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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape