With the Easter holiday around the corner and the summer break on the horizon, millions of us are planning to get away from it all. To fuel inspiration for great adventures in the UK and Europe, Green Flag has hit the road with an exciting new series of road trips. And some of the country’s best-known faces will be sliding into the driving seat and sharing their experiences with you.
Called Scenic Route, the journeys are easy for anyone to take. All you need is a car and a thirst for adventure. In the first Scenic Route road trip, actor and presenter Joe Swash, best known for Eastenders, I’m A Celebrity and, most recently, The Jump, reveals how the Scottish Highlands can take your breath away and get the adrenaline racing.
Londoner Joe, 34, decided to drive a classic Land Rover 90 Soft Top for his journey. With 199,000 miles under its wheels, the 1985 90 might be rough ‑ but it’s ready for anything. “It’s a fantastic workhorse,” Joe told us. “Just the sort of car I need if I get into any bother.”
Follow Joe Swash’s route through the Highlands
Joe’s Scenic Route started in Glasgow. From there he took the A82 to Loch Lomond, Britain’s largest inland stretch of water. Here he met up with the Wild West Swimmers, a small group of hardy individuals who don wet suits and swim in near sub-zero temperatures throughout the year.
“We do it because it’s an amazing feeling afterwards,” said Barry McGowan, one of the swimmers. “But it can be risky because of the way bodies that are unused to cold water react.” Joe took a bit (well, a lot) of persuading to get in for his extreme swim. A couple of seconds later he was out again. “They’re all insane,” he shivered. “It’s fffffreezing in there.”
That wasn’t his only surprise. When he got back to the trusty Land Rover, Joe discovered it wasn’t quite as trusty as he’d hoped it would be: the engine wouldn’t start. A lack of power to the diesel pump was the diagnosis by Green Flag technician, Iain Hamilton. A quick bit of fettling beneath the bonnet by Iain, and Joe and the Land Rover were underway again. This time they took the A811 away from Loch Lomond towards Drymen, turning off onto the A81 towards Aberfoyle and the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.
“I’ve done a zip wire before but never anywhere as beautiful as this”
Here he made his second stop of the day at the Go Ape tree top adventure centre in Aberfoyle. It’s Britain’s most northerly Go Ape and beyond fresh air and a good walk in the woods, there’s a very good reason for visiting: it boasts one of the UK’s longest zip wires, which sends you soaring through the air for 425m.
Flying down the zip wire, 50m above valley tree tops and a spectacular 30m waterfall, the adrenaline rush of the zip wire was exactly what Joe needed to warm up after his swim. “Unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve done a zip wire before but never anywhere as beautiful as this.”
Continuing through the QE Forest Park, the landscape becomes rockier and more barren as Joe took the A821 and then A84 north. Even so, it’s still picturesque with the three-mile long Loch Lubnaig, nestling between Ben Ledi and Ben Vorlich. Continuing onto the A85, Joe made it to the Killin Hotel in Killin, Perthshire for a hearty dinner and restful night’s sleep.
Although Killin is where the River Dochart joins Loch Tay, Joe wasn’t heading towards that loch. He drove away from it, back along the A85 and onto the A82 into Glen Coe. Undeterred by the dusting of snow covering the hills, temperatures plunging towards freezing, and the Land Rover’s flimsy fabric roof, Joe carried on into Glen Coe.
“Glen Coe has to be one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world”
It was only then that he really began to appreciate the freedom driving brings. “Glen Coe has to be one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world,” he said. “You really can imagine what it was like a few centuries ago when the various clans would have been charging around on horseback. But I can’t imagine how you would get here now without a car.”
After stopping to admire the view of Loch Tulla, Joe continued through the barren hillsides and rocky outcrops to a hearty fish and chip lunch at the welcoming Laroch Bar in Ballachulish. After that he was ready for a Segway Safari at Glencoe Activities. Segways are self-balancing stand-up electric two wheelers. To go forwards, you lean forwards. To stop you lean backwards. The models at Glencoe Activities feature off-road tyres that would have given those on the Land Rover a run for their money. Joe took to riding the Segway like a fish to water. “That is just the best fun,” he said.
The off-road driving that Joe tried next was a different matter. The reality star only passed his test in July 2015 and struggled to grasp the concept of driving over rough terrain, according to instructor Andy Reed. “I think he would make a great rally driver,” said Andy. “But off-road driving is a different beastie. Less really is more with that. You have to know when to go slowly and when to come off the accelerator.”
Joe agreed: “I don’t think I really got the hang of that. Still it was great to see what Andy could do with the Land Rover.” But the adventure wasn’t over yet. After a warming cup of tea Joe returned to the Land Rover only to discover that it wouldn’t start. “Flat battery,” Green Flag technician Jamie Girvan discovered. “I reckon about 90 per cent of my call-outs are battery related,” he said.
New battery installed, Joe could continue along the A82 towards his finishing point at Fort William. With the calm, almost mirror-flat waters of Loch Linnhe on one side and the imposing Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, on the other it was a fittingly dramatic end to a stunning drive. “It’s been amazing,” Joe concluded. “A fantastic introduction to the real Scotland. I’ve had a blast in the Land Rover. That car and these roads are a bit like I imagine driving used to be back in the day. I’ve enjoyed every minute.”