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
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
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
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice