You've got to feel for off-roaders. Seemingly reviled by nearly every other countryside user and with ever-greater restrictions placed on where they can drive, it would be easy to feel victimised. Even fellow petrolheads can't resist the odd snigger, the 'gripped, sorted' stereotype still resonating years after The Fast Show's Simon and Lyndsay were last on our screens.
To add insult '4x4s' have gone mainstream, the go-anywhere image co-opted for lifestyle posturing by drivers who wouldn't be seen dead with mud on their tyres. So you'd be forgiven for thinking the dedicated hardcore would be an embittered and defensive lot, wary of piss-taking from one side and public opprobrium on the other. But when we meet our fellow Jimnyists for an attempt at Gatescarth Pass you couldn't wish to meet a cheerier bunch.
Inspiration for this caper came some months previously as snapper Sim and I hauled up the same for an aborted mountain bike shoot. To distract from the slog I found myself pondering "I wonder if you could get a Jimny up this?" The seed of an idea was planted but I soon discovered the terrain isn't necessarily the biggest challenge for driving 4x4s in the Lakes.
Anti-4x4 sentiment is well-documented, especially in places where recreational visitors have very different ambitions for a day out in the countryside. Meanwhile some of the more hysterical reporting would have you believe the locals wave pitchforks at anyone who dares enter the National Park in anything more lairy than a Land Rover Discovery. The reality, inevitably, turns out to be rather more nuanced.
Gatescarth Pass is a Lake District classic and once among many such routes across the region. Now there are just a handful, access to them coordinated through the National Park and various user groups. Cumbria County Council's 'Hierarchy of Trails' initiative meanwhile works with volunteer groups like Cumbria Trail Riders Fellowship and the Green Lane Association, publishing detailed guides as to when and where enthusiasts on two wheels or four can responsibly get mud on their tyres. There will always be idiots out to spoil it for everyone. But, by and large, mutual respect and a sense of responsibility prevails.
On Gatescarth a Traffic Regulation Order manages access through permits, of which just 12 are available for 4x4s on the single day the pass is opened to traffic in summer months. If you were dreaming of going full Trophy Truck over it with your new Ranger Raptor don't bother turning up - it would rather go against the spirit of responsibility but, more pertinently, there's also a wheelbase limit of 100 inches, restricting it to Defenders, Jimnys and the like.
Having successfully booked a Jimny and picked a date I discover a further complication - you can only drive the pass in multiples of two (and a maximum of four) and I don't have any off-roading mates. So to the BigJimny forum, my 'need a buddy for Gatescarth' appeal lighting up the message board.
There's obviously a lot of curiosity about how the new Jimny will fare among the fanboys, most of whom haven't seen the new one in the metal before. Riccy, John and Adam are my nominated collaborators, their willing +1s joining the fun to help with gates or just enjoy the spectacle of a have-a-go numpty in a press car potentially getting way out of his depth. As we gather at Tebay services my bravado is somewhat diminished given how undernourished our totally stock Jimny looks in terms of ride height, tyre swagger, tow hooks and winching gear. I'm definitely lacking in the waggly aerial department too. Previous suggests it's up for the challenge. But for this kind of terrain 195 section street tyres on 15-inch rims look dangerously puny. Ah well, nothing ventured...
At the gate at Mardale Head I nervously ask the marshal checking permits if he thinks we'll be OK. "If an old Series I can do it I reckon you'll be fine," he says, peering over his clipboard.
Without further ado our merry little band is off, the loose rocks and tight corners offering an immediate taste of what's to come. I'm in low-range from the get-go, though truth be told the road gearing is pretty frantic, even in supposed 'high range'. Safe to say, motorways are not the Jimny's forte. This is though...
The going is best described as bouncy, the Jimny jiggling over the rocks with its revvy little 1.5-litre motor howling away in second gear, tyres clawing at the loose ground. There are no diff locks but the brake-nibbling traction control does an effective job of grabbing a spinning wheel to send power to where it can be best deployed. Given the short wheelbase that does result in frequent diagonal lurches this way and that but already the Jimny is showing its tenacious side and seems untroubled as the gradient steepens. I am somewhat reassured, though aware there's tougher to come.
Challenging enough without being too demanding and with a proper 'out there' vibe this is a good trail for a novice off-roader in a borrowed car. Noting the branch-scratched flanks of the other Jimnys I'm glad to see Gatescarth is mainly open and free of paint-bothering vegetation. Admittedly the rocks are a constantly moving test of traction and commitment and there's the odd worrying clonk from beneath. But the Jimny's clearance seems enough to be getting on with and it cheerily scrabbles its way over anything in its path, its lack of weight a huge advantage. True, a fit hiker would probably cover the same ground just as quickly, but the opportunity to be out in such epic landscape is such a privilege, especially for the knowledge we're doing it responsibly and with official sanction.
Things start getting a bit tougher as we climb further. A section of tight hairpins raises the game in terms of steepness and ground conditions, loose rocks now interspersed with unyielding shards of bedrock hungry for sumps and diff casings. There's reasonable exposure on the outside turns too, every lurch towards the precipice making my heart jump. Some of bends are tight enough to warrant a couple of goes, even in something as short as a Jimny, rather explaining that wheelbase limit.
I'm in first gear now, striking a balance between rock-crawling caution and maintaining momentum with carefully timed bursts of throttle. From there it's a case of gunning it, reaching for the long gearstick and enjoying the properly mechanical feeling shift, grinning and repeating. Frankly the Jimny is romping it, occasional scrabbles as wheels lift in the air over before they've begun, rock gardens dismissed with a cheeky hop, skip and a jump. The cheeky character promised by the looks is more than delivered on by the way it behaves in the rough, put it that way. By the time I crest the summit I'm almost wishing it had been a bit harder. So I use the excuse of going back to pick Sim up to have another go.
If anything going down proves trickier than coming up, though a stab at the Hill Descent Control button helps rein it in, the creaks and groans as it feathers the brakes on individual wheels proving it's doing its job. Even 3mph seems a little much though, first and low range easing us over some of the bigger steps. After some tight, loose hairpins the terrain eases off, verdant pastures on the valley floor now visible between the brooding peaks. If Gatescarth hasn't quite delivered on the epic in terms of terrain it's more than compensated with the scenery.
What's more, all our interactions with fellow green-laners, enduro riders, hikers and mountain bikers have all been entirely affable, everyone conscious we need to present a friendly face and going out of their way to be super courteous. Local footpaths and bridleways round my way have sprouted 'Be nice, say hi' signs of late - for all the talk of friction between different user groups this approach seems to work here in the Lakes too.
We regroup at the bottom, I'm feeling pretty chuffed and it's smiles all round. Then the maps come out, sidelong glances are made at our plucky little Jimny and murmured plans are hatched. "Ready to give it a proper test now?" ask the Jimnyists.
SPECIFICATION - SUZUKI JIMNY SZ5
Engine: 1,462cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual, selectable four-wheel drive, low-range transfer box
Power (hp): 101@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 95@4,000rpm
Top speed: 90mph
MPG: 35.8mpg (WLTP combined)
CO2: 178g/km (WLTP)
Price: £17,999 (before options/as tested)
With special thanks to all the guys on www.bigjimny.com; for information on Gatescarth driving permits see the Lake District National Park website
PHOTO CREDIT: SIM MAINEY