St. Davids to Ness Point 2020

The Idea.

Having driven LeJoG (Land’s End to John O’Groats) by B roads in April 2019 and with our intended North Coast 500 trip in May 2020 having to be cancelled due to Covid-19 we were faced with it a year of limited Riley Blue activity. Then came the chance of a couple of weeks away in September but rather than re-book all our Scottish accommodation and drive north we headed south-west for a week in Tenby, Pembrokeshire – in Riley Blue, naturally.

Our original intention had been to have a relaxing seaside break, doing as little possible. However, just driving to Tenby and back seemed a bit… well, dull. With St. David’s Head, the most westerly point in Wales, not far off an idea formed and I checked the location of the most easterly place in England, discovering that it was Ness Point, Lowestoft. The idea became a cunning plan. I mentioned the plan to Gael; she nodded so I pushed my luck and threw in B roads and tulip diagrams, just like LeJoG. She looked at me, raised an eyebrow, said “Obviously…” and smiled.

Google maps had given me a coast to coast non-motorway distance of 366 miles. I figured that keeping to B and unclassified roads would add at least 10% so we’d be driving over 400 miles. A glance through the pages of our AA ‘Easy Read’ road atlas (scale 2.3 miles to the inch) suggested we might be able to keep the use of A roads to fewer than 20 miles, perhaps nearer 10; pretty good, eh?

We’d previously found that around 200 miles was a comfortable daily maximum, both for us and the car, that being its safe range on a tankful as we’d run out at 223 miles on LeJoG. These, I should explain, are ‘Riley Blue miles’ with the car on non-standard size wheels and tyres; the difference in circumference exaggerates distances travelled and instrument speeds Though reserve fuel is carried, it is too risky to assume we’d always be in a safe place when we needed to use it.

Having decided to make the trip, the decision to do it west to east at the end of our holiday rather than at the start was easy – we didn’t fancy driving into the setting sun. Large towns would be avoided as far as possible but we knew we’ll have to visit one or two, B roads being notoriously lacking in filling stations stocking Tesco 99RON Momentum on which Riley Blue thrives.

Stow-on-the-Wold was the approximate halfway point so that was chosen to be our overnight halt. Conveniently there’s a Tesco Superstore there. Inconveniently when it was built a filling station wasn’t, even though the store is on the busy A429 Fosse Way. Not to worry, there’s one further on at Bicester, within comfortable driving range after a ‘splash & dash’ at Carmarthen.

Day One.

The most stunning sunrise greeted us as we departed Tenby for Whitesands car park, the closest we could drive to St. David’s Head though by the time we were driving through Pembroke the first spots of rain dotted Riley Blue’s windscreen.  Beyond Haverfordwest the sky darkened further, the cloud base lowered and we glanced at each other, a wry smile on our faces. Riley Blue’s wipers swished from side to side, vainly trying to clear the screen.

Leaving St David’s we forked left on the B4583 towards Whitesands having taken in a little of Wales’ smallest city though not even catching a glimpse of its cathedral as we negotiated its one-way system. A further left turn and in two miles we arrived at an almost deserted Maes Parcd Traeth Mavr (Whitesands Car Park) to disappoint an eager parking attendant with, “We’re not stopping, just turning round…”

He retreated to the dry of his kiosk, I spun Riley Blue around and we were off. No photos as it was raining even harder – Gael doesn’t like rain. We re-traced our route to the fork, this time turning left in the direction of Fishguard to dive right within a couple of hundred yards on Ffos Y Mynach. The first few miles were open, with good visibility as we settled in to a familiar routine; Gael reading the road book, repeating distances to the next junction and the way in which to turn and re-setting the trip meter as we arrived at them. Me? All I had to do was to listen and turn the steering wheel in the appropriate direction.

A few words about the trip meter. We use the Android phone app: ‘Gpstrip’. It shows overall distance travelled, the intermediate distance i.e. between turns, actual speed, average speed, real time, time travelled and map reference. For this trip, only the first three would be needed. It’s not perfect but it’s free. We like free.

We skirted the disused RAF St David’s airfield, a coastal command base during WW2, operating Fortress, Halifax and Liberator bombers and still in use until the 1990s. The road dipped and we crossed the first of many stone bridges, this one over the River Solva, to climb up and out of the river valley.

