BRITAIN is a compact country but it offers something to suit all tastes, and cars, from winding switchbacks that let a roadster stretch its legs to ocean-side rollercoaster rides that provide panoramic views no matter what you’re driving. Worried about the traffic? Then rise with the lark and be back in time for brunch. Even commuter routes look different when there’s no traffic around.
The conventional wisdom is that you need to endure air travel and car hire for a rewarding road trip. But going abroad doesn’t guarantee open roads, as anyone who has experienced the queues on the Amalfi coast in summer will testify.
There are plenty of roads less travelled on your doorstep. So dust off that map and hit the highway. Here’s our pick of the best routes for a great British summer drive.
North Circular, London
- Best for Seeing the growth of London
- Distance 25.7 miles
- Time to go Early on a Sunday, when there are no commuters
Seriously? Yes, good things await those who dare to drive through the outskirts of London before sunrise. Now the A406, the road was completed in 1930. It became part of a plan for a network of motorways within the city in the 1960s but the idea was dropped. Begin at the Woolwich ferry terminal on the north bank and head towards Barking and past the M11 junction. From there, the road skirts Epping Forest, 6,200 acres of woods and marshland. The Lea Valley viaduct offers great views stretching from Canary Wharf to the City. Drive through the arches of the railway line from Euston to Scotland and past the Wembley arch. To your right is the Ace Cafe, which has been serving fry-ups since 1938. The final stretch enters leafy suburbs and ends at Chiswick roundabout, joining the more nondescript South Circular.
Black Mountain Pass, Wales
- Best for Empty roads
- Distance 20.5 miles
- Time to go Daybreak, as the sun hits the mountains
Jeremy Clarkson has proved that if you rise in the early hours in London, you can reach the Black Mountain Pass by daybreak. In his case, it was the perfect stretch on which to let a growly Mercedes CLK 63 AMG Black Series off the leash in an episode of Top Gear. The Sunday Times retraced his tyre tracks and found you can have fun there even in an estate car. This section of road is like a rollercoaster ride on tarmac. Visit it on a weekday and you’ll be able to count on one hand how many cars you pass; the only delays here are caused by sheep. Cutting across the Brecon Beacons, the route passes through Lower and Upper Brynamman, climbs to 1,600ft and then drops down to Llandovery, with more twists and turns than an aerobatic display team. It’s the perfect antidote for city folk who have spent too long at their desks.
Great Train Robbers’ getaway route, Buckinghamshire
- Best for Visiting the scene of a crime
- Distance 30 miles
- Time to go A weekend morning
It’s 1963, and in a country lane outside Leighton Buzzard 16 men sit beneath Bridego Bridge in Land Rovers and a lorry. On cue, the train stops overhead and the Great Train Robbers grab £2.6m. Much of the money was never recovered, but it’s doubtful any will be found in the roadside hedges running west towards the village of Mentmore. On a couple of sharp bends you can almost hear the echo of tyre squeals. Past Cublington, on the road to Whitchurch, you’ll get lovely views over the Vale of Aylesbury, but look out for the left turn at Quainton, signposted with a silhouette of a steam train. That’ll be the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, a working steam railway. The end of this route is Brill, where the gang hid out at Leatherslade Farm. Evidence found there ensured the members’ next great drive was to jail.
Sunset at Beachy Head, East Sussex
- Best for Roadsters and big skies
- Distance 15 miles
- Time to go Summer evening
A great drive is made even better by a great view. Beachy Head, at the southernmost tip of the South Downs, is a chunk of East Sussex that has one of the most scenic roads in Britain. The views from the chalky white cliffs are so spectacular, you’ll find yourself pulling over repeatedly to take them in. Pause at the unspoilt Tiger Inn, in East Dean, until the evening light is just right, then take the road to Birling Gap — watch out for the hairpin or you could end up at the foot of the Seven Sisters. Trace the road over the top and it tumbles like a helter-skelter into Eastbourne, where you can stop for fish and chips on the pier. There are few dwellings along the route. The most notable is the Belle Tout lighthouse, now a quirky B&B, so stay the night, if you have time, and watch the sunrise too.
Penrith, Cumbria, to Haydon Bridge, Northumberland
- Best for Getting things back in perspective
- Distance 38.2 miles
- Time to go Early morning, with breakfast at Hartside cafe
This is a storybook Pennine pass: rolling farmland gives way to zigzag bends, best enjoyed in a car with a manual gearbox that allows a well-timed heel-and-toe down-change or two. At the top of the climb, at 1,903ft, is Hartside, marked by a bikers’ caff, which does superb breakfasts. Then comes the view. The fells of the Lake District stretch into the distance, but squint hard through a gap in the hills and there’s Scotland. Carry on with the A686 and you can drive General George Wade’s military road, the B6318, along the southern edge of Hadrian’s Wall, before heading back south. The road was laid in 1746 to guard against the Jacobites. This route is best tackled in spring and summer: in winter, the A686 can be blanketed in snow.
Glasgow to Skye, via Ben Nevis and Loch Ness
- Best for A change of scene
- Distance 156 miles, and a ferry
- Time to go Autumn, for the colours
A single road takes in the Highlands’ greatest hits — Loch Lomond and Glencoe, Ben Nevis and Loch Ness. Exit at junction 30 of the M8, cross Erskine Bridge for dramatic views over the Clyde and head for the A82. Minutes later, you’re skimming along the banks of Loch Lomond at the start of an adventure that could leave you wondering if you really want to go home. From a crest in Tyndrum, drivers stare down across a vast, glacial valley flanked by ancient Highland bens. The scale is astonishing: it’s Iceland and Norway rolled into one. Yet there’s more to come. After Bridge of Orchy, you’re onto Rannoch Moor, which is Skyfall territory — time to perfect your best Daniel Craig impression as you traverse the brooding Buachaille Etive Mor mountain. Avoid the next stretch of the A82 from Loch Ness to Inverness: there will be caravanists galore driving at speeds slow enough not to upset their crockery sets. Instead, turn off at Fort William, following the A830 to the port of Mallaig, which has ferries across to Skye. Taking about four hours by car from Glasgow — or at least a week if you stop at every distillery, hill walk and bone-white beach along the way — it’s the most dramatic one-day road trip in Britain.