Section 1: Marble Arch - Watford
The mighty A5 starts at Marble Arch in London. The arch itself was designed by Nash, and built as the main entrance to Buckingham Palace. However, when the palace was extended in the mid-19th century, the arch had to go and was moved to its current location in the corner of Hyde Park, on the site of Tyburn gallows. The streets in the area mainly form a grid pattern, but Edgware Road, the start of the A5, sets off at a jaunty angle to the north-west.
The A5 continues through Kilburn, although it is usually rather slow progress due to all the traffic. We pass over the delightfully-named Shoot-Up Hill, and through Cricklewood, The Midland main line railway joins us to the east, running parallel with the A5 until St Albans, and over the next hill we reach Staples Corner and find the latest pretender to the A5's crown, the M1, which we shall encounter several times on our route. The A5 itself flies over the North Circular Road as a two-lane dual carriageway; slightly incongruous given the low quality of the route through many of the suburbs we have been passing through. This flyover achieved a sad notoriety in 1993, when it was blown up by the IRA.
West Hendon and Edgware loom large on the A5 now, and gradually the traffic lights thin out. Suddenly, the houses stop—welcome to the Green Belt—and we climb Brockley Hill, which was the site of Sulloniacis Roman camp.
Soon afterwards, we cross the M1 (without a junction) and meet the A41 Watford bypass at a roundabout. However, if we try to follow the A5 north of here we are stumped: it disappears into thin air. The A5 fell victim to a spate of renumberings in these parts in the 1970s and 1980s.
For details of this section, see the History Section
Section 2: Dunstable (M1) - Crick
The A5 now reappears, leaving the M1 and J11A behind and heads West to form the Dunstable northern bypass. At the other end of the bypass is a roundabout; left to follow the A5183 into Dunstable itself or right to follow the original route of the A5 towards Milton Keynes.
The village of Hockliffe need not detain us much, but it was once a major junction on the British road network, as this was where the road to Derby and Liverpool—later to become the A50 -- left us. However, the A50 has now been cut back as far as Leicester, as its route has been largely superseded by the M1.
Soon we reach the dual carriageway Little Brickhill bypass, which leads onto the Milton Keynes bypass, a dual carriageway route, which runs closer to the centre of the town than the original route. From a large light-controlled roundabout—where we meet the original A5 coming in from Old Stratford, the A422 and the A508. The A5 now shoots off northwestward in forthright Roman style across the Northamptonshire countryside. Though to tell the truth, it is only for the first few miles of this section that the proverbial Roman straightness remains clearly evident.
Soon we are descending into Towcester, which retains very much the look of a coaching town and mostly 18th-century buildings crowd the road. There were, apparently, 20 inns here before the railway revolution; there seem to be plenty of pubs still and several hostelries make a point of advertising their room prices prominently. The Brackley - Northampton road (A43) once crossed Watling Street in the town centre. A dual-carriageway bypass now takes it around the northwestern side of Towcester.
Imperceptibly to the traveller but clearly enough on the map, there is a slight turn to a more northerly course on leaving Towcester town centre, as the A5 crosses first the River Tove then, at a roundabout, the A43. It is unusual for Roman roads to change their alignments on low ground: the explanation here is that the turn took place within the walls of Lactodorum, the prosperous Romano-British town which stood here for four centuries (an interesting map is to be found... outside Towcester Morrisons!).
So far our journey along the A5 has not afforded any really long-distance views; however, on passing Foster's Booth (about 4 miles out from Towcester), a wide vista suddenly opens out across the broad valley of the Nene to our right. Road, rail and canal all finally come together at Weedon Bec (light-controlled junction with the A45). Thomas Telford's Holyhead Road diverged from Watling Street here, to run by way of Daventry, Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton before rejoining today's A5 at the point where the eponymous town of Telford now stands.
Soon the M1 joins our happy band but it will be a few miles before we actually see it as it is hidden behind the railway embankment to our right. Some 5 miles from Weedon, as we descend a slope just after passing the B5385 turn to Watford, the railway bends, passes beneath us, and zooms off at a 30 degree angle to our left, while at a similar angle to our right we see the canal struggling painfully uphill through the Watford Flight. And just after that, we finally catch sight of the M1, just before it throws off its M45 spur.
