Away from the not-so-smart motorways and commuter belts, the UK has some fantastic trunk roads and slow lanes, worth exploring not only for the scenery and sights 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 completed in 1934, was the UK’s first purpose-built inter-urban motorway – or, less prosaically, the first major new road to be built since Roman times. time. Other main roads were built over old roads, and this was even true of the motorways that came later.
The East Lancs looks dead straight when you drive it, but has some kinks, like at Leigh, where it curves north to bypass Chat Moss – the famous peat bog that posed a serious challenge to the builders of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
The appearance of such a major new road probably marked the shift from train to car, although the visionary builders of the A580 have built a cycle path along its length. Cyclists like the fact that the road is generally flat and passes below Billinge Lump – the regional high point at a measly 600 feet – near St Helens, as well as several other former mining and mill towns on the West Lancashire Plain.
Not to be confused with the nearby Roman-era Military Way, the Military Road, a 30-mile section of the B6318 between Heddon-on-the Wall and Greenhead in Northumbria, was built in 1746 by order of General Wade, in charge of improving logistics between forts and barracks to support the English armies against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders.
It was part of a network of such roads, including today’s West Highland Way and parts of the National Cycle Network. After Culloden, troops were stationed across Scotland by General Wade’s ways.
The road spans three provinces and crosses a national border. The Hadrian’s Wall highlights of Vindolanda and Housesteads, the Muckle Moss National Nature Reserve, Aydon Castle – a focal point of frontier skirmishes in the Middle Ages – and the Twice Brewed Inn in the village of Once Brewed are all next door.
Britain’s most northerly road
The Shetlands, with its dramatic cliffs, beaches, islets and Iron Age brochs, might not sound like the sort of place you’d head to for a driving holiday. But the long way from Sumburgh airport to the top of Unst – the northern end of the UK (a wee bit higher than Oslo) – makes for a beautiful Patagonia-like drive through the archipelago’s strangely barren and rolling hills.
The two car ferry crossings slow things down and are akin to decompression chambers: the more you travel, the calmer you feel. Shetlanders like to explain that this is because you put more and more distance between you and the viper holes in Edinburgh and London (they call their big island the mainland). The A970 is the southern section, past Lerwick.
From Hillside you veer north-east on the A968, following the coast and around the Sullom Voe oil terminal before crossing Yell and Unst. You’ll need the B9086 to get the job done and arrive at Hermaness National Nature Reserve to celebrate your lofty latitude – until the local great skuas (known here as bonxies) start dive-bombing and combing your hair with their hook claws.
Looking for Eleanor crosses
Every day Londoners walk past the Queen Eleanor Memorial Cross in the forecourt of Charing Cross station without batting an eyelid – and without connecting it to the place name. The original 12 Eleanor Crosses were erected by a disconsolate Edward I after his wife, Eleanor, died in 1290.
His marriage to the daughter of Ferdinand III of Castile in 1254 was politically unpopular but passionate and productive; they had 16 children (although only a few lived to adulthood).
Eleanor accompanied Edward on a crusade and is said to have saved his life at the siege of Acre in 1272. She traveled north with him to fight the Scots in November 1290, when she succumbed to a fever and died. Only three of the medieval crosses survive, at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross.
Fragments, replicas, memorials and, in St Albans, a clock tower mark other sites, listed here, which are well suited for a slow, stopping drive down the M1 and A1 (Great North Road) – with romantic/ecclesiastical detours according to the map – ending at Lincoln Cathedral, where Eleanor’s entrails were buried.
The UK is littered with unfinished road projects, from the North Cross Route in London’s suburbs to the motorway in Liverpool’s inner city. Designed in 1967, the M67 was planned as a trans-Pennine motorway to link Manchester and Sheffield, two of England’s largest conurbations.
Contributors to the Pathetic Motorways website debate whether tunnels or bridges should have carved out the Peak District, the UK’s first national park and of totemic significance to access campaigners.
The road was proposed after the Beeching reports led to the closure of the Manchester-Sheffield railway line through Woodhead. But the highway was never built, apart from a five-mile stretch that serves as a bypass for all but the people of Denton and Hyde for whom it is a city center asphalt canyon.
However, it’s not the shortest in the UK, not even close: the M898 in Renfrewshire measures less than a mile. Drive the M67 as an amuse-bouche to the main course of the Snake and Woodhead passes it was supposed to replace.
The road to the cotton famine
You can only drive along the north and south ends of the old side road Rooley Moor Road, formerly known as Catley Lane. In the Middle Ages it was used to bring wool to Whalley Abbey, the region’s ecclesiastical power base.
Today it links Rochdale to the Rossendale valley, and much of it is known as the ‘Cotton Famine Road’. When the American Civil War brought the cotton trade to a halt, Lancashire factory workers sent a letter of support to Abraham Lincoln in 1862; he answered personally, acknowledging the hardships the people had endured.
Rather than leave local workers unemployed, the Board of Guardians, charged with administering the Poor Law, tasked them with improving a 1.5-mile stretch of road through the moor. About a third of a million cobblestones were laid; the cream-colored gritstone has led to it being called the Yellow Brick Road. At 450 meters high 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 some great roads, including the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road and the A40, which runs from Fishguard to High Holborn. But the A470 is a fantastic trans-Wales trunk road, particularly appreciated as Wales has no north-south motorways (there are hardly any motorways). Cardiffians wanting to see the north should drive the 300 kilometers of this, the longest road in their country, all the way to Llandudno.
It tells the industrial and cultural history of Wales along the way, passing Tiger Bay, Merthyr Tydfil (iron), the Rhondda Valley (coal) and Blaenau Ffestiniog (slate), the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Green Desert of Wales and mighty Snowdonia.
It even manages to bypass Llanrhychwyn, home to Wales’ oldest parish church. In 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program called The Welsh M1 hosted by Cerys Matthews over the A470 – still available here.