The windscreen is wall-to-wall blue, my bonnet pointing up so vertically it feels like the car could tip backwards at any moment and send me tumbling. I push my foot down harder on the accelerator and feel the lurch of the engine kicking in, propelling me upwards, seemingly into the sky.
On reaching the top of the pass I feel like I am teetering. I imagine cartoon legs wheeling in thin air. For a second it runs through my head – what if there’s no road over the hill? – but of course there is and the next second I am tipping forwards, straight on to the brake with my stomach still up on that hilltop. The brakes groan softly with the effort of it all and I am tempted to do the same. I feel like I am riding Tarmac waves.
This is no Alpine pass, no American moviescape. The scenery spread out below my wheels is all British, a patchwork of emerald grass and violet heather running between mountains denuded of all but gunmetal-grey rock. The fresh air in my nostrils is the pure, crisp breeze of Scotland and I cannot think of a time on any road trip, anywhere in the world, where I have been more in awe of the drive.
This is the Bealach na Ba, or pass of the cattle, the culmination of a road trip so grand in scale, so packed with postcard-perfect memories, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it epic. Forget Route 66, that overhyped US highway, for me there is no rival anywhere for our own North Coast 500.
This 500-mile (805km) route loops out from Inverness, a roller coaster in asphalt conceived in 2015 to bring tourism to the far north of Scotland. It has certainly achieved that: hotels must be booked months in advance and even the wildest of campsites see cavalcades of camper vans. But the route has always been there – we just hadn’t taken the time to discover what was beyond our front doors.
We have dozens of world-class road trips right here in Britain. There are short but spectacular drives such as Snake Pass in the Peak District and the B3135 through Cheddar Gorge. We have beachside curves to rival anything Australia’s Great Ocean Road or America’s Pacific Highway have to offer, such as the A379 at Torcross, Devon, and the road from Alnmouth to Bamburgh in Northumberland; and mountain passes aplenty to gawp at, from the Pen-y-Pass in Snowdonia to Buttertubs in the Yorkshire Dales.
We’re a compact island – no yawning drives toward a distant, shimmering horizon – and we have a density of places to stop, with the next sandy beach or charming village rarely more than a few miles further on.
For me, Britain’s most lovely scenery is in its rolling hills – the green and yellow patchwork fields, the crumbling drystone walls. I grew up in Devizes and driving out of town, from the earliest age, I would look to my right, down from the A361 to the village in the fold of the hills. To Bishops Cannings, its church spire standing proud amid the Wiltshire countryside. It remains my favourite view and it’s right on my doorstep.
Find out what’s on yours by trying one of these stunning road trips.
Three routes that reveal the best of britain
The Great West Way
This route between London and Bristol is anything but prescriptive and you can choose where you want to stop – or detour – along its 125 miles (200km). I suggest focusing on Wiltshire (I would, it’s my home county) and devoting a few days to driving from Marlborough to Bath.
Marlborough is all about chic boutiques and stopping for tea, though Britain’s second widest high street also offers the fascinating Merchant’s House, a grand 17th-century home (themerchantshouse.co.uk).
It’s a short drive to Crofton, where the Crofton Beam Engines – the world’s oldest working steam engines – still pump water to the Kennet and Avon Canal (croftonbeamengines.org). Follow the water west to Devizes for its attractive market place and a pint in the Victorian Wadworth brewery.
Drive on to Avebury, a prehistoric stone circle larger than Stonehenge – you can actually touch the stones here – and don’t miss West Kennet Long Barrow, a Neolithic tomb you can step inside (both free).
Harry Potter fans won’t want to skip Lacock, an idyllic village famous for its abbey, seen on screen in several of the films, while picturesque Bradford-on-Avon is worth a stop for its 14th-century Tythe Barn and pretty canalside walks.
Finish in Bath, visiting the Roman Baths (now open; romanbaths.co.uk) and strolling the Georgian streets.
The Coastal Way
Running the length of Cardigan Bay, this coast-hugging route runs for 180 miles (290km) to St Davids from fishing village-turned-seaside resort Aberdaron.
Make your first stop Mynydd Mawr headland for views across to Ireland and a spot of birdwatching, then drive to the surreal Italianate village of Portmeirion (portmeirion.wales).
You’ll skirt alongside Snowdonia National Park next, squeezing between the mountains and the sea, before arriving into Barmouth. Later, make for the Harbourmaster Hotel in Aberaeron, a violet-coloured gastropub that serves local fish and Welsh craft beers. Be sure to step outside for sunset, best seen from the harbour wall.
Britain’s largest pod of dolphins summers in the waters off New Quay; pull in here for a boat trip (newquayboattrips.co.uk) before continuing to Abereiddi to don a wet suit for coasteering (celticquestcoasteering.com). The route ends in St Davids, Britain’s smallest city, where the cathedral (stdavidscathedral.org.uk) is a highlight and the nearby beaches even better.
The North Coast 500
Most people spend just a few days motoring at speed past the NC500’s Highland scenery, but I say slow it down and allow at least a week. Skip up the east coast first, pausing for a dolphin-spotting trip from chocolate-box Cromarty (ecoventures.co.uk) and to tackle the Whaligoe Steps, a flagstone staircase that plunges down the cliffs.
Don’t be fobbed off by John O’Groats, Britain’s real northernmost point is untamed Dunnet Head, an RSPB reserve home to all manner of seabirds. You’ll find Dunnet Bay Distillers close by – pick up a bottle or two of Rock Rose gin for the folks back home (dunnetbaydistillers.co.uk). Further west, stop at vast Smoo Cave for a stroll inside the earth and pull over at Durness for secret sandy beaches.
Make time for Applecross, ascending the precipitous Bealach na Ba. Fly over the top of the pass and confront Skye’s Munros across the water. If there’s a better view in Britain, I’ve yet to find it.
Bear in mind that the route and accommodation can be very busy at peak times, so do book ahead.