The past year and a half have given all of us time to ponder on the things we have missed most during an exceptional diversion from normality. Friends, family, and freedom have all been on pause. So too has travel, and the option to drive where we want, and when we want to. Now, though, the cuffs are off, Covid is receding, and summer is here, hooray.
So this is a time for getting back on the road for the sheer joy of it, and for both revisiting favourite roads and discovering new ones. It has made me reflect on some of the special places to drive that I have been fortunate to experience over the years. Places sought out by car makers to showcase the driving prowess of their newest models, in the hope of impressing hard-to-please motoring hacks. Roads well worth a trip to access them and relish the enjoyment they offer.
Some particularly special favourites are in beautiful Scotland. The Applecross road on the west coast is a very rewarding experience, both dynamically and scenically. It is a wonderful route for exploring the feel and behaviour of a car whilst also feasting your eyes and energising your mood and well-being. The road takes its name from a remote village in the Highlands, some 34 miles to the north-west of the Kyle of Lochalsh.
Known in Gaelic as Bealach na Bar, which means ‘Pass of the Cattle’, the Applecross road is almost entirely single-track as it loops, swoops and meanders its way round a peninsular through dramatically beautiful scenery. It is not for the faint-hearted, with a long-time and somewhat unusual roadside sign sagely warning that it is ‘not advised for learner drivers’. A bit of an understatement, that. It is an incredibly demanding road even for long-experienced ones. But what a joy it is if you love driving, do so with reasonable skill, and have a car worthy of such a treat. Visually and experientially, you win big time.
Scotland is very well endowed with amazing roads. The one through Glencoe is an obvious notable, although more for breathtaking views than dynamism. You are on an A-road, the A82, but totally dwarfed by mountainous scenery heading west towards Loch Leven. Continue north from there, and the road hugs the shore of another loch all the way to Fort William. Your car becomes a bit-player in a geographical drama.
Further north, above Wick and heading close to John O’Groats, are some wonderfully wild, windswept and mostly completely empty roads that are pure driving joy with their undulations and fast sweeping bends on hills high above the North Sea. For many years a nearby hotel, Ackergill Tower, was a huge favourite with launch-hopping motoring journalists, and regularly used by canny car companies keen to give their latest models a place to shine.
Housed in a folly of a 16th century stone castle, with waves lapping at its foundations, Ackergill is wonderfully quirky. Now privately-owned, it is sadly no longer accessible as somewhere to stay, but it was memorable. It had the welcoming glow of a Scottish house party ambience, and a penchant for after-dinner drinks down on the shore warmed by a blazing bonfire. But the main attraction of the place was its proximity to great driving roads across Caithness, including some inland routes where you can drive for much of the day without seeing another vehicle.
Wales has its fair share of those, too. For wild beauty and driving joy there is much to commend the terrain around Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir in Powys that supplies water to Liverpool. The roads are entertaining and enjoyably under-populated. A bit further north is the lionised ‘Evo Triangle’ that is famed among keen drivers as a place to explore the delights of their high-performance cars. Beware over-enthusiasm, though. Average speed cameras were installed on a key part of the route in 2019.
Over in Northern Ireland lies another great driving location, special both for driver engagement and great views. It’s the road you use to drive from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, and the best part is from Larne to Portrush. It clings to the very edge of the land, almost overhanging the sea for much of the way. At this time of year, some of it is fringed by wild-growing fuchsias, with their pretty ballerina flowers. All of it is a driver’s delight.
So what about great driving routes in England? Yes, it’s well endowed with them too, but we’re out of road for them, so it’s a topic for another time. I have some favourites, but I’d also love to hear some of your suggestions, too.