Almost immediately we skirted another airfield, previously RAF Brawdy, since 1995 Cawdor Barracks, the army’s main electronic warfare base.  The lanes (we were yet to sample a Welsh B road) were narrow, often steep sided, over-hung by trees and frequently poorly surfaced with badly patched pot holes.  Who in their right mind would drive a 57 year old car along them? As far as we could see most local people drove a tractor or well used pickup, both far better suited to the lanes we were driving on. The occasional sheep raised its head and bleated as we disturbed its grazing. Things could only get better – we hoped.

Rain continued to fall and in Riley Blue the conversation… there was little of it. We ducked under the A40 at Casblaidd (Wolfscastle), crossed the B4329 and plunged in to a narrow gap between high hedges past a sign that warned: ‘Unsuitable for Long Vehicles’. Not a problem, a Riley One-Point-Five is only 12’ 9” long and 5’ 1” high. Remember that height, it’ll be important later in the day. Gael is making a valiant attempt at Welsh village names, some of which look faintly Scottish,  Maenclochog for example, but it isn’t a problem as I glance at the finger posts as we pass and all becomes clear.

We rattle onwards through Meidrum. Riley Blue has lots of rattles. They’re difficult to eliminate from an old car so we’ve never tried, they’re part of its character. We’re heading south-east now, towards Carmarthen and our first pit stop. We’ve previously called at the Tesco Superstore there for fuel so now we take the opportunity to fill Riley Blue’s seven gallon (32 litre) tank, have a bacon butty and make use of other facilities. The fuel will easily take us to Bicester Tesco some 180 miles further along our route. It is, by the way, still raining.

We join the queue of traffic waiting to cross the River Tywi (Towy) then cross the A40 (again) and take the B4300 Capel Dewi road to FFairfach. It’s 14 miles of reasonably well surfaced B road with some decent swooping bends and is largely free of traffic, just local cars or visitors to the National Botanic Garden of Wales a few miles to the south. We roll along at a respectable rate, making good progress with occasional glimpses of the Towy to our left through the trees – the day is looking up though the rain persists.

Soon after we leave Ffairfach the landscape changes to upland agricultural. We have reached the western end of the Brecon Beacons and the route I’ve planned zig-zags along little used narrow lanes past, and sometimes through, isolated farms to Gwynfe – with a couple of steep uphill hairpin bends thrown, just for a laugh – then climbs past Twynllanan. Soon after passing the Red Kite Feeding Station we rattle over a grid and (deep joy) there’s an arrow straight road stretching into the distance before us.

We’re a thousand feet up on the Usk Reservoir Road. Despite the low cloud the Black Mountains can be seen to our right with the reservoir coming into view on our left. The day is definitely looking up and the rain is lighter. Though the road is straight and the temptation to ‘give it beans’ is making my right leg twitch, I resist. I’ve learned that what may appear to be a flat rural road often isn’t and a straight this length is likely to have several hidden dips and crests to catch out the unwary. It is, however, a ‘medium-risk’ stretch and we reach the other end without grounding too heavily. Riley Blue has already suffered two cracked sumps on previous trips and my supply of replacements is exhausted. This time I have taken precautions; Riley Blue has a sump guard!  A copy of the one fitted to the works rally One-Point-Fives of the 1950s and 60s, it was made and fitted by Steve McKie in Chesterfield and is being thoroughly tested on this trip. We shall, by the time we return home, consider it money very well spent.

A short detour north to cross the A40 (yet again) finds us skirting the southern fringes of the 37,000 acre Sennybridge Training Area. It’s a shame our route isn’t through it as there are some good roads to be enjoyed when the red flags aren’t flying. We dip briefly into Brecon, just to have a quick nosey, then take a single track, little used short cut under the A470 onto the B4558. It’s a good road running roughly parallel to the River Usk and we both enjoy a respite from reading and reacting to tulip diagrams.

