The English Lake District is renowned for its wild walks but my trip to Hardknott Roman Fort proved to be wilder than I’d anticipated.
Spring is one of my favourite times of year in the Lakes but it’s also when you can experience four seasons of weather in 24 hours.
Overnight there had been snow on the top of the hills around Eskdale but by the time we started our walk to the historic fort, the ice had given way to a brief sunny interlude.
With spirits high, we set off to the top of Hardknott Pass but, just half an hour later, gale force winds started to howl around the fells and down through the valley below.
Perhaps this wasn’t the best day for a walk to the Roman Fort which is perched on an exposed rocky pinnacle, but we’re hardy folk so decided to brave the elements.
Ascent to the top
Hardknott Fort was once one of the furthest-flung outposts of the Roman empire, founded under the Emperor Hadrian’s rule in the 2nd Century.
The Romans called it Mediobogdum and at 800 feet it’s one of the highest Roman forts in Britain. It’s also one of the wettest and boggiest – perhaps that’s where the ‘bog’ in its name comes from?
The remote and dramatically sited fortifications overlook the Hardknott Pass which once formed part of the Roman road from Ravenglass to Ambleside and Brougham at Penrith.
The ascent involves weaving your way up a steep hillside to the fort which is perched on an exposed rocky spur overlooking the verdant Esk valley below.
As you clamber up the hillside, there are great views down the valley and over the fells with beautiful panoramas as you ascend higher and higher.
But this beautiful area is renowned for being wet, wild and windy especially in the winter and spring, so it’s essential to kit yourself out in walking boots, thermals and warm outdoor gear.
We parked 200 metres from the start of the walk next to a farm but the route to the fort on our Ordnance Survey map didn’t seem to exist when we got onto the hillside.
After a few detours and a diversion through a farm, we thought that we’d found the right route to the top.
As we scrambled up the steep bank, the wind ripped through ever stronger and it wasn’t long before I found myself clinging to a stone wall for shelter.
Not to be defeated, we ploughed on, even though the conditions were getting boggier and the icy rain had started to lash straight into our faces.
My partner, Tony, loves this kind of adventure so he was enjoying the bad weather whilst I muttered and cursed that we’d lost our way and I was cold!
I began to understand why this must have been one of the loneliest forts in the Roman Empire. I could only imagine how cold and bleak this place must have been for the Roman soldiers living and working in this exposed landscape.
It must have felt a very long way from the baking hot climate of their homes in sunny southern Europe.
Built between AD 120 and AD 138, the construction workers would have toiled in all weathers to build this magnificent garrison which became home to a detachment of 500 cavalry from the 6th Cohort of Dalmatians.
The fort was abandoned during the Antonine advance into Scotland during the 2nd Century but was reoccupied again around 200 AD when it continued to be used till the end of the 4th Century.
After the fort was abandoned it is thought to have been used to provide temporary shelter for passing travellers, packhorse groups and patrols.
I can imagine why they found this to be a sanctuary from the weather. In winter the Hardknott Pass, the main historic route between Coniston and Ravenglass, was frequently blocked by snow and remains so even today.
We were cold despite wearing every layer of clothing pillaged from our camper van, from waterproofs and fleeces to under-layers and over-trousers. In fact we were so well ‘togged-up’ that we looked like models from an outdoor clothing catalogue – half Bear Grylls, part Ray Mears.
We do know that the Roman soldiers here wore leather outer garments and shoes as fragments of these have been found during archaeological excavations. A far cry from wearing thermal gloves and waterproofs.
On the day we visited, even the super-hardy Herdwick sheep had descended down the hillside to avoid the battering by the weather. We were the only people mad enough to make the journey to the top but felt a sense of achievement once we’d reached the summit.
Tony kept telling me that it wasn’t a tough climb. Sure it wasn’t like hiking up challenging peaks like Scafell Pike or Helvellyn (both more than 3,000 feet). It wasn’t even in the same ball park – after all, this was a simple climb of 800 feet. But it was the bleak weather that made the ascent challenging.
On a hot, summer day this is probably a stroll in the park – especially when you discover the easy way up to the top – which naturally we didn’t find till much later in the trip!
Roman life on the hillside
Hardknott is an undeniably spectacular hilltop location so it’s a thrilling experience to experience the ruins of the fort which are impressive in their own right.
If you’ve enjoyed trips to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, you’ll love Hardknott which is equally powerful and evocative with an interesting insight into life on a remote outpost in the Roman Empire.
The fort is entered through its main gate which originally had two carriageways. You can only marvel that any Roman chariots and carts could actually reach this precipitous location with supplies and provisions.
