UK road trip itinerary off the beaten track

Road in Northern Ireland surrounded by fields, UK road trip

Although I’ll look back on 2020 with mixed emotions (to put it mildly), our summer UK road trip will offer a few fond memories to rose-tint the year a little bit. If you’re looking for a UK road trip itinerary, I hope this overview of our driving holiday around Britain and Northern Ireland inspires you to do something similar.

This UK road trip itinerary doesn’t take in lots of famous destinations across the British Isles – due to the staycation nature of 2020, we chose places in the UK which were off the beaten track to avoid visiting anywhere too crowded (except for a brief drive through the Cotswolds on the way home).

dry stone wall with mountains in background, uk road trip itinerary
Northern Ireland road trip scenery

Our UK road trip route

Our main road trip destination was Northern Ireland. It’s where my husband is from so we decided it was about time the kids explored where their dad grew up.

It’s a bit of a drive from our home in Hertfordshire to Northern Ireland so we decided to turn the journey into part of the holiday by exploring a few places either side of Northern Ireland.

If you’re looking into ideas for road trips from London, this itinerary starts just north of the capital in Hertfordshire. Our first stop was Yorkshire, followed by South West Scotland, a quick ferry journey over to Belfast and then on to County Antrim and County Down. We nipped into the Republic of Ireland for our ferry from Dublin to Wales and then enjoyed a stunning drive through Snowdonia to Shropshire before driving back to Hertfordshire via the Cotswolds.

Wet road Yorkshire Dales
Driving across the Yorkshire Dales

Why take a UK road trip with kids?

What is a “UK road trip”? Spending large chunks of your summer holiday stuck on British motorways with bored children? Making that crazy drive down the A30 to Cornwall with half the UK population? We’ve certainly had a few experiences like that.

However, as we were not going anywhere particularly touristy and our driving days were mid-week, we missed quite a lot of the traffic. We only had a couple of days when we had to travel big distances, so most days our maximum driving time was only two or three hours.

We’ve taken our children on a few driving holidays now so they’re fairly well acclimatized to being in the car. We’ve put together lots of playlists – which we all help to create – mixtures of classic tunes from all of our childhoods. Being stuck in the car is a great way to introduce children to a wide range of music and if you allow “your” playlist to be interspersed with songs the kids enjoy, I find it generally keeps everyone happy. In the early days of parenthood, our playlists used to be Jamiroquai juxtaposed with Old Macdonald had a Farm but nowadays the nursery rhymes have been replaced by the likes of Living On a Prayer and the Final Countdown. Electric guitars seem to have an eternal, universal appeal.

Audiobooks also help to pass the time – in fact we’ve had a few incidents where the stories in the car have trumped the attraction we’ve spent hours driving to.

And of course, I like to think our driving holiday gave the kids a greater understanding of the UK, as we were able to tick off all four countries in one trip – even though we only managed a day in Wales.

By the way, if you’re travelling across the UK by car and you need some ideas for where to break the journey near the motorway, I’ve compiled a list of family-friendly destinations, with not a service station in sight (well, perhaps just 2 but they are good ones):

Where to stop just off the motorway.

The first stop on our UK road trip: Yorkshire

Hertfordshire to North Yorkshire via the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: 4 hours, 250 miles.

The first stop on our road trip around the UK was the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. Not only is this a great destination to stretch your legs just off the motorway, it’s also a brilliant destination for a socially distant day out.

outdoor art installation
No Borders by Hilary Jack

We met up with friends and enjoyed exploring the park together. The sculptures are dotted across a huge landscape and there’s acres of space for picnics and games of chase, and there are also some great trees to climb.

Where we stayed in Yorkshire: Dale2Swale glamping

Our first overnight stop was in North Yorkshire at a relatively new glamping site called Dale2Swale. It was a rather luxurious way to start our road trip around the UK and such a treat after months of lockdown.

Luxury safari tent in field in North Yorkshire
Plenty of space at Dale2Swale glamping

The kids loved all the space to run around in and I was very content drinking peaceful cups of tea on the terrace overlooking the farmland. We enjoyed a long walk into the market town of Richmond and had fun exploring Easby Abbey.

