If you’re driving from Oxford to the Midlands and can afford to take your time, forget about the M40 and take the A44 instead. First stop is Woodstock and Blenheim Palace, the vast stately home where Winston Churchill was born. Further north is the upmarket town of Chipping Norton, home to Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson et al. Just to the west are the classic Cotswold villages of Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh and Broadway, but if you veer off on the A3400, you can make a beeline for Shakespeare Country around Stratford-upon-Avon instead. The M40 passes nearby, taking you the last few miles to Birmingham.
At 292 miles, the A38 is one of the longest A-roads in England, stretching from Bodmin in Cornwall to Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. For much of that distance, it runs alongside the M5, making it an ever-available alternative. A particularly useful section runs from Junction 14 of the M5, just north of Bristol, all the way up to Worcester. (There are, in fact, numerous links to the M5 all along this stretch, enabling you to fast-forward at will.) Attractions en route include Slimbridge, a bird reserve famous for its swans, the cathedral city of Gloucester and the Norman abbey at Tewkesbury.
The 39-mile Forth Valley Tourist Route leaves Edinburgh via the old burgh of South Queensferry, offering impressive views of the road and rail bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. A stop-off at Hopetoun House, one of Scotland’s grandest Adam mansions, is well worth the detour. Continuing west on the A904 and then A803, you arrive at the historic town of Falkirk, where there’s another great mansion to visit – Callender House – as well as a marvel of 21st-century engineering, the Falkirk Wheel. This, the world’s only rotary canal connector, lifts boats from the Forth and Clyde Canal up 35 metres to the Union Canal, using only the same amount of energy as it would take to boil eight kitchen kettles. From Falkirk, the A9 completes the journey to Stirling, passing by Bannockburn (scene of the famous battle against the English in 1314) along the way.
Visitors to Hadrian’s Wall usually take the A1(M) to Newcastle or the M6 to Carlisle, but if you have time, it’s well worth considering the other options. From the west, you could turn off the M6 at Penrith and take the A686, which tracks the contours of the Pennines (with great views) via Alston to Hexham. From here, you can visit Housesteads and Chesters Roman forts, or take the A69 west to Vindolanda, the Roman Army Museum and Birdoswald.
Circumnavigate motorway misery between Birmingham and Manchester by turning off at Lichfield and taking the A515 (via a short stretch of A51). This scenic route runs for 48 miles through Staffordshire, across the Trent and Mersey Canal and then the River Dove, which marks the boundary with Derbyshire, before coming to the market town of Ashbourne (notable for its shopping and concentration of pubs). Soon afterwards, the road enters the Peak District National Park, and passes through stunning countryside before terminating at the Georgian spa town of Buxton. From here you can join the A6 for the remaining 25 miles to Manchester.
The obvious route from Stansted Airport to Cambridge is along the M11 – a dull journey through one enormous motorway cutting. For a more interesting alternative, take the A120 east to Great Dunmow, and then head north on the B184. Before long you reach Thaxted, famous for its timber-framed buildings, beautifully intact windmill and Morris dancing festival. Further north is the wealthy market town of Saffron Walden – again full of fine historic buildings, including Oliver Cromwell’s old headquarters. The nearby stately home of Audley End is also worth a visit, before driving the last few miles to Cambridge.
The M25 around the south of London provides little in the way of inspiration, so why not turn off at Junction 5 and take the A25 instead? Before heading west, there’s the immediate option of a detour to the smart town of Sevenoaks (and Knole, a 365-room stately home in a deer park). The A25 then follows the course of the 18th-century turnpike roads, and is punctuated with ancient coaching inns along its route. At Westerham, there’s a cluster of National Trust properties, including Winston Churchill’s Chartwell. Crossing into Surrey, the road runs through Oxted (supposedly one Britain’s richest towns) and past the golf courses of Limpsfield, Tandridge, Godstone and Bletchingly on the way to the bustling commuter town of Reigate. Thereafter, it’s worth driving on to Dorking and, more particularly, Boxhill, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at the summit of the North Downs.
This may not be the quickest way round, but it’s vastly more interesting than the dreary stretches of the A1. From Edinburgh, take the Musselburgh exit via the A199 or A1 and look out for signs for the A198. This road takes you past numerous golf courses and two of the finest castles in Scotland: Dirleton Castle and Tantallon Castle (both open to visitors). After North Berwick, return to the A1 for a few miles before turning off once more, this time on to the A1107 to Eyemouth. This charming fishing village has a busy harbour, a boat museum (with over 400 examples) and dramatic cliffs beyond. From here it’s then an easy drive down to the border of England and Berwick-Upon-Tweed.
Travelling to South Wales from Gloucester or Cheltenham (or from the Midlands), most drivers bomb down the M5 before switching to the M4 to cross the Severn into Wales via the toll bridge (£6 for cars). A much more interesting alternative is to leave the M5 at Gloucester and take the A48 down the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary instead. This route runs through a succession of pretty villages (including Minsterworth, reputedly the most elongated village in Britain), skirts the Forest of Dean, passes Newnham on the banks of the Severn, and crosses the Welsh border at Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye Valley. After Chepstow, you can either continue on the A48 all the way to Carmarthen, or join the M48 (and then M4) instead.
If you're travelling north of Edinburgh, swap the monotony of the M90 for the dramatic scenery and historic towns of the old Kingdom of Fife between the Firths of Forth and Tay. This 85-mile coast-hugging route takes in beautiful sandy beaches (Aberdour, Burntisland, Elie and St Andrews), the picturesque fishing villages of the East Neuk (including St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Cellardyke) and romantic castles (Aberdour, Wemyss and Kellie). A highlight of any trip is a visit to St Andrews, with its ancient university (where Prince William met Kate Middleton) and world-class golf courses.