It's time to head for the hills and explore the lanes around Windermere, Keswick and Buttermere for a drive with a difference
We take the new Alpine A110 on a drive around the twisting roads of the Lake District, up Hardknott Pass and The Struggle.
The Hardknott Pass is arguably one of the UK’s most challenging roads to drive. Slap-bang in the middle of the Lake District, it zigzags up a steep hill like one of those fire escapes on the side of a tower block, with each switchback requiring two full turns of the steering wheel and a very deep breath. After the summit, where your bonnet points briefly skyward as you pray there’s nothing coming towards you, the single-track road slaloms down the other side before finally unravelling along the valley floor.
All right, so it’s about a thousand miles from the Alps, and you wouldn’t want to hear the locals yodelling, but the corkscrewing Hardknott is an appropriately twisty place to bring the first all-new Alpine in over 30 years. The brand – pronounced the French way, naturally – has been brought back to life by Renault, its parent company since 1973. And what you see here is its comeback car, the A110, which like its ’60s/’70s namesake is a lightweight, compact coupé made with the mountains in mind. Wherever they may be.
With the tangled tarmac of the Hardknott behind us we drive straight into the adjoining Wrynose Pass, which runs like a stream between hills so enormous they make the Alpine look like a Matchbox model. From here we head east to Ambleside and the Kirkstone Pass, heading up via a steep lane known locally as The Struggle. Years ago, cattle drovers who made it to the top were rewarded with a tankard of something brown and frothy in the Kirkstone Inn. We’re driving, so we don’t indulge – our reward is two lanes of petrolhead heaven, where finally we can stretch the Alpine’s legs a little.
The perfect driving road?
Our next stop: the Newlands Pass. Linking Braithwaite to Buttermere, it begins as a country lane before turning into a three-mile ledge cut into the mountainside. Halfway along it passes the cascading Moss Force waterfall – 100 metres from top to bottom – before spiralling down into Buttermere and around to the Honister Pass, possibly the greatest alpine road this side of the actual Alps.
The A110 really comes alive on a road like this. It’s light in your hands. It changes direction quicker than a housefly. It threads neatly between the drystone walls. To change gear in manual mode you pull a cold, sickle-shaped paddle – once you’ve tried a double-clutch ’box as reactive as this one, you won’t miss a gearstick – and each shift kicks you up the road with surprising gusto. It’s wonderful.
Other similar lightweights, like the Lotus Exige or even the Alfa Romeo 4C, are stiffly sprung and feel like they’d rather be on a smooth racetrack. The Alpine is different. A lot of this is down to the all-round, double-wishbone suspension, which soaks up the sort of lumps and bumps you find on real roads, yet still provides plenty of support around corners. In other words, the more you lean on it, the firmer it gets. It’s proof that a car doesn’t have to be stiff to be sporty.
After a while (not long enough on this joyous drive), we park at the slate mine at the top of the pass. If we’d have pulled up in an illuminous Porsche, people would have looked away. In the Alpine, they walk over. Some want to reminisce about the original. Others just want to know what it is, and how much it costs. The answer is £50,000. Now, to some people that’s an unfathomable amount to spend on a car full-stop, let alone one with just two seats and nowhere to put your weekly shop. To others, it’s a £50k investment in a piece of engineering excellence. And that, really, is what the Alpine is all about. Do you really need to drive across mountains to enjoy it? Maybe not. But you’ll have fun finding out…
Discover more great road trips around the UK
Lake District route highlights
Wrynose and Hardknott
You can trace these routes right back to the Romans. Indeed, you can still see the remains of the dramatically-sited Hardknott Fort at the western end of the Pass.
Links Windermere to Ullswater, where you can take a trip around the lake on one of the old screw-propelled vessels (now powered by diesel rather than steam).
Not the most exciting road, but at least it delivers you to the Whinlatter Forest, with its excellent mountain bike trails and other adventures.
The least famous but most dramatic of all the Lake District’s passes. Stop at the top for a good view of Moss Force waterfall.
Done driving? Try climbing the 648-metre Fleetwith Pike on the Via Ferrata with its iron footholds, rope bridges and tightrope walks.
Save on your stay in the lakes with Boundless
Parkergate Cottages are beautifully situated near Ullock Pike and Skiddaw in the northern Lake District, and beautifully appointed too. A perfect base for exploring the area, Boundless members benefit from discounted rates at each of the seven properties, and it’s worth looking out for last-minute deals on the website too.