Printed in December issue of Straight Six
By Tom Malcolm
The sun was setting beyond the horizon of the shimmering sea in front of the Z3, my wife and I exhilarated after a thrilling drive on Route 66 in our marvellous BMW. Gorgeous scenery, fascinating places visited and a few air-in-the-hair miles under our belt had made it a trip to remember. And here it was, the sign that signified journey’s end was just a few minutes away: ‘Workington’.
Confused? Read on. In 2018 this car-mad nut turned 66 years of age. My passion for all things on four wheels had led me to a career in the motor industry and, until my retirement, being paid to travel all over the world and drive all sorts of wonderful cars. I had been living the dream. Idyllic though all that sounds I found that there was still a substantial itch I felt I needed to scratch. It involved a convertible sports car, driving along what is arguably the most iconic road in the world, delighting in the thrill of visiting places I had never been before and meeting all sorts of interesting people. If I was to scratch the itch, there really was only one place to head to for my 66th birthday.
I’m talking Route 66, all 2,500 miles of it, from Illinois to California. Wide-open roads, a beautifully-responsive car under my right foot, hood down, air-in-the-hair hedonism. What more could a self-confessed motoring ‘junkie’ ask for? Actually, just one thing. The money to do it. And that is where my daydream crashed in flames – well almost. America was out of the question. Too many other things competing for my finances. Boring things like accommodation, food, clothing and the like.
But in one of those ‘eureka’ moments, when I threw off the chains of conventional thinking, up popped a thought which had my heart racing once more. There was a way I could go coast-to-coast on the 66 without emptying my bank account. Only this Route 66 was a little closer to home and didn’t involve passports or tortuous travel arrangements just to get to the start line. The 66 I had in mind stretches the 115 miles from Middlesbrough on Teesside to Workington in Cumbria. That’s right, the A66. Other than their double-digit numbering, there seemed to be little compare between the two. One was the stuff dreams are made of. The other was, well… just what was it made of? I hadn’t a clue, so it was time to find out.
First stop, an hour or so on the internet. This confirmed that there were plenty of interesting things about ‘our’ 66 which would make it a fascinating journey to undertake. My computer searches showed that some parts followed the same roads the Romans had used some two thousand years earlier – how cool was that! And today, as it wends its way from coast to coast in the north of England, it touches communities where inventions which changed the course of world history were developed. Add into the mix the spectacular scenery along the route and it suddenly became a ‘must do’ trip.
Having made up my mind to do it, the only two major items to decide were a) what car was I going to be driving and b) which way would I do the route – east to west or west to east. The first answer was easy. It had to be a convertible, fun to drive and capable of carrying me and Mrs M in the comfort to which we are accustomed. Enter stage left my BMW Z3. Purchased the previous year, my 21-year-old steed, still with less than 50,000 miles on the clock, was as comfortable and practical a car as I could wish to have. As for which direction in which to tackle the A66, this was going to be down to a toss of a coin.
Thus it was. And with my one-pound coin once again nestling back in my pocket, we found ourselves some days later just to the east of the centre of Middlesbrough, at a place called Grangetown. Not quite the source of the Nile, but we soon discovered that a huge and busy roundabout there beside the South Tees Business Park entrance marked the beginning of the easternmost point of the A66 (too busy to stop and take photos unfortunately). But that wasn’t always the case. Way back in the 1920s, when road numbers were first allocated, the route given the designation A66 began in the port of Hull and made its way via York and Scotch Corner to Penrith. And stopped. The years in between then and now saw the route modified and extended to what it is today.
I had only been to Middlesbrough once, years before, but it was dark when I arrived. And next morning, when I departed, it was still dark. So I don’t count it as a visit. Middlesbrough is slap bang in the middle of the district known as Teesside and the wider Tees valley, which probably accounts for how it got its name. Locals claim that half of the world has been constructed with iron and steel from Middlesbrough and district. It is a fact that the local firm of Dorman Long has provided the world with many river crossing structures, including Lambeth Bridge in London and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. And if you ever find yourself crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, look out for the ‘Made in Middlesbrough’ sign! Quite appropriate really, given that Captain James Cook was born near Middlesbrough.