Ruined abbey in North Yorkshire
Easby Abbey near Richmond

Next stop: South West Scotland

Richmond in North Yorkshire to Stranraer in Scotland, via B6270: 4 hours, 190 miles

After saying farewell to our glamping home, we drove along the B6270 road through the Yorkshire Dales. Stunning in rain or shine (we had both), this is a really fun driving route in the UK which takes in incredibly varied scenery.

Cloudy view across road in North Yorkshire on UK road trip
Cloudy views across the Yorkshire Dales

There are lots of other great drives in this part of Yorkshire – I’d like to shown the kids the Ribblehead Viaduct a little further south but we had to control our wanderlust as it was quite a long drive to reach Scotland.

The kids loved crossing the border and seeing the Scottish flag. We passed the turning for Gretna Green and explained the significance of the place to the boys.

Where we stayed in South West Scotland: Torrs Warren Country House Bed and Breakfast

We picked this very good value hotel for its proximity to the port of Stranraer. We drove into the little harbour town of Portpatrick for dinner. I love arriving in a place with no prior expectations.

boat on rocky beach with cottages in background, Scotland
Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland

Portpatrick was a real delight – the town, a mishmash of colourful buldings, curves around the rocky harbour. There’s a sandy beach and an impressively positioned playground. We had quite a job convincing the kids to head back to the hotel that evening.

Crossing the Irish Sea

Stranraer to Belfast: 2 hours 15 minutes

There are various ways of crossing the Irish Sea. We opted for the speedy two hours and 15 minutes crossing from Stranraer to Belfast outbound and we returned via Dublin to Holyhead in North Wales. Arriving into Belfast gives visitors a good view of the iconic yellow gantry cranes Samson and Goliath, testimony to the city’s ship building history. 

Approaching Belfast by ferry
Approaching Belfast by ferry

We arrived into Belfast just after lunch which was perfect timing to take the scenic drive along the Causeway Coastal Route. Although you can start this drive just north of the city centre at Carrickfergus, we skipped a bit and joined the road just north of Larne (the other main entry point into Northern Ireland if you’re coming by ferry).

One of the best scenic drives in the UK: the Causeway Coastal route

Belfast to Bushmills via the A2: 2 hours, 75 miles

I discovered that the Antrim Coast is one of the best places to drive in the UK. As we were travelling through Northern Ireland just after the ease in the 2020 lockdown restrictions, I had expected this popular coastal route to be busy with domestic tourists. However, we pretty much had the little road all to ourselves, which was lucky as sections are rather narrow with plenty of blind corners.

In a pre- or post-Covid world, I guess there would be far more international tourists visiting this part of Northern Ireland as it is the setting for several Game of Thrones scenes.

UK road trip scenery in Northern Ireland
Antrim Coast

One of the highlights of our drive that day included the pretty seaside village of Cushendun, managed by the National Trust. We stopped for coffee and ice creams and enjoyed scrambling around on the rocks and paddling in the sea. The beach is a lovely sweep of sand and very sheltered so it’s perfect for children.

Cushendun village with beach
Cushendun village and beach, managed by the National Trust

Although the drive takes around two hours, allow a whole day if you want to stop and explore some of the villages and beaches on the way.

Where we stayed in County Antrim: Ballylinny Holiday Cottages

This collection of nine holiday homes is in a brilliant location midway between the Giants Causeway and Bushmills. Our cottage had mesmerising sea views and incredible sunsets which were different each day, depending on the weather. 

Sunset view with wild flowers
Sunset views from Ballylinny Cottages

You could easily spend a whole week just driving along the A2 Causeway Coastal Route, stopping every five minutes at a beach, a village or a scenic view point. The route officially starts at Belfast and ends at Derry-Londonderry (or vice versa). We didn’t manage to drive the complete stretch of coast but the bits we did drive were incredible.

Coastal scenery on UK road trip
Antrim coast road

The road hugs the coast, sometimes dipping down to the sea, other times climbing steeply to reveal an impressive scene below. Highlights for us include the atmospheric clifftop ruins of Dunluce Castle, the sweeping sandy beaches of Whitepark Bay and Portrush and the lovely little harbour at Ballintoy. 

Rocky beach with stone cottages and sea in background
Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland

We spent a lot of time exploring the beaches of the Antrim Coast. We often had them to ourselves. There are so many fantastic beaches in Northern Ireland: beautiful stretches of sand, quaint fishing villages, rocky harbours.