We take a right turn on the B4560 to climb Mynydd Llangynidr. Carry on along this road and we’ll end up in Ebbw Vale but our route takes a side road on the left, a fast downhill side road with superb views to the north and to Crickhowell over in the east. This wonderful road ends, abruptly, in the village of Llangattock where a sharp right turn finds us ascending again on Hillside Road which, as the cottages and houses end, pops over the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal , narrowing to a single car width lane winding its way through woods and between fields, gradually climbing once more. We can’t see into the fields as the hedges are high but evidence on the road suggests woolly four legged residents.

After a right turn at Dan Y Parc the lane narrows even further, our wing mirrors brush the hedges. The surface becomes rougher, there’s a mossy green stripe down its centre and the sump guard really earns its keep  with rocks rattling under the car.  Then, at Llanelly, we fork right at the church, ignoring the ‘No motors except for access’ sign to drop down the hillside. As we do so bungalows and houses with neatly mown lawns and carefully trimmed shrubs appear on either side, set back further and further and with increasingly larger front gardens as we descend steeply towards the A465 which we need to cross. We are in the Clydach Gorge, one of Wales’ earliest industrialised sites but we don’t have time to explore.

Instead, we sneak under the A465, the busy Heads of the Valleys Road, through Clydach village – where we miss a turning. There is supposed to be a telephone kiosk at a fork in the road but there isn’t. After continuing uphill for a short distance I decide the left fork we didn’t take is the left fork we should have taken so we turn round. My decision proves correct and we cautiously negotiate the narrow wooded lanes taking left or right forks as we go. We meet, slow for, and wave at a few dog walkers. Most return the wave with one elderly chap almost lifting his dog off its feet as he drags it onto the verge even though we are crawling past at snail’s pace.

Previously I mentioned the height of a One-Point-Five and that it would be worth remembering. Now is the time to search your memory or flick back a couple of pages (it’s 5’ 1”). We’re now descending to join the B4246 that will take us to Abergavenny. Before we can do we have to pass under a very low bridge and I am grateful we don’t have a roof box on Riley Blue. The height warning on the bridge (it passes under the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal) is 5’ 6”; we have about five inches clearance.

We re-cross the Heads of the Valleys Road and decide we’ve earned a break. Within a short distance is a Waitrose; that’ll do. No fuel needed for Riley Blue as we’ve only travelled 125 miles from the start and topped up in Carmarthen, 70 miles back. Instead sandwiches are munched, tea drunk and visits to the loos made.

From Abergavenny we take the B4521, the Old Ross Road. That’s right, Ross on Wye, England. The weather has improved, the road is now dry and for the time being, Riley Blue’s sump guard is not required. It’s now early afternoon, we’re in good spirits and enjoying the drive; there are 13.5 easy miles before our next turning. During those 13.5 miles we cross into England though neither of us remembers the exact place. If there was a sign, we didn’t spot it.

At Broad Oak our route takes us northwards in search of a bridge over the River Wye, one that isn’t on an A road. The rolling landscape is increasingly arable in a non-intensive way but the lanes are still narrow and the tractors using them are huge. We meet several, their tyres taller than our car. One is indulging in that popular rural pastime of hedge flailing, scattering thorny twigs in our path for several hundred yards. We have no alternative but to risk punctures by driving over them. All four tyres are still air tight we cross the Wye at Hoarwithy, soon afterwards driving along a tree lined avenue past Fawley Court (available for rent, sleeps 32, has an indoor pool and looks totally spiffing) This is the Wye Valley area of rural Herefordshire; unspoilt and reminiscent of Victorian farming watercolours sometimes seen on ‘Flog It’.

We circle to the south on the B4224, switching to the B4221 at Upton Bishop then over the M50, through Newent on the Tewkesbury Road towards another river crossing, this time over the Severn near Apperley. We’ve covered 160 miles, not a huge distance and far fewer than we’ve driven on many occasions before but fatigue is creeping over us both; travelling in Riley Blue gives us huge enjoyment but the complexity of our route requires non-stop concentration and we’re both looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Across the A38, over the M5 and the end is almost in sight. We turn through Stoke Orchard from where it’s just a few miles to Bishop’s Cleeve, up Cleeve Hill, through Winchcombe (sharp right at white building, narrow!) then a meander over the Cotswolds through Guiting Power and along the B4068; Stow-on-the-Wold is within reach.

