Wriggling through Somerset’s damp, pockmarked lanes gives me a much-needed opportunity to acclimatise to my new vehicle. I feel simultaneously a component of the landscape and of the machine – I’ve strapped myself deep inside the car, but there are no doors and no body panels, which means I can reach out and touch the glistening grasses that line the roadside.
I’m driving a Nomad, a preposterous vehicle developed and built by Somerset-based firm Ariel. These are the same mechanical wizards that made the legendary Ariel Atom, a stripped-down track car with an exoskeleton and an impossibly low kerb weight. Now, they’re taking those same principles off-road.
That means I’m joined by a four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated engine and not much else. It’s minimalist motoring and, despite the contrast between this and the competently ordinary 1.5-litre Focus I came to Somerset in, I’m enjoying it more than almost anything else I’ve had the pleasure of driving.
(The men and women who work in the Ariel factory near Crewkerne are very much car people. After a cup of tea and an exchange of keys, they quickly showed me their latest invention – a small remote-controlled car, the performance of which has been 'upgraded' to veritable roadworthiness. An estimated top speed of 55mph is quite formidable at ankle height.)
Last night’s storm has greased the tarmac with bark, mud and leafy oomska. Ariel hasn’t fitted traction control, assisted braking or any other electronic driver aids to the Nomad, a decision that makes the car almost sentient on winding roads. But I’m not here for winding – in fact, I’m looking for one of the straightest roads in England.
The Fosse Way is a Roman road that (for the purposes of this exercise) links Exeter with Lincoln. Parts of it existed before the Romans arrived, and much of it has been gobbled up by modern-day A-road, but it’s notable for its unwavering straightness – it’s perfect to within just over six miles for about 190 miles, starting just north of the Ariel factory. I’m planning to drive the entire length of it, all the way to Lincoln – if I can only find my way out of Crewkerne.
It takes 15 minutes to escape the town (and the startled looks of its inhabitants) and find my way to Dinnington. Plunging into a dank wooded valley I encounter a perfect fork, the engine’s roar and the exhaust’s crackle bouncing off the road’s steep, fern-covered banks. The road ducks and dives through the trees but by the time it emerges, it has changed character completely. It passes a pretty thatched house, a pub and some pasture. But most important of all, it’s straight.
The ancient route clearly runs further west than this sleepy village – Dinnington was home to Romans, as evidenced by an exquisite mosaic recently ploughed up in a nearby field, but it was nowhere near as significant to the empire as Isca Dumnoniorum, the town on the site of modern-day Exeter, where the Fosse Way probably terminated. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen this as the starting point because of its proximity to my vehicle’s birthplace, because it’s where the route starts to be straight, and because it’s where the word “Fosse” first appears on the map.
Cracks in the clouds let the sun light the road ahead. This is an exceptionally pretty part of the world, and I’m on what can only be described as a trundle. But my journey through Somerset’s pastoral scenes comes to a jolting halt only a few miles into my journey, as the Fosse Way joins the 21st century.
As I roar onto the dual carriageway, the A303’s Roman ancestry is obvious. We’re used to “modern” roads being sagitta-straight, which makes it easy to ignore the ancient geometry that gave us so many routes we use today. This stretch from South Petherton to Ilchester owes its path to the Romans, despite what the white lines and Armco barriers might suggest.
Parts of the original route pass through Ilchester, before crossing under the A303 just west of the Podimore roundabout. It then joins the A37, an unbelievably straight, fast road and an opportunity to stretch the Nomad’s legs a little.
Nothing old as the Fosse Way could survive to the year 2017 unscathed. I'm forced to take detours – one diverts the road around a farmhouse (understandable) and a wiggle near Pylle, presumably because of the topography. But between Shepton Mallet and Oakhill the ancient path is largely off-limits to anything wider than a horse. I follow the original route as closely as possible, making empty promises to myself about returning one day on my bicycle.
