HERE’S A useful rule of thumb when it comes to driving for pleasure in the UK: go to Wales.
If you want good tarmac, great engineering, spectacular scenery and almost nobody to share them with, then Wales is the place that will most readily oblige. Especially if you head to the bit in the middle, bracketed by the Brecon Beacons to the south and Snowdonia to the north.
Great roads appear to present themselves out of nowhere. Take my recent experience on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, south of Dolgellau. I was lost, hopelessly entangled in a spaghetti-and-meatballs mix of precipitous hills and single-track roads, where every turning seemed to end up in a farmyard, and every encounter with another car involved five minutes of grumpy reversing.
And then, without warning, I hit a T-junction and turned onto the road from Machynlleth to Llanidloes. According to my motoring atlas, this was exactly the same class of road as the one I’d just been driving — it too, did not even make B-grade.
But the tarmac was freshly laid, the edges picked out in brilliant white paint: and rather than meandering about like a drunk it shot straight uphill with a purpose.
One minute I was stuck fast in the landscape as if it were some kind of vast and sucking bog, and the next I was skimming over the ground like a swallow, with glorious views opening up on either side of the car.
To my left a waterfall danced in the sunlight; on my right I glimpsed a valley so sharp and deep it could have been excavated by a giant axe.
Frustration turned to high spirits, and it was all I could do to stop myself flagging down other motorists to share the moment.
At the top, I stopped to wind down the windows and listen to the skylarks: and if all I’d then done was drive straight back the way I’d come, I’d have been delighted with my discovery.
But that wasn’t the end of it. To a Londoner, Machynlleth (population 2,147) and Llanidloes (population 2,929) are almost invisible to the naked eye. But from here they were clearly towns of consequence, deserving of a decent link.
So the fun continued for another 20 miles — down past Dylife and along the eastern edge of the Cambrian Mountains in a series of scintillating straights and curves.
At Llanidloes the magic disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. By now the road had turned into the B4518 and bumped on to Rhayader in an altogether more hesitant and feeble-minded fashion — though I’m glad that I stuck with it.
When I got to Rhayader, I followed the A44 to Crossgates, turned north and discovered another gorgeous road — the A483, which follows the River Ithon to Newtown in a series of sinuous, well-cambered turns.
Like I said, this is mid-Wales. Another superb stretch of tarmac is always just around the corner.
Car Keep it nippy and manoeuvrable. Subaru’s new WRX STI — the successor to the Impreza — will do nicely.
Sounds It has to be Monster by Welsh band the Automatic.
Companion The ghost of Owain Glyndwr — the Welsh prince who led a 15-year rebellion again Henry IV. This was his turf.
Where to stay Ynyshir Hall (01654 781 209, ynyshirhall.co.uk), bed and breakfast doubles from £205.