On the lefthand side of the A5, and level with the aforementioned motorway junction, is... Watford Gap. No, not the notorious motorway services of that name—they are a mile or two nearer London—but the original inn (now uninhabited and rather tumbledown) which has stood here for hundreds of years. Watford Gap is a "gap" in that here is where the ridge is easiest to cross: on the ground, though, it feels like the highest point in the district!). In pre-turnpike days, the inn stood at the oblique intersection of Watling Street with the old Northampton - Rugby road, which took a more southerly route than today's A428: running south of Althorp Park and by way of Great Brington, Long Buckby, Watford and Kilsby. The A5 now follows that route towards Kilsby, the onward Roman road having been abandoned as a way over the ridge at this point, though the M1 follows hard alongside the old route (now just a track, but still a public right-of-way) for just under a mile.
Dropping down to the edge of Kilsby village we come to a roundabout junction with the end of that great warhorse of A-roads, the A361 ...from Ilfracombe. Now we take over that road's northward direction, gradually descending the ridge (passing over both the main railway line and the Northampton loop) before crossing the A428 at the Halfway House pub and rejoining the original Watling Street alignment a mile and a half after Kilsby (the connection from this point back to the A428 is also numbered A5). The flat land at the bottom of the slope is now occupied by the extensive Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.
Section 3: Crick - Tamworth
Our route is now dead straight again as we run between the remains of the masts of Rugby Radio Station. The A5 is the traditional border between Warwickshire and Leicestershire (and, on this stretch, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire), though in practice the administrative boundary usually lies a little way back from the road itself on one side or the other.
The top of the rise after the radio station brings us onto Dunsmore, the heath that stretches from here westwards to Coventry, and is the starting point of a curiously large number of major routes. We then dip down to Dow Bridge, where Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire all meet, then climb again to the junction with the original A427 (later a B-road and now altogether unclassified) at Catthorpe Cross.
Soon after passing under the M6, we reach the roundabout with the A426, which links the M1 and M6 motorways. This section of the A5 is quite pleasant to drive down, being through rolling countryside, with just enough occasional dual carriageway to ensure that you never get frustrated at being stuck behind a truck. And there are quite a few trucks between here and Cannock, as this section functions as an unofficial M6 bypass.
We cross the M69 at the Stretton Baskerville roundabout, and duly come to Hinckley and Nuneaton. On our right lies MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association, where new cars are thoroughly road-tested. We bypass the hat-making town of Atherstone, and come across a signpost to what has to be one of the best place-names in England...Sheepy Magna! (accessible via Sheepy Road, no less). Without much further ado, we find ourselves at junction 10 of the M42, with its attendant Tamworth Services.
We now reach a new section of the A5 bypassing Tamworth, which is grade-separated dual carriageway and has very nice low-spray tarmac that you'll really notice as you leave this section if it's raining. The B5404, which leaves almost immediately, is the old route through Fazeley. The A51 passes under us, and the A453 makes an appearance from Tamworth town centre.
Section 4: Tamworth - Telford
We now alight upon the new Hints and Weeford bypass, opened in September 2005, which climbs up over The Devil's Dressing Room and its associated quarry and back down to the old Roman road at the newly refashioned A38 junction (this was built in 1972 originally as an over large roundabout to accommodate a grade-separated junction for the A38 later). The A38 now goes under the A5 GSJ roundabout and the recently made M6 Toll connection - junction T4. The A5 is now shadowed by the toll road all the way to Churchbridge, near Cannock, starting with a fine view of the exit toll plaza to the south west as you leave the roundabout.
After about 1½ miles we reach Wall Island, the junction with the A5127 to Lichfield, the A5148 link to the A38, and Junction T5 of the M6 Toll. Before construction of the toll road, the roundabout was very strange and had all the ramps for grade separation between the A5 west of the junction and the A5148. These were reformed and the exit from the toll road eastbound onto the A5148 was engineered to pass under a radically changed A5/A5127 roundabout. The A5 then becomes a dual carriageway as we pass the village of Wall, until we reach the A461 Walsall - Lichfield road at Muckley Corner (actually a roundabout, not a corner). After leaving rural Staffordshire we enter the Metropolitan Borough of Walsall, and then a further mile west the M6 Toll passes below us from left to right heading for Chasewater. Junction T6 lies just to the north of us a mile further along at Chasetown. The A452 meets us at a strange triangular roundabout, and goes off on its way to M6 J5 and the NEC, and back out into Staffordshire we go.
After a section of dual carriageway, we find ourselves at Churchbridge, on the outskirts of Cannock. Here the A5 crosses the M6 Toll by virtue of a new junction (T7) and massive reworking of the roads in the area, resulting in a Magic Roundabout! The toll road heads off to our left to join the original M6 near Little Saredon. After passing under a railway bridge we continue past a series of grotty-looking retail parks, but after just over a mile we're back in rural countryside. This section is nice and wide, with reservoirs on either side of the road, and very, very straight as befitting the Roman Road, and before we know it, we've reached the M6 at Junction 12. Here much of the long-distance traffic which has bypassed the West Midlands continues its journey north on the motorway.
