The days of the Roman Empire weren’t just about eating grapes, grappling with virgins and having lots of hot baths. Some of it was about standing guard on the rainswept borders of northern England trying to keep the riff-raff out.
A posting to Hadrian’s Wall in those days was no Roman holiday. It was miles from anywhere, with unfriendly neighbours and a wind that could slice the sandals off a centurion. Little wonder that when the Empire started to wobble, the soldiers were among the first to wander off in search of something a little more pleasing.
Had they hung around for another 1800 years or so and headed five miles south, they might indeed have come in for a bit of a treat. A mere hour-and-a-half’s march from the eastern part of the wall lies the start of the A686.
I’ve bought a latter-day Italian here to savour the delights of what the members of the AA have voted the most beautiful road in the world. My companion is a Ducati 996. Well, what better way to sample arguably the world’s best-looking stretch of Tarmac than with one of the planet’s best-looking bikes?
The A686 snakes from Penrith, on the edge of the Lake District, to Haydon Bridge, on the A69 in Northumberland. On the road atlas it was a handspan running on an almost perfect north-east trajectory from the Cumbrian start point. The number of named and numbered little black triangles dotting this area of the map show the A686 runs through a hilly area. Black Fell, 664, Melmerby Fell, 710 and Hartside Height, 624, are the names of peaks and their heights in metres, indicating the road climbs to around 2000ft above sea level as it crosses the north Pennines.
The Romans, masters of the straight line, would have wrinkled their noses at the red line on the map, wiggling for its entire length. As far as I’m concerned, though, the more twists and turns the better. But I’ve looked at roads on maps before and salivated at the prospect of blasting down them, only to have been left disappointed by the actual ride.
I’m also aware that the AA’s decision was made by, and for, car drivers, who often want and need something different from a sweep of blacktop than two-wheelers.
The AA suggested starting the journey at the village of Corbridge. It’s not actually on the road, but it’s within spitting distance of the 686’s north-eastern end. A former Roman settlement, Corbridge is the kind of place where housewives still scrub their front doorsteps first thing in the morning and the bank and petrol station are the only multinationals to have made their way into the compact town centre. The rest of the shops belong to local butchers and bakers. The candlestick-maker went out of business and is now an optician.
Corbridge sits on the Tyne at a point where it’s wide but ankle-deep and runs over a rocky bed. The attractive little town’s most memorable landmarks are its one-car-wide stone bridge and Roman ruins on the outskirts. The poor centurions who got billeted to the most northern edge of the Empire must have cocked-up previous missions. When the sun’s out, this remote and unyielding area of the British Isles is as stunning as anywhere in the UK.
But when the snow arrives, the Mediterranean must seem a long way away, especially with a woad-covered Pict yelling unintelligible obscenities at you. Corbridge is a lot more civilised these days, of course.
After a circuit of the town, the Ducati’s familiar throb reverberating through the sleepy streets, I jump on the A69 Newcastle-to-Carlisle dual-carriageway for a 10-mile, high-speed blast to the northernmost point of the A686. The road is indicated by a large, but completely normal Department of Transport road sign, with nothing to tell you it’s anything special. But, within a couple of miles, you know you made the correct turn.
Trees overdosing on chlorophyll form an almost complete canopy, allowing just a little of the bright sunshine to reach the road and dapple the bodywork of the bike. To the right is a two-storey-tall rock shoulder. To the left there’s a drop to a stream trickling and glinting over rocks. Already it’s the kind of scene that would make romantic poets wax lyrical about babbling brooks and the like. It just makes me think: " This is bloody fantastic. "
I’m concentrating too hard on getting the right line to look for too long, but I have got time to savour the smell of herbs assaulting my nostrils through my Arai’s vents. Don’t ask me what they were, but I could imagine Jamie Oliver veering his scooter off the road, skidding to a stop and diving headlong into the greenery to grab a handful to sprinkle generously over a pukka plate of nibbles.
Through this sensory playground runs the A686, meandering with the help of a collection of tight, often blind, lefts and rights rarely seen outside a race track. But here you get better scenery. My throttle hand and brake fingers are getting plenty of exercise when a sign for the Langley Castle Hotel appears after four miles. I impulsively turn right into its drive and am confronted by a stereotypical medieval castle complete with ramparts, tiny, slit-like windows and 7ft-thick walls. They haven’t built ’em like this since 1350.
The sky above the pale stone is the deepest blue I’ve ever seen. There isn’t a hint of a breeze to trouble the Union flag that tops the whole impressive pile and there’s a squadron of swifts decimating Northumbria’s midge population. It’s about as far away from the Little Chefs that line the roads I normally find myself on as you could get.
An elderly Dutch tourist who has also stopped for a look at the castle approaches me for a chat. Normally I’d pull my helmet and look away sharpish, but I’m feeling benevolent towards my fellow man. I tell him about the road being described as one of the most beautiful in the world, so the idea is to ride a beautiful bike on it. It makes perfect sense to him and he walks away with a smile on his wrinkled face, wishing he could swop his Ford Escort for my 996.
He’ll be lucky. I climb back on the bike and head off. After leaving the castle the road changes character. Trees no longer confine it, the stream takes a different turn and the Tarmac now slices through rolling, grass moorland. Dense, rectangular pockets of evergreens are dotted on the broad landscape and foot and mouth-free lambs gambol, baaing: " I will survive. " The A686 straightens for the first time and the Duke’s pegs get some welcome respite. Seeing 140-150mph on the clock would be no problem (if it wasn’t illegal, obviously).
