The Kirkstone Pass

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Map - the Kirkstone Pass
Map – the Kirkstone Pass

In all my years of visiting the Lake District, I had never before been through the Kirkstone Pass. It sits between the lakes of Ullswater and Windermere, and is fairly remote from the northern and central areas I normally go to. But with the A591 road from Keswick to Grasmere still closed from the winter storms, this remote route is the quickest way to make the journey down to Ambleside.

Wordsworth, inevitably perhaps, wrote about the pass:

Within the mind strong fancies work,
A deep delight the bosom thrills,
Oft as I pass along the fork
Of these fraternal hills:
Where, save the rugged road, we find 
No appanage of human kind,
Nor hint of man;…

Who comes not hither ne’er shall know
How beautiful the world below;
Nor can he guess how lightly leaps 
The brook adown the rocky steeps.

The hills above the pass
The hills above the pass

His main concern was the feeling of absolute removal from the built things of mankind, and the way purely natural objects came to attain a significance beyond the normal. The pass gets its name from a large rock that has the shape of a church – a kirk. Along with that, he pondered, as perhaps most people do after reaching the summit of the pass, on the generations that had done the same journey: 

When through this height’s inverted arch
Rome’s earliest legion passed!

Now, on a purely objective scale, the Kirkstone Pass is the highest in Cumbria – nearly 1500′ – and it certainly feels that way. As well as a few hundred feet advantage over, say, the Honister Pass, the approach from Patterdale is so long and bleak that the sense of relief on getting to the top is very pronounced!

The Windermere valley in mist
The Windermere valley in mist

Now, on the day I was there, the most extraordinary sight awaited, with the Windermere valley stretching ahead to the south completely full of cloud. The way up had been under clear skies, and the mist was dissolving minute by minute. Already the side-road down – The Struggle – is becoming visible.

The Kirkstone Pass Inn
The Kirkstone Pass Inn

The Kirkstone Pass Inn has a sign suggesting to travellers that it has been in action since the 15th century. This is something of artistic licence, since for many of the intervening years the place seems to have lain in ruins. But – so far as one can tell – there has been a building on this spot serving drink to weary passers-by for many of those years. Every now and again, the sheer difficulty of getting there, and the bleakness of the existence in long cold winters, forced the occupants back down to the valleys. It is, after all, the highest inhabited house in Cumbria. But if you can handle the emptiness, it is a great place for a pub! On occasion, it has also served as a retreat for monks, presumably of an order that wanted to retreat from worldly distractions.

I also learned that this Inn is considered one of the most haunted places in England. Many of the apparitions are those of people who died tragically on the road – typically within sight of the homely walls but unable to reach them. These are – by repute, at least – benevolent towards the living. But other ghosts have a more sinister reputation, and tales are told of groups cancelling reservations after a first, sleepless night. I didn’t test out the ghost stories, but instead turned down the road to Ambleside, thinking to myself that there have to be some good stories that tap into the history of this place.

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