After passing the M6, the A5 continues pretty much unchanged: wide and very straight. Before too long, we reach the junction with the A449 at Gailey, where all of the Wolverhampton-bound traffic that joined us at the M6 turns off. The road then loses its primary status, and stays that way all the way to Telford. The road here is narrower, and full of gentle curves, rises and falls. After about 2½ miles, the Shropshire Union Canal crosses on a pretty 18th century aqueduct above. Just after Weston, we reach the roundabout junction with the A41.
The road continues much the same as before, quite pleasant to drive down. Before too much longer we come to the brow of a hill: the new town of Telford is spread out in front of us. The junction with the A4640 is at the bottom of the hill, left is for the M54 at Junction 4. This is also the point where the A5 diverges from the Roman road. The modern road swings round to the left, and meets the B5061, Telford's Holyhead Road which we left behind in Weedon. Down the hill to Telford town centre we go, and get eaten up by the M54 at the modern Junction 5.
Section 5: Telford - Chirk
At Junction 7, the A5 re-asserts itself over the motorway, and we continue along the relatively new A5 expressway. Most drivers probably haven't noticed that we've left the motorway behind, as it is only just sub-motorway standard, with narrow hard shoulders. After about a mile, we reach the brow of a hill, and then clap our eyes on the Cambrian Mountains for the first time. At the only junction (a roundabout at the end), we swallow the A49, and then spit it out again a bit further around the Shrewsbury bypass. This is actually the second incarnation of the bypass: the earlier version now carries the number B4380.
At Montford Bridge we rejoin the original route, and strike north-west into border country. The once notorious bottleneck of Nesscliffe was bypassed in 2003: look out for the distinctive footbridge across the bypass. We pass the wonderfully named village of "Ruyton Of The Eleven Towns", and at Queen's Head we veer off from the original line of the road (now numbered B5009) to visit Oswestry. At the roundabout you have to decide between "SOUTH WALES" to the left on the A483, and "NORTH WALES" to the right on the A5—which we shall be taking, of course. This stretch of road was built in the last twenty years [more specific?] as part of a programme to improve the A483, an important North-South link in Wales.
Section 6: Chirk - Betws y Coed
We finally cross the Welsh border on a bridge over the Dee Valley on the Chirk bypass, and turn left to regain the original route. The area of road signs increases once we're in Wales because the signs have to be bilingual. Here begins the section where Telford really left his mark when improving the road, and because most of it hasn't really been improved since, many of the original features are still evident. For example, the majority of Telford's milestones are still standing by the roadside, quietly doing their job. The Welsh Office have recently erected brown tourist signs along the road to mark its status as an "Historic Route".
The A5 and the Shropshire Union Canal run side by side until the village of Froncysyllte, whereupon the canal boldly turns north and crosses the River Dee on the most audacious piece of canal engineering in the country: the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, designed by Telford, which is not for the vertiginous! We continue along the south side of the valley and descend into Llangollen.
West of Llangollen, we continue to follow the Dee upstream. It's much more obvious we're in a river valley, as the road hugs the steep southern side, squashed up by the railway (formerly an important east-west link, now a tourist line). Passing through the tiny village of Berwyn, which gives its name to an extensive range of hills to the south, we look down on the railway and the B5103 turns off, threading its way under the railway and over the river. Meanwhile, we climb as the railway goes into a tunnel and the river goes around the long way.
We pass through two small villages: Glyndyfrdwy (which simply means "Dee Valley"), with a 30 mph limit, and Llidiart-y-Parc (national limit - but take care!), soon arriving at the larger settlement of Corwen. Here's where we part company with the Dee at last - the valley turns to the south, but we're continuing west. Shortly after we cross the river on a fine stone bridge, there's a signal-controlled junction with the A494 to Ruthin and Queensferry. The A5 and A494 multiplex for a mile and a half, crossing Afon Alwen (a major tributary of the Dee - we haven't left it completely!) on a recently realigned section.
The A494 leaves us again at Druid, another signal-controlled junction. We continue, tight against the river for another 7 miles, the old twisting line interrupted by a brief stretch that was widened in the 1990s near Ty-nant. The new road cuts through a bend and gives a climbing lane - one of the few overtaking opportunities in this area.
At Cerrigydrudion, the straight line of the road appears to head straight into the village, but we bear left, using a short 1920s[?] bypass to pick up an equally straight road on the other side. It's straight on the map, but in the vertical dimension, it's anything but!
