No pain, no gain. That’s the phrase that springs to mind as I contort myself into the tiny aperture between sill and roof that purports to be a door. The rain is lashing down, the windscreen is fogged, and my son has just kicked the other door off its hinges trying to install himself in the passenger seat. Our soaking wet tents are strapped to the back of our Caterham Seven. Our sodden clothes, sleeping bags, and boots are jammed under the luggage tonneau and today we will be sharing a single pair of driving shoes. Max’s got waterlogged in the storm that kept us awake all night and continues this morning.
This is a critical moment, testing our commitment to this father-son quest to drive seven of Britain’s best roads in the Seven, in seven days or less. The plan was to turn right out of the campsite and take the Kirkstone Pass, one of the most dramatic roads in England’s Lake District, but the cloud is so dense that I can barely see beyond the hood. Do we press on, or pull a U-turn and hope that we can outrun the weather?
The Caterham is just about the most basic sports car ever made. Essentially a continuation of the Lotus Seven which dates from 1957, the car is the epitome of Colin Chapman’s “simplify and add lightness” philosophy. An engine, four wheels, two seats, and a steel spaceframe barely clothed in aluminum panels. Since Caterham took over the Seven’s blueprints in 1973, there have been a number of different powertrains provided by Vauxhall, Rover, Ford, and even Suzuki.
Our 2010 Roadsport has a 1.6-liter Ford Sigma motor, with a few tweaks to send around 140 hp to the rear wheels. That may not sound much, but the whole vehicle weighs just 1210 pounds. It wears sticky Avon CR500 tires on 13-inch alloy wheels and will see 60 mph from a standstill in five seconds, if you can manage the wheelspin. It is a track day weapon and just the thing for a quick Sunday-morning blast. A grand tourer it is not. Nonetheless, that is what we’re asking of it as we chase the last days of summer. With judicious use of bungee straps and the narrow slots behind the seats, we manage to pack everything we need for a week away.
Days before our foggy fork in the road, we set out on our adventure. Nineteen-year-old Max is actually up and ready before me. Want your teenager to get out of bed before noon? Dangle the keys to a Caterham. We leave our home in London behind and breeze along with the sun shining, passing the monoliths of Stonehenge and make good time over the 200 miles. It becomes immediately apparent that no father-son bonding over conversation will be done at speed. On the way to the first road on our list, the A39 from Porlock to Barnstable in Devon, we communicate very little, yet Max’s phone remains in his pocket as the sights and sounds captivate us.
The Atlantic Highway
Known as the Atlantic Highway, the A39 is anything but a highway as it leaves Porlock. One of the steepest roads in the country, it snakes quickly up on to Exmoor in a series of switchbacks. It would be fun if the path is clear but tedious if you’re behind one of the many motorhomes that are out for a final summer Sunday drive. Fortunately, what the Seven loses in practicality it makes up in performance. A quick blip, a downshift and we’re doing multiple-motorhome fly-bys, one eye on the shift-up lights, one ear on the roar of the sidepipe that exits by the driver’s right hip.
Soon the road stretches out over Exmoor, undulating and weaving between the hills, yellow gorse and purple moorgrass providing a warm blur of color through the narrow windshield. Dipping down off the moors and hugging the coast, the view across to the little seaside town of Lynton is stunning. As I scramble up a bank to grab some photos, Max gets his first turn behind the wheel. A week ago he drove (and drove well) at a track day, but there’s no run off here and barely a straight in sight to get familiar with the car.
He clambers in, adjusts the four-point harness, thumbs the starter, and heads off down the hill to find somewhere to turn around and head back for a hero shot. He is gone a long time. I’m perched high on the hillside, with just my parental angst for company. It’s the first time he’s driven the Seven on the road, the first time I haven’t been sat next to him.
Just as I’m about to call him or check Find my iPhone, I hear him. I’m guessing about 5000 rpm, so not full throttle, which is a good sign. I see him through the viewfinder. His face reflects deep concentration.
