The one thing that most, if not all, car enthusiasts can appreciate is a good driving road.
It’s fairly safe to say that no matter what you drive, what you’re into or where you are in the world, there’s a road that you look forward to driving each and every time the opportunity arises. It doesn’t matter whether you’re into the JDM scene or American hot rods, resto-modded quirky classics or European hot hatches, drifting or drag. It might be a quiet, rural route that you’ve only recently discovered, or a busy thoroughfare that you frequent on a regular basis. The mindset is the same. No matter whether it’s part of a commute to get from A to B, or a self-indulgent detour that you can’t resist.
We all know the drill. Your gaze locks on the horizon, you grip the wheel that bit tighter, the RPMs rise as you accelerate. You push that bit harder.
You know this road.
Your car glides through the curves, over the dips and out onto the open road, asphalt whizzing by as you savour every second of the drive. The road snakes along its route, etched into the landscape and your memory in equal measures.
As it comes to an end you ease off and transcend back into normal driving mode, the last great corner or straightaway a fading dot in the rear-view mirror. Your heart rate lowers to its regular rhythm and you think forward to the next time you’ll get to experience the thrill.
What makes for a good road? I wonder if there’s a formula that someone far smarter than me has come up with that can be applied. Something along the lines of: clear straights plus flowing curves, minus speed cameras, multiplied by hairpins, divided by how epic the scenery is, equals driving thrills.
For me, a good road isn’t even one that you need to travel on at an especially quick pace to appreciate. I don’t want to feel like I’m approaching the limits of my own or my car’s abilities when out on the road. Those kind of endeavours should definitely be saved for the track.
I’m sharing with you my favourite driving road, or certainly the best road that I’ve experienced thus far. I plan on taking in some more routes around the UK and Europe next year so this could quit easily change, but for now this is the one. A recent run over to see family in North Wales gave me the chance to clear the cobwebs out of my Honda S2000 and experience the route once again.
The Warm Up
If you pick up automotive magazines or frequent mainstream car websites from time to time then I guarantee that you’ll recognise this road. In fact, there’s barely been a time that I’ve been on it that I haven’t seen a magazine or press shoot taking place. Trace the approximate 30-mile path of the B4391 from Llangynog to Ffestiniog in North Wales on a map as it squiggles towards Snowdonia and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a road designed with the simple and efficient journey of getting from A to B in mind.
And you’d actually be right, I’d imagine.
But take a blast down certain sections of said road and you can’t help but feel that a route this good can’t have ended up being so satisfying purely dictated by the landscape and route efficiency alone.
I’m not buying it. It’s too much of a happy accident.
The pass is split into two parts. The first, known as the Milltir Cerrig mountain pass, runs from Llangynog to Bala, before the B4391 takes a momentary respite and continues, rather epically, on the other side of Bala towards Ffestiniog.
Coming out of the sleepy Welsh town of Llangynog, the slate cottages and smoking chimneys disappear in your rear-view as the pass climbs into the moorland above. There’s just a small slate wall separating you and the substantial valley drop off to your left, so your best bet is to enjoy the view as you slowly climb the pass.
The road immediately picks up pace as the valley walls open up; these sections with great visibility invite you to go heavier on the throttle. It’s frighteningly easy to end up going far faster than you should be here, purely because the surroundings are so vast.
Before you know it, a tight left followed by an even tighter right hairpin reminds you that you need to keep your wits about you, the road then slaloming between the rolling countryside. Just as fast as it opened out, the surroundings close in again as you start the descent down towards the town of Bala.
A series of tight downward switchbacks are best taken at a slow speed, especially during winter when the road here receives zero daylight and fallen leaves coat the surface. I’ve had the odd twitchy moment here!
Coming out of Bala, you leave the B4391 momentarily while you enjoy the view and loop around Llyn (Lake) Celyn. The local constabulary know that drivers often head from Bala up to the second half of the pass for some spirited driving, so it’s not unusual to see a police car or bike or two en route. The police also use the road for high-speed training from time to time, so I’m told.
With Llyn Celyn behind you, a small signpost and right turn directing you to Ffestiniog is your guide for the second, and best part of the pass.
In the name of continuity I need to point something out at this point – I’d taken a 60-mile detour to share this road with you, but on this day in particular the second half of the pass was completely closed. Call it a lesson in checking the route ahead of you before you set off, if you will! Unperturbed, I returned a couple of days later on my route home to pick up the second half.
Onto The Good Stuff
At this point the B4391 goes from great to epic. A cattle grid and stone wall marks the start of the fun as you tackle a narrow, winding climb around a small hill. Round a couple of blind bends and the view opens up to your right as you start to accelerate.
A sharp right arrives quickly, but it’s perfectly cambered to slingshot the car around the bend and onto an open straight that climbs into the moorland, far out of sight. The road soon drops again, just slightly this time, as you enter a small section of woodland. Again, during the winter months the road’s surface barely dries here, guarded by the surrounding mountains and trees. It’s easy to be caught out by the lack of grip in comparison to the more open areas.
A sudden blind crest leaves your stomach somewhere near your esophagus. You could definitely get air time here with enough vigour. Not that I’m going to try it. The briefest glimpse of what awaits greets you as you gently apply the brakes and the nose dips into a sharp, blind right.
An enjoyable rally of sweeping left and right corners follows before the Snowdonia mountain range comes into view on the horizon. This road is equally enjoyable in either direction from a driving standpoint, but the view of the jagged terrain in the distance makes travelling from south to north my preferred path. As someone who hails from a very flat part of the UK, seeing mountains like this is always a thrill.
Once again the asphalt trails off, hugging the landscape until it disappears out of view. On some days you can drive the pass two or three times over without seeing another car, while on others you’re met with a steady stream of local commuters, or fellow driving enthusiasts who also know the secret. Thankfully, the famous ‘Evo Triangle’ isn’t far from here, and that tends to hold most people’s attention when they visit the area solely for the enjoyment of driving.
Pass a small cafe and you’re on the home stretch. The area seems to generate its own weather system, and the conditions can change in an instant; you can start the road in blazing sun and be caught in a sudden downpour by the end of it.
From here the road grasps precariously to a steep cliff as the valley below suddenly drops away. There’s a cattle grid here to mark the end of the ‘good bit’, although I swear it’s been placed in a rather evil manner so as to catch people out. Sitting right in the middle of a bend, with the drop to one side and the cliffside to the other, the lack of grip over the grid always causes a twitch, no matter your pace. I’ve experienced everything from a mild blip of understeer in a front-wheel drive saloon to an instant – and large – oversteer moment in the S2000 here.
This last section of the B4391 is far too narrow and risky to enjoy in any great measure, but it serves as the idea wind-down from the drive, especially during the late afternoon as warm light floods over the mountains in the distance.
There’s more road to go that takes you down into the town of Ffestiniog, but a well-placed carpark at this point offers the ideal chance to pull in, gather your thoughts and enjoy the view. I’m joined by the faint whiff of warm tyres and warmer brakes as the car ticks and taps while it cools down.
However you take your enjoyment from cars, getting out and driving is definitely the most rewarding element for me. Roads like this are the perfect place to clear your head, and acquire an appreciation for a car’s characteristics. When driving a road like this, nothing else matters for those few minutes.
With just the right measure of dips, twists, turns and open road, the B4391 pass takes some beating in my books.
Back to the start for one more go?*
Facebook: Jordan Butters Photography
*Apologies for the crackly sound.