THE SIGN just outside Melmerby gets straight to the point. “Altitude 1,900ft: winter conditions can be dangerous”. So I wouldn’t suggest tackling the A686 if it’s been snowing or looks like it might start. But at any other moment you’d be mad not to.
This celebrated stretch of A-road, which connects Penrith, in Cumbria, with Haydon Bridge, 28 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, is one of those happy coincidences of tarmac, geography and engineering that are almost perfect to drive. The fact that the road is, in modern terms, virtually traffic-free only adds to the appeal.
It gets off to a cracking start. The meat of the route is over the top of the Pennines, and as you approach from Penrith they look not so much like a range of hills as the walls of a giant’s citadel. The change from rolling farmland to precipitous slope is abrupt and promises all kinds of zig-zagging, gearchanging pleasure. So make sure you’re feeling sharp before you get stuck in; and if your car is an automatic, swap it for someone else’s manual. This is not the place to let a computer decide when you should drop down into second.
The climb doesn’t disappoint. It’s tough going at the start — full of blind corners and a bit potholey too. But then the road straightens out and — hallelujah — one of the biggest views in England opens up on your left. It’s a panorama of green and pleasant land, topped off by the fells of the Lake District and — through a nick in the hills — a distant glimpse of Scotland. It’s all the more beguiling because you’ve got no more than 1½ seconds to look. Otherwise you’re going to drive through a fence at the next bend and into a field of sheep.
At the top of the climb, at 1,903ft, is Hartside. It’s marked by a biker’s caff, which does superb victoria sponge at £2.10 a slice. But I wouldn’t stop just yet. Provided you didn’t get stuck behind a lorry full of livestock, the climb from Melmerby will have taken only 10 minutes. It’s time to gobble up some more road before your lose your edge.
The next bit is the best. Switchback turns and hairpins are all very well, but what the A686 has to offer as it drops into Alston is far sweeter. The descent is gentler than the climb, and the road snakes downhill in a series of sinuous curves. There’s a stretch of moorland the size of central London to admire as you go. But, really, the scenery is secondary to the driving. This is nose-to-the-tarmac stuff, the motoring equivalent of freewheeling on a bike pursued by your girlfriend. In a word, glorious.
Beyond Alston the road is a medley of what’s gone before: more epic turns, more wind-blasted moorland, more fun with well-timed gearchanges and acceleration. If you’ve timed it right, you won’t have many other cars for company. In the grand scheme of things this is a road from nowhere to nowhere, and the country’s main transport routes steer well clear of the austere, wind-blasted landscape it crosses. All the same, if you’re out at the weekend, get started straight after breakfast. You want to be past Alston by 10am.
The Whitfield Pantry, 10 miles beyond Alston, is the natural place to stop for coffee, and a decision. Where next? There’s a junction coming up, where the B6305 peels off from the A686, and if you’re on a round trip, you can pick your route home. Take the B6305 and you can follow a two-hour loop back to Alston via Stanhope and Middleton in Teesdale.
Carry on with the A686 and you can drive General George Wade’s military road — the B6318 — along the southern edge of Hadrian’s Wall before heading back south. The road was laid in 1746 to guard against the Jacobites, and if you wonder where the stones from the wall went, look down. A lot of them became the foundation of Wade’s road.
I’d take the Roman wall. No other Pennine road I’ve driven can match the line of the A686 or the sweet camber of its turns, so it’s best to let the magic fade and move onto something different. Or else turn round and drive it again.