Simon Calder: Tracked down - Britain's greatest A-road. Or is it?

The man who pays his way

Two weeks ago, I was rescued by les pompiers, though not in the customary circumstances. I was seeking to descend from Les Arcs in the French Alps. Warning signs strictly prohibited pedestrians from walking down the D119 because of the risk of avalanches. So I hitched, and the local firefighters stopped – immediately improving my hitch-hiking poker hand. All I need to complete an emergency services trilogy is a lift in an ambulance, with or without patient.

The D119 was the last road I hitch-hiked along; the first was a less scenic highway, the A264 between East Grinstead and Crawley. I happened to be born beside the A23 just a few yards from where it crossed the A264, and these two A-roads formed the basis for all my early travel experiences. This week, the architectural worth of the British petrol station has been celebrated – and on pages 8 and 9 we feature the "highway to the sun", the A303 through the west of England, and the travel memories it unlocks.

A-roads are far more part of the nation's travel patchwork than are motorways. There are more of them; they thread through, or go to, all the best places in Britain from Land's End (A30) to John O'Groats (A9); and they were designed for an gentler age of slower travel (though it must be said, a time of much higher accident rates).

While the UK may lack a "mother road" to match Route 66 or the Great Ocean Road, it has some excellent candidates for the nation's prime artery. The greatest is the A5, which starts beside a branch of Snappy Snaps at Marble Arch in central London and ends untidily at the port of Holyhead, on the island that is even more detached from mainland Britain than is Anglesey.

The A5's achievements during its 260-mile meander are remarkable. From its southern start the road acts as the main artery for the Arabic community in London; mutates into a suburban high street (Kilburn, Cricklewood); provides an escape route at either end of Milton Keynes; delivers optimistic punters to Towcester racecourse, and leads most of them sorrowfully home.

Before the M6 and the M6 Toll, the A5 was the main road connecting the South-east with the North-west, carving a graceful arc above the clutter of the West Midlands. It skirmishes with the A41, a lesser highway that also begins at Marble Arch but fizzles out in Birkenhead; they tussle on the way out of London and once again at a lonely roundabout outside Weston-under-Lizard in Staffordshire. Then the A5 traverses Shropshire, swerving around Shrewsbury. And that's just the "English" part of the A5, which follows the ancient course of the Roman Road known as Watling Street.

Trans-Cambrian driving force

Once across the River Ceiriog at Chirk and into Wales, Roman rigidity is replaced by Victorian engineering. Thomas Telford coaxed a highway to Holy Island through the spectacular terrain of North Wales, never allowing the gradient to exceed 1 in 20.

Near Llangollen, another Telford miracle appears, in the shape of a Unesco World Heritage Site: the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which bears narrowboats across the heavens. Then the A5 curls around the Horseshoe Falls and carves across the prettiest parts of Snowdonia, passing lonely chapels and nameless cairns.

Agreed, it's all downhill from here: the A55 muscles in on the action outside Bangor and relegates the A5 to a trans-Angleseyan afterthought. But shortly before this happens you can stop at the prettiest youth hostel in North Wales, Idwal Cottage. It stands beside the sharp northward turn at Llyn Ogwen – and happens to be where I intend to stay tonight, trains and boots willing. While I adore the A5, I have never actually driven along it.

Traffic news: it's the A595

Your nominations – and justifications – for other A-road contenders are warmly welcomed. To start you off, I sought the view of the Voice of Traffic, Sally Boazman of BBC Radio 2.

"The A595, which runs between Whitehaven and Barrow-in-Furness on the western edge of the Lake District. Stunning." Strangely, Ms Boazman also used to live beside the A23. But she never hitched along it.

Suggested Topics
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'