One last A road, the A429, to cross and we arrive at our B&B for the night. It is a welcome sight and while Gael has a chat with Sarah, our host, I check over Riley Blue. Everything this is where it should be, nothing has fallen off and there are no signs of any leaks; our little blue Riley has performed fantastically well.

According to our road book we should have driven 200.6 miles; we’re a few over that due to a closed road somewhere I can’t remember. I had calculated on a seven hour driving time, we took seven hours and four minutes. I call that pretty good going.

Day Two.

We’ve slept well. Our B&B is luxurious with a very comfortable bed that I wish I could spend longer in but I can’t, we have 220 miles ahead of us. While Gael awakens I have a peer under Riley Blue’s bonnet, checking fluid levels (oil and coolant are both spot on) and wiggling leads. The windscreen can do with a clean so it’s out with the glass cleaner and kitchen roll. Bugs on the front of the car are left where they are; I consider them trophies of a good drive.

We’re in the habit of carrying an overnight bag on board rather than totally unpacking the car whenever it’s parked in safe surroundings so within a couple of minutes everything is stowed away. Sarah sticks her head out of the window to bid us ‘goodbye’, Gael turns to ‘Day Two’ in the road book, I clip the clothes peg (wooden of course) on the choke and Riley Blue shakes itself into life. I give the throttle a few blips, slip into first gear and we’re away.

We wriggle our way through the villages of Maugersbury, Bledington and Churchill, crossing the A44 near Enstone to head east on the B4030. We have a near-miss (or should that be a near-hit?) with an artic hauling animal feed at a 90-right on a single track road but otherwise the first few miles of the day are uneventful and it’s not raining!

We pass the former airfield at Upper Heyford and head through Middleton Stoney, giving each other a bemused look, there’s a village called Stoney Middleton not far from our home in Derbyshire. Then we arrive at the outskirts of Bicester, turn right and then left on to the A41 to make an immediate right turn into Tesco for what we anticipate will be our final fuel stop. As we move to the filter lane to turn right an Audi zig-zags at speed past us in attempt to beat the traffic lights. He is our first d*ckh**d of the trip.

Though we’ve only been on the road a short while we decide to take a break and grab a bite to eat as thanks to Covid our ‘B&B’ was just ‘Bed’. It’s 9:50 a.m. and we’re not in a rush so with Riley Blue’s tank replenished (26 litres at 116.9 p.p.l) we pick an isolated space and park.

At times like this we play a rather childish game, we park away from any other vehicles to see what will be the first one to park near us. Often it’s a small van, usually white, seldom sign written – and it is today too! Bacon & egg butties scoffed we head into Bicester. Although our route is easterly, to keep to B roads we need to first head north to Fringford, then south-east to cross the A4421. Fringford immediately jumps to first place in our ‘best village of the trip’ category. It has a tree in a grass triangle, a finger post pointing to ‘Fringford Only’, two village greens, an ivy -covered pub and it is Candleford Green in the Lark Rise to Candleford books. We decide we could happily live in Fringford.

As we turn cross the A4421 we rattle over a patchwork of tarmac into Stratton Audley Park and along its tree lined avenue. Elegant horses munch the grass in paddocks either side as we pass between stable blocks and farm buildings. The mountains of Wales and hills of the Cotswolds are behind us, today’s landscape will be flatter and though we have farther to travel, we figure we’ll be able to keep up a good pace. The road surface has other ideas with longitudinal cracks, some up to an inch wide, and I am again grateful for the sump guard. Then we pass the likely reason, a trailer the size of a warehouse laden with straw bales. A lone cyclist is picking his way through the cracks, potholes and patches, weaving across to the centre line but we understand his problem, slow and give him a wide berth.

‘Left before two house’ advises the road book. Fortunately the two houses have not gone the way of the previous day’s phone box and we turn past the Calvert Jubilee nature reserve, its future under threat from HS2. A road sign warns of uneven surface for three miles – what have we just driven on? Just as helpful, another sign reads ‘Road Closed Ahead’. Fortunately it’s a side road off our route.

Abruptly the road surface changes colour and is smoother; have we changed counties? No, we are already in Buckinghamshire; very strange. We pass through villages with timber framed thatched cottages and signs alerting us to ‘ducks’.  Botolph  Claydon has a splendid brick village hall and clock tower and the vernacular architecture uses red brick rather than the stone of the villages we passed through earlier in the day.

