Standing proud at 1,904 feet above sea level, the sign at Hartside Summit proclaims that this section of A686 is called Hartside Pass. It ascends from Cumbria’s Eden Valley and according to AA Magazine, it’s one of the top ten drives in the world. With a steep gradient and notorious bends it provides a zigzagging journey to the heart of the North Pennines. From this viewpoint, you can see across the Solway Firth and straight to Scotland. No matter where you look, you’ll be greeted by magnificent views of barren, windswept fells and big skies, as well as rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle and contented sheep.
Hartside Pass is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as I sat on that wooden bench to contemplate the scenery I found myself agreeing with the smug claim. It’s no wonder so many poets and writers found their inspiration with the landscape in this part of the country. It is so peaceful and isolated that it’s hard to imagine people ever went up there for anything other than serenity and maybe to clear the voices in their head and put everything back into perspective. But as I look out from the summit’s viewpoint, what really impresses me about Hartside Pass is that it’s associated with this guy:
McAdam was born in Ayr, Scotland and the word “tarmac” is named after him (for Tar McAdam) to honor his contribution to the field of road construction. He is credited for designing the world’s first modern roads. McAdam was an engineer involved in the colliery and ironworks business. Sometime in the 1820s he was tasked by the Alston Turnpike Trust to build Hartside Pass to provide an efficient means of transporting products of the mining companies operating in the area. According to Craig David, McAdam
“discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear.”
The method made roads a lot cheaper to build. There was still a need for surveying routes, but the actual labor could be performed by unskilled locals who’ll work for a pittance during their free time–when they are not working at the mines. Just see these charming guys here, lovingly and not at all condescendingly depicted bearing their exploitation with a grateful smile:
I bet they loved this.
Hartside is near the border between England and Scotland. Transport was difficult, unimproved until the 17th century because of the unstable relationship between the two countries, plus there were the border reivers.
So McAdam, a younger son of an impoverished baron, was responsible for the greatest advancement in road construction methods since the Roman times. The “macadam” principle is still utilized today for road maintenance, mostly with asphalting. Considering the unremitting rugged condition of the Pennines, Hartside Pass is a remarkable human achievement.
McAdam was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but as I look around from my spot at the summit to take in the harsh and poetic scenery, my thoughts are occupied by the anonymous villagers depicted on the viewpoint sign. Their names are lost in history, their lives remain mostly untold, but the road they built is still here. I doubt they made much money for all their toil, but I give them a silent thanks before making my equally unnoticed but infinitely less significant journey back home.