Travel by car or bike, as fast or slow as you like. You can follow a rigid itinerary, but it’s more fun to use each route as inspiration, branching off to reach other nearby locations as the fancy takes you. Here are three of the greatest road trip routes in Britain.
Drive the Great West Way from London to Bristol
From London, a route has aimed westwards for millennia. Early humans traveled across the open chalk-lands and left their mark in the great monuments like Stonehenge. Later, the Romans constructed a military highway between Londinium (London) and Aqua Sulis (now the city of Bath). Later again, the road from London to the port of Bristol, gateway to the New World, became the world’s first stage coach route.
Today, you can follow the Great West Way in the footsteps of these early travelers and still enjoy epic landscapes, old inns, and the palpable sense of history.
The modern road from London to Bristol traditionally starts at Hyde Park Corner, then saunters through the upmarket shopping area of Knightsbridge, past famous stores such as Harrods. For more cerebral attractions there’s the Victoria & Albert Museum, a treasure trove of art and craft.
The Great West Way continues through London’s western suburbs, passing the outstanding botanical collection in the Unesco-listed Kew Gardens, where you can see giant redwoods, follow a treetop walkway, and tour a steamy glass-paned Victorian hot house. Further west still, travelers with a taste for adrenaline can divert south to Thorpe Park and sample some of Britain’s highest, fastest, and scariest roller-coaster rides.
Peace is restored beyond the large town of Reading, as the route breaks free of suburbia and enters a more bucolic landscape of gentle rolling hills. Along the way, look out for historic milestones marking the distance from London. If you need refreshment, stop at one of the many old coaching inns set up in the 18th century to cater for stage coach traffic. If shopping’s your thing, browse till you drop in the beautiful old towns of Hungerford and Marlborough.
Next, the Great West Way plunges into Neolithic history. Just to the north is Avebury Stone Circle, the largest stone circle in the world. Get up close and personal to the ancient standing stones, which date from 2500 to 2200 BCE, before stopping at one of the cafes or pubs in the village of Avebury. To the south is West Kennet Long Barrow, a burial chamber as old as the Pyramids of Egypt. Its low-key setting is part of the attraction: no entry fee, no souvenir sellers, just you and 5000 years of history.
Onwards, over Cherhill, where the hillside is topped by a giant monument and an even larger white horse cut into the chalk hilltop. In Chippenham, music fans can pay their respects at the Eddie Cochran memorial, and movie fans can divert north to the delightful village of Castle Combe, frequently used as a film set, from the original Dr Doolittle (1967) to Spielberg’s War Horse (2011).
Then comes Bath, famed for its hot springs and Roman bathhouse that gives the city its name. Its grand mansions of the early 19th century show how the city was reinvented as a playground for aristocrats, an era most famously captured by Jane Austen. Tour filming locations for the TV series Bridgerton, soak in a rooftop pool at the delightful Thermae Bath Spa, or enjoy one of the city's many fantastic places to eat.
And finally, the route ends in Bristol, a port where fortune was built on trade with the Americas, importing sugar and enslaved people – in 2020, the city made headlines when Black Lives Matter activists tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colson. Today, the city is a cultural and artistic hotbed, perhaps most famous as home of street artist Banksy. The waterfront has been transformed, lined with galleries, museums, shops, and cafes – the perfect spot to end your journey.
Follow the Snowdonia 360 in north Wales
As the name implies, the Snowdonia 360 is a 360-mile (580km) circuit around Snowdonia, the mountainous region in north Wales. Because it’s a circuit, you can of course begin anywhere, but the town of Conwy – with its imposing castle and city walls – can be easily reached from other parts of Britain, so makes an ideal start-point.
Travel west along the coast to Bangor, and admire the historic bridge across to the island of Anglesey, where you might like to visit Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, an otherwise unremarkable village with the longest place-name in Britain. For more superlatives, a diversion inland takes you to Zip World, boasting the longest and fastest zip-wire in Europe.
Next stop is Llanberis, from where you can hike up Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, or hop on the delightfully eccentric steam-driven Mountain Railway built in the Victorian days and still going strong. For history of a different sort head to Caernarfon Castle, where the mammoth battlements date from the 13th century and still dominate the town today.
The Llŷn Peninsula offers great beaches such as Pwllheli, while from Portmadog another steam train ride will carry you up into the surrounding mountains. For a very different view, you can go under the mountain and explore vast slate caverns near Betws-y-Coed with activity specialist Go Below.
If time allows, a southern loop takes you to Machynlleth, billed as the “ancient capital of Wales”. Today it has a relaxed and artsy ambience thanks partly to the trailblazing Centre for Alternative Technology, an education center full of interactive displays that demonstrate ways to be sustainable.
On the final stretch back to Conwy, visit Surf Snowdonia, an inland lagoon with guaranteed waves, where perfecting your carve may be the perfect end your tour on the Snowdonia 360.
Admire the scenery on a drive of Scotland's North Coast 500
The North Coast 500, an epic loop around the northwest Highlands of Scotland, should take you several days at least – firstly because it’s around 500 miles (800km); secondly because some of the roads are narrow and meandering; and thirdly because it leads through some of Britain’s most impressive scenery. This is a truly elemental landscape where earth and water meet, with narrow sea-lochs cutting deep inland and sheer mountainsides plummeting to the coast.
The best start-point is the Highland hub of Inverness, from where the route leads westwards to reach remote Applecross via the notoriously steep road of Bealach-na-Bà. Then it’s true north, past the rugged glen of Torridon and the famous gardens of Inverewe, unexpectedly lush with tropical plants thanks to the benevolent Gulf Stream.
Beyond the small but busy port of Ullapool, where ferries chug across to Stornaway, the route enters a vast and empty wilderness, with settlements few and far between – a legacy of the brutal 18th-century "Clearances" – to finally reach Durness overlooking the Atlantic where the next major landmass is Iceland.
The roller-coaster run along the north coast leads to tiny settlement of John O’Groats, famous for being the final point of the across-Britain challenge from Land’s End in Cornwall frequently attempted by walkers and cyclists. Stop to admire the view here and you may also see an exhausted record-breaker stagger to the finish line.
The final stage of the route leads southwards, along the east coast, less mountainous and with less rain than its western counterpart, via the gritty outpost of Wick and the quaint town of Dornoch, famous as the site of two historical events: the last witch to be executed in Scotland (1722); and Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie (2000).
Get into the groove for the final few miles of the North Coast 500 alongside the Cromarty Firth, to end your journey back in Inverness, perhaps enjoying a glass or two of local Scotch whisky to celebrate.
David Else traveled to Wales by invitation of Caernarfon Castle, Zip World, and Go Below in 2019.