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  • Writer's pictureMal Grey

Take a break - alternatives to motorway services

The beach at Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle

For some time, I'd been thinking how much nicer it would be, when on a long drive, to pull off the motorway and explore, rather than stop at an anonymous services and have my wallet emptied. In the past, a long drive would mean the day was simply a task to be completed, a bit of a waste really, the stops just necessities for rest and fuel for the body or the car. I endeavoured to try and introduce a few more interesting breaks into my journey. Here maps are your friend, online especially, as you can look at your route, and pick a point of interest or nice looking bit of countryside. So, here are a few examples of how its' worked out.

Back in early February, I was heading north to a good mate's 50th birthday celebrations in Fife. I was making a long weekend of it, and after a night with friends in Howden, Yorkshire, I had the drive to Edinburgh and beyond to do. Not in too much of a rush, here was an opportunity for an interesting stop-off, for this route goes through some stunning parts of Northumbria and the Scottish Borders. Howden also has a fantastic little butchers, selling awesome pies, so I grabbed a couple of those and hit the road.

A few hours later, and having made a mental note of a couple of places, I'd decided to stick with the A1 and head for the beaches of the Northumberland coast. I turned right at signs for Bamburgh. Here, the car park lies under the massive walls of one of England's most impressive fortresses, but I wasn't here to explore the castle, but to wander on the fabulous beach beyond. With camera, drink and pie, I strolled through the dunes and down onto the huge expanse of sands, covered with the last water left behind by the falling tide. The wind was, as is traditional on an east coast beach, bracing, adding to the atmosphere of this wild and beautiful coast. The shallow pools reflected the looming castle, the rolling surf and the crying gulls offered an entirely appropriate soundtrack. I wandered for an hour or so, ate my pie, and returned to car completely refreshed for the hours on the road ahead of me.

A month later, my friend Nige and I were heading north from Oxfordshire to the Highlands, for our annual winter walking trip. Normally, we press on, and stop at the excellent Tebay services on the edge of the Lake District, one of the few motorway establishments that is a genuinely pleasant place to stop. However, I'd other plans this time. For many, many years, I'd been driving to the Lakes, or Scotland, and seeing this attractive hill standing high above the motorway at junction 36. This is Farleton Knot, a hill caught between the Lake District and the Dales, sharing the best of the characteristics of each. I think this time it was samosas, not pies, but we'd grabbed some food from a supermarket further south.

We pulled off at the said junction, followed a little gated single-track lane for 5 minutes, and pulled up in a layby. Above, steep slopes led us upwards, via a small winding track, to the open hillside above. This is a fascinating landscape, for the hill is on the edge of limestone country, and the summit plateau contains large expanses of superb limestone pavements, which lead to the edge of the hill. Here, overlooking the M6, where tiny vehicles could be seen plodding north, the view is stunning, taking in the winding estuaries of the Rivers Lune and Kent, with a backdrop of the hills of Cumbria. We ate our samosas sat on a ledge at the summit, gazing west, before rock-hopping across the pavement and back down to the car. It had only taken an hour, but it had again offered up a superior way to break the journey.

Fast forward to May, and I was heading south after visiting my parents. With a canoe on the roof, which I hadn't managed to use. A quick check on Paddle Points, the paddlers' website which shows so many places to put a canoe or kayak into the water, and a plan was hatched. I would head for Houghton Mill, near Huntingdon, where a short circuit could be done using the backwaters and the navigable river of the Great Ouse.

The little National Trust cafe provided me with my lunch, a homemade sausage roll and bottle of ginger beer, which I popped into my drybag and then into the canoe. Pushing off, I headed downstream. Though the day was windy, here there was shelter, and the reflections were near perfection. Heading onto the main river, I took a left, slipped down a small weir, and into the most lovely of backwaters, which meandered downstream for a mile or more. The reeds were just growing up, the waters were clear and sparkling, and birds were flitting around, busy with the joy of spring. Reaching the main river, I turned upstream, portaged a lock, and let the wind blow me back upstream against the modest flow. A perfect hour and a half.

Just the other week, I was again heading to my parents' place in Nottinghamshire. I was racking my brain for somewhere to have a walk, and opened up the maps to look for green places. I didn't want to wander flat fields, I wanted a view. Just north of Luton, I spotted a nature reserve; Barton Hills. I'd never heard of it, but it looked well worth a visit. And so it turned out to be. Here are the northern-most outposts of the chalk downs of the south, and Barton Hills offer an excellent little escarpment, shaped by the elements, where steep slopes are covered in meadows and flowers, and spurs of downland stick out into a small valley who's opposite slope is clad with trees. An hour's walk took me up and along the escarpment, wandering through grasslands studded with orchids, and then back down a spur and into the valley, where a red kite swooped and whirled along the slope, looking for lunch. An unexpected, and delightful, find.

My final stop recently, was the return journey of that trip. This time I chose Rutland Water, a place I have not visited for a long time, and headed for the reserve at Lyndon. Here, Ospreys are nesting, and I could watch them distantly from a hide where a TV screen also shows a close up of the nest. Another hide, a short walk away, overlooked a lovely reed bed, where moorhens and coots were nesting, assorted ducks and geese were chatting loudly to each other, and a lone little egret waded amongst them.

A new job means I'm going to be on the road a lot. Whilst time constraints will mean its not often possible to stop in such interesting places, on the longer legs before and after work I certainly intend to explore the quiet places of the area I will be travelling, rather than the petrol stations and services. You do have to allow a little longer to make the best of these little wanders, perhaps setting off an hour earlier, but what would you have done with that extra hour, that would have been better than a little wander in the exceptional countryside of the British Isles?

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