The town is also home to the iconic transporter bridge which takes traffic and pedestrians in a gondola dangling from pretty substantial 160 feet long cables across the River Tees. The bridge (ironically not built by Dorman Long) isn’t actually part of the A66, but as it was not too far away, I felt it would have been silly not to try it out. An unmissable feature of the Middlesbrough skyline since 1911, at 851 feet long it is the longest bridge of its type in the world and benefited from a multi-million pound facelift a few years ago.
It not only eases the travel experience for lots of locals but has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, and, having now experienced it for myself, I know exactly why. Four smooth minutes and 1.30 each way for car and occupants, the cross-river trip was worth the detour. There is a very interesting visitors’ centre on the Middlesbrough side which tells the full story. (If you are very lucky, on your visit you may see loads of ‘brave’ souls leap of the bridge attached – hopefully – to large rubber bands on an officially-sanctioned bungee jump thrillathon.)
But back onto the A66. I’m now south of the River Tees again with the car pointing westwards. In no time at all I had Stockton-on-Tees on my right-hand side. Since leaving Grangetown the road has been dual carriageway and subject to a 50mph speed limit, well observed for the most part. The 66 is no thing of great beauty here but it is functional and serves the people of Teesside well.
Had I been in Stockton in 1822 (ok the A66 didn’t exist then, but use your imagination) then I would have witnessed one of the most important moments in world history. It was near St John’s crossing on Bridge Road that the first rail was laid of George Stephenson’s Stockton to Darlington railway. To be absolutely correct it was the first piece of track ever laid of any railway in the world. Three years later it opened for business with the great man himself at the controls of the steam locomotive which went under the name of Locomotion No. 1 – quite appropriate really.
I’m not sure how Stephenson lit the fire to heat the boiler of Locomotion No. 1 but I do know what he didn’t use: a friction match. How do I know that? Well, they hadn’t been invented then. And, would you believe it, when they were invented in 1827, the man behind this terrific achievement lived in Stockton! His name was John Walker and he was a chemist in the town. The invention didn’t make him a rich man as he didn’t patent the idea. But by all accounts Mr Walker led a comfortable life and died when aged 79.
The railway heritage of the area is, unsurprisingly, also marked in Darlington, about 10 or so miles from Stockton. In a rather incongruous location, just off the A66 and behind a supermarket and retail park, sits a rather splendid pile of around 185,000 bricks. Not just any pile of bricks, it has to be said, but a fabulous life-size sculpture, created in 1997 by artist David Mach, which steam engine enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike will instantly recognised as having the distinctive shape of The Mallard. This is the engine which in 1938 set the world speed record for a steam locomotive of 126 miles per hour. This particular depiction of The Mallard won’t be going anywhere at any speed. It weighs in at 15,000 tonnes, is 130 feet long and it took a team of 34 bricklayers, labourers and apprentices 21 weeks to complete.
As the A66 sweeps round and by-passes the centre of Darlington, it takes a south westerly tangent and drivers then encounter large blue and white signs advising that the road is now known as the A66(M). Definitely not one of the Roman sections then. In the time it takes your wipers to clear the dead bugs from the windscreen, the road has changed its name again. It is, for the next nine miles or so, the A1(M) – the only ‘hole’ in the entire length of the route.
It becomes the A66 once more at Scotch Corner, which is exactly 28 miles from the roundabout at Grangetown where our journey began. It was our old friends the Romans whom we have to credit with creating the first roads meeting point here, just a hundred or so yards from today’s junction. And not content with just building roads, for good measure the Romans reputedly indulged in some recreational sport by defeating the local Brigantes tribe at what is styled the Battle of Scotch Corner. I say reputed, for no evidence of a battle can be found by archaeologists. Some Roman ‘Fake News’ perhaps?
