A scenic drive is the best way to enjoy Britain's hidden gems. Breathtaking views, dramatic coasts, romantic villages and secret valleys - sometimes there really is no better way to see them than on a leisurely drive.
Even though Britain's trains are a good way to get from A to B, quickly, nothing really beats a scenic drive every now and then. Besides splendid views and quiet back roads, these routes - my own British favorites - have plenty of charming villages and historic sights along the way.
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The route from Glasgow to Fort William - often called the gateway to the Highlands - passes through some of Scotland most famous, dramatic and historic landscapes. It's 108 miles on the A82 and can take as little as three hours - but give it a whole day because there's so much to enjoy and photograph. Head north along the shores of Loch Lomond and through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Soon you're climbing into in the Black Mountains with the bleak, beautiful Rannoch Moor to your right. The highway enters Glen Coe, scene of a tragic 17th-century massacre, from the east and for the next twelve or so miles, the glen surrounds you with amazing volcanic mountain scenery. The Three Sisters, pictured here, south of the A82, are best seen from the Three Sisters Point of View parking (GPS coordinates N56º 40' 3.72" , W4º 59' 11.4"), about 4 miles east of the Glencoe Visitor Center.
After Glencoe, at South Ballachulish, a bridge takes you across the... juncture of Loch Leven, to your east, and the giant sea loch, Loch Linnhe, then it's straight on up the A82, along the banks of Loch Linnhe to Fort William, with tantalizing glimpses of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the British Isles, on your right.
UK Travel Tips
- Take a detour If you have time for a short detour, turn right onto the B863 at the village of Glencoe, a few miles past the Visitor Center, and make a circuit of Loch Leven. The total drive is a little more than 16 easy miles. After the village of Kinlochleven, continue west along the north shore of the Loch - stopping at the Loch Leven Seafood Café for a bang-up meal of local shellfish - to North Ballachulish, where a right turn will take you back to the A82 and your original route.
- Keep going Stay on the A82 after Fort William and you drive the south shore of the very pretty Loch Lochy and the north shore of Loch Ness, all the way to Inverness.
- Take a short taster - Scenic drive number 2, directly below, travels a short stretch of this same road from Glasgow and along Loch Lomond. It's a good one if you only have a couple of hours to spare.
02 of 10
Drive North from Dumbarton along the west bank of Loch Lomond on the A82. It's about 26 miles to the top of the loch along a route of ever-changing views. Across the Loch, heather-covered, cloud-dappled mountains of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park give way, now and again to the deeply forested slopes of Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and Rowardennan Forest. Ben Lomond, the tallest peak in the area, darts in and out of view with every bend in the road. North of the little settlement of Tarbet, the Argyll Forest Park, to the left, crowds the road practically into the loch. A wonderful drive on an October afternoon when the low sun in the west lights the mountains with dozens of shades of heather.
03 of 10
The highest road pass in the Lake District, the Kirkstone Pass, at 1,500 feet connects the Victorian resort on the shores of Lake Windemere with Ullswater, a popular center for canoeing, fishing, and camping. High above the treeline, the stark and beautiful Lakeland fells are crisscrossed with stone fences and summer grazing meadows, interrupted only occasionally by a solitary tree. Go on an autumn morning, before about 9:30 am, when pockets of morning mist, still rising from the glens, give everything an ethereal quality. Take the A591 up from Windermere to the pass on the A592. The Kirkstone Pass Inn, at the top, stands on the foundations of an ancient monastery at least 500 years old. It's a pub that serves food, a B&B and a budget bunkhouse for walkers.
