The deceptive B5305 presents a driving challenge all of its own
We tour Britain in a Ford Fiesta ST to seek out the country’s best stretches of tarmac for driving pleasure
When it is your job to convey the passion and joy of driving, it’s a problem when that thrill is no longer easy to achieve. I live in the south-east of England, and whatever the car, driving in this part of the country is not a lot of fun. Short journeys in mileage can be epic in time taken. And even when the traffic is not at a standstill it’s so dense that overtaking and making progress is almost impossible. Speed limits and cameras I can cope with; there is little one can do with congestion.
But I’ve not given up, it has just required a shift in attitude and approach. To really enjoy driving in 2019 you will have to make an effort, almost by recreating a past in which families would ‘take the car out for a drive’ as a recreational pursuit on weekends. If you live where I live that means travelling some distance to find great roads, and while it might be a bit of a slog to get to them, it’s worth it when you arrive.
To prove the point I’ve asked a quartet of colleagues to name their favourite roads and I shall go and drive them. Andrew Frankel, Dan Prosser, Matt Prior and Richard Bremner have each come up with a strip of asphalt that is fixed in their memories; place where they’ve had memorable drives often in unforgettable cars.
What car to take? Not a supercar. Cars such as McLaren’s 720S and Ferrari’s 488GTB are too fast, too stressful, too big and too unsubtle. My first choice was an Alpine A110, but that was out of the question because photographer Luc Lacey would like to take at least some of his kit. So we’re driving a Ford Fiesta ST – not because we’re trying to be particularly worthy or down to earth, but because it is a supremely good car that I know, from driving it on its launch in France, will be perfect. To prove the point that effort is required, my first task is to drive to Inverness airport to pick up Lacey from where we will proceed to Matt Prior’s road of choice: the A82 from Fort William through Glencoe.
The drive to Inverness went well thanks to a 4am start to avoid the worst of the traffic down south and in the Midlands. The only glitch was having, for time’s sake, to use the A9. With average speed cameras for most of its length from Perth to Inverness, it is possibly the most irritating stretch of road in the British Isles. I rarely use cruise control but it is essential on this road in order to keep the licence clean. With Lacey and kit on board we head west alongside Loch Ness and the Caledonian canal. It’s mid-afternoon on a week day yet there is hardly any traffic and the Fiesta ST has more than enough performance to overtake the slower cars we do come across. Here’s another great thing about driving in Scotland: people up here still know how to drive fast. Their skills have not been blunted by half a lifetime spent crawling around the M25.
We overnight in the fabulous new youth hostel at the base of Ben Nevis. I’ve spent more than enough of my life staying in business hotels and prefer the simplicity and atmosphere of places such as this. You get a proper breakfast and the company is often inspiring.
The weather is absolutely foul: poor visibility and teeming rain. I first drove through Glencoe in 1988 while following a fabulous event called the Ecurie Ecosse Scottish Tour. The highlight was a local policeman arriving at a coffee stop asking if it would be possible for the GT40 to “keep it under 150mph through the Glen”. I’d never been to Scotland before and the combination of the Highlands – it was glorious weather – and a smattering of Ferrari GTOs, SWBs and C and D-Types made for an experience that I’ve never forgotten.
Different weather today but the upside is that we are virtually alone. Better still, the conditions have put off racing cyclists. Nothing wrong with them, I joined their ranks this year, but they have to be given a wide berth and be passed at low speed. That said, the real pleasure is unimpeded progress, not going flat out. It’s another reason for not bringing a supercar, because even in these conditions the scenery is breathtaking and you want to be able to enjoy it – which is difficult when you’re trying to wrestle with 500bhp-plus.
The best scenery comes as you pass through the high ground but I also love the open expanses as you drive past the ski centre. We stop for something to eat at the Real Food Café in Tyndrum, where vegetarian Lacey is impressed by my choice of a vegan full Scottish breakfast (although not so much a few hours later when I fail the WLTP emissions test) and is amused by my perusing of a 2002 British road atlas. Sorry, but there’s no substitute for a paper map when you’re planning the logistics of a 1600-mile road trip. Our next road is in the northern Lake District, chosen by Richard Bremner.
I’ve known Bremner as a friend and colleague for more than 30 years. Only James May has a worse sense of direction so I’m rather intrigued by Bremner’s choice of the B5305. It runs from Junction 41 of the M6 (the Penrith exit) to a village called Wigton. As Bremner points out, it doesn’t look much cop on the map but is a belter when you get there. He’s not kidding. The road is only 18 miles long but it is quite unlike any I’ve driven. You lose count of the number of crests and dips, provided you’ve managed not to go straight on at a couple of very tricky tight corners. This is a road that needs to be driven with a fair amount of discipline. Ignoring solid white lines, for example, would be suicidal because you could hide a nuclear submarine in the dips. But it’s quiet and there are plenty of long, flat straights on which you can overtake safely.
The weather has perked up quite a bit and there are great views to the south of the Cumbrian mountains. The B5305 is a road that you should drive when you’re visiting the Lake District, especially as the roads around the lakes themselves and the more popular towns and villages are often clogged with cars, particularly in the spring and summer. A wang down this B-road will clean the spark plugs, that’s for sure.
It’s now Andrew Frankel’s turn to provide us with a heart-pumping thoroughfare. For this we have to cross the M6, negotiate Penrith town centre and pick up the A66, which we will follow until we reach the A1.