We get our shots and pause for a moment in a park lot to ogle the gaggle of supercars sprinting by in close formation. Definitely a popular spot.
A little too popular. We double back along the coast to make our way towards Wales, overtaking more RVs and sightseers on seemingly every straight. By the time we reach our campsite on the South Wales coast, we’re thankful for the pop-up tents that are within seconds ready to receive our tired selves.
Black Mountain Pass
Day two begins with a short sprint on the M4 motorway to Swansea, where we jink north to pick up the A4069 from Upper Brynamman to Llangadog—a route known as the Black Mountain Pass. It’s still early, so we have this stunning road to ourselves. The recent addition of a 40-mph speed limit would reduce the fun in most cars, but the Seven sits so low to the ground that anything above a walking pace feels fast. The Seven owners’ club magazine is called Low Flying, which is a pretty accurate description of piloting the Caterham as we whip between the mountains, taking curve after curve, trying not to be distracted by the views.
There are so many photo opportunities that Max gets most of the seat time to drive for camera, tearing up and down, getting more confident with each pass. There’s one particular corner that fans of Top Gear’s Chris Harris will recognize from his days of YouTube fame. It’s a tight left, uphill, and there are plenty of tire marks left by Harris and others who have powered through on opposite lock before us. At this point I elect to get back behind the wheel to take us north. It’s part parental perogative and also the fact that I’ve been missing all the fun.
The A483 isn’t on our official list of Great British Roads, but it is a fabulous way to cover the miles to Chester where we pick up the M63, M56, M60, and M67 motorways towards Manchester. Four hours or so from the Black Mountains and we’re at the A57 Snake Pass in time for a couple of runs before the sun sets.
The pass runs from Glossop to the Ladybower reservoir and, once again, the local authorities have clamped down, introducing a 50-mph limit. In the Seven, our senses are heightened as we fly through the beautiful Peak District. Open to the elements we can smell the fading leaves on the trees, feel the moisture on our faces as we clip through patches of mist. With 25 percent gradients, Snake Pass can be a real test of brakes, but the Caterham is so featherweight it never struggles to slow, even on the steepest sections, while also making light work of the climbs.
Another night under canvas beckons, and COVID-19 restrictions limit our dinner choices to a sorry-looking sandwich, but nothing can spoil this truly excellent day.
In the morning the skies are still clear and we make the two-hour journey towards the Yorkshire Dales with the roof still down. For some reason, this is the only part of the trip in which I just don’t gel with the car. The wind buffeting is exhausting, I can’t settle in my seat, and so I’m very pleased when we make it to Hawes and the beginning of the Buttertubs Pass.
This is another road popular with Top Gear alumni. In this case, Jeremy Clarkson described the pass as “England’s only truly spectacular road.” He is not wrong. It really is spectacular—and surprising. Initially you climb up onto the Dales, the road meandering gently, giving plenty of time to soak in the scenery. Then, out of nowhere, it becomes an insane roller-coaster ride, dipping and climbing, dodging and weaving, forcing concentration, with only a few scarred cable barriers preventing our “low-flying” Caterham from taking off.
It’s an astonishing drive, and Max does brilliantly behind the wheel. I’m a terrible passenger at the best of times, but he’s really focused as he smoothly, calmly tackles the ‘Tubs, blipping for downshifts and keeping his eyes up for the next surprising twist.
By now we’ve dipped into Cumbria, and that means the Lake District, a scant 50 miles from the Kirkstone Pass. When we arrive, however, there is nothing to see. The fog is so thick that even if we weren’t stuck behind a bus, we could go no faster. Fortunately, our campsite is placed just at the bottom of the pass, so we can try again in the morning.
The foul weather declines to yield us this redemption. Instead, as you may recall from this tale’s beginning, we are faced with a choice. Together, we resolve to press on and point our rain-drenched noses to the west in pursuit of the Honister Pass.
