A WINDING stretch of road across the North Pennines hardly basks in universal acclaim but the Automobile Association has no doubts: this is one of the world's "Ten Great Drives".
The organisation ranks the 45-mile route from Penrith in Cumbria to Corbridge in Northumberland - with its views of the Solway estuary and Eden valley - alongside Highway 50 in the Nevada Desert, the banks of the Danube and the Alpine passes of south-east France.
They are modest folk in the northern uplands (that is, where there are any folk at all) and the new-found accolade was not exactly setting champagne corks popping yesterday. "That is nice. It might do a bit of good for business during the week," was the reaction of Angela Elliott, manageress of the Hartside Top cafe.
The cafe stands at 1,900 feet, the high point of the route, and when not shrouded in mist provides one of the finest views in England. Yesterday, Helvellyn was still streaked in snow, while in between the aptly named Eden valley turned a deeper green.
The deterrent effect on tourism of foot-and-mouth disease has been hard- felt in north Cumbria and the dales to the east across the county boundary. If inclusion in the AA Magazine feature on the world's most beautiful roads recoups a fraction of the thousands lost to local businesses, it will be a godsend.
From Penrith, the route crosses the river Eden, twists steeply up to Hartside Top, traverses open moorland to cobbled Alston, England's highest market town, then continues by windswept upland and sheltered wooded gorges to Hexham, with is medieval abbey, and Corbridge, almost the last tranquil spot before Newcastle upon Tyne.
Most of the drive is on the A686 - a road with a reputation of which the AA's list compilers may be unaware. The association is rich in rural lyricism - from Eden across "England's last great wilderness" - and true enough, this is rightly designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But step out of your car under Fiend's Fell or Benty Hill on a sunny weekend and it may not be the plaintive call of the curlew that breaks the moorland silence. More likely it will be the roar of a Ducati Monster or Honda Firestorm.
The A686 is bikers' territory. Last weekend, a machine was clocked at 119mph - which was "hardly trying" according to one veteran rider. There were 2,000 bikers out across the top last weekend.
Banking the hairpins of the climb or opening the throttle on the moorland straights, the A686 provides a great buzz for bikers and a headache for the Cumbria Constabulary. But even the police acknowledge it is a fine drive and could accommodate a bit more traffic without difficulty.
It is also a route with royal connections. Earlier this year, the Prince of Wales opened a restaurant at the renowned organic Village Bakery at Melmerby in the Eden valley. Andrew Whitley, who founded the bakery in 1976 with a wood-fired oven, said the listing was certainly justified. …