The Lake District
Yes, there’s a lot of water in the Lakes, but a lot of fabulous roads, too. We explore in an MX-5 RF
The Lake District isn’t just about open water. It also features some of the UK’S most challenging driving roads. We take the MX-5 RF up and down the Wrynose, Hardknott and Honister passes
So where to this month? Well, we’ve been east and we’ve been southwest, so it’s kind of obvious really: time to go north, or just ‘the north’ as it’s so often referred to on signage pointing in a northerly direction. ‘The north’ is, of course, enormous and includes other countries of the union, which we’ll be exploring in future issues, so for the purposes of this driving adventure, we’ll stick to the north of England.
We’re spoilt for choice. There is ‘God’s own country’, AKA Yorkshire, and north or south would do from a dramatic and desolate moorland and dales point of view. Or further up, Northumberland is still a relatively well-kept secret, but then really we might as well push on into Scotland and, as intimated, that’s a trip for another time. Or there’s the
Cumbrian Lake District, or simply ‘the Lakes’, to continue with the above ‘the’ theme. So ‘the Lakes,’ one of the UK’S prime beauty spots and a beacon for Gortex, canvas and stout walking boots. Enthusiasts of such clobber would tell you that cars are not really welcome in this northwestern National Park, but then without them no one would be able to get here and, in an MX-5 with the roof down, you’re still at one with the elements and you’ll get to cover a lot more ground than plodding from fell to fell in your stout walking boots. And besides, we’re plotting a route that favours driving adventure and will bring out the best in the MX-5’S golightly chassis and friendly demeanour. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is the small matter of what we’re going to take. It’s a no-brainer, really. It has to be the new kid on the block: the MX-5 RF. We’ve done the launch drive, but that was just a snatched day at the wheel. The whole concept needs deeper analysis and a road trip is perfect to access and assess the RF’S pros and cons. And to make it a bit more realworld I have a passenger in the shape of Total MX-5’S Art Editor, Alison Buckland. Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘Nice weekend away on expenses,’ and all that. But I should point out that Alison is my long-suffering ‘other half’ of 20+ years, it’s strictly twin beds, and we’re being chaperoned by snapper Fraser. And road trips and MX5’S are generally a shared experience, where passenger opinion and comfort counts for a lot and the ability to get two persons’ worth of luggage in is crucial. And besides, it’s a weekend, so I’m hardly going to leave her at home.
We have a couple of colour choices for the RF: white or the popular Machine Grey launch colour. Grey would undoubtedly blend with the scenery, but we plump for white to stand out and because it really suits the RF, making it look lighter than the darker hue does. Spec-wise, we’re talking basic 2.0-litre, with cloth interior and no real extras to speak of. But then who needs gadgets, when there’s a retractable hard-top to be played with?
The art to MX-5 touring and travel is
squashy bags. The perception of the RF is that surely the retractable roof and hardware must rob it of vital boot space, but not so. It’s identical to that of the roadster. Mind you, that’s not saying much, but it is deceptively deep, so actually getting two people’s clobber in isn’t too difficult. More restrictive is interior space, or lack of. The new MX-5 is a tightish fit and the absence of a glovebox and door stowage is a pain for long journeys.yes, there’s the lidded box between the seats, which is also partially covered by the sprouting cup-holders, but you have to be some sort of contortionist to get to it on the move. The centre, hinged, armrest is just about deep enough to accommodate a phone and, while we’re whingeing, the dual USB ports are useful, but there are still many, many gadgets that come only with an old school fag-lighter-style plug. This is important because you might want to use a satnav that actually works, rather than the onboard unit that doesn’t – trusty Tomtom to the rescue. Again.
Of course, these points are minor irritations and not deal breakers. The bigger question surrounding the RF is that of noise. There were many at the time of its launch who seemed to find wind noise around the rear buttresses intrusive, but there’s nothing like a 300-mile motorway journey to really reveal the truth. And? Well, usual lightweight sports car limitations aside, the RF makes for a perfectly quiet, composed and comfortable motorway cruiser, with no real discernible racket from the rear at typical 70mph–80mph cruising speeds, helped too by the overdrive sixth gear, which keeps the revs down. It would be very interesting to compare the RF with the roadster in a roof-up showdown, but as far as the RF is concerned, there is no inkling that it is anything other than a fixed-head machine – the magic only occurring as the roof does its complex perambulations. And as for noise with the roof stowed away...well, we’ll come to that.
