What comes to pass

My son taking a picture looking down Kirkstone Pass towards Brotherswater
The route up to Kirkstone Pass from Ambleside is known as The Struggle due to the steep gradients


I took a week off work recently and spent some precious time with my boys in the Lake District. It was one of my dad’s favourite parts of the world and I have many fond memories of holidays there as child, so was keen to share it with my own children.

It is impossible, in a single column, to cover all the wonderful sights we saw, so I am going to focus on one must-see – Kirkstone Pass.

I can’t remember the last time I went, but I reckon it was more than 20 years ago, so I’d forgotten just what an amazing route it is. Rising almost 1500 feet above sea level, the A592 road links Windermere and Ullswater. It used to be a drovers’ road busy with farmers driving their livestock southwards and it made me shudder to think how hard it must have been having to climb what is in parts a 1 in 4 gradient in all weathers without the aid of motorised transport. There is another route from Ambleside up to the top that is known locally as ‘The Struggle’ due to its punishing gradients.

I was accompanied by my 23-year-old son who isn’t the most outwardly expressive of souls, but I knew he was impressed, because whenever we stopped he took out his fancy DLSR camera and spent several minutes taking shots of the spectacular views.

The pass is named Kirkstone thanks to a huge boulder near the peak whose silhouette resembles a church (‘kirk’ is the Scottish and old English word for church). At the peak, there is an old inn which purportedly dates from around 1496, and is considered one of the most haunted in England. That claim intrigued me, as I love an old ghost story (I wonder where I inherited that from?).

We stopped at a car park nearby, and as I looked down the snakelike route towards Brotherswater, watching the steady stream of vehicles making their timid ascent, I did wonder about days gone by, when travellers had to rely on real horsepower to get around, and when cars were not as sophisticated and powerful as they are now. How did they cope with such a long and hazardous climb and descent?

Back home I delved into the online British Newspaper Archives, looking for the earliest stories I could find about Kirkstone Pass. Sure enough, there was tale after tale from decades past of mishaps, blunders and accidents involving coaches and horses, bicycles, motor cars and wagons, a good number of which resulted in fatalities (is that why the inn is so crowded with ghosts?).

I was captivated by the oldest which dated from the late 19th century, and what struck me were the overtly salacious headlines. There were no photographs to grab the attention back then, just swathes of grey type swimming before the eyes. So editors relied on man’s insatiable desire for tragedy and bloodshed to draw readers in (things haven’t changed there, then, have they!).

From the Penrith observer in 1890, we have ‘Shocking Coaching Disaster – Two Lives Lost’, and in 1893, the Maryport Advertiser declares ‘Alarming Carriage Accident – A Lady’s Leg Broken’, while in 1912, the Lakes Herald declares ‘Terrible Motor Smash on Kirkstone Pass – 1 Killed, 4 Injured. Car Turned Bodily Over’. In terms of horse-drawn carriages, it seems a common cause of accidents was either a wheel coming off, or part of the mechanism failing as the carriages tried to navigate the steep descent. For motor vehicles, it was generally the brakes that were unable to tolerate the momentum of vehicles gathering speed as they hit the steepest points.

The news stories back then were written in a much more flowery way that would likely be ridiculed today. As a preamble to the point of the story – the accident – we learn all about the victims’ holidays, how they had spent the previous days, what hotels they’d stayed in, how jolly they were when they set out that day, and how captivated they were by the fabulous scenery as they traveled towards their doom. It is a bit like an episode of Casualty. When we see a character having too good a time, we know that a disaster awaits them just around the corner.

Thankfully, despite the fact we had a good time, my son and I made it to the bottom all in one piece.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 22nd July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 20th July 2022

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