Take the scenic route past grassy moors and still lochs on these great British road trips.
Where The Going Gets Green – South Wales
Words: Luke Waterson
Perhaps best known internationally for its starring role in the 1941 movie, How Green Was My Valley, the undulating former coal-mining country of upland South Wales is a far cry from the deprived expanse of closed-down quarries these days.
The valleys are green, experiencing some of the UK’s highest rainfall, but they erupt into the rugged Brecon Beacons National Park, southern Britain’s wildest outdoor playground. With chocolate-box villages, a booming foodie culture and oodles of forests, lakes and quirky rural customs, this is the easiest true wilderness to access from London.
Negotiating the region requires patience on narrow lanes: master the arts of reversing long distances into lay-bys and chugging at 20kmh behind tractors and stray sheep. Or try the park’s smaller eco- friendly vehicles with their well-developed charging network.
“It’s a shame you missed the sheep racing!” the Llandovery cafe owner exclaims, handing me a macchiato he emphasises is prepared by a barista.
I need the coffee any which way it comes, tired after a two-day trip that has had me taking in a wider (and weirder) array of activities than I’d thought possible in one modestly-proportioned (1,345 sqkm) national park.
Llandovery, like most places hereabouts, mixes the beautiful with the bizarre and chic. A remote geopark rears up in a series of legend-steeped beauty spots above town. Souvenirs include sheep cupcakes, teas following recipes concocted by medieval physicians and stylish slate homewares.
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My zigzagging 140km park traverse began on the southeastern edge at Abergavenny, 2.5 hours by train from London. Twelve kilometres southwest is Blaenavon’s Big Pit, an insight into the area’s centuries-old mining industry where you can thrillingly descend 90m down a former shaft.
I travelled north via picturesque Crickhowell and Talybont-on-Usk with its cracking traditional pubs before turning southwest on the mountain road to Merthyr Tyd l. Along this drive, bedaubed by glittering reservoirs, one can alight for the hike to the highest point in South Wales, Pen y Fan.
I then visited one of the UK’s only whisky distilleries outside Scotland at Penderyn, as well as Ystradfellte’s alluring waterfalls before coming down, over a russet-hued moorland blooming with bilberries, to Llandovery, a town that stands out, even by Welsh standards, for celebrating sheep.
Highland Fling – Scottish Highlands
Words: Joanne Brookfield
Munro, burn, ben, firth – the Scottish have a whole lexicon to describe various landforms. Perhaps the most famous is ‘loch’, which translates as lake, due to the Loch Ness Monster in the Highlands.
While Nessie, as the Scots affectionately refer to this mythical creature, has helped put Loch Ness on the map, the largest (at least by surface area) is Loch Lomond in the central lowlands.
Easily accessible by car – a 30-minute drive from the centre of Glasgow to the base of the loch or about another hour on top of that if you depart from Edinburgh – Loch Lomond makes for a picturesque day out. Surrounded by rolling hills and dotted with mainly uninhabited small islands, Loch Lomond offers a world of options.
Hike, cycle, climb, kayak, horse ride or zip-line, there are any number of ways to enjoy the scenery here. We start in Loch Lomond West, on foot at the adorable village of Luss where lanes are lined with stone cottages and immaculate gardens. There’s history (Vikings are buried in the Luss church) and you can check out your clan heritage and tartan at The Clan Shop.
There’s eating – the stylish country pub Loch Lomond Arms Hotel is one example – and if you want to feed an iconic Highland cow, you can do that too. Harris and Skye reside in the field next to the pub and you can buy a small bag of feed from The Luss General store for 50p.
The Trossachs National Park offers walks, bouldering and climbing, so we could have tackled the 974m-high Ben Lomond on the eastern shore, like 30,000 other walkers do each year; however, we opt to see the sights from the water, taking a one- hour cruise instead.
The nautical theme continues when we drive to the last paddlesteamer built in Britain, Maid of the Loch, located at the Balloch Pier.
The nearby Loch Lomond Shores has water-view dining, retail, an aquarium and the TreeZone Aerial Adventure Course within the precinct.
Scotland has tens of thousands of lochs but we nish our day on the banks of Scotland’s only lake, having a drink at The Lake of Monteith Hotel.
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A Route Of Ice And Fire – Northern Ireland
Words: Sarah Arnold
When Storm Gertrude swept through Northern Ireland in January 2016, felling trees at the iconic Dark Hedges, branches were not simply tidied up and forgotten about. Instead, the fallen branches were carved into intricate doors, each depicting an episode from season six of Game of Thrones. Scattered throughout the country within reach of a di erent lming location, these doors symbolise the cultural legacy and phenomenon of the hit television show in Northern Ireland.
Game of Thrones is predominantly filmed here, from the studio work in Belfast to the caves of Fermanagh and cli s of Antrim. To see these locations, there are tour companies aplenty bussing groups around, sometimes in costume. But group tours often miss some of the more remote locations; the best way to see them is by hiring a car and travelling independently.
Beginning in Belfast, follow signs for the Causeway Coastal Route. Pass through the towns of Carrickfergus and Larne before driving along miles of seemingly untouched land. It would be easy to believe that if you were to walk through any of these fields, you might find a deserter of the Night’s Watch, and that may be because one of the earliest scenes filmed in the first episode was just that.
Further along the route is Cushendun, another coastal village (home to one of the aforementioned doors). Here, you can explore the eerie Cushendun Caves, where Melisandre gave birth to a shadow in the second season.
Nearby, with a slight deviation on the road, you’ll find Torr Head. On a clear day, the horizon extends to Scotland and you may well see a pod of dolphins along the way. This detour brings you to a lesser- known location at Murlough Bay. The road is not for the faint-hearted; it includes some steep drops and cows and sheep are likely to walk in front of you as you slowly navigate your way. It’s worth it though, as the site doubles for Slaver’s Bay and it was also where Ser Davos washed up after the Battle of the Blackwater.
Continuing along the route brings you to Ballintoy, better known as Pyke of the Iron Islands but before this, you’ll arrive at Larrybane Quarry. Here Brienne of Tarth fought her way into Renly’s Kingsguard. Channel Brienne's courage by walking along Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge to test your nerves before admiring the coastline.
Complete your drive with a sunset stop along the Kings Road, where Arya fled Kings Landing along the Dark Hedges in season two. 'Thronie' or not, seeing the sun go down over this moody stretch, and arguably the show's most symbolic backdrop, is a spectacular way for any visitor to end their road trip.
Three More Road Trips To Try:
- Scotland’s newest route North East 250 through Aberdeenshire and Moray speyside
- The Wales Way – combining three national touring routes through epic landscapes and historical sites
- The Lakes District – Northern England’s beautiful wilderness area