ON THE ROAD
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.
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.
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.
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 Honister’s sinuous ribbon of tarmac is a test of skill and nerve. But mostly of nerve
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 Not the first, nor last, time John has been dropped on Harknott Pass
Above The all-too-brief moment where Hardknott isn’t malevolent
Right Tasty treats awaited at the Langdale Hotel