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Scott's View in Melrose, Scotland
The B6356, between Melrose and Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders, rises steeply above the valley of the River Tweed. At its highest point, it overlooks the Eildon Hills, three remarkable volcanic plugs that rise out of a relatively flat landscape. There's parking and a historic marker so that you can stop and enjoy Scott's View. It's called that because the author of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott, loved the view and stopped there often. According to legend, when Scott's coffin was being conveyed from his home at Abbotsford to his final resting place in Dryburgh Abbey, his carriage horse stopped, as usual, to give Scott a last look at his favorite view.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
People often ask me where they can go for a drive through picturesque villages and towns. While these are scattered all over the UK, they are not usually "on the way" if you are rushing from one famous attraction to another. But concentrate on discovering the scenic and historic riches of one area and you are on to a winner. A circuit that takes in the Suffolk Wool Towns of Lavenham, Long Melford, Cavendish, Clare and the nearby hamlets of Kersey and Chelsworth covers about 40 miles but can easily form the basis of a day trip or even a short break. During their Medieval heyday, in the 13th to 16th centuries, textile manufacture made these the richest towns in England. Then they froze in time. What you'll find are hundreds of colorful, listed half-timbered buildings, ancient pubs - the pub in Chelsworth has been pulling pints for 400 years - and miles of picturesque country lanes. Stop to pick up a picnic at a farm stall and don't pass up antique markets - there are... plenty of treasures to be found.
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Slate Country Under Snowdon
Snowdonia National Park in Wales is laced with dramatic roads, winding around mountains, through densely wooded valleys, and beside sparkling lakes. The route from Blaenau Ffestinniog, through the Pen-y-Pass to Llanberis at the foot of Mount Snowdon has a special other worldliness about it. From a harsh alien landscape of slate slag around Blaenau Ffestiniog, where you can visit the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, the road passes through bare, open hills to the National Park tourism center of Betwys-y-Coed. Stop just beyond to visit Swallow Falls. Then it's on to towering Pen-y-Pass (also shown on some maps as Llanberis Pass). With Snowdon rising almost vertically on one side and the abandoned slate mines of Llanberis on the other, the pass takes your breath away and the words awe-inspiring barely touch it.
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England's deepest gorge, at the edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, was carved by torrential floods of a melting ice age. It is one of the country's genuine natural wonders, with 27 limestone cliffs rising nearly 500 feet and an extensive cave system. The B3135 winds through the gorge with spectacular views. For more spectacular views, there's a cliff top walk and opportunities for rock climbing and caving adventures. Two show caves are open to the public and, though relatively commercial, offer family fun.
Access to Cheddar Gorge is through the touristy village of Cheddar.
08 of 10
Just south of Pulborough in West Sussex, the A29 passes across the watershed and watermeadows of the River Arun. Then the vast bulk of Bury Hill, the start of the South Downs, cuts across the view. Before starting the climb, take a detour to the left toward Bury, aiming for Church Lane. The Norman Church in this tiny village, St John the Evangelist, Bury has a 12th-century tower and nave. The 12th-century workmen's tool marks on the backs of the stone columns are said to be evidence of medieval games.
Then head back to the A29 to go up and over Bury Hill. The road is wide and well paved but steep and long. There's a traffic circle at the top. Head straight across it into Arundel with its Catholic cathedral and impressive castle. Or take a sharp left off the traffic circle and head downhill to Amberley with its working museum and great village pub.
Try to return over Bury Hill. The views into the Vale of Arun are sensational and, in spring when the river is in spate, the whole... valley can become a lake.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Wharfedale is the southernmost corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This 26-mile circuit between Grassington, Bolton Abbey, and Skipton Castle, takes in charming small towns, ruined abbeys and one of the most complete and well preserved medieval castles in the country. It also passes through miles of rolling hills with expansive views across the dales and places to stop for picnics beside the River Wharfe.
The drive is mostly over quiet B roads (B6265 and B6160) and includes some single track lanes.
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The Shropshire countryside, close to the Welsh Border Marches and around the Severn Valley is so lovely for drives that it's difficult to pick one that stands out. The open farming country is divided into small fields to make way for giant outcrops of limestone, and hills that curl around bends in the river. At any moment, you can find yourself enclosed in small but steep and darkly forested dells sheltering rushing water. The hills are surprising yet intimate and romantic. Driving southeast of the market town of Shrewsbury on the A458 the views are classic English farm country. Then, just south of Harley, a few miles from Much Wenlock, you emerge from a small stand of trees to a gobsmacking view of Wenlock Edge, a limestone escarpment, and range of hills that runs for about 15 miles to the village of Craven Arms. The area is great for walking the Shropshire Way, rock climbing, and riding. Or just enjoy the view before continuing up Harley Hill into Much Wenlock.