A few years ago, while teetering uncertainly on a barstool in my local Dartmoor boozer, I had an idea. One of the best ideas ever to drift through the semi-inebriated ether of my mind. That idea was Pub2Pub. A road trip from the northernmost pub on the planet to the southernmost which, once you’ve had a few beers, seems like a perfectly sensible course of action.
Much has been written about the 27,000 mile road trip which resulted, some of which you can read here. However, as it turned out, our eight month drive from the northernmost bar on the planet to the southernmost wouldn’t be the first time we set off on a pub-themed drive, because let’s face it, to go from zero to the world’s longest pub crawl would be bordering on the foolhardy. What we needed was a trial run. A chance to test the waters on a road trip which offered the perfect combination of interesting roads and quirky cars with which to pass the day, and alcoholic beverages with which to end it. Effectively, a dry run for the main event – if any Pub2Pub adventure could ever be described as ‘dry’.
Fortunately, we already had a car in need of a road trip. While on the way to Slovenia to buy a Renault 4 a few months previously, I’d dropped into Brooklands to attend the Auto Classica show. And while there, I’d convinced Laura – my co-driver with whom I’d crossed Africa in a Porsche – that her life was incomplete without a classic Fiat Panda in it. Or more accurately, a lowered Fiat Panda which had been re-engined with a Punto sporting engine, doubling the horsepower. Amazingly, there was just such a car on sale at the event. I mean, what are the chances of that?!
Said Fiat Panda was to be joined on the inaugural Pub2Pub adventure by a Mazda MX5 – Mk1, naturally – and an Alfa Brera, making for a pretty unlikely convoy, if truth be told. So we had our cars, but between which two pubs should we drive these fine steeds, as we prepared for our intercontinental bar mission? Simple. The two farthest flung bars on this green and pleasant island would most certainly suffice – we decided our convoy would journey indefatigably from the southernmost bar on the UK mainland, to the northernmost.
And so it was that we found ourselves on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula – the southernmost tip of the British Isles – in a bar called The Witchball. And fortuitously, as two in the morning ticked past, we were still there - with the front door locked and the landlord quite happy for us to pour our own drinks from the bar. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to do a bar-based trip, you might as well kick it off properly.
The following morning, we looked north. Nearly a thousand miles north, to John O’Groats. And given that John O’Groats is rarely mentioned without ‘Lands End’ appearing in the same sentence, it would have been a shame not to tick off one of the UK’s more celebrated journeys while we were on the road, by taking a small detour to the west, and taking in Lands End as we went. And then, after a fun blast along twisty tarmac lined by granite drystone walling we were out of West Penwith, and in Penzance the hard work began. The toil north, to Scotland’s glorious sweeping tarmac.
We reeled off the numbers as we went. Characterless numbers, which perfectly reflected the tarmac they described. A30, M5, M6. Traffic was heavy, the heavily modified Panda an uncouth companion when surrounded by the anodyne family-wagons droning forgettably around the country’s road network. We rolled on north, past Exeter, Taunton, Bristol, Birmingham. Hour after hour. The first night saw us stop in the Lake District, the first hints of interesting roads whetting our appetite for the miles to come. And as our latitudes increased, what miles they promised to be, taking in the roads of Loch Lomand, Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, before joining the NC500 for our road trip’s main event – Scotland’s incomparable West Coast, all the way to the northernmost bar in the land.
But first, we had to cross the border into Scotland, and negotiate the peril that is navigating through Glasgow, and onto the A82. And it is once that has happened – once the post-industrial landscape of Dumbarton recedes in your mirror and finally disappears, that the adventure truly begins.
And what a driving adventure Scotland can offer up.
It is human nature to take for granted what’s on one’s own doorstep; to allow familiarity or relative proximity to dull the impact of the truly exceptional. But where Scottish road trips are concerned, to do so would be a mistake. In fact, I would go so far to say that in a lifetime of motoring daring-do, which has seen my dusty tyres roll across over eighty different countries on five continents, the midge-flecked asphalt of Scotland’s West Coast remains one of my favourite-ever places for a driving adventure.
And so, as our grubby little Fiat Panda roared along the shores of Loch Lomond, a sense of anticipation filled the cabin – along with an unhealthy amount of noise, from the already-broken exhaust.
