Autumn is a great time for a road trip, and the UK has some of the best driving routes in the world. Here are our five favourite places to hit the road
The Elgar Route, Worcestershire
A vertiginous tangle of winding country lanes, wildflower-fringed villages and honey-hued stately homes, the Malvern Hills are a magnet for road-trippers. Swap your usual form of transport for a Morgan – the Morgan Motor Company, the world’s oldest privately-owned car manufacturer, rents out vehicles for hours, days or weeks. Failing that, sign up for a factory tour. Later this year there will be even more to see, when the Malvern-based manufacturer opens its new visitor centre.
Our favourite Malvern Hills drive is the Elgar Route, a 40-mile tribute to England’s most famous composer. Highlights (and recommended stop-offs) include Great Malvern with its soaring priory, where notable residents of the graveyard include Anne Darwin (Charles brought her to the town in the hope that its famous water would cure her TB) and St Wulstan’s church (where Elgar is buried). You’ll also pass The Firs, Elgar’s birthplace, expected to open imminently after a Covid-related closure.
There are plenty of opportunities for leg-stretching walks, including hikes up the Worcestershire Beacon and, if you’ve got time for a short detour, a wander around Witley Court and Gardens. At the heart of the fountain-filled lawns is the ruin of a sprawling country house which burned down in 1937, leaving only an eerily ornate, perfectly preserved shell.
The Isle of Wight
Prone to getting lost? This one’s for you. Sign up for a lap on the Isle of Wight and you can’t go wrong – this spectacular drive skirts the perimeter so closely that the stunning sea views are the only navigational tools you’ll need.
The 60-mile route can be done in a day, but we recommend covering it over the course of a weekend, starting in Cowes then heading left for an anti-clockwise adventure. The scenery’s wonderfully diverse; whether it’s Ventnor, a micro-climate and the island’s warmest spot (hence its world-renowned botanic gardens – autumn is a great time to spot the island’s red squirrels stockpiling nuts before the colder months), the Needles, where you can hop in a chairlift for a vertigo-inducingly ride down to the famous multi-coloured sands or the pedal-to-the-metal straightness of the Military Road, built in the 1860s to help troops travel between their barracks and key defensive locations. This is also the perfect place to ditch the car for a stroll along the beach – find one of the many fossils littering the sand here and it’s yours to keep.
Great West Way, southern England
The 150-mile Great West Way was created to showcase the treasures sprinkled between Bristol and London. You’ll get serious bang for your buck on this route, whether it’s the endless roll call of stately homes or the flowerbox-dotted villages (our favourite is Castle Combe, the backdrop for Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse). It’s also an incredibly versatile route – many of the towns it passes through, such as Newbury, Marlborough and Chippenham, serve as hubs for multiple A roads, so there are plenty of opportunities to venture further off the beaten track.
You’ll pass through several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the seriously underrated North Wessex Downs – a region which explodes into a fiery blur of autumn colour towards the end of the year. Hit the road in autumn to experience one of the UK’s best stargazing spots – Cranborne Chase, which became a Dark Sky Reserve in October 2019. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking the lesser-known landmarks though. These include Marlborough’s Wilton Windmill, which can be explored on guided tours, and Caen Hill in Devizes – it’s home to a stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal with the longest continuous flight of locks in the UK (the 29 locks allow boaters to ascend 72 metres over two miles).
North Coast 500, Scotland
Scotland’s version of Route 66 (so says the marketing speil), the North Coast 500 is an 500-mile road trip launched by Prince Charles, who wanted to boost the economy of the Northern Highlands. The route winds its way along Scotland’s gorgeous northern coastline, meandering through Inverness-shire, Ross, Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness, and passing some of Scotland’s most photographed locations, including the Fairy Glen nature reserve, Duncansby Head (the north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland), Dunrobin Castle and Smoo Cave, which has one of the largest entrances to any sea cave in Europe.
The NC500, which celebrates its fifth birthday in 2020, can be easily broken down into smaller sections or tackled over the space of a week. We recommend the latter, allowing you to fit in (and recover from) visits to the numerous cockle-warming whisky distilleries which line the route. These include the Glenmorangie distillery, which you’ll find near the small village of Tain. Scotland’s most famous whisky brand was founded in 1843 and its distillery has the highest stills in Scotland. We also recommend stopping in Caithness to visit the headquarters of Wolfburn whisky, where you’ll find the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland.
The Atlantic Highway, Cornwall and Devon
This wonderfully wild stretch of road wiggles its way from Barnstaple in North Devon to Fraddon near Newquay, and it’s actually a 70-mile chunk of the A39 (but let’s face it, the Atlantic Highway sounds so much better). It’s a great way to explore the crowd-free spots which visitors to these wave-bashed counties often overlook, although don’t be surprised if certain villages you pass through look familiar – TV series Doc Martin was filmed in and around Port Isaac, on Cornwall’s north coast.
One of the route’s biggest selling points is the contrast – for much of the drive, you’ll have rocky bays and beaches on one side, and barley fields on the other, while occasional meanders inland provide brilliant opportunities to check out landmarks such as the Bedruthan Steps near Padstow. One of the top spots when it comes to views is the stretch between Lynmouth and Minehead, near Exmoor National Park. Just watch out for the stags – autumn is rutting season and as much as we’re in awe of these powerful creatures, whose deep bellows provide the eerie soundtrack for this part of the UK towards the end of the year, their road safety awareness needs a little work.