect WHS sta­tus. Richard says it was too dif­fi­cult to de­cide where to put a plaque, given the Lakes’ sprawl­ing, var­ied na­ture, so hav­ing 13 at least makes the task eas­ier.

Thirlmere reser­voir, which many mis­take for a lake, sup­plies 11 per cent of North West Eng­land’s wa­ter via a 96-mile un­der­ground aqueduct to Manch­ester, us­ing grav­ity alone. It has an im­por­tant his­tory in the preser­va­tion move­ment, where the strug­gle be­tween nat­u­ral beauty and

The steep de­scent of Hon­is­ter is, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, at least as trau­matic as the climb

in­dus­try was re­ally tested for the first time. In 1877 there was a bat­tle to stop the flood­ing of the val­ley and cre­ation of the reser­voir. For the first – and not last – time, in­dus­try won out, but in con­so­la­tion in­spired the cre­ation of the Na­tional Trust and am­pli­fied the sirens of the Lakes’ vul­ner­a­bil­ity as a nat­u­ral land­scape.

Af­ter a brief visit to the tourist hotspot of the stone cir­cle at Cast­lerigg, our next ma­jor land­mark was Hon­is­ter Pass, a feared fea­ture of the Fred Whit­ton and oc­ca­sional ter­ror of the Tour of Bri­tain. We came at it via the west­ern side of Der­went Wa­ter from Keswick, much more scenic than the al­ter­na­tive B5289 down the other side, but also the equiv­a­lent of bees around honey for tourists in Au­gust.

Richard had re­cently been field­ing calls from vexed res­i­dents about cars be­ing parked on dou­ble yel­low lines around the lake. What­ever ac­tion he took had clearly had an ef­fect, with tick­ets slapped on the wind­screens of ev­ery other car. The park­ing war­den must have been din­ing out on his com­mis­sion, too, given we saw him lin­ing up for a ‘99’ at the ice cream van. That’s un­less he was pa­tiently queu­ing to ticket the ice cream man, too...

Hon­is­ter was an­other mag­net for ve­hi­cles. Given its un­fea­si­ble gra­di­ents peo­ple just like to drive the thing - why, I’ve no idea, be­cause for some ner­vous driv­ers this mis­ad­ven­ture ends with them book­ing in to their lo­cal garage for a new clutch - but there’s also ac­tiv­ity at the top, chiefly the Via Fer­rata. It trans­lates to ‘Iron Road’ and is a term used through­out much of Europe for the same thing, namely a steel ca­ble that pro­vide climbers with an ac­ces­si­ble route to the sum­mit of the moun­tain. On Hon­is­ter, it traces the route slate min­ers would have taken. We too were, ahem, dig­ging deep to reach our own tar­mac sum­mit.

Go­ing down­hill fast

The steep de­scent of Hon­is­ter is, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, at least as trau­matic as the climb, but we were quickly onto eas­ier ter­rain in the But­ter­mere val­ley. Sheep farm­ing is the main oc­cu­pa­tion here, a prime graz­ing place for the Herd­wick breed – and the pri­mary fo­cus for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, writer and

Lakes WHS ag­i­ta­tor-in-chief, Ge­orge Mon­biot’s ire.

“En­tire high fells have been re­duced by sheep to a tree­less waste of cropped turf whose monotony is re­lieved only by ero­sion gul­lies, ex­posed soil and bare rock,” Mon­biot wrote in The Guardian shortly af­ter the WHS re­veal. He tore into sheep farm­ing, dis­parag­ingly call­ing it “the re­li­gion of the Lake District”, a place that sees “ranch­ing on a scale that looks more like Ar­gentina than any­thing Wordsworth would have recog­nised.”

The other side of the ar­gu­ment is that it’s sheep farm­ing that has shaped the land­scape to­day that peo­ple love. But we’re not choos­ing a side – swap your Cy­cling Plus sub­scrip­tion for Farm­ers Guardian or The Ecol­o­gist for a more con­sid­ered opin­ion. Richard went on the Jeremy Pax­man-hosted Newsnight to de­bate Mon­biot on the is­sue a few years ago, where he was on the end of a typ­i­cally with­er­ing late-era Paxo put-down, ac­cused of talk­ing man­age­ment-speak.

The omi­nous right-turn in But­ter­mere up New­lands Pass, which sent a chill down my spine as a three­time vet­eran of the Fred Whit­ton, was by­passed, in­stead car­ry­ing on serenely past the lakes of Crum­mock and Loweswa­ter. We were help­less in avoid­ing the de­cep­tively in­sid­i­ous Cold Fell, an­other climb fa­mil­iar to Fred rid­ers and one which feels un­end­ing, which we man­aged to catch at a par­tic­u­larly un­for­tu­nate time, just gone 3pm when the work­ers of Sel­lafield nu­clear pro­cess­ing site were clock­ing off.

