Away from the not-so-smart motorways and commuter belts, the UK has some wonderful high roads and slow lanes, rewarding not only for the landscapes and views they discover, but also for the stories they tell. Here are seven worth exploring.
A tour of Lancashire
The A580 dual carriageway, or East Lancs Road, links Liverpool to Manchester and when it was completed in 1934, it was the UK’s first purpose-built intercity motorway – or, rather, the first new motorway to be built since Roman. times. Other original roads were laid over old routes, and this was true even of the motorways that came later.
It looks straight-as-an-arrow when you drive it, East Lancs has several conclusions, as does Leith, where it heads north to round Chat Moss – the famous peat bog that a major challenge for the builders of Liverpool and Manchester. Railway.
It could be argued that the move from the train to the motor car is a sign of such a new road, although the visionary builders of the A580 have added a cycle path along its length. Cyclists like that the road is generally flat, passing below bumpy Billinge – at 587ft the regional high point – near St Helens, as well as several other former mining and mill towns on the Plain. West Lancashire.
Border battlefield green
Not to be confused with the nearby Roman Military Way, the Military Road, a 31 mile section of the B6318 between Heddon-on-the Wall and Greenhead in Northumbria, was built in 1746 under the orders of General Wade, who to improve it. logistics between forts and barracks to support the English army against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders.
It formed part of a network of such roads which includes today’s West Highland Way and parts of the National Cycle Network. After Culloden, troops were garrisoned throughout Scotland using General Wade’s roads.
The road crosses three counties and crosses a national border. The Hadrian’s Wall highlights of Vindolanda and Housesteads, Muckle Moss National Nature Reserve, Aydon Castle – the focal point of border investigations in the Middle Ages – and the Twice Brewed Inn in the village of Once Brewed all lie within it.
Britain’s most northerly road
The Innes, with its dramatic cliffs, beaches, islets and Iron Age coves, might not sound like the sort of place you’d go on a driving holiday. But the long road from Sumburgh airport to the top of Unst – the UK’s most northerly point (a bit higher than Oslo) – makes for a stunning Patagonia-like journey through the archipelago’s strangely bare and rolling hills.
Both car-ferry crossings slow things down and are like decompression chambers: the further you travel, the quieter you feel. The people of Shetland will happily explain that this is because you are always putting more distance between yourself and the den of vipers such as Edinburgh and London (they call their big island the Mainland). The southern section is the A970, passing Lerwick.
From Hillside, you look north east on the A968, around the coast and around the Sullom Voe oil terminal before crossing Yell and Unst. The B9086 will be needed to finish the job, arriving at the Hermaness National Nature Reserve to celebrate your high latitude – until the local big skates (known here as bonxies) start diving and combing your hair with their claws hooks.
Searching for Eleanor Crosses
Every day Londoners walk past Queen Eleanor’s Memorial Cross in the forecourt of Charing Cross station without a glance – and without relating it to the place name. The original 12 Crosses of Eleanor were placed by the unfortunate Edward I after the death of his wife, Eleanor, in 1290.
There was no political demand for his marriage to the daughter of Ferdinand III of Castile in 1254 but it was passionate and productive; they had 16 children (although only a few were adults).
Eleanor accompanied Edward on crusade and is said to have saved his life at the siege of Acre in 1272. She was traveling north with him to fight the Scots in November 1290 when she succumbed to a fever and died. Only three of the medieval crosses have survived, at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross.
Other sites, listed here, are marked by fragments, replicas, memorials and, at St Albans, a bell tower, which lend themselves well to a slow, stop-and-go drive up the M1 and A1 (Great North Road) – with romantic/ecclesiastical journeys according to the map – ending at Lincoln Cathedral, where Eleanor’s viscera were buried.
The UK is littered with unfinished road projects, from Outer London Cross Way to Liverpool’s inner city motorway. The M67, designed in 1967, was designed as a trans-Pennine highway to connect Manchester and Sheffield, two of England’s largest conurbations.
The website Pathetic Motorways debates whether tunnels or bridges should be allowed to carve out the Peak District, the UK’s first national park, which has totemic significance for access campaigners.
The road was proposed following Beeching’s reports that the Manchester-Sheffield railway through Woodhead had been closed. But the motorway was never built, except for a five-mile section that serves as a bypass for all but the people of Denton and Hyde which is the downtown asphalt canyon.
It’s not the shortest in the UK though, not even close: the M898 in Renfrews is less than a mile. Drive the M67 as an amuse-bouche to the main course of either the Snake and Woodhead passes it was intended to replace.
You can only drive along the north and south ends of the ancient byway of Rooley Moor Road, formerly known as Catley Lane. In the middle ages it was used to bring wool to Whalley Abbey, the ecclesiastical power base of the region.
Today it connects Rochdale with the Rossendale valley, and much of it is known as the ‘Cotton Famine Road’. When the American Civil War halted the cotton trade, Lancashire mill workers sent a letter of support to Abraham Lincoln in 1862; he responded personally, recognizing the hardships the people were facing.
Instead of leaving local workers unemployed, the Board of Guardians responsible for administering the Poor Law tasked them with improving a 1.5 mile section of the moat road. About a third of a million brach were laid; it is called the Yellow Brick Road because of the cream-coloured cobblestone. At 1,500 feet it is a great place for views, and is popular with walkers, runners and cyclists. Read more at rmnf.org.uk
The Wonders of Wales
Wales has a number of split roads, such as the A465 Glenhead Road and the A40, which runs from Fishguard to High Holborn. But the A470 is a fantastic cross-Britain road, especially valuable as there are no motorways running north-south (there are hardly any). Cardiff people who want to see the north must travel the 186 miles of this, their nation’s longest road, all the way to Llandudno.
It tells the industrial and cultural history of Wales along the way, passing by or through Tiger Bay, Merthyr Tydfil (iron), the Rhondda valley (coal) and Blaenau Ffestiniog (slag), Bunchley National Park, the Green Desert of Wales and mighty Snow.
He even manages to go around Llanrhychwyn, home to the oldest parish church in Wales. In 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program called The Welsh M1, hosted by Cerys Matthews, about the A470 – which is still available here.