Where: Cumbria – Bluebells, Romans and railways
When to drive it: Spring
Essential stop: Allen Banks
Perfect stay: Crown Hotel, Wetheral, Carlisle
In our Great British Drives series we’ll be showcasing fantastic family days out by car. In this first piece we go to the north Pennines, Cumbria and Northumberland for a 70-mile round trip that takes in some of the most dramatic scenery in the British isles, along with a few attractions to keep the kids amused…
We begin in the Roman settlement of Carlisle, built as a fort and stronghold in around 80AD for the Romans to mount raids against the Scots. Take the A69 east out of the city before turning off on the A689. The road skirts round the edge of Glendue Fell and then follows the valley of the River South Tyne.
Out here it can feel remote; there are few signs of civilisation and the road is quiet, allowing all the car’s occupants to enjoy the broad, heather-clad vistas. On your left is the meandering river; on the right the dramatic slopes of the fell which is an omni-present, at times slightly intense back drop.
If you’re looking for somewhere to break your journey, Alston is the perfect place. Claiming to be the highest market settlement in England, Alston has a bustling town centre with a steep, cobbled main street up to a market cross and many buildings that date back to the 17th Century.
If you fancy an extended stop, walk down from the market cross and you’ll come to the South Tyndale Railway where you can let the train take the strain. Winding north for three and a half miles back into Northumbria, this is England’s highest narrow gauge railway. It’s also the perfect opportunity for the car’s driver to hand over control to the engine driver and enjoy the beautiful north Pennines countryside on the route from Alston to Lintley and back.
Returning to the road, the next section takes the A686 northwards. The road here offers a great blend of all that’s brilliant about driving in Britain. As it sweeps round the end of Ayle Common and then Whitfield Moor there’s a combination of a road clinging to the side of a hill, long straights, open fast bends and tight switchback hairpins. Once at Haydon Bridge, head back along the A69 towards Carlisle. The next stop is going to be Bardon Mill and in the late spring it’s well worth it to see an excellent example of Britain in bloom.
It’s a little known fact that more than half the world’s population of bluebells reside in this country. For a magnificent carpet of flowers, head for Allen Banks and Staward Gorge, a short walk from Bardon Mill. It’s the largest area of ancient woodland in Northumberland and comes alive in spring with bluebells and wild garlic – plus it doesn’t cost a penny.
If you fancy a longer stop, just a mile north of Bardon Mill towards the B6318 is the Vindolanda Roman settlement. Today there is a museum of finds from the days of the emperor Hadrian. A couple of miles further on is the best preserved fort along the entire World Heritage Site that is Hadrian’s Wall. Not only does Housesteads have parking, there’s also a museum and of course, the wall itself.
Unsurprisingly, as it was built by the Romans, the B6318 is arrow straight as it heads west and there’s a junction with the A69 which will take you back to Brampton and the start of the route.