The junction of the A66 with the A1(M) has been massively upgraded in recent times. But let’s get one thing straight before going any further. Contrary to some rumours, there is no whisky distillery at Scotch Corner! It actually takes its name from an old Roman Road called Scotts Dyke and was the destination for Scottish farmers who would drive their sheep here to sell at the livestock market. The hotel at the junction, which was opened in 1939, is actually on the site of an old coaching halt, The Three Tunns Inn. My 1939-1940 edition of the Automobile Association Hotel Handbook came out just before the new hotel opened. Its only entry under Scotch Corner is a Kirkland House in nearby Gilling West, offering a double room with breakfasts for 11 shillings a night. That is just 55 pence in today’s money!
And one other claim to fame for Scotch Corner to mention while I’m at it. In 1976 the group Jethro Tull, they of flute-playing lead singer and one-leg-balancing expert Ian Anderson, referred to Scotch Corner in the title track of their ‘Too Old to Rock’n’Roll: Too Young to Die’ album. In one verse it tells of an old rocker who takes his motorbike up the A1 and is doing 125mph when he gets to Scotch Corner. Great stuff.
The next stretch of the A66, about 50 miles in total across the Pennines to Penrith, is as beautiful as it is frustrating; as interesting as it is dangerous. You need to keep your wits about you all the time, summer and winter. The road continually switches from dual carriageway to single carriageway and there can often be minor roads crossing it at right angles. But the road rewards you with magnificent views as you cross the Pennines, even on the type of dull, grey day we encountered.
With the A1 some 16 miles or so behind us, we took a little detour off the A66 following the signs which led us into the pretty market town of Barnard Castle. It is a delightful place and home to the remarkable Bowes Museum. This magnificent building was purpose-built in the 19th century by John and Josephine Bowes to house their collections of fine and decorative arts. Well worth a visit. Just outside Barnard Castle in the village of Bowes, where we rejoin the A66, is The Ancient Unicorn pub, a 17th century coaching inn which was once visited by Charles Dickens when he was in the area. Local legend has it that The Ancient Unicorn is haunted by several ghosts. We didn’t stay around to find out!
In no time at all we are at Stainmore Summit, the highest point of the A66. This is where we leave Yorkshire and enter Westmorland (it is actually Cumbria now but the locals are hanging on to the old name, and I for one can’t blame them), a sure sign that we are making progress westwards.
The year 1977 was a significant one for the good people of Brough, the next town along our route. Up until then the A66 ploughed straight through the town’s main street, a situation which was not exactly enjoyed by the residents. With the construction and opening of a dual-carriageway by-pass, peace and quiet was restored. But at a cost. Unlike any other by-pass I have encountered on this or previous trips, this new road actually cuts the town in half, with one part known as Market Brough and the other Church Brough.
As one form of transport thrived, another fell into decline. In 1962 passenger traffic stopped on the Eden Valley Railway, exactly 100 years after it first opened. When new it joined the communities of Kirkby Stephen and Clifton, just to the south of Penrith. But the sounds and smells of railway engines were not lost for ever. In 2006 the volunteer stalwarts of the Eden Valley Railway Trust began heritage services, and today they operate over 2.2 miles of track. Their centre of operation is in the village of Warcop, just a hop, skip and a shunt off the A66 between Brough and Appleby-in-Westmorland. And just to make sure you don’t miss the turning, the MoD helpfully established a tank depot and firing range nearby – so watch out for the ‘tanks crossing’ signs!
Appleby itself is well worth a visit. It originally developed as a market town after the Norman Conquest and features an extremely wide main street, known as Boroughgate, which runs from north to south joining the cloisters with the entrance to Appleby Castle. Today the town is best known for the Appleby Horse Fair, set up by charter in 1685 as a fair for horse trading. It runs for a week every June and is reputed to be the largest of its type in the world.
Before reaching Penrith we come to the village of Temple Sowerby. Like other communities along this stretch of the A66 it has been by-passed by the main road, allowing residents and visitors alike to bask in the tranquillity of this pretty and historical place. It takes its name from the Knights Templar who once owned Sowerby Manor and it is claimed to be one of the few villages in Westmorland which still has a maypole. Located on the edge of the village are Acorn Bank Garden and Mill, now owned by the National Trust.