With almost 50 miles covered we’re well into our stride. Riley Blue is purring along, Gael’s directions are spot on and me, I’m a very happy person – driving the byways of Britain is something I will never tire of.

Winslow comes and goes and we swing left on the B4032 towards Leighton Buzzard, not that we will pass the town as we aim between it and Bletchley, crossing Watling Street (today the A5) at Little Brickhill. Before that we enjoy the best stretch of road of the whole trip, the B4032 between Mursley and Stewkley. The tipper lorry ahead of us turns off, we have a clear road and the surface is perfect as we build up speed and flow over the crests and dips. All too soon we have to slow for Stewkley but for a few brief minutes we have experienced motoring bliss.

That would soon end with a detour to bypass long term road works on Ivy lane near the Three Locks Golf Club. We make a right, left, left and right again to drive four miles round three sides of a rectangle just to move forward half a mile.

That’s soon forgotten as we drive through Woburn, along Park Street and over a cattle grid into (no surprise) Woburn Park where we are requested to kill our speed, not the deer. We oblige, willingly. The park reminds us off our local stately pile, Chatsworth. No deer killed or even seen, we are through the park and away. Woburn, of course, is in Bedfordshire; we have reached eastern England and the sun is still shining!

The miles soon pass. The roads are so-so and the scenery pleasant enough but unremarkable as we cross over the M1, then the A6, taking a more northerly direction at Pegsdon to avoid Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City. We pass through Shefford and wish we hadn’t. It is home to some of the nastiest, most vicious speed bumps we have ever encountered and there are lots of them.  As we approach the first one we hear a SUV driving the other way ‘graunch’ on it. If a high-riding SUV can hit it, we are guaranteed too and we do, and the next. We are slowing to a halt before each one, it makes little difference. It will be the first and last time we visit Shefford.

As we crest the bridge over the A1 at Edworth, East Anglia stretches into the distance. The landscape is now various shades of arable from pale stubble through green to the dark brown of newly ploughed fields. A cyclist leads us across the A505 and we are soon driving between huge fields, not a sheep or a cow in sight, just plenty of grain; the name Wheat Hill Farm giving a clue which. We arrive at Sandon which has a huge village green, immediately placing it on our ‘best village’ scoreboard. The green has an old red telephone box and letter box at its centre – bonus points! Soon afterwards we notice the verges are well worn particularly on the outside of bends. We’ve recognised this as a sign of large agricultural vehicles so proceed cautiously especially as there’s a centre line of gravel and stones along the road which has narrowed considerably. A van starts to reverse out of a driveway to our right but a toot of Riley Blue’s horn sees its brake lights come on, just as well as an oncoming car squeezes past, scarcely slowing down.

A turn is missed though neither of us is bothered. It means we cross the A10 a couple of miles further south than intended, dodge round  road works in Buntingford  to pick up the B1368 a mile to the south of our intended junction. It has cost us 18 minutes, we’re still not bothered.

We see a sign for Audley End, a house we have visited and I have flown over in a Tiger Moth from Duxford. Tiger Moths, I can report, have more rattles and are draughtier than a 57 year old Riley!
Into and through Saffron Walden we go. It’s a medieval market town remarkable for one reason that I doubt few have noticed and it’s only whilst route planning that it suddenly popped into my head. The town has a population approaching 17,000 and describes itself as ‘quintessentially English’. It’s close to Stanstead airport, the M11 is just to the west and its railway station, along with many others, closed in 1964. There, that’s a bit of a clue; what is it also lacking that we benefitted from? Answer at the end.

What Saffron Walden does have, is a Tesco. I didn’t note it when planning our route as I knew we wouldn’t be searching for petrol at that point in our journey but as we arrive near lunch time sustenance is needed and out of habit I top up Riley Blue. As I’m doing so a chap walks up and asks its year. “It’s twin carbs, isn’t it?”  We fall into ‘car chat’ and I mention where we’re going and where we’ve been including LeJoG last year. He did it on a Norton Dominator – I bet he ached after he got off! He takes a few photos, shows me other classics he’s spotted and snapped and we wave farewell – what a nice chap.