So in ‘getting there’ mode, the RF saunters along with a muted thrum and makes light work of the M6, which throws up the usual Friday nonsense from Birmingham pretty much all the way to Preston. But just a mere seven hours later we enter the Lake District National Park via Kendal and the A684. Points of interest? Well, at 885 square miles it is the biggest UK National Park and, if like me you haven’t explored the area for a good few years, it is jaw-droppingly dramatic, with a landscape that can only be created through the ravages of 500 million years of geological process. It’s only a small corner of the North West but the Lakes contain England’s highest mountain (Scaffell Pike) and deepest and longest lakes (Wast Water and Windermere). If you want the guided tour, however, you’ve come to the wrong place because we’ve got some driving to do. But that’s tomorrow. Tonight there is curry at the Eastern Balti in Kendal and a comfortable night’s sleep at the Castle Green Hotel, both of which we can thoroughly recommend.
We also have a Saturday morning to kill as Snapper Fraser makes his way north. Not a problem in the Lakes as
If you want the guided tour, however, you’ve come to the wrong place because we’ve got some driving to do
there is much to do, that doesn’t involve outdoor pursuits. Indeed, there has to be because the weather is often on the challenging side, so museums abound. I was, though, surprised to learn the ‘Cars of the Stars’ museum in Keswick is no more. Last time in the Lakes we spent a drizzly couple of hours there.
This Saturday morning is equally dank, so we decamp to the Lakeland Motor Museum at the Lakeside end of Windermere. What a treat. There is much to see, but primarily we want to see the Campbell Bluebird Exhibition, which houses some of the various craft in which Malcolm and Donald Campbell broke multiple land and water speed records. The Lake District is, of course, synonymous with Donald Campbell’s tragic and fatal accident on Lake Coniston in 1967 in the Jet Hydroplane Bluebird K7. A full-size and very authentic replica is on display, while the real thing – salvaged from the depths of Coniston in 2001, together with Campbell’s body – is currently being restored. Also on display is Malcolm Campbell’s 1935 Bluebird car and the 1939 Bluebird Boat K4, which was piloted with success by both father and son.
These days speedboats are not allowed on Coniston, or many other of the lakes for that matter, but on 4 January 1967, when Campbell was turning the Bluebird around for its second run, the world was certainly a rather different place. The film that plays on a loop in the exhibition is mesmerising stuff.the grainy black and white footage of the dreadful crash, as the camera struggles to keep pace with the
Bluebird, and then tracks jerkily back as it starts to flip and Campbell’s last words – “she’s going, she’s going...” – are etched into history.
Campbell was without doubt out of the mould marked ‘hero’. The sheer endeavour of building something like the Bluebird and then getting it to Coniston would defeat most people and indeed these days probably wouldn’t be allowed. But then Campbell comes from a rather different era when a chap could stub out a ciggy and nonchalantly hop into a jet-boat as if it was in some way almost normal. Then again, there’s always Guy Martin...
The weather has cheered up and we’re promised some driving adventure, a driving challenge even. The Lakes are not blessed with a multitude of roads – not surprising given the terrain – but cutting through the very heart of the area are the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, two of the most challenging roads you are likely to drive in the UK with gradients that max out at 33 per cent, hairpin bends, sheer drops and spectacular summit views.
Access to the Wrynose pass is from the A593 at Skelwith Bridge. It starts innocently enough – a single-track road cutting across exposed, ragged moorland – but soon there is an unrelenting climb, with hairpin after hairpin to the 1281ft summit. Stop here for a breather because the views are something else. Stop also to marvel at how the mountain goat-like RF has made short work of the gradients. This is extreme driving and aside from a couple of splitter-scraping moments, the RF has hammered up here with the verve of a Tarmac-spec World Rally Car.
Not that suitability for the terrain is high on a lot of folks’ minds it seems, as all sorts of vehicles make the climb including some brave souls in various Lancias and, our favourite, a German family in a convertible Bentley. They come roaring up the climb, stopping at our designated photographic view point and in unison all swivelling with their cameras to snap away. ‘We never leave the car...’ shouts the father in an accent that sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzenegger (so maybe they were Austrian) before roaring with laughter and taking off again. Second only to the cars are the cyclists who come here to beast themselves. Both the Wrynott and the Hardknott are part of the Fred Whitton Challenge, a 112-mile masochistic cycling event named after a local cycling stalwart that has gone from
being a local challenge for hardy northern riders, to the ‘must do’ cycling challenge for the nation’s new wave of cyclists. ‘The Fred’ had taken place the weekend before, but there was no shortage of riders doing it all over again. For one group it was the backdrop for a masochistic stag weekend.