And then we find ourselves in Penrith, which was where, in the 1920s, the A66 stopped. Today the town is something of a regional administrative centre for the Eastern Lake District, with lots of interesting shopping opportunities as well. Its strategic location on the north-south route made Penrith a hugely significant place. Indeed in the ninth and tenth centuries it was the capital of Cumbria. Not the Cumbria we know today but, until 1070 AD, a part of the northern kingdom of Strathclyde. Today the ruins of Penrith Castle are a reminder of the town’s military history, as is the Penrith Beacon, on top of the appropriately named Beacon Hill. Here, beacons have been lit to warn of conflict and emergency since the times of Henry VIII.
Just before our visit, Penrith went orange, with the whole town it seemed celebrating marmalade! For the answer to the question Why? we need to travel a few more miles to the west and the beautiful country mansion that is Dalemain House. It is the location each March of the Annual Marmalade Awards and Festival, which in 2017 attracted to this part of Cumbria over 2,700 entries from some 40 countries around the world. Founded in 2005 by Jane Hasell-McCosh, whose family have lived in Dalemain House for over 300 years, the festival has raised tens of thousand of pounds for charity over the years it has been held. The house and its gardens are open to the public from March to October.
Until the 1970s the A66 stopped at Penrith, and motorists heading for Keswick, Cockermouth and beyond would have used the A594 to continue their journeys westwards. A huge upgrade to the Northern Lakes roads network around this time was followed by the A594 being re-designated the A66 to emphasise the improvements that had been made and encourage more motorists to us it. The plan worked.
Continuing our journey westwards, the A66 enters the Lake District National Park, the largest of England’s national parks and famous for its mountainous landscape, rugged coastline and lakes. Home to 40,000 people, the area attracts a staggering 12 million visitors a year. There are 16 lakes in the Lake District and, in addition, there are many other pieces of water, called tarns. Most of the tarns are very small and some are not even named. Ten minutes or so drive from Dalemain House and just before the village of Troutbeck is Tarn Moss, one of many the A66 passes on its way to the coast. Troutbeck’s most famous resident was author Beatrix Potter. Troutbeck Park Farm, where she lived and bred Herdwick sheep for some years, is now owned by the National Trust.
One of the features which strikes you on this part of the journey along the A66 is the contrast in the landscape from the stretch between Scotch Corner and Penrith. In the Lakes, you look up at the hills. On the Pennines, you look down on the countryside below. Both take your breath away with their beauty.
What is perhaps not so well known about the Lake District is the large amount of mining and quarrying that went on in past years. Limestone, sandstone, granite and slate were all commercially mined, and for those who want to know more about this activity, the Threlkeld Quarry and Mining Museum should be a ‘must see’ destination. Situated just outside Keswick and in the shadow of the majestic Saddleback which rises high above, the museum is run by a dedicated and enthusiastic group of volunteers. Visitors can enjoy a variety of experiences including joining underground tours and view a fascinating collection of antique machinery, some of which was used at this former granite quarry when it was working.
Not far from Threlkeld the focus shifts from underground stones to those of the overground variety. Castlerigg Stone Circle is thought to have been erected around 3,000 BC, making it one of the earliest stone circles in Britain. There are 38 stones in a circle approximately 30 metres in diameter. Within the ring is a rectangle of a further 10 standing stones. The stone circle is on land owned by the National Trust and maintained by English Heritage.
And then we arrive in Keswick, the major centre for tourism in the North Lakes. Like other communities on the route it is now by-passed by the A66, although the town is still easily accessible. Keswick is very pretty and offers a wide range of attractions for visitors, from shops and restaurants to museums and boating trips around Derwent Water. In 1271 Edward I granted the town its market charter, and the Saturday market continues to this day. The discovery of black lead at Seathwaite in the 16th century sparked off pencil making, which is still the major industry in the town. Keswick is now one of the main centres of outdoor activities in the UK and an extensive selection of adventure activity companies, guides and instructors for all abilities are based around here.