Our route takes us north east. The name Steeple Bumpstead has always made me smile, Biggleswade is another, so we head over that way then dodge Haverhill, aiming to cross the A14 west of Bury St Edmunds. The garage in Steeple Bumpstead has a pre-war car on its forecourt, a blue, artillery-wheeled roadster, but we’re past before I can grab a good look; was it for sale? The B1057 turns left, we drive ahead, on to The Endway and into the Essex countryside, dodging pot holes and crumbling road edges. By the way, the parish church in Steeple Bumpstead doesn’t have a steeple.

Over the A14 at Westley we go, intending to take the B1106 ‘North Circular’ round Bury St Edmunds to turn left through Timworth. Developers and the local council have had other ideas, from a junction in fields with a gnarled old tree and grassy triangle there is now a tightly packed development of boxy housing, indistinguishable from that in Bicester and many other towns the length of the country. An all-important road sign no longer reads ‘Honington and Gt. Livermore’ but ‘Village Routes Only’ and we miss it. For half an hour we are snarled up in homeward bound commuter traffic with temporary traffic lights at Fornham St Martin delaying us further. It is frustrating but after some to-ing and fro-ing we find our way to Great Livermore and resume our intended route.

We’re well into the heartland of East Anglia, driving along single track lanes with verges just too tall to see over so progress is slow and several times we reverse to allow oncoming vehicles to pass. The villages through which we pass are less ‘twee ‘, the area looks like it has its rolled up its sleeves, jumped into its GPS guided mega-machinery and is farming on an industrial scale which, of course, it is. Huge fields stretch to the horizon; some are green, others have turned golden, some are already stubble.

The sun is starting to set and the shadows are lengthening as we pass Banham Zoo. Norfolk’s rural B roads are, in the main, not too bad. They’re often straight, broad, largely free from the ravages of frost and are well signed with telephone poles and wires indicating the severity of turns ahead. We’re able to make good time as a result. We enjoy one of our longest direction-free stretches of the whole trip: 17.5 miles on the B1135 to cross the A140 near Upper Tasburgh.  That was the plan, a road closure at Hapton means a few miles’ detour through Flordon to pick up the B1527 further on. Gael’s map reading has improved in leaps and bounds. She knows what I need to hear and how far in advance of the next turn and has become a very good navigator.

We’re able to slip past Bungay but not Beccles where our route sees us visiting speed bump land once more, this time through a housing estate but it’s the only way and soon we turn on to then off the B1127 through Mutford where my Dad’s mother grew up. There is an imposing church with a round tower on the village edge but I have no address so a drive round the village would have been pointless.

We are nearing Lowestoft and there is a bit of a problem. We are south of the town and need to cross Lowestoft’s Inner Harbour to reach our destination to the north. Thanks to the lack of bridges over the River Waveney and Oulton Broad we have a single option, to take the A12 and A47. There is no alternative. The traffic is busy as we drive past Morrisons, Screwfix, Aldi and Travis Perkins avoiding a stretch of A12, crossing it onto the B1532 towards the town centre. More speed bumps then a few busy junctions, one last roundabout and we are on Gas Works Road that leads to Ness Point, the most easterly place in England. We can smell the sea and as we turn right past a gas holder we see it dead ahead – we have arrived!

I swing Riley Blue around and kill the engine, we can go no further. Gael gets out and wanders to where the actual farthest east point is, beyond the reach of cars; I grab my camera and follow. What a let down. There is a ‘Euroscope’ set into the sea defences, a sort of compass pointing to far off places in each direction, Britain’s largest wind turbine (it is called ‘Gulliver’, is 25 metres tall and generates enough electricity to power 1,500 houses for a year when it is turning, which today it isn’t) a graffiti covered concrete tower and that’s about it. The Euroscope doesn’t include the most westerly point that we have just driven all the way from but distances from Land’s End, John O’Groats and Cardiff are shown. According to the on-line Suffolk magazine a million pounds were due to have been spent by spring 2020 to transform the site into a landmark visitor destination rivalling Land’s End and John O’Groats. If it was completed, it’s hard to spot; no wonder Ness Point is 27th of the 32 things to do in Lowestoft.