For a while, the road is a sequence of straights and modern sweeping bends, with a few "traditional" corners thrown in for good measure. A mile or two after the village of Pentrefoelas this changes again, as we duck into the woods to follow the River Conwy downwards. We hug the river tightly (there's no alternative in this narrow gorge), winding down, and crossing at a bridge about halfway down the gorge. The road in this section is supported by walls that keep it perched above the river. After a while, we emerge from the woods and the valley widens a bit. Make the most of the bright sky while you can, for a mile or two later we're back in the woods, again closely following the Conwy as it twists down to Betws y Coed.
Section 6: Betws y Coed - Holyhead
We cross the river on the cast-iron Waterloo Bridge, which was built in 1815 to celebrate the famous victory over Napoleon. The sides of the bridge feature the emblems of the four countries of the newly-formed United Kingdom, plus a legend to commemorate its construction. We climb steeply as we leave the village, gaining a climbing lane for the hill. On our right, the river makes an even more dramatic descent, over the Swallow Falls. Above the falls, the gradient gradually eases, and the A5 bends right to cross the river. The old line can be followed by leaving the A5 here, to rejoin at Pont Cyfyng, a bridge two miles further upstream.
Pont Cyfyng marks the beginning of the sprawling village of Capel Curig, home of the National Mountaineering Centre at Plas y Brenin, which sits at the foot of Moel Siabod, the prominent peak to the south. We continue through, bearing right at the junction with A4086. We're climbing again, but this time we're out of the woods and there are good views southwards across the valley. The old pre-Telford line of the road lies on the other side of the river, and makes a good walk from Capel to Ogwen.
We follow the southern shore of Llyn Ogwen. At the far end, we again have the option of following the old road (long and narrow - for the enthusiast only!), or alternatively we could park here and walk up to Llyn Idwal above us to the south - of particular interest to geologists, geographers and naturalists. When we're ready to continue, we cross the outlet of Llyn Ogwen, and as the valley drops away rapidly to become the broad Nant Ffrancon, we follow a cunningly engineered line gently descending along the slopes of the eastern side until we're once again by the river. It's interesting to compare the different lines of the new and old routes here: the oldest route descends quickly on the western side of the valley, whereas the subsequent turnpike road clung to the eastern side. Telford realigned the turnpike road substantially to even out the gradient.
Before long we reach the village of Bethesda, site of the largest slate quarries in the world. We then descend through woods along the Ogwen valley, before turning sharp left and crossing the river at Halfway Bridge. Suddenly, the countryside opens out and we reach the junction with the A55. Travellers in less of a hurry than we are would now turn off to reach Holyhead as quickly as possible. We, however, descend into Bangor, first around a sweeping right-hand bend then down beside the stone wall of the crematorium (which blocks any view we might hope to catch of Penrhyn castle). By the harbour and pier (which stretches halfway to Anglesey!) we turn sharp left. The A5 avoids the city centre and cathedral (Bangor is the oldest diocese in the country) and follows a zig-zag path to the Menai Bridge. Proceeding in a straight line is not easy because of the different vertical levels of the city.
After crossing the bridge, we veer left to run alongside the strait, past a layby from where good views back to the bridge can be had. We approach the other bridge over the strait, the Britannia Bridge. This was built in 1850 by Robert Stevenson, and carried trains across in two iron tubes, rectangular in cross-section, supported by two limestone towers. However, in 1970 two boys accidentally set fire to the bridge, and almost destroyed it. The bridge was reconstructed so that the railway was supported by arches, and a road deck, carrying a diverted A5, was added over the top in 1980. However, since the recent completion of the A55 North Wales Expressway, the A5 has returned to its original routing through Bangor and over the Menai Bridge.
After the dramatic scenery of Snowdonia, the much flatter scenery of Anglesey might seem rather dull. But the island is known as Mam Cymru (the Mother of Wales) because of its fertile land. In fact, the rolling hills, lush green fields and the occasional rocky crag are rather redolent of Ireland. We run very close and parallel to the new A55 (which has taken most of the traffic away from the old road), crossing over the flood plain of the Afon Cefni. After passing through the village of Gwalchmai we cross the brow of a hill and get our first good view of Holyhead, with Holyhead Mountain skulking in the background. The A5 passes along the Stanley Embankment (forsaking the older bridge to the west) to Holy Island. The A5 finally ends at the ferry terminal, from where you can take a boat to Ireland proper!
Original Author(s): Tom, Viator, Steven, Bealach na Ba, T1(M), Lez Watson