I stop to take in the change in scenery in the middle of one of the straights. I realise I’ve only seen a couple of cars. Looking into the cloudless sky I see the speck of a jet plane and a long vapour trail. Normally when I spot one I wonder where it’s going and wish I was on it looking down. This time I’m happy where I am.
With my lid back on, the scenery makes me think of the mountain section of the TT course. Suddenly, I see a sign advising me to slow down to 20mph for a sharp corner. It’s not bleeding wrong. As I haul on the brakes to be on the safe side, an Alpine-style, super-tight, right-hand hairpin appears. The road is widened and cambered here and you can see for miles, so it’s easy to spot any oncoming traffic while you move from one side of the road to the other. Hairpins follow in sharp succession, whipping the road back in its original direction, downhill and through more woods.
Soon, the first and only town on the road comes into view. Alston is at the crossroads of the A686 and the A689, the road that winds south-east from Carlisle to Bishop Auckland. A steep and extremely busy cobbled street runs up through it and the place appears to be a tourist trap. Cars and lorries pack the town and cramp my style, so I clear off without looking back.
Out of Alston the corners are superb left-right flicks, with good visibility so you can make the most of them. The curves offer very few surprises, but some do tighten to ensure you’re concentrating. Here, the 686 is lined with black-and-white striped poles seven or eight feet tall. They’re planted to allow the snow plough to vaguely follow the road when it’s under tons of the white stuff. Looking over a wide valley I see a few pockets of snow high on the dark side of a crest – pretty strange as England has been gripped by a heatwave and it’s early June. The winters up here can be pretty extreme and this stretch of road does get snowbound. Looking out over the valleys at the geologically-convoluted landscape, I wish I’d paid a bit more attention to the rantings of my geography teacher, so I could have learned what an escarpment and a spur were. Instead, for the umpteenth time that day, I’m reduced to just thinking: " Nice view. "
After a gradual, but exciting climb from Alston, the A686 reaches one of its peaks. I know I’m there when I see the Hartside Top Café. At 1904ft above sea level it is Britain’s highest caff. This watering hole is on top of a steep escarpment (I know it’s an escarpment because it says so on a notice on the wall) with a view over the Eden Valley. The road might be new to me, but riders from all over the north fill the A686 on weekends. The café and its huge car park are a popular stop-off point. Even on a Friday there’s a steady stream of bikes filtering in and out.
Howard Quick, who has ridden up from Lancashire for a blast, tells me: " When I first rode the A686 I didn’t like it because the corners are deceiving. You can get two right and the third will catch you out. But now I ride it three or four times a year. When the weather’s right it’s a perfect road and it’s not as heavily policed as those around Devil’s Bridge.
" The roads in the Lake District are overrated. In summer they’re full of stone walls and cars, in winter they’re full of stone walls and cow dung. This road is so much better. It’s popular, though. On a hot Sunday you can’t get in this car park for bikes. "
As I return to the Duke, Ian Brown rolls in on his TL1000S. He lives in County Durham and rides this road virtually every Sunday. He says: " It’s a great road with lovely switchbacks, but it’s a pain in the arse on Bank Holidays. And from April to October the police sometimes have a crackdown on bikes at weekends, so be careful. They’re out for speeders, black visors and noisy cans. "
Leaving the café, I continue heading towards Penrith. Back on the A686 the corners keep coming. First I get my knee down for a downhill hairpin, then speed up for some nicely surfaced medium-fast sweepers and a sprinkling of tighter bends. If you were buying a bike and could get an extended test ride, this short stretch would give it a proper workout. It may have been engineered by John Macadam in 1823 with a constant gradient to make life easier for cart horses, but it ain’t half good fun for bikes, too.
The 996 makes light work of the descent and soon I’m in Melmerby, home to the award-winning Village Bakery. As I walk in the trendy-looking shop, the earth mother in me wants to smear organic honey, made by a local collective of socialist bees, all over my naked body while writhing on the floor in a drunken haze brought on by downing three too many organic beers. Instead, I just buy two scones and promise to punch Ronald McDonald in the face.
I’m now on the last stretch of the A686 and as I pass under a bridge for the famous Settle-Carlisle railway line, the sound of the throbbing V-twin echoing off the stonework, I begin to wonder if my scone was spiked with hallucinogenic cactus juice. A sign ahead reads " Ostrich World " . I decide to give this strange attraction a miss for a couple of reasons. First, I only take an interest in tall, ugly, flightless birds after eight Vodka Red Bulls. Two, I had a date with Long Meg and her Daughters.
These enigmatic " girls " are actually a circle of prehistoric stones erected by " no-one quite knows " for the purpose of " no-one’s really sure " . However, the legend goes that Long Meg and her Daughters were a coven of witches holding their sabbat (midnight meeting with the devil for the non-heavy metal fans among you) when a wizard caught them at it and cast a spell over them, turning them into stone.
Unfortunately, something less magical puts a stop to my meeting with the silent ladies. The farmland they stand in is quarantined because of foot and mouth and nobody is allowed beyond the gate. Bugger.
All too soon the road is over and I’m dumped off the end of the A686. I’m on an adrenalin high, but the Duke isn’t exactly the most comfortable bike around so my wrists are aching a bit after all the side-to-side, up-and-down action and I’m looking forward to Penrith. But as soon as I roll into the outskirts of the Cumbrian town I wish I was somewhere else, even Ostrich World.
I’ve left the virtually unspoilt countryside with its flowing Tarmac and ground to a halt in a seething hellhole full of DIY stores, police stations, traffic jams and fat tourists in shorts two sizes too small.
There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to leave town and head north-east. Back along the A686, of course.