While the landscape in this part of Scotland can’t fail to inspire, it is somehow too close to civilisation to truly provide the wilderness we were seeking. Heavy traffic and a tourist infrastructure straining under the weight of daytrippers from the south kept the Panda’s eagerness in check, and it wasn’t until we were past Crianlarich with Rannoch Mor filling our windscreens that the full sensation of being amid Scotland’s wilderness hit us. And then, as we jostled and bounced along in the stiffly sprung Panda, with the Brera and Mazda following with more composure in our wake, one of Scotland’s finest sights presented itself. Buachaille Etive Mor – as fine a mountain as you’ll find in the UK.
‘The Buachaille’ guards the entrance to the valley of Glencoe, where nestled between mountains over 3,000 feet high, lies the Clachaig Inn, complete with its blazing fire and 150 bottles of single-malt whisky behind its legendary bar. A compelling place to stop? You bet…
From Glencoe, the road leads north through Fort William – a weather-battered, stripped-for-action kinda town, which hunkers down beneath the UK’s highest mountain and provides a fine breakfast for adventurers of all types, courtesy of the Nevisport Cafe.
As Fort William is the last settlement of any size for quite a while as you push north, it’s somewhere you find yourself lingering, stocking up with fuel and food, snacks and beer. You slowly prepare yourself for the wilds which await amid the higher latitudes, the draw of which gradually gets stronger and stronger, until you find yourself blasting along towards the Great Glen, the Caledonian Canal by your side, and most likely, the former Jacobite fortress of Eilean Donan Castle programmed into the satnav. And some Pink Floyd or Wagner on the stereo, because let’s face it, the drama of the landscape demands it.
As you continue north, you pick up the route of the NC500 – an inspired 500 mile lap of Scotland’s northernmost reaches, and one of the best road trips around, full stop. And if you’re joining the NC500 by skirting the shores of Loch Carron, like we did, it hits you hard right from the off, with the stacked switchbacks of the Belach na Ba – the pass of the cattle, and Scotland’s answer to the Stelvio Pass.
With 90hp at our schizophrenic Panda’s disposal, we made short work of the pass, and as the sun dropped from the steel-blue sky to dissolve in the Atlantic to our west, we contoured along the coast into Loch Torridon, where we made camp in Shieldaig. Next to the pub, naturally.
Torridon is one of the jewels in Scotland’s rugged crown; a range of rough sandstone mountains which rise above the gorse and pine, throwing down a gauntlet to those of a mountaineering bent. To those intent on less physical adventure, their presence is no less dramatic, dominating the view through the windscreen and contorting the tarmac into a fast, sweeping ribbon of perfection, which slaloms you north in your pugnacious little Fiat.
As you drive the NC 500, you notice how the landscape changes by the hour. Whereas once, your mind may have perceived the north of Scotland as a fairly uniform sweep of mountains and valleys, the reality as you drive it is that every valley, every sea-loch and every open plain has its own unique character. As you drive, you feel yourself drifting through these landscapes in a dreamlike trance, memories of other parts of the world being triggered as you do so. The landscapes of Norway, Iceland and Siberia – they’re all there. And they leave you amazed that such variety and drama can exist in the UK.
Our Panda swept us further north, past the summits of Slioch and An Teallach, the sandy beaches of Loch Gairloch, and the turquoise bays of Loch Ewe. Past rolling hills and remote crofter’s cottages, over crests and rises, down valleys and through forests, to the battened-down grittyiness of Ullapool. Then we rejoined the perfect road as the landscape morphed around us, an interplay of mountain and sea, until near Cape Wrath, the land ran out. To our north, the white horses and sea squalls stretched unbroken for two thousand miles, all the way to the North Pole.
From our campsite at Durness, we headed east, for John O’Groats was still calling us. We undulated along the northern extreme of mainland Britain, our plucky Panda having proved itself more than worthy of the challenge we’d set it. As we neared our destination, the sky closed in, black and brooding around us for the first time in the trip, and raindrops began to explode on the windscreen. The wind buffeted our biscuit-tin steed, and the roads became torrents. But we only had a few miles to go, and so onward we went, rolling into John O-Groats and heading straight for the pub, where a beer bookmarked the adventure which had began 5 days earlier, with a lock-in at the UK’s southernmost pub.
And as we chinked our glasses in celebration, we looked back on the trip and came to the conclusion that Scotland, and the cheeky little Fiat, had done us proud.