The eclectic topography of the Lake District means there are pockets of different climates, and by the time we reach the town of Keswick the air is completely clear. The pass begins with a very steep, narrow, tortuous climb that makes us glad to be in a car as diminutive as the Seven. Then, it opens up to a valley full of surly locals who think they own the road. Sheep stroll casually onto the asphalt, unbothered by the speeding machines and short braking distances. They give you a little side-eye and slowly wander off, oblivious to your pounding heart still recovering from a horrific panic stop. Caution is required, but it’s still a corking drive and, as we finally begin to dry out, we’re hoping for even more excitement to come.
As we slog up the M6 and into Scotland, the clues that we’ll get our wish are already manifesting. This must be the most beautiful stretch of motorway in Britain, cutting through the mountains on the border. It’s significantly colder now. Because the Seven has no heater, we keep the half-hood in place, put on more layers, and make the most of warmth that finds its way from the exhaust to the footwells.
The hood keeps some heat in but does nothing to deaden the unrelenting noise at highway speeds. Yet, despite the impossibility of conversation I feel closer to my son than I have for a while. Obviously, we are close, the car’s dimensions see to that, but I feel the bond of an experience shared. I glance over occasionally and catch him smiling. Just being in this car together is good for the soul.
We camp near Loch Lomond. It’s our first real chance to stretch our legs in days and walk into the little hamlet of Drymen for a warming pub dinner, where discuss the pros and cons of the Caterham experience. We agree that on paper the impracticalities and discomfort outnumber the advantages of performance and handling, but on the right road–or track–we can’t imagine another car that would offer such a pure, visceral thrill.
A82 to Glencoe
When we wake, there’s frost on the tents and the car. Thankfully it’s drying up as we pack up and tackle the sixth road on our list, the A82 to Glencoe. For miles we hug the banks of Loch Lomond, snaking along, our progress hindered only occasionally as we steal glances at stunning vistas grabbed between trees. It’s a beautiful drive and the 50-mph limit is plenty given the amount of water still on the road, the chill in the air, and the rubber compound of the Avon CR500s tires that needs some heat to properly grip. Wheelspin in third gear is a wake-up call this early in the morning.
Leaving the lochs behind, the A82 eases out with long straights where two or more cars can be dispatched with a downshift and a dose of full throttle. Other drivers have the same idea, and we’re buzzed by a Hyundai i30N and an A45 AMG that pop and bang rather artificially; the Seven’s sidepipe and its authentic acoustics, even after days without relent, sounds better to Max and me.
Nearing Glencoe we enter a valley of such scale and spectacle that it appears pre-ordained for Instagram—no filter does it favors. The road itself is fast and varied, so it entertains almost as much as Mother Nature.
The Applecross Pass (Balach na Ba, as the locals call it) is our ultimate destination. Everyone else’s, too, it seems. This crazily narrow, bumpy and twisty climb was once a sheep drovers’ road and frankly hasn’t been upgraded much since. It is a constant stop/start, a race between passing places to get to the top. But when we get there it’s worth the struggle. The view down the pass and across to the islands of Raasay and Skye beyond are the most mesmerizing we have seen so far.
I send Max off for some final photos. The road, the car, and even the weather all come together for the perfect shot, but we are both a bit frustrated at having covered 1400 miles and potentially leaving Scotland after a last drive that’s been more photo-friendly than driver-friendly. Max looks frazzled by the effort. “Well, that was certainly an experience,” he muses.
That night, storm clouds gather. By five in the morning our tents are being battered by wind and rain. It’s impossible to sleep, so we catch the shortest break in the tempest and pack up. The sun is just rising through the mist as we reach the Applecross Pass again.
It is ours and ours alone. We encounter not a single car as we charge through its 11 miles in what feels like a blink. Just the two of us and our Seven—the most minimal, most engaging machine we could have asked for, deep in its element on one of the seven best roads in Britain.