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PH Dream Drive: B6277, North Pennines

Want to drive on England's ceiling? Turn right at Penrith...

By Nic Cackett / Saturday, March 16, 2019

It's a measure of the B6277 that even the roads leading up to it could justly be called great. In fact, when it comes to the A686, which snakes its mazy way from Penrith up onto the Pennines, the AA did just that - dubbing it, "one of the greatest drives in Britain" or, if the plaque at the top of Hartside Summit is to be believed, "one of the top ten drives in the world". That might be stretching it a bit, but there's no questioning the underlying appeal of a route that Sir John McAdam himself (he of tarmacadam fame) pioneered across Cumbria and Northumberland in the 1820s after he discovered the previously unmade roads "the worst that have yet come to my knowledge".

The A686 is famous then because it was first, and because it remains a main road to this day. It has the steeply inclined bends indicative of a serious ascent and it also has impressive views, particularly from the car park of the Hartside Café, which met its fate in a devastating fire a few years back. From there you look down into the aptly named Eden Valley, a rich swathe of rolling farmland bordered by the Lake District in the far distance. On any clear day it must make for a memorable panoramic - but to visit it when we did, in the aftermath of serious snowfall, it is nigh on spectacular.

It helps, of course, that it is remarkably quiet. Sure, there's half-a-foot of snow in the car park and we surveyed it from fairly early in the AM, but from long experience that wouldn't have stopped the punters in the Peaks or the Brecons or the Dales. Rush hour traffic on the A686 barely qualifies as a trickle - the road, which can be seen snaking up the hillside is more often empty than not - and it is for this reason as much as any other that the North Pennines Area Of Natural Beauty easily qualifies as Dream Drive territory.

It is quiet for several good reasons. First and foremost, not many people live up here. There are myriad villages but almost no towns - and because the moors are straddled by major roads (the A69 and A66), anyone wanting to get from, say, Carlisle to Newcastle or even Penrith to Durham, has a more direct alternative to the A686's meander. That wouldn't typically dissuade tourists (and doubtless there are more in the summer) but you'd assume this part of the Pennines is also somewhat disadvantaged by the close proximity of its more famous neighbours; both the Lakes and the Dales are within easier reach of anyone traveling from the south an surely account for a far fatter proportion of the sightseer dividend.

This goes some way to explaining why no member of the four-man PH contingent had ever visited previously (and before the scoffing starts, that tally includes Stanley P, a car photographer of thirty years' experience who has been everywhere from Ullapool to Uttoxter). The other reason is time. And money. It takes more than five hours to get the 300-odd miles from the south side of the M25 to the Hartside Summit - and that's not even where we're going.

Fortunately, our chosen mode of transport doesn't require much sacrifice. The Cupra Ateca in question had been doing the dreary stuff since before Christmas, and, as ever, it's decidedly easy to rub along in a car that manages to seem well-made, convenient, practical, user-friendly, comfy and quick all at the same time. The motorway trek to Penrith pretty much reaffirmed all that. Much like every other MQB offshoot, it has an acutely well-judged driving position and front seats decent enough to take advantage of it, not to mention the adaptive dampers that make its softest drive setting benign and amenable at motorway speeds.

This meant no backache at Hartside, and therefore no reluctance to get cracking with the dream portion of the drive. It's fair to say the Pennines spoils you for choice - or it does from the God's eye view supplied by Google Maps, at any rate. Alston, which, incidentally, is said to be the 'highest market town in England' at around a 1,000 feet above sea level, is crisscrossed by the A689 as well as the A686, and both appear to take in their fair share of primo grade moorland. But we went for the B6277 because it seemed more remote and, well, it's got a B in it, right?

The weather is clearly determined to play a significant part in proceedings; as it leaves the threshold of Alston, the road dallies for a while in nothing more picturesque than scruffy farm land - but with the low rolling hills dusted in fresh powder, and a sapphire-blue sky above it, the view over Cumbria's low stone walls is already fit for a shortbread tin. To the right you get the southern end of the River Tyne, and as the valley in which it sits become more pronounced, the scenery shifts up an additional gear - followed, a little while later, by the character of the B6277 itself.

Up to this point it has been mostly straight. Straight in a terrific vanishing point type way, but straight nonetheless. However, once you're past the Yad Moss Ski tow on your left (which gives you some idea of just how hilly the countryside is) the road dives into a sweeping right-hander and then doesn't let go of your attention for the next 8 miles. Its speciality is sighted and hugely fast S bends, of the sort that are rarely wedded together for any length or consistency in England. Here they ebb and flow with pitch-perfect regularity, applied to a landscape which, on the day we drove it, appeared to have been airdropped from the Arctic Circle.

Better still, as you cross from Cumbria into Country Durham (the changeover signified both by signage and a cattle grid) the road surface suddenly stops being stereotypically shoddy and becomes brilliantly smooth instead - which makes it even more exceptional among moor top British B roads. Did I also mention that it's quiet? Not just A686 quiet - but properly, eerily quiet. Like if we'd had a football, we could have played in the road. That quiet. Like a cul-de-sac.

It's a recipe for mischief, of course - and must be nigh on irresistible in temperate conditions - but the sub zero temperatures keep us honest enough on the day in question. Unsurprisingly, they present the Ateca in its best light, too. The shortcomings of a 300hp all-wheel drive SUV are all too easy to spot when the sun is out and the tarmac warm; throw some slush on the road though, and you're not inclined to quibble with the complexity of the drivetrain or the slightly higher vantage point - or even a ride height that duly eliminates the fear factor involved with turning around in snow-covered laybys.

No, the Ateca does alright. The B6277 in January makes precision and grip and nose-bias predictability seem like considerable virtues, and because the road is so impressively flat, it even makes the car's 'Cupra' mode seem like a viable option, which is significant if you're not to fall into the trap of driving the Ateca no more enthusiastically than you would the diesel version. Granted, it falls short of completely riveting no matter which setting you dial up - but when the road underneath you has that adjective entirely taken care of, it's easy to content yourself with all-weather proficiency and goggle at the view from the window.

Do this for too long and the B6277 eventually descends from the moors and takes in a series of brilliantly named villages (Newbiggin takes the gold; Romaldkirk, silver) before concluding south of Barnard Castle in Teesdale. Better though to turn off left just before Langdon Beck onto the unclassified road which is signposted for St John's Chapel. Why? Well, because about halfway along its spectacular five-mile stretch, it crosses Harthope Moss - and in doing so becomes the equal highest paved mountain pass in England at 747m. Equal with where you ask? Killhope Cross - on the A689, of course, around 10 miles away on the way back to Alston.

So there you have it - the tallest roads in the land. And in the running for the best, too.

1,984cc, 4-cyl, turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,300-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
0-62mph: 5.2sec
Top speed: 154mph
Weight: 1,632kg
MPG: 38.2 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 168g/km
Price: £35,900

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