Monday, August 17, 2009

Northern highlights

I’m not going to pretend my choice of transport for this trip came through anything other than necessity. The Caterham’s current mechanical issues, allied to its lack of a hood, and the fact I would have almost certainly ended up single by the end of the trip had I taken it, compelled me to use the Focus instead. And for those very reasons I find myself cruising up the A1 in the quiet confines of the Ford’s interior.

The familiar journey up to my girlfriend’s parents’ near York turns out to be an uneventful one, barring a spooky atmospheric phenomenon that manifests itself as I pass through Cambridgeshire. As the last rays of the peach coloured sunset creep over the horizon, a dense mist wells up in the fields surrounding the road. It hangs all around, covering the windscreen with a fine film of water vapour and collecting by the hedgerows and hollows like the start of a horror film. There are, however, no ghosts, ghouls or vampires, and by about 11pm I’ve arrived, safely back in the land of the living.

Two days later I head out with my significant other to our base for the next couple of days; the Yorkshire Dales. We approach from the bustling market town of Leyburn, following the sat nav along a spectacular single-track road onto the fells. Not for the last time it turns out to be a route you couldn’t drive at any great speed - thanks to crests, blind corners, errant sheep and the sheer lack of width - but the scenery is breathtaking. The sudden switch from lush farmland to rugged moorland leaves you in no doubt you’ve arrived in the Dales. A few miles further on, the view from our hotel in the tiny hamlet of Low Row is almost equally dramatic, and it promises much to explore.

The following day we head out to the Lake District along the B6270. Initially it’s a meandering country road skirting the villages of the Northern Dales, but the eastern edge thrusts us onto a narrow track, like the previous night's road only more so. The scenery becomes increasingly desolate, and the views ever more expansive. This is big sky country, with a horizon that stretches on for miles, and over one of its numerous crests we cross the border and plunge down into Cumbria.

The roads around The Lakes are predictably congested and we stick to the main routes for ease, but on the way back we stumble across a real gem and arguably the best driving road of the trip: the A684. Sometime after Kendal the traffic peters out and the road darts around a series of devilishly twisty bends and fast sweeping curves. It gives a rare opportunity to exploit the Focus’ innate chassis balance, trail braking into the bends to quell the initial understeer and then pushing the revvy, if somewhat beleaguered engine up through the gears on the way out.

The roller coaster lasts until we get back into the Dales, when an increasing quota of villages and bumbling tourists forces a more leisurely pace. Soon afterwards, however, we turn off onto the infamous Buttertubs Pass.

Heading north out of Hawes the first stretch is classic moorland road - quite straight, reasonably well sighted and fast. As the altitude peaks, the swooping introduction gives way to the famous vertigo-inducing section. Here all that separates you from a fiery death in the valley floor several hundred feet below appears to be a length of green hosepipe suspended between the fence posts. Fortunately we remain on the black stuff, and the final descent into Thwaite is something else. It's narrower, steeper and twistier than the rest of the road, and I reach the end with a considerable grin, a strong smell of warm brakes and a somewhat spongy pedal. In truth it would probably be more fun the other way round (north to south), but that will have to wait for a future trip.

The following day, however, we do head south over the same valley, albeit on the Askrigg Common road that runs parallel to the Buttertubs, a little further east. It’s a familiar story – more scenic route than honing road - but nonetheless spectacular as the road hugs the steep side of the valley and makes its way over the common. Unfortunately there turns out to be a cycle race on, making progress, for us, very sedate. Not so for the competitors, who are hurtling down the 1 in 4 hill towards us, placing all their trust in old fashioned cycle brakes and sticking rigidly to the racing line. While, to me, it looks like fun, I defy anyone who moans about people driving enthusiastically to claim that’s safer!

Afterwards, on a tip-off, we head down the B6255 towards Ingleton. Were it not for swarms of peak-season tourists this road would be one of the highlights, thanks to a great mixture of longish open straights and tight twisty sections. It seems to be very popular with bikers too, but the local constabulary are also in attendance, sporting a very tasty looking Evo IX pursuit car no less.

On the final day - after another pass over Askrigg Common - we head back along the eastern stretch of the A684. Initially it winds its way through a series of quaint stone-clad villages but, as before, it opens up on the periphery into a genuinely credible driving road. It's just a pity that this particular road leads us back to the A1 and, from there, on to London.

Yet the Focus once again performs admirably on the motorway slog. For a sub-premium hatchback, let alone a design that’s over a decade old, it’s remarkably versatile. True, the meagre 1.6-litre engine needs working to overcome its considerable mass on occasions, but even then it remains relatively civilised, with an excellent ride-handling balance and some of the most comfortable leather seats I’ve ever sat in. What’s more, throughout the whole trip it’s averaged comfortably more than it does on my usual suburban commute, so it seems this very ordinary car’s trip into some extraordinary surroundings has categorically done it good.

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