VSCC Lakeland Trial: A Devil of a Drive

Anyone familiar with England’s Lake District will know the challenges involved in tackling the formidable passes connecting mountains, meres, and valleys.

Some of the country’s best motoring roads are to be found in this isolated corner of northwest England, but even for modern cars the routes over Newlands, Hard Knott and Wrynose often present difficulties, especially in winter. And then there’s Honister Pass with its long, narrow and steeply winding ascent from Crummock Water and Buttermere.

Honister is wild and sinister even in the more agreeable seasons, but on a November day it is decidedly hostile with a forceful wind, verging upon gale strength, howling through the sheer-sided valley and bringing with it heavy rain, hail and sometimes snow.

Look skywards and you can imagine impending disaster should the mass of vertical rocks come crashing down as if struck by the Sword of Damocles. Such a scenario hardly excites to the extent one is compelled to brave all and negotiate the very essence of Hades in a car approaching 100 years or older.

Yet this is exactly what Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC) members thrive upon, this year being no exception when some 120 ancient machines showed their modern contemporaries the raw meaning of being driven over some of the most demanding roads found in the United Kingdom.

The VSCC’s annual Lakeland Trial is one of the toughest old car events, and one which tests machines, their drivers and trusting passengers to the limits. Climbing near to 1,000 feet to the summit of Honister Pass in a vintage car and enduring what seems an ice age is only part of the ordeal.

Having made the ascent there follows the chilling prospect of going off-road and scaling another 900 feet, this time over a steeply rising loose slate track that’s bedevilled with hairpin bends.

You’re literally scrambling up the side of the mountain and clinging onto the world by the depth of a tyre tread, all the time being reminded of a sheer drop of several hundred feet to induce an adrenalin rush.

Having driven up this stairway to the heavens, admittedly at the wheel of a Jeep, I confess it is scary to say the least. But attempt it in a 1920s Austin Seven or, yet more bravely, in an even older G.N — the first and best-known British cyclecar — and the whole affair becomes alarmingly daunting.

The recipe of light weight, skinny wheels and tyres, plus a not always ideal power-to-weight ratio, and not least some ‘bouncing’ on behalf of the passenger to help maintain traction over the difficult bits of terrain, helps enormously.

For Alvis, vintage Bentleys, Bugatti and Chryslers, not to mention Ford Model As, Frazer Nash, Lea-Francis, and Vauxhall 30-98s, the charge up Honister Pass and upwards to Honister Crag at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level is all about stamina and skill, and no less so than
for the little Austins, G.Ns, Rileys, Standards, Fiats et al.

The Lakeland Trial is not all about Honister, since the day-long event, starting at dawn and ending at dusk, sees an extensive list of other hill climbs and off-road tests through the forests of West Cumbria. It might not sound like fun but the whole event is built around spirited motoring, camaraderie, and the intimate relationship between driver and vehicle.

The first VSCC Lakeland Trial was staged in 1968, and 54 years on it is still as popular as ever and proving itself as one of the ultimate motoring tests. For as long as it continues, I hope to be there with my camera.

Originally published in the 2022 Winter Newsletter.