Cars on Portstewart beach Northern Ireland
Portstewart beach

The only beaches which I could class as busy were Portrush and Portstewart. The latter was my favourite, a huge sandy beach perfect for families, particularly those who have tons of beach-related paraphernalia in their car boot. At Portstewart Strand you can drive your car right onto the sand so there’s no lugging buckets, spades, body boards and so on. Portstewart also has a fantastic café – Harry’s Shack – which serves particularly delicious food. We enjoyed delicious grilled fish and very good cake.

Derry – Londonderry day trip

Bushmills to Derry-Londonderry one hour / 40 miles

Although we could happily have spent every day at the beach, we did manage to squeeze in a visit to Derry-Londonderry during our stay on the north coast. Derry is a really small city, perfect for a day trip. The kids enjoyed crossing the Foyle River on the Peace Bridge and walking along the city walls.

Cannons Derry city walls
Cannons on the Derry city walls

If you are wondering which European city works best for a city break with little children, seriously consider picking a city with walkable walls, read my post about walled cities to find out more. 

The fourth stop on our UK driving holiday: County Down

Derry-Londonderry to Hillsborough: one hour 40 minutes, 80 miles

The next stop on our road trip around the U.K. was County Down where my other half grew up. We rented a particularly beautiful Airbnb cottage in the countryside between Hillsborough and Anahilt. It was really idyllic and we could happily have spent the whole summer there. 

Holiday cottage in County Down Northern Ireland
Our holiday cottage in County Down

County Down is a region of beautiful contrasts: the Georgian architecture of Hillsborough, the seaside fun of Newcastle, miles of undulating green fields, forests and hills, the windswept Mourne mountains, and tranquil Strangford Lough.

people crossing stepping stones over river at Tollymore Forest Park in Northern Ireland
Tollymore Forest Park in Northern Ireland

Where to stayed in County Down: The Barn near Hillsborough

This gem had everything a family could need from a holiday cottage: characterful and well equipped, the cottage has access to lovely gardens, a trampoline and a tennis court. Although we spent most of our time in the garden, there were games and books galore inside for the kids.

Belfast and the Titanic Museum

Hillsborough to Belfast: 13 miles / 20 minutes

We took a day trip to Belfast and enjoyed exploring the brilliant Titanic Museum. Like Derry, Belfast is a compact city so it’s perfect for exploring with children. I did feel a pang of jealousy as I watched other people dipping into enticing bars just as we were planning to head home for the day.

Titanic Museum Belfast
Titanic Museum Belfast

Considering a family holiday to Northern Ireland? I’ve put together a list of the best things to do in Northern Ireland with kids.

Driving through Snowdonia 

Hillsborough to Dublin: one hour 40 minutes / 146 kilometres
Dublin to Holyhead ferry: 3 hours 30 minutes
Holyhead to Llyn Ogwen: 40 minutes / 33 miles
Llyn Ogwen to Clee St Margaret: 2 hours 40 / 100 miles

After five days in County Down we drove south to Dublin and hopped on a ferry to Holyhead in Wales. We had originally planned to spend a few days in Snowdonia but after reading about over tourism in the region due to the increase in domestic visitors, we decided to spend the last few days of our road trip in Shropshire.

However, we couldn’t drive through Wales without stopping. Our route through Snowdonia took us along the A5 which conveniently passes close to some spectacular walking country. As it was an unusually scorching hot day, we found an excellent 15 minute hike up to Llyn Idwal. We parked at the visitor centre opposite Llyn Ogwen and followed the rocky path to this amazing lake where we had a quick swim before hopping back in the car and continuing on the road. 

Boy paddling in lake Llyn Idwal in Wales
Paddling in Llyn Idwal

The A5 is a stunning route through Wales and as much as I enjoyed our drive to Scotland, it is without doubt the best way for us to get to Northern Ireland by car. There are mountains all around and the road – surprisingly quiet given the staycation – follows a river for much of the way – first the Llugwy and then the Conwy. There are plenty of attractions on route if you have time to stop – we had quite a distance to cover so we only took a break at Llyn Idwal.

We stopped in Shrewsbury for dinner at the very hip and cool Dough and Oil pizzeria before continuing on to our Airbnb. Shrewsbury was packed with interesting places to eat, we’d definitely like to return there for a more detailed exploration.