Beyond Keswick the A66 follows the River Derwent all the way to the sea, shadowing the path of an old railway line alongside Bassenthwaite Lake, the most northerly of the lakes. Besides being the only body of water in the Lake District that actually has the word ‘lake’ in its name, Bassenthwaite Lake, owned by the National Park Authority, is not only one of the largest at four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, but also one of the shallowest (70 feet). Near to the north end of the lake is The Lakes Distillery, opened in December 2014 and producing artisan whiskey, gin and vodka. There is a visitor centre with distillery tours, and a bistro. At the visitor centre you can find out how the Lakes Malt, Lakes Gin and Lakes Vodka are made using the pure waters of the River Derwent.
If your tipple of choice is beer then a detour into the town of Cockermouth, just along the road from Bassenthwaite Lake, is certainly something to consider. Among other interesting things there you will find the Jennings brewery, the last such facility in Cumbria. It has been brewing real ale in the town for the past 160 years and still uses the same traditional methods that were used by the founder of the business. The waters from the Rivers Derwent and Cocker which supply the brewery may be quite benign these days, but back in November 2009 they burst their banks after prolonged heavy rain and the subsequent flooding caused not only loss of life, but also millions of pounds worth of damage to homes and businesses in the town. It also resulted in traffic chaos for months on end as road users had to take huge detours to get to their destinations after road bridges were swept away by the storm waters. Thankfully everything is long since back to normal, but the memories of this tragic event will not be forgotten for many a long year to come.
Fans of motorsport will need no encouragement to take a north-westerly turn off the A66 at Cockermouth to take a peek at Dovenby Hall, home to the world-renowned M-Sport rally operation. The brainchild of local rally driver Malcolm Wilson, M-Sport has been a leader in the field of rallying for close on three decades. Operating out of this beautiful Georgian mansion, the M-Sport team’s most recent success was winning the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in 2017 with the EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta, a car they developed and built at Dovenby Hall. For the past 20 years M-Sport has enjoyed a very special relationship with Ford, one which has just been renewed for 2018 and beyond. Almost 400 M-Sport Ford Fiestas are currently competing in rally sport globally.
Dorothy and William Wordsworth were from Cockermouth. The large Georgian house in the Main Street where they were born is now in the care of the National Trust. Other famous residents of Cockermouth were Fletcher Christian, he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, and John Dalton, who was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 18th century and the originator of the atomic theory.
Back on the A66, and the signs for Workington indicate that our journey is almost at its end. Parts of the town date back to Roman times but it was in the 18th century, with the discovery of iron ore and coal, that Workington really boomed into a major industrial town and port. For many years it was where Leyland buses were manufactured. Given that our A66 adventure started in a great industrial steel centre and passed where railways were born, it is perhaps appropriate that we should end up in a town where not only steel was manufactured but also, for over 125 years, railway lines. Sadly, not any more.
And journey’s end is a busy T-junction beside Curwen Park in the town. Turn right and you are heading towards Carlisle and Maryport. A left turn onto Washington Street and you will eventually come onto the A595, which will take you south to Whitehaven. We turn left towards our hotel for the night.
It has been a fascinating trip. For the record, our A66 journey from end to end totalled 128 miles, which includes detours to places of interest. We negotiated no fewer than 18 roundabouts and passed through 13 sets of traffic lights. We drove through one National Park (Lake District) and skirted past two others (North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales). Our Z3 was the perfect vehicle for the journey, didn’t miss a beat and over the entire 850 miles of our trip home-to-home, returned a very creditable 33.5mpg. The one regret we had was that the weather wasn’t really good enough to get the hood down much.
I can’t deny feeling something of an anti-climax now that the A66 has been ‘conquered’. But with that particular itch scratched, already my thoughts are turning to doing a similar run, this time the length of the A6. It runs all the way from Carlisle to Luton. Or perhaps the A1, which has the distinction of being the longest single-numbered route in the United Kingdom. All 396 miles of it from Edinburgh to London. Where’s that road atlas?