Our destination tonight is Kirkbymoorside at the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. The weather comes in again as we cross the Pennines on the A66. It’s slow going, but the A3 in Surrey, for example, would be a stop-go nightmare in such conditions. From the A1 we head south a few miles, turn left for Thirsk and arrive at Kirkbymoorside’s George and Dragon hotel in time for a pint and supper. Couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed in this hostelry. Or the names of some of the cars we’ve parked out the back.
Frankel’s road goes from the town itself up to the hamlet of Castleton. Glencoe gave us vistas and dramatic landscapes, Bremner’s B5305 delivered topographical surprises and intrigue, this one offers a pure driving challenge. The weather is again dire, which is bad news for Lacey but good for keeping traffic away. The Fiesta is fabulous here. It’s certainly one of the best hot hatches I’ve driven, with only a couple of Renaults (the Mk2 Clio Trophy for one) bettering it. The three-cylinder engine is fabulous and its 200bhp is more than adequate for our roads.
Frankel mentions a yumping opportunity on this road. I remember it well. Do you recall an Autocar journalist called Peter Haynes, from the 1990s? A terrific driver who today races a Lotus 11. Unfortunately his first day at Autocar was an off day. He jumped this famous crest in a Porsche 911 and on landing removed enough metal from the car’s sump to let all the oil out. It seized a few miles further down the road. If a vegan breakfast isn’t enough to prompt a jet stream of derision from Frankel then failing ‘to get air’ under the Fiesta will finish me off in his eyes. Actually, I forgot that in order to achieve a good flight you need to approach from a northerly direction. Or I could simply be getting sensible in my old age.
Now to our final road, the suggestion of young Dan Prosser. It’s the road from Bala to Ffestiniog. I’ve driven this road so many times I didn’t even have to spell-check Ffestiniog. Kirkbymoorside to north Wales isn’t exactly a dream drive but the M62/M6/M56 were at least free-flowing. We follow the A55 along the top of Wales until we turn south for Denbigh and a lovely late afternoon thrash along the B4501 to Bala and the welcoming bar of the White Lion Royal Hotel. This is another long-time haunt of ours. I haven’t stayed here for some years and it’s recently been done up. So in fact has Bala itself. Lacey and I eat in the excellent Y Cyfnod Café and Bistro, which certainly didn’t exist last time I was here.
In the morning we leave Bala on the A4212 and follow it for a couple of miles as it runs alongside Lake Bala until we come to a left turn signposted to Ffestiniog and Prosser’s beloved B4391. It’s a good choice. I remember a twin test along here between the then-new Porsche 968 and Mazda RX-7. The Mazda’s ride was unbelievably stiff but the turbo rotary engine made up for that. Not that the Porsche was comfortable, either. More fun than either, though, was an AC Cobra, but the yellow stripe up my back was narrower in those days.
Heading west to Ffestiniog the road goes from open and swoopy into a mountain pass section with a wall on its left-hand side, and from here you can see across to Snowdonia. Just before this section there’s the Pont Yr Afon Gram café. It seems to be closed today but I remember it for its fabulous cakes. Great for stopping off for a warming cuppa while you leave the photographer to clean the cars on a cold and wet winter’s photoshoot.
It has been a tiring four days but my batteries are recharged. Driving in Europe is still fabulous but it’s expensive to cross the channel at short notice and northern France isn’t brilliant for driving roads. But what is my favourite road? It’s the A894 from Kylesku Bridge up to Durness on the north-west coast of Scotland. The scenery is not just the best in the UK, it’s world-class. It’s part of the North Coast 500 tourist route and thanks to its popularity can get busy with motorhomes in the summer. I last visited in the autumn and it was empty. That really is a long drive from London but it’s worth it – worth it to keep a passion for driving alive.
Our tester’s best roads combined
We made the right decision to use motorways for the boring transit stages between our favourite roads. Crossing from the North Yorkshire Moors to north Wales via A-roads would have been misery. Leaving the south at 4am was a masterstroke. If you want to make good progress, drive at night.
Matt Prior: Scotland has the best, quietest and most spectacular roads in Britain. When my parents retired, they toured the country in a motorhome, and I said I’d stay near them on the Isle of Skye for a few days. I took a Peugeot 106 GTi. It was 16 years ago and my first time on those roads. There are bendier, more ‘fun’ roads but none of them has blown me away as much as a stretch of the A82 as it runs towards Glencoe.
Andrew Frankel: Ullapool to Durness up the west coast of Scotland is wonderful but a frightful fag to get to, so instead I chose the road across the North Yorkshire Moors from Kirkbymoorside to Castleton. Beautiful views, incredible road, super quick, a good pub and one decent jump, best done southbound. I can remember flying an SLS Black over it. It’s where we drove the McLaren F1 in 1994 (and jumped that too), but my best ever drive was in a slightly tuned F40 claimed to have 650bhp. Unforgettable.
Richard Bremner: B5305, Cumbria: look at it on the map and you won’t see a lot of curves, but this road has many crests and troughs. Ford’s M-Sport use it sometimes, I presume because it’s open, quiet and fast enough to get air over a succession of crests if you’re bold. The straights allow for overtaking, the few bends challenge your braking skills. Big moments for your reporter? Inadvertently getting air in a Mustang GT, being rear-ended in a Honda CR-V, remembering where some of the curves actually are and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Dan Prosser: The B4391 that runs between Bala and Ffestiniog has it all. The road itself and the scenery that surrounds it are breathtakingly pretty, which is why the B4391 has featured countless times in every car magazine in the land. I love it because it has a brilliantly smooth surface, the likes of which we so rarely see here in the UK, and it just seems to flow. You can really get into a rhythm because it pours from one corner to the next. I’ll never forget driving a McLaren P1 through heavy fog on this road.
This article was originally published on 19 January 2019. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.