The A686 runs from Penrith, through Alston (across the 'roof' of England) and down onto the A69 at Haydon Bridge and about five miles before Hexham. It is a route that is very popular with bikers, especially during the summer months, so don't be surprised to see these missiles shooting past you on the summit roads.
It was once named as 'One of the Greatest Drives in Britain' by the AA. Make of that what you will. It is a nice road in the summer, and, if you are into driving like me, quite good fun.
686 Carl writes:
The A686 originally started at a junction with the original route of the A66 at Carleton on the outskirts of Penrith, although then it was a separate settlement, and the road past the rugby club and Carleton Hall was an unclassified road. I would also like to point out a road signing oddity at the Penrith end of the road. After leaving the roundabout junction with the A6 and A66 (Kemplay Bank) there is a sign which states "Alston 20, Hexham 44". This is strange for two reasons: in all AA guides and similar publications Alston is always stated as being 19 miles from Penrith, and that the road does not actually go to Hexham and the sign should read "(Hexham 44)"
During the 1970s after the M6 Penrith Bypass was opened and the A66 extended towards Workington. The original route of the A66 into Penrith, (Carleton Road and Roper Street) was numbered as a spur of the A686. The road is now unclassified and is no longer signposted from Penrith town centre as the road to Langwathby and Alston although if you come in to Penrith along the A6 from Carlisle you are directed to Alston along Salked Road and Beacon Edge across the top of the town which has spectacular views over the eastern Lakes and towards Shap and Tebay and joins the A686 between Carleton and Edenhall
Section 1: Penrith – Alston
The road starts at the roundabout linking the A6 and A66 on the outskirts of Penrith close to M6Junction 40. From here we pass through a fairly flat forest, to Langwathby, crossing a 'temporary' single-track, metal-framed bridge over the River Eden that has been in place for 30 years. It was supposed to be replaced for the Millennium, but never happened.
An interesting sign just before the bridge warns how commonly the road gets blocked on Hartside Summit during the winter - it's very hard to read, and very old. You need to see it around three times to get the whole message. We pass through the pretty villages of Langwathby and Melmerby. From there the road climbs steeply to Hartside Summit, all 1904 ft of it! A café is just before the very summit - it's a nice place to stop!
From there we descend to cross the River South Tyne into Alston, the highest market town in England (a moniker it shares with Buxton, which still has a regular market). The town has a nice Market Place, and cobbled road, which, being on a rather steep gradient, is treacherous in winter, as you can imagine. However, that's off to the right on the A689; we pass to its west to cross the River Nent by the station on the South Tynedale Railway before we start to climb once more.
Paul Berry writes:
The A686 between Penrith and Haydon Bridge (the A69 west of Hexham) is widely regarded as a pretty special road. Apart from being an excellent way to cut the corner instead of using the M6 and A69, it goes through the small town of Alston. This place is an ideal halfway house (and let's face it, if you're travelling around this part of the country chances are you're on holiday): very picturesque and isolated
Section 2: Alston – Haydon Bridge
Hairpin in Allendale
From here, heading out of Alston, the road commands some spectacular views. You can see why it is one of the greatest drives! Up and down some very steep gradients (and some very old signs (even milestones!)) and some tight curves (especially climbing up away from the River Allen). There are no places of any size at all en route which means that it is a surprise to pass a rather large church (Holy Trinity, Whitfield) in West Allendale. Our road meets the east end of the A69 Haydon Bridge bypass at a T-junction close to the original eastern terminus of the A686. A right turn onto the A69 followed quickly by a left turn off it takes us along the pre-bypass A69 and over the River South Tyne to the end of our route at a meeting with the B6319 in the town centre.