As one of the few trav­el­ling in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, we were pow­er­less against the ex­o­dus of cars seem­ingly in con­voy hurtling along the fell. With all the other op­tions avail­able to com­muters to get home, a fell doesn’t feel like the shrewdest choice.

By Raven­glass, we were in the unique pres­ence of not just one but two World Her­itage Sites, with the Ro­man bath ru­ins at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. The town sits on the coast at the tip of the Eskdale val­ley, where the moun­tain of Scafell Pike even­tu­ally plunges into the sea. Deep into the val­ley sits the ter­ri­fy­ing 1 in 3

With all the other op­tions avail­able to com­muters to get home, a fell doesn’t feel like the shrewdest choice

Hard­knott Pass, pièce de ré­sis­tance of the Fred Whit­ton and one of the most god­for­saken stretches of road in the world, with its straight up and over route, and in whose di­rec­tion we were headed. It’s no won­der the Ro­mans built a fort here, en­abling them to keep an eye on the po­ten­tially re­volt­ing na­tive pop­u­la­tion be­low. It’s a mys­tery why the climb has never fea­tured in the mod­ern Tour of Bri­tain, given the park is a reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor with the race. It would pro­vide such a talk­ing point and pro rac­ing would have a new tough­est climb to reckon with. Richard says talks have been held to in­clude it in the 2018 route, and we’ve got ev­ery­thing crossed that it hap­pens.

Wrynose Pass pro­vided the cus­tom­ary st­ing in the tail – to get back to Am­ble­side it’s a nec­es­sary evil – but once over the top the route back to Lang­dale was quick and un­fussy, with the gale howl­ing in off the Ir­ish Sea at our backs.

Cy­cling stay­ca­tions

One of the ques­tions fol­low­ing WHS in­scrip­tion is: will the Lakes get busier? It al­ready felt at ca­pac­ity in cer­tain hotspot ar­eas to­day, and, to be hon­est, I al­ready knew a week­day visit in the school sum­mer hol­i­days was pre­cisely the time not to come road rid­ing here. Richard says that at­tract­ing more peo­ple isn’t an aim; it’s about get­ting the peo­ple who do come here to stay longer and dig be­neath the sur­face of the place. Man­ag­ing traf­fic and get­ting peo­ple to ex­plore the re­gion away from their own car is an­other aim, with a cy­cling strat­egy at the cen­tre of that. “I want this na­tional park to be known as the best place to cy­cle in the UK,” he says. It’s an ad­mirable am­bi­tion and we can only wish him luck in try­ing to per­suade folk to aban­don their beloved 4x4s.

For the time be­ing WHS has pro­vided good head­lines for the park in the short term and they’ve is­sued a call to arms to lo­cals to seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties in the long-term – for the whole re­gion, not just the likes of the al­ready pop­u­lar Win­der­mere and Am­ble­side.

“We’ve spent £500,000 on the bid, and closer to £1m with work­ing hours on top,” says Richard. “It’s open to de­bate whether that rep­re­sents value for money.” The feel­ing is that this is a boost for the na­tional park, not

only for Cum­bri­ans but for those from else­where who know it al­most as a sec­ond home, who are chuffed it’s se­cured a sta­tus lim­ited to so few. Gut feel­ing sug­gests that £1m fig­ure is sofa change for some­thing that lasts in­def­i­nitely and will bring it back into the econ­omy many times over.

Of course, the Lake District will change – it has been chang­ing for cen­turies. It’s what liv­ing, breath­ing, work­ing parks do. It can’t be a mu­seum. Part of what I was re­fer­ring to at the start of this fea­ture about change is to do with the moun­tain passes that we all love to hate so much, and you can pretty much guar­an­tee they’re not go­ing any­where fast. Th­ese giants will con­tinue to stand tall long af­ter we’re all gone, as un­con­quer­able, un­re­lent­ing and in­tim­i­dat­ing as they ever were.

Above The all-too-brief mo­ment where Hard­knott isn’t malev­o­lent

Above Not the first, nor last, time John has been dropped on Har­knott Pass

Above Flat roads of the coast are a brief respite from all the hilly stuff

Top Eyes on the road, it isn’t go­ing any­where

Above Hon­is­ter’s sin­u­ous rib­bon of tar­mac is a test of skill and nerve. But mostly of nerve

Right Tasty treats awaited at the Lang­dale Ho­tel

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