The Lake District

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS - Words: Steve Ben­nett Pho­tog­ra­phy: Antony Fraser

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

Wast Wa­ter

The RF hogs the pic­ture. Be­hind is Wast Wa­ter, deep­est of the lakes at 79m. What lurks in those depths, you won­der…

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