The fifth stop on our UK road trip: the Shropshire Hills

We found a great little Airbnb hidden away in the countryside between Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Stable Cottage is part of a small farm with goats and chickens and a very friendly little dog called Teddy. If you like to take your horse on holiday, there are dedicated stables for an equestrian break.

Boy walking in the Shropshire Hills
Walking in the Shropshire Hills

We enjoyed some lovely walks close to our cottage in the Clee Hills – the views went on for miles – I hadn’t realised just how rural and hidden away this part of the UK is.

A day out exploring Ludlow was a hit for the whole family – the kids loved the castle (and the ice cream shop opposite) and we had a relaxing tapas lunch at the Parkway Restaurant which has outdoor seating.

View from top of Ludlow castle in Shropshire
The view from the top of Ludlow Castle

There’s a whole load of reasons why we’d love to return to this part of England for a longer stay – the industrial heritage of Ironbridge and Blists Hill Victorian Town and all of the great eateries are definitely calling to me.

Driving through the Cotswolds

Clee St Margaret to Stow on the Wold: one hour 45 minutes / 70 miles
Stow on the Wold to Hertford: one hour 50 minutes / 100 miles

We finished our UK road trip with a drive through the Cotswolds before heading back to Hertfordshire. We stopped in the little village of Broadway which has a particularly good playground – lovely views and play equipment to suit children of all ages. Number 32 Broadway is a particularly good café post-playground – excellent cakes and ice cream.

After that we drove through Stow on the Wold and Burford, both of which looked lovely in the evening summer sunshine – the drive between the two has some fabulous views of the Cotswold countryside.

The best scenic drives in the UK

We drove along some incredible roads during our summer road trip. Here are our favourite UK scenic drives.

The B6270 through the Yorkshire Dales

There are lots of stunning routes through the Yorkshire Dales. We were slightly constrained by time so we didn’t have a chance to explore this region fully but the B6270 following the River Swale west of Richmond worked perfectly for us.

flock of sheep crossing road, uk road trip
Sheep on the road in North Yorkshire

Not only did we see ever changing scenery on this drive – we also witnessed a wide range of weather patterns in a very short space of time. This resulted in some incredibly atmospheric views.

sheep on road on rainy hillside, UK road trip

The Antrim Coast Road in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is perfect for a summer road trip and the Antrim Coast really took my breath away. We drove sections of the A2 coastal road between Belfast and Derry over a five day period.

Whitepark Bay with green landscape and sea in background
Whitepark Bay on the Causeway Coastal Route

High Mournes Scenic Loop in Northern Ireland

We had a spare hour after a trip to the beach one day and so we decided to take a drive through the Mourne Mountains. We drove part of the High Mournes Scenic Loop which follows the B27 through the mountains. The Irish do a very good line dry stone walls – it’s almost worth the drive alone to admire the stonemasons’ handiwork.

Dry stone wall with mountain in background
Mourne Mountain scenery

The A5 in North Wales

Although the A5 is a main artery across Wales, it was a real joy to drive and surprisingly quiet for the middle of summer (in the year of the staycation). The road starts in Bangor in north west Wales and crosses the border into England to the south of Wrexham.

The section through Snowdonia is particularly scenic, running past mountains and rivers, through lots of little Welsh villages.

Country lanes in Shropshire

The narrow lanes that wind their way through the Shropshire Hills AONB are idyllic and (for the most part) deserted. The drive from our cottage near Clee St Margaret down to Ludlow was particularly enjoyable – through tiny settlements, past old stone pubs, with wonderful views in all directions.

Cotswolds scenic drive

I know I said this was an off the beaten track itinerary but here’s a quick recommendation for the Cotswolds. I can highly recommend taking in the villages of Broadway and Snowshill. There are attractive lavender fields in Snowshill and the drive from Broadway village up to the tower of the same name is particularly good fun – a wide curving uphill road which petrolheads (such as my other half) enjoy.

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Have you taken a family UK road trip? Do you have any good tips for other families planning a UK road trip itinerary? Let me know in the comments below.

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UK family road trip itinerary
UK family road trip itinerary
UK family road trip itinerary
UK family road trip itinerary
UK family road trip itinerary

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