Looking down from the highest point, it seems incredible that anyone but the toughest of tough army units could have survived up here in winter. It says a lot for the determination of the Romans that they toughed it out for so long.
Once inside the Roman fort, there are impressive ruins of a commandant’s house, barracks and two granaries surrounded by four stone walls with what would have been gated entrance areas.
Stand by the commander’s residence and you’ll get a sense of life at the top of the military food chain. The commander enjoyed a privileged position but, despite the large house with a courtyard, this was not exactly a luxurious villa. The howling winds and cold winters would have made this an exposed and remote place.
On the other side of the fort, I was fascinated by the granary where there is enough left of the buildings to enable visitors to get a pretty good idea of how it would have looked.
You can see the remains of the granary floors which were raised on piers to allow free circulation of air and reduce the risk of infestation by vermin.
One of my favourite buildings is the bath house which would have had three adjoining rooms – a frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium – plus a circular building called the laconicum which was a type of sauna.
The sauna had its own furnace and operated in a similar way to a modern sauna. After my freezing cold walk to the hill-top, I can understand why the Roman soldiers might have enjoyed unwinding here!
Looking beyond the immediate fort, you can also make out the remains of the parade grounds (uphill from the fort) on a flattened area of grass. This is where the soldiers would have practiced their drill manoeuvres.
It’s thought that the Roman soldiers would have been housed in leather tents – and remnants of these have been recovered during excavations. Despite the tented shelter, it must have been extremely cold, especially in an age before sleeping bags and thermal underwear.
Close your eyes and you can imagine the sound of the soldiers undertaking military manoeuvres and keeping watch over the camp.
Strangely, I’ve also heard the story of how two visitors standing alone on the fort a few years ago thought they’d heard the ghostly sounds of the soldiers marching across the site in a weird paranormal experience.
No ghosts were evident on our visit but these old stones are full of ghostly memories stretching back 1,800 years.
The wrong way round
With our blustery visit to the fort complete, we descended but I opted to take the shorter route back to the road below because the wind was blowing me off my feet.
Imagine my surprise when I spotted a small parking bay only 200 metres off the road up the pass! We’d come up completely the wrong way round along the steepest and most exposed route to the fort.
Tony defended his navigational skills by explaining how much fun it was to have a wild adventure rather than using ‘the easy way up’. I nodded, rain dripping off my nose and the wind ripping the coat almost off my back. Guess he was right in a strange, masochistic way.
It could have been worse. At least I wasn’t working in the army construction unit which built the Roman road over the Hardknott Pass back in the 2nd Century.
The Romans called it the Tenth Highway and it laid the foundations for today’s modern road over the top of the hills. The original Roman road has long gone, destroyed by tank training during the Second World War.
But the modern road over the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes is amongst the most scenic drives in Britain.
Despite the weather, you have to admit that this is one of the most spectacular Roman sites in Great Britain with its stunning location. Next time, I’ll be back when it’s sunny and warm!
Tammy’s Top Tips – Hardknott Roman Fort and Pass
Hardknott Roman Fort is located at the Eskdale end of the Hardknott Pass in the western Lake District in northern England. Together with the Wrynose Pass, it connects Eskdale with the Central Lakes and provides a great scenic car trip across the top of the hills.
During bad weather in the winter, the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes can become impassable so time your visit carefully and check weather forecasts before leaving. During the busy summer holiday season, the passes can also become difficult to navigate due to the number of vehicles, the narrowness of the road and the many tight Z-bends.
Hold on to your seat belts, you could be in for a wild ride. Part of the road is single track although there are some passing places. The road is wide enough for camper vans but is best taken in a low gear. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Ambleside.
Hardknott Roman Fort is an English Heritage and National Trust site but don’t expect to find any visitor facilities, cafes and toilets. Signposting to the fort isn’t great and it doesn’t make it clear which route to follow to the top of the Roman fort. There are two main parking areas – a larger site at the bottom of the hill and a small pull-in closer to the fort (which gets quickly filled up in summer).
If you’re feeling hardy, you can extend your walk up to Hardknott Roman Fort, taking in nearby Harter Fell and the Dunnerdale Forest.
Eskdale is a great place for a holiday break with my favourite small village destination being Boot, a 10 minute drive away from the Hardknott Pass.
Boot has a good quality campsite – the Eskdale Club – with space for motorhomes, caravans, camping as well as ‘glamping’ pods. The nearby village has two pubs plus a couple of small hotels.
Don’t miss the Woolpack Inn, near Boot, which boasts local beers, food and reasonably priced accommodation.