Clarkson on: taking the scenic route
This month, I have mostly been picking bits of banana pie from out of my nose, but there has also been time to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway in one of the new Pontiac Solstice two-seater rag-tops.
The car was ghastly, as you’d expect from a country that hasn’t produced a sports car since the Crosley Hot Shot in 1952. But the road was something else. Even by the standards set by the Stelvio Pass in Italy, the mountain road in the Isle of Man, that beach blast in New Zealand and Highway One in Iceland, Route One in California is pretty special. But not for the reasons you might be thinking.
Built in 1919 by the locals, including one John Steinbeck and prison labour – they actually moved three jails to California to ensure there were enough men – it goes all the way from Mexico to the Canadian Border. But the bit I’m talking about here is the 139-mile stretch from Monterey to Morro Bay.
With the Pacific Ocean to your right and fog-topped hills to your left, you could hammer along at 100mph, with your tyres scribbling for grip on the corners and your engine wailing. You could sit there, reading the road ahead and dealing with the twitches and shimmies when you’ve misinterpreted what’s next. It really is an exceptional drive.
You don’t even mind when you come up behind a recreational vehicle and are forced to drop from 35mph, the traditional US cruising speed, to something not far removed from walking pace.
Occasionally, if you’re going slowly enough, you can catch a glimpse of the Northern Californian hinterland. It’s train-set country really, with white picket fences, lollipop trees and a velvety texture to the hills. It is stunningly, hand-bitingly, breathtakingly beautiful.
Then you get to the Bixby Creek rainbow bridge at Big Sur and you’ll almost certainly want to drop to four mph, then to a complete standstill. It’s far from the most sophisticated bridge in the world, since it’s built from wood and concrete and it’s not the most beautiful either. But when it spears off into the fog, and all you can hear are the bark of the sea lions below, well, it’s a moment you don’t want to waste by passing through at 120, with your hair on fire.
The next day, I had a similar sort of feeling while cruising down the waterfront in San Francisco. I felt sure the speed limit here is 30mph, but that’s way too fast. I did about three, so I could spend more time drinking in the smells from the sea and gawping at the Bay Bridge. Peering up those concrete canyons, I saw the funfair road system that had launched Steve McQueen and his Mustang 30 feet into the air, and into the consciousness of small boys everywhere.
Counter to this, I recall driving once through a eucalyptus forest in Portugal and because there wasn’t much to look at, I went nuts, squealing my tyres on every corner and generally being quite loony. Quite an achievement in a Toyota Starlet.
"I'm a lout in places that have the topography of blotting paper and the colour of wallpaper paste"
Had the Banana Girl who filled my face with pie this month seen me being so reckless, she would have dropped a large boulder on my foot. Or maybe shot me in the heart with an organic gun.
And she’d have been similarly mad if she’d caught me in Alice Springs having driven at an average speed of 130mph on dirt roads from some massive ranch about three million miles away.
This brings me on to the Buttertubs Pass in North Yorkshire. Travelling from Thirsk at the eastern end, the temptation is to drive very quickly because it’s a great road and, unless you like sheep, there are few visual distractions. But at the top, you just have to slow down. This is because there’s a very steep drop to your left and the barrier is nothing more than a length of B&Q hosepipe. But also because the view is just epic.
I could go on, but to summarise, here is a list of places where I tend to drive fast and recklessly:
middle of Spain
- The west coast of Barbados
And this is a list of places where I tend to drive quite slowly:
- The east coast of Barbados
In other words, I’m a lout in places that have the topography of blotting paper and the colour of wallpaper paste. And I’m also what James May calls a ‘Christian motorist’ in places that are usually spectacular and bright.
And I think I’m not alone. Ever wondered why people go so slowly through ‘The Cut’ on the M40 near Stokenchurch? Could it be because the view of Oxfordshire from here, is the view featured in the title sequence of The Vicar of Dibley, and is just so captivating?
And if it is, then could it be that I’ve stumbled on a rather wondrous new road safety idea: when building roads, ensure they go through the prettiest scenery possible?
Certainly, while watching the recent BBC series, Coast, I was startled to find how little of our magnificent shoreline is lined with a road. There are thousands of miles of wondrous views which can only be enjoyed while on foot, not from a car.
Take north Wales as a prime example. At present, people wishing to get to Anglesey from Aberystwyth must trundle up the A487 and the A496, which have to be rigorously patrolled with speed cameras in a bid to stop all those bored drivers from going too fast.
If there were to be a proper road which hugged the seaside, everyone would dawdle along looking at the waves and the bird-life. The act of driving, which is inherently dull, would be enhanced by visual stimulation and consequently there’d be no need to stimulate the limbic system of your brain with high-speed thrills. And as a result, there’d be fewer crashes, fewer distraught parents and orphaned children.
Best of all, such a scheme would blow a fuse in the head of the girl who mashed my face into a pie this month. Because everyone would be going so much more slowly, there’d be fewer fumes to spoil her precious environment. But to achieve this goal, several hundred diggers would need to chew up the natural beauty of Britain’s prettiest bits.
What’s it going to be, Banana Girl?