Five Great British Climbs

Words by Tom Epton

Britain is not what one would describe as an alpine nation, our highest peaks top out at around 1300m and the highest paved road in Scotland is not quite 700m. But this doesn’t mean Britain does not have some iconic, steep and difficult climbs. This list is not exhaustive but does include climbs from the London 2012 road race to the hill in the Hovis advert. Britain is full of top-class climbs for you to attack – here’s five of the best.

Cairnwell Pass

Length – 8.17km

Average Gradient – 4%

KOM time – 17:17

The longest on our list by quite some distance, Cairnwell Pass is able to boast that it’s Britain’s highest paved road at 670m. It’s in the Scottish Highlands and at its summit is a Ski Centre. One mile from the top is a beautiful double switchback turn known as The Devil’s Elbow which pitches up to 17%. Don’t let the shallow average gradient fool you, this climb is tough, long, possibly quite cold, and has some steep ramps.

Road in Scottish Highlands

Pen Y Pass

Length – 3.88km

Average Gradient – 6%

KOM time – 8:25

This is probably one to avoid at the height of tourist season as it’s popular with hikers visiting Snowdon. The road was built in the early 19th Century to get ore from the mines on Wales’ highest peak down to Llanberis. As well as the road’s interesting history, challenging gradient and decent length, it has a café on the top – which by all reports is quite good. The KOM on this hill was set by hill-climbing legend Dan Evans. He managed to average 448W for over 8 minutes. I think it might be time to have a go at that…

Benbradagh from Legavallon

Length – 4.41km

Average Gradient – 7.3%

KOM time – 17:18

With only 124 Strava entries this is a lesser-known climb, but with an average gradient of 7.3% and a brief descent in the middle, this is a tough one. Situated in Northern Ireland near Dungiven, the climb splits the peaks of Benbradagh and Boviel. It has a few twists and turns on the steeper pitches near the top which reach gradients of up to 23.4% according to GPS data. Benbradagh is the 564th summit on the island of Ireland, so if hills are your thing (and you’re reading this so they probably are) then it might be time to head across on the ferry. The mountain was used as a military base from World War 2 up until the 1970s and is popular with paragliders.

Box Hill

Length – 2.50km

Average Gradient – 4.7%

KOM time – 4:33

This is a selection that some will execrate while others will cheer. The reality is – Box Hill is iconic. The scenes of the road race flying past the crowd lined grass bank and up the hairpins were magnificent. Since the games it’s turned into a cycling Mecca, especially for the inhabitants of Surrey – rarely will you be the only cyclist on the climb. The Strava segment is insanely competitive too with 107,755 entries. The fastest time up was set in July 2021 by Zeb Kyffin who managed 499W average. The fastest woman up Box Hill was ‘Greti B’ in a time of 5:19.  Anything under 6 minutes up this climb is very competitive. This climb also has a café at the top which is run by the National Trust.

Gold Hill

Length – 0.16km

Average Gradient – 16%

KOM time – 29s

Cobbled climb
The Hill featured in Britain’s favourite advert, Nick Fewings – Unsplash.

A somewhat rogue final entry into this list with a different profile, Gold Hill, also known as the “Hovis Hill”, is a steep cobbled climb in Shaftsbury, Dorset. It has maximum pitches of 22% and is a climb that would fit nicely in Flanders. Getting up this climb is a challenge on account of it being viciously steep and cobbled. This road found fame in 1973 as a Hovis (the bread people) advert depicting a cyclist struggling up walking his bike and absolutely sending it back down once he’d delivered the bread. It was ‘Britain’s favourite TV advert’ at one point in time. Can you beat the Hovis boy and ride all the way up? It would be amazing if we could send a bike race up this hill, imagine the drama! Just be careful on the way back down, cobbled descents are sketchy at the best of times, let alone when the gradient is -16%.

Britain is not an alpine nation but it does have, across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, a varied series of long twisty, short cobbled and iconic climbs. This list is by no means exhaustive and has left out famous climbs like Hardknott Pass, ‘The Struggle’ and the beautiful Cheddar Gorge. There’s a huge list of stunning, tough and rewarding climbs for you to ride up and (safely) bomb down the descents. From Box Hill to Benbradagh The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a wonderful place to ride a bike.

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