The route down is tortuous with blind crests dropping into corkscrew descents and the view is forgotten for a while as concentration takes over. At times the road falls away so dramatically that you lose sight of it altogether, which is kind of unnerving. The road flattens out through Wrynose Bottom and up ahead the Hardknott pass looms as a ribbon of seemingly vertical, twisting Tarmac. Well, not quite vertical, but steep enough to be classified as the second steepest road in the UK (the steepest, at 40 per cent, is in Harlech, Wales) and certainly the steepest in England.
The RF is not exactly defeated on this climb, but when all you can see is sky as you make your ascent, then caution does set in. The surface is terrible, too, with broken and rippled Tarmac, which sees the driven back wheels slipping and skipping. This is extreme driving, but again it’s worth it as the summit looms. The view is breathtaking, the epic landscape unfurling in front and, beyond that, the Irish Sea.
With pics in the bag we head for an overnight halt.we would tell you where, but frankly it was rubbish, and we’re not the sorts to go snitching on Tripadvisor. Maybe the staff were having a bad day… Beer is consumed, but not too many as Snapper Fraser is insisting on an early start so that we can tackle the nearby Honister pass and claim it for ourselves.
It’s a good call. Desolate and slatestrewn, the single-track road cuts through an epic valley. It’s a unique landscape and, with no one around this early in the morning, there’s no chance of creating a disturbance as the white RF rips through the cold morning air. Sudden squally showers, punctuated by shards of sunlight, add to the drama.
It’s turning into a glorious day and we spend the rest of the morning driving around Wast Water, which, at 79m, is the deepest in the region. Its depth creates an inky blackness, which makes you wonder what lurks in the depths...
And what of the RF in all this? Well, it’s been a riot, just as expected really. Narrow and nimble enough for the topography and you don’t need to dive for the kerb/hedge/drystone wall every time a towering 4×4 comes lumbering in the other direction; this is the sort of terrain that makes a mockery of supercars and their owners. True, you might want for some supercar-style power every now again, but that’s largely when you’ve been caught out and lost vital momentum. Otherwise there is no hardship in working the rev-hungry 2.0-litre engine and enjoying the mechanical interaction with the precision gearbox and its six ratios.
And what of noise with the roof retracted? Well, travelling companion, Alison, an experienced MX-5 owner and driver, is convinced that the gap above our heads is responsible for generating a bit of a din and certainly noisier than any roadster MX-5, with its soft-top folded. I’m inclined to agree, but I reckon you only really notice it when at a steady cruise and above 60mph. Otherwise, buzzing around with your speed fluctuating and enjoying the drive, it’s not a deal breaker. Interestingly, Editor Fraser thinks we’re talking nonsense, so maybe there is a perception thing going on here.
One other thing before we head for home... In the three days that we’ve been on the road, the RF has averaged an impressive and real world 40.1mpg. Not at all bad from a normally aspirated, high revving, petrol engine.
So goodbye to the Lakes. It’s been fun and a very different kind of driving adventure, one that has tested not just the car, but the driver (and passenger), too. And the RF sure beats walking...
And what of the RF in all this? Well, it’s been a riot, just as expected really
Lakeland Motor Museum, Ulverston lakelandmotormuseum.co.uk
The Campbell exhibition at the Lakeland Motor Museum is well worth a visit. This is a replica of Donald Campbell’s ill-fated K7 jet boat
Below: Ignore signage at your peril. These passes are some of the steepest roads in the UK
Left: The picture doesn’t do the gradient justice on this 30% section of the Hardknott pass, that has the RF scrabbling for grip
Bottom: We enjoyed putting the RF through its paces. Total MX-5 jury is still out on wind noise factor
Long and winding road. Early morning descent of the Honister pass. MX-5 is perfect size for these narrow Lakeland roads
The RF hogs the picture. Behind is Wast Water, deepest of the lakes at 79m. What lurks in those depths, you wonder…