A686 Penrith to Corbridge

A686 Penrith to Corbridge – A Great Drive

Location : Penrith / Lathwathby / Melmerby / Alston   –  Grid Ref : NY 646418 (Hartside Pass)

The AA Magazine has chosen the winding A686 road from Penrith in Cumbria to Corbridge in Northumberland, as one of their ‘Ten Great Drives’. The 45 mile North Pennines route features alongside more exotic stretches of road, including Highway 50 in the Nevada Desert and the Alpine passes of the Evian to Nice road.


Travel journalist Phil Llewellin singled out the Cumbrian route. He said “England’s great wilderness sprawls across the northern Pennines, where the mountains have fascinating names such as Fiend’s Fell and Wildboar Fell. Penrith merits a visit after leaving the M6, and memories of the motorway fade as the A686 crosses the River Eden valley. The mood changes dramatically in Melmerby, where the road starts its long climb to the cafe at Hartside, 1900 feet above sea level, with stunning views across the Solway Firth and Scotland.


“The road leads to Alston, which claims to be England’s highest market town, a charming little place with with cobbled streets and quaint buildings. The A686 beyond Alston crosses another breathtaking expanse of windswept upland before running down to the River Allen’s beautiful wooded gorge.”


Route map of the A686. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey.

  • Penrith is a large town acting as a regional centre for the eastern Lake District, lying just outside the National Park. Once the capital of Cumbria, this attractive town is the hub of the Eden Valley. It is an important shopping centre, with a good mix of traditional shops and sophisticated arcades.Penrith has a rich history. It was in the 9th and 10th centuries that the town became the capital of Cumbria – a semi-dependant state which, until 1070 AD formed part of the Kingdom of Scotland and Strathclyde. The two oldest streets, Burrowgate and Sandgate, date from the 13th Century.

  • In the village of Lathwathby is a village green where children still dance around the maypole on the third Saturday in May.  Langwathby Station on the famous Carlisle to Settle Railway is now home to a cafe.

  • From Melmerby, the road climbs the Hartside Pass to a height of 1904 ft, from where there are magnificent views across the Solway Firth to Scotland. This long and steep climb also forms part of the Sea to Sea Cycle Route.

  • Next stop is the former coal, fluorite and lead-mining centre of Alston, England’s highest market town. The town’s quaintness charms visitors, many of whom are drawn to the pretty Turk’s Head pub, dating from 1611. Alston is the starting point for the South Tynedale Railway, England’s highest narrow guage railway.Nearby is the village of Nenthead, where you can visit the Nenthead Lead Mining Heritage Centre.


More beauty is waiting in the wooded gorge of the River Allen, before the drive switches to the B6305, for the last stretch through the medieval town of Hexham with its famous Abbey, to the great Roman site of Corbridge, over the Tyne.


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