The best road to drive in the UK? Photographer Stuart Roy-Clarke thinks he’s found it.
Stuart Roy Clarke
Author of books on mass gatherings: football and pop music festivals, serial exhibitionist (in museums and galleries mostly), commissioned and supported by all the football bodies at one time or another. Road-tripper extraordinaire. Look out for me. Mostly in England.
November 14, 2014
England was divided from Scotland by a ‘Wall’ drawn then built in an almost straight line between two coastal river estuaries, by the Romans. Hadrian put his name to it.
To the wall’s misfortune – but a joy for car drivers – a less famous George Wade nicked its brick and for some of its length plonked a road, a military road, right on top of the Roman edifice, so that from 1746 his troops could get across the country to Carlisle from Newcastle and stem Bonny Prince Charlie and Jacobite rebellions and preserve England.
The B6318 – it is but a ‘b’ road – is the best driving road in the UK, in my opinion. Almost parallel with much of its course is the Military Way, which from Roman times ran smack alongside the Wall (to service it) and today allows walkers laden with rucksacks to walk coast to coast, or at least stretches of.
Coming face to face with my chariot, a beauty, a Stingray with big bonnet (only the best will do for the best road ride), the petrol pump attendant wiping its humongous red face with a cloth can’t help himself: “If I had these wheels I would go and see all my friends. Even ones I hated, just to taunt them in their driveway”.
This is an area of wit and spite and romance, daring and contest. One of unbelievable bloodshed. Not just for the Romans, but for the neighbouring yet unneighbourly family clans north and south of the Wall (Charlton, Carr, Howard, Douglas etc etc) who fought for supremacy, hanging each other from trees at the end of their driveways. Fighting over land and sheep and honour. Possibly settling scores with murderous ambushes disguised as football matches. It’s hard to turn down any game of football when your name is Charlton.
But times are more peaceful now. The road is more settled. The die is cast…the road of all roads is almost left off the map being but a “b road” and it has no speed cameras nor police hiding in hedges policing its 35 miles. It is a road left to itself, devoid of Little Chef and development. It just cuts its line straight to the horizon, disappearing into dips with blind summits – this land was after all almost ungovernable, so it need something BIG to straighten it out.
The Wall is plotted with Milestones. Some of these forts have stayed on, in bits and some like Housesteads, Chesters and Birdoswald are fairly as they were.
You get on the roller coaster Wall road either at Greenhead in the west or Heddon-on-the-Wall in the east. All in Northumbria. There’s a part b to this b road in there being another section stretching into Cumbria from Greenhead and Gilsland towards Carlisle which has some amazing views of the main event. Find time for all of it. Go back and forth and forth again, even in the one day. Seek sustenance. Indeed there are hamlets of Once Brewed and Twice Brewed on Road’s verge …both have public houses at which to eat and drink.
Being east to west the road will invariably have the sun rising from Newcastle and setting from Carlisle. In the middle of the day any sun will be found to the south illuminating the wall, illuminating the famous tree of Sycamore Gap, illuminating the vast hinterland of horizons on up towards Scotland.
The sky is vast – the light unique. Worth conquering an entire country for and then saying that’s enough, let’s stop right here. Get the easel out.
This is driving, riding, cycling, hiking, folky, fireside, camping, civil countryside now – a place of worship at the very edge of something. This was after all the very furthest boundary of the Holy Roman Empire – beyond here was just heathen!
Lanercost Priory on the western end of the road shows Christian attempts at religion. In summer, the tearooms are stacked with goodies and the jam jars with dead and dying wasps, ensnared. A Freudian reminder of the killing which was once all around. Up on the wall, old farms which in time harboured fugitive fighters and feared a knock on the door in the night have now opened up to guests, as b&b’s and as bunkhouses such as Slack House.
With grub from its farm shop added to booty from Lanercost, slip off into the nearby woods in search of Moscow – a ministry of defence site for practising modern day warfare, where yesteryear planes and tanks are scattered around. This footpathed, accessible, bermuda triangle of terror, is also home to a river uprising with a huge waterfall and the opportunity for an amazing swim in golden healing peaty waters…so tingly-freezing on the hottest day, you might just as well get your kit off here in winter as well. An abandoned tank pointing at you with its silent barrel is the lone witness.
Mysterious Moscow aside, along this measured wall there are loads of random stretches of water, slurping and shimmering, slouched dreamily up against the sides of this, the greatest human barrier in the UK.
Your chariot awaits!