Unsuitable for Motors?

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One of our members recently brought to light an article from MOTOR SPORT dated January, 1985 — “The Motor Mountaineer” — outlining the exploits of the famous photographer George Abraham who, in the 1920s, enjoyed pioneering the `Passes’ of the English Lake District in various contemporary vehicles. This subsequently became the embryo of an idea within the Lakeland Historic CC to reconstruct his route and, with Coniston as the base, embody it into a two-day event for pre-1940 vehicles. It is proposed to mount the event within the next year or so, and thereafter run it regularly, depending upon support (or objection).

Most of the roads, such as Hardknott, Wrynose, Honister etc, have reasonable metalled surfaces and, while they are often of severe gradient over long distances, are quite practicable and indeed used and enjoyed by the local `fraternity’. However, it is the still unsurfaced tracks which are of most interest and it seems that, of Mr. Abraham’s roads, the only impractical track is that section of fell-road from High Tilberthwaite, near Coniston, over to Little Langdale and then via Bridge End Farm to Fell Foot, to join the Wrynose road. The same narrow bridge on which the Daimler became jammed still stands sentinel over that rough winding lane.

The locals of the day at High Tibberthwaite were reported as `dubious’ at Mr. Abraham’s intent but, isolated as they must have been so far away from any highway carrying these new fangled machines, would hardly be able to judge his car’s capabilities. The more knowledgeable young farmer and his wife, the present incumbents at High Tibberthwaite, pronounced with total certainty that the hill is now impassable, neglect and water having taken their toll. However, it has yet to be put to the test; after all, if the VSCC can ascend the Drum House from the summit of Honister… Foolstep from Skelwith Bridge towards Red Bank is surfaced, and neither hill presents any problems. Kirkston, Dunmail, and others mentioned, are now merely steep main-roads.

I am sure Mr. Abraham would be very familiar with Ullet Nest from near the Britannia at Elterwater, over to Little Langdale. It is still rough and has a steep gradient of about 1 in 4 initially, but is manageable. He would also know the ford across the infant Brathay from Little Langdale Village, near the Three Shires Inn, which links up with the Tibberthwaite road. This is still navigable provided one remembers to take a semi-circular route in the water, using the footbridge as diameter. Posts in the beck used to indicate the way, but these have now gone, and the “Access Only” sign on the approach road further discourages motorists from even approaching. The riverbed is rough and the far bank gravel, edged by a vertical sill of tarmac making the one point of escape desperate, even on 19” wheels and with handsome ground clearance.

It would be appropriate to re-trace and use the old road over Wrynose, as vestiges of the unsurfaced track still remain, linking into the much-straightened metalled road, particularly between Wrynose Bridge and the summit where the Three Shire Stone still stands, proclaiming Lancashire, now sadly an anachronism in this lonely part of the amalgam called Cumbria. It is not so far back in history when neither Cumberland, Westmorland nor Lancashire desired to own, or go to the expense of surfacing, this tract of road where their boundaries met, each I suppose claiming that the track was on the others’ territory, so one dropped off the roughly spread concrete highway into a rutted track across rock and bog. Primeval stuff indeed, and just what Mr. Abraham and his contemporaries would encounter as a matter of routine and think nothing of, their pulses still racing from the thrill of the steep mountainside.

Incidentally, I think that the photo of Kaye Don testing Avon tyres was taken on the Eskdale side of Hardknott, where the gradient is a severe 1 in 3 and still something of a test of adhesion on a wet day. And yes, Manchester did build a new hotel on the shores of Haweswater to replace the Drowned Dun Bull at Mardale, but that calamity is another story.

The same issue of MOTOR SPORT carried an article on the Speed-Model Hillman which, as Abraham did, tackled some of the Dales hills. Summer Lodge Hill from Askrigg is now a popular surfaced road. The Stake out of Bainbridge is still unsurfaced throughout its length from Stalling Busk (an apt name) but is in reasonable order on that side and its summit at 1,836 ft is eventually reached without too much difficulty. Surely this must be one of the highest motor roads in the country? The descent to the Aysgarth/ Buckden road, however, is steep and rough, with large boulders topping the limestone pavement, and is not for the faint-hearted. The gradient will be about 1 in 4 and is about at the limit for cars. This is 4-wheeldrive country. But George Abraham’s spirit of adventure is far from dead. It is amazing what these old cars can do in the pursuit of enjoyment, with large diameter wheels, good ground clearance, and all the torque low down in the range. The car used for the above routes was the author’s 1933 7 hp Jowett flat-twin tourer which, whilst Yorkshire-born, was Westmorland bred, and still knows what hard work and rough going are. Some of your readers may be more familiar with at least the old Dales roads mentioned, and might like to add some constructive comment on these destructive highways and help our plans come into being.

George Nicholson Events Secretary, Lakeland HCC