The car – if you can call it that – weighs so little that my right foot has an immediate effect on my velocity. It also has an effect on my temperature. Without any real protection from the elements, the faster I go, the colder I become. My right side, exposed as it is to spray, rain and a self-inflicted 60mph gale, has become damp, grey and freezing. I can barely feel my right hand by the time I reach Bath, so just outside the city I don the gloves and waistcoat given to me by Ariel – these plug directly into the Nomad’s electrical system and heat me up like a petrol station hotdog.
The route of the Fosse Way through Bath is difficult to plot, so I spend some time stuck in traffic being unsubtly photographed by passers-by. I cross the Avon, climb back up to the other side of Bath, then eventually escape the town through Batheaston and what used to be RAF Colerne.
This isn’t what the Nomad was designed for, though. I could easily have come this far in a Hyundai i10. But a few miles north of Bath, that’s no longer a possibility – I howl through a tunnel under the M4, and the Fosse Way changes character once more.
A small junction between the idyllic villages of Grittleton and Littleton Drew marks the point at which the Nomad’s off-road abilities become useful. From here, the Fosse Way is a byway, open to motorised traffic but muddy, rutted and closer to a farm track than a road.
It's cold now, and the deep craters in the road's surface are filled with freezing water. Without doors or even a proper floor, the occupants of a Nomad are susceptible to the prevailing weather conditions. The plastic seats accumulate moisture which is then heated by my toasty gilet, resulting in a not wholly unpleasant sensation similar to being stewed. I trundle on into the gloaming, like a bright orange, 235bhp fricassée.
The huge roof-mounted spotlights are invaluable as dusk looms, hiding as it does so the Fosse Way's more hazardous blemishes. It’s not in itself the most challenging byway I’ve seen, I note, but my progress is certainly helped by the huge, knobbly tyres and the frankly brilliant suspension that I’ve brought with me.
Just as important is the Ordnance Survey app on my phone. Instead of bringing a sheaf of paper maps (I’d need about a dozen for the entire route to Lincoln) I’ve downloaded the smartphone version, which is considerably more compact. It has certain disadvantages over the old-fashioned versions, including its propensity to run out of battery, or to erroneously tell me (with some certainty) that I’m in the Bristol Channel, but it also fits into a 2in by 5in rectangle, which fits into my inside pocket – probably the only dry place in the car.
However you choose to consume the maps of the Ordnance Survey, they represent essential reading for anybody planning an off-road journey, whether on foot, on horseback, by car or on a bicycle. There’s something mesmerising about an OS map; you can look at any single square kilometre in the United Kingdom and discover a house, or a tumulus, or a country lane, or a level crossing, or an ancient trade route that slices through two millennia of British history.
It’s probably the public rights of way that are most intriguing. My engine restricts me to the road network, and some byways. Denoted by a distinctive pink dash-cross-dash on OS maps, byways open to all traffic are numerous in the south-west of England. Many fork off from the Fosse Way; many more are draped over the hills and forests across the countryside. But bridleways are more numerous, and footpaths are almost everywhere – in many ways, a car is a hindrance rather than a help when exploring.
Furthermore, there are large parts of the ancient route that aren’t accessible. Some bits just aren’t passable in a car, especially not one that you like. Fords often present an opportunity to test the wading capabilities of your car, but those found on byways frequently exceed sensible depths. Some stretches have been closed to the public altogether, such as the part that is now underneath the Cotswold Airport at Kemble.
Upon discovering this, I detour through Culkerton and on to the A433, which is full of rush-hour traffic. The accumulated mud takes this as an opportunity to exit the many notches of the Nomad’s chunky tyre tread and enter the freezing cocoon of the cabin, splattering me and everything I own.
The sun has set, and the first flakes of snow begin to fall as I puncture the bustling propriety of a Waitrose car park. Corinium – now Cirencester – is about a third of the way into my journey, and my first proper stop. I’m freezing, soaked, I have been personally gritted, and have hundreds of kilometres ahead of me.
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