There is nothing much better than a road trip, preferably in a new country waiting to be explored slowly and bit by bit. There are certain countries that lend themselves to road trips more than others, and the UK is one of them. The rolling English countryside is full of picturesque villages, the rugged Scottish wilderness is dotted with lochs and castles, and the ancient coastline offers everything from steep white chalk cliffs to white beaches and rugged coves. All these hidden gems tend to be difficult to discover by train or on tours but are waiting for those willing to drive and take some interesting turns off the main roads.
The UK has long been my home, on and off with overseas interludes, due to an English husband. I might not have explored every corner, but I certainly keep a list of the places I haven’t visited yet. What I have done is spent hours in cars on various vacations or long weekends, turning randomly left or right, finding interesting stopping points, and enjoying the varied nature of this island nation.
Here are some of my favorite drives.
1. The Cotswolds, Bath To Cheltenham
I used to live in Bath, where this journey starts, as well as in Cheltenham, where it ends – both with the Cotswolds on my doorstep. The Cotswolds does not do ugly or even average. Every village is prettier than the next, strung together by beautiful countryside, scenic views, great pubs, history, and little cottages that you just want to pick up and put in your backyard. So for this drive, I can only suggest a few favorite places to stop off along the way, and the best advice I can offer is to take as much time as you can possibly spare. On paper, this is a very short round trip, easily done in a day or two, but to really enjoy it, search out the tiny hotels in the tiny villages and take it slowly.
Start the trip in Bath, which will set the mood, then head north to one of England’s most picturesque villages: Castle Combe. Then continue to Tetbury, Cirencester, Bibury, Burton-on-the-Water, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Broadway, and then end up in Cheltenham, where you’ll come back to reality. From Cheltenham, it is a quick drive to Bath to return your car.
Each of the mentioned towns and villages is charming, and all have gorgeous cottages, pretty greens and gardens, and little antique shops. And of course, there is always a tiny pub and hotel near a gurgling stream. You could easily spend the night at each stop.
Pro Tip: This is a perfect drive for springtime when the hills burst into flower. All I can say is, again, take your time and stop off at every village you see; you won’t regret the extra time spent there.
2. The Great West Way, London To Bristol
The Great West Way is such a historic route that I wrote an entire story on it not long ago. One of the great historic roads connecting the main hubs of London and Bristol, the drive will take you through the counties of Berkshire, stopping off at Windsor Castle. Consider popping north to Oxfordshire to take in Oxford with its dreaming spires, then drive south into Wiltshire past Newbury to Salisbury. This is a definitive stop and possible base for a couple of nights while you take in the ancient wonders of Stonehenge and Avebury. Move onto Marlborough and Devizes, catch a few chalk horses along the way, then head through Chippenham to Bath. From Bath, if you so wish and have the time, you could head straight into the above-mentioned Cotswolds road trip. If not, move onward to Bristol, from where you could take the train back to London if you are strapped for time. Or you can move southward to the next great road trip, the Atlantic Highway.
Pro Tip: Like with all road trips, the more time you have, the better, but 3 or 4 days will cover this stretch of England quite sufficiently.
3. Atlantic Highway, Bristol To Land’s End
This is one for the summer. Since summer usually means crowds of people and traffic jams, try to get there in early September. The weather is still gorgeous, but the kids are back in school, making for a less crowded visit. The official Atlantic Highway starts just 38 miles south of Bristol in the town of Eastover, but for a much easier and more scenic start, head to the west coast from Bristol and work your way south from there, hugging the rugged coastline as you go. You will come past the wooden lighthouse at Burnham-on-Sea, Dunster Castle, Clovelly Village, the lovely Bude with its seawater pool, the mythical Tintagel Castle, and all the way to Newquay, famous for its surfing beaches. Further on, you’ll find the arty St. Ives, and all the way at the end of Cornwall is the westernmost point of England, Land’s End.
Instead of heading the same way back, turn east, hugging the southern coastal roads, taking in Penzance, St. Michel’s Mount, Falmouth, St. Austell, Looe, and then across the River Tamar to my old university city of Plymouth. Head north through the wild Dartmoor National Park to the city of Exeter. Another 77 miles will take you back to Bristol for a completed round trip to remember.
Pro Tip: This is quite a long drive, with many beaches, coves, villages, and towns to discover along the way. Take your time, preferably make it into a summer vacation with breaks along the beaches over 2 weeks, and stop off in hot spots such as Barnstable, Newquay, or St. Ives in the north, and Penzance and Falmouth in the south, which are all good bases for individual day trips in the surrounding area.
4. Newcastle To Northumberland (And Back)
One of my favorite road trips was during the pandemic-related travel ban in the UK, when instead of going abroad, I headed to England’s northernmost county: Northumberland. Starting in the fabulous city of Newcastle upon Tyne with its great architecture, many bridges, and superb Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, the road leads north to the seemingly endless Northumberland coast with its many castles. The best stops are Warkworth, with its castle and quaint village setting, pretty little Alnmouth, and the larger town of Alnwick, home to what can only be described as England’s best second-hand bookshop, Barter Books, which is set in an old railway station. The castle in Alnwick was used in many of the Harry Potter films. On to Craster, famous for its kippers, and Dunstanburgh Castle. Then head north to Bamburgh and its award-winning beach, huge sand dunes, and even bigger castle. A little further north lies the tidal pilgrimage island Lindisfarne, or Holy Island.
Once there, the journey heads south again, cross country via Otterburn (yes, it has a castle) to Hadrian’s Wall and, then east again back to Newcastle.
Pro Tip: All in all, this is perfectly doable in one long weekend, depending on how many castles you want to have a closer look at and how many walks you want to take along the numerous beaches and along the ancient Roman wall. Personally, I spent a week there and could easily have spent longer.
5. North Coast 500, Scotland
While you are up in the north, you might well add another week and cross the border to Scotland for the epic North Coast 500 drive. Some 157 miles north of the capital Edinburgh lies Inverness, the start and end point of one of the most epic road trips in the UK, if not the world. Including the northernmost tip of the UK on a coastal roundtrip, this drive should take you around 7 days. You’ll be able to visit castles, cross remote fjords, and search for the Loch Ness monster. Along the way, stay in some truly memorable accommodations such as the Torridon, a superbly luxurious castle hotel, or the quaint Lighthouse. This 500 miles roundtrip shows you the best of Scotland’s amazing, rugged countryside and wild coast. It will also take you up to the northernmost point of Great Britain, John O’Groats, a point that is often connected with Land’s End (see the Atlantic Highway Road Trip) in Cornwall for another epic road trip traversing the entire length of Great Britain.
Pro Tip: This trip, strange as it might sound, is perfect for winter when the snow enhances the countryside but rarely gets too bad for driving. You should also allow time to add a few island trips to your itinerary. Most notably, there are the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, and the Orkneys which you can get to by ferry from John O’Groats.
Driving in the UK is on the left-hand side and will take a little bit of getting used to if you haven’t done this before. I suggest you rent a car a day or two before setting off on the actual trip and just practice a little to get the feel for sitting on the “wrong” side of the car, turning off, going around roundabouts the right way, and gaining some general confidence.