Back in 1998, the late, great, Phil Llewellin decided to mark the summer solstice by reaching all four corners of mainland Britain in 24 hours. Ten years on, Keith Adams tries the same in the new Citroën C5 Tourer and comes up with a surprising result.
Words: Keith Adams Pictures: Matthew Hayward
Four corners in one day…
It’s 3.40am and I’m rushing round the M25 when I catch the first sign of it – yes, it’s summer solstice, and the first patches of diffused light appear on the horizon I’ve been chasing for the past few hours, and it’s a sight that lifts my spirits. While most normal people are sleeping, I’m on a personal quest to test the mettle of the new Citroen C5 Tourer, myself, and the sheer determination of one of my all time favourite motoring writers.
Rewind a few weeks, and I’d been reading the 20th anniversary issue of What Diesel magazine. In the retrospective, I find out that the late, great Phil Llewellin was a regular contributor, and that the then Editor was partial to indulging in satisfying Phil’s need to go on high mileage adventures – a passion that I share with the great man. So, when I read in the birthday issue that Phil had succeeded in attempting what I thought was impossible – he reached all four geographical extremities of the UK within the 24 hour summer solstice, I became consumed by the idea of recreating the feat today. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough that What Diesel’s current Editor, Ian Robertson, also likes seeing his writers pushed to the limit, and sent me on my way with his blessing – calling me a nutter while doing so.
‘The need to average 53mph for a full 24 hours – in the UK – began to dawn on me. Was I mad?’
Given that it’s a 1246-mile trip from Lizard Point in Cornwall to Dunnet Head near John O’Groats via Lowestoft in the East and Ardnamurchan Point on the far extremity of the Western Highlands, it was a real achievement to make the journey in one piece and, once I’d agreed to having a go, I started questioning whether it was actually a good idea at all. Was this really a challenge that could be replicated today – to average 58mph in the UK in today’s driving conditions would require something of a miracle.
In 1998, the planning had to be immaculate to make the journey hang together. With two ferry crossings and with little more than a map and a load of guile, Llewellin had it all sewn up. For me, this was going to be very different; a true a 21st century effort – no maps, and zero planning. Good old sat-nav and traffic announcements were going to get me from one end of the country to another without a glitch. Weren’t they?
In the lead-up to my improbable trip, it was clear that few have the stomach for such challenges these days – the response from colleagues and friends was that I was mad to attempt such a challenge. I was lucky enough to talk amateur snapper Matthew Hayward into coming along to take pictures, but only if I’d do the first leg (from Lizard Point via Lowestoft) alone, picking him up at a civilised hour at Newark services.
And that is why as the clock neared midnight on the 21 June, I found myself almost alone in the car park at Lizard Lighthouse, feeling miserable and counting down the minutes to the off. The fog had rolled in, the rain was teeming and the lighthouse’s doleful foghorn mocked my attempts at a power-nap every 15 seconds or so. My only company was a hungry seagull, which assumed that I had some tasty morsels to chuck out – if only that were true…
With such poor visibility, I wondered if I’d actually manage to leave Cornwall that night – and the wait gave me time to contemplate the enormity of the task ahead. The need to average 53mph for a full 24 hours – in the UK – began to dawn on me. Was I mad? I certainly felt it as I waited for night’s embrace in that desolate car park.
2350 hours: That mist is really beginning to get me down. The place smells of the sea, it’s cold and windy, it’s damp, and the foghorn continues to annoy me. Yes, it might save lives, but right now, I’m beginning to think my sanity is going to be an early casualty. I’d got bored while waiting for the off – so wandered into ‘town’ and headed for the pub.
As I was walking towards the entrance, I stumble across a bar chair that’s spilled outside. Lovely. As for the weather – I’m going to be crawling through Cornwall at walking pace thanks to this wretched pea-souper. To make matters worse, I can’t get a good picture of the off – there’s too much moisture in the air.
0128 hours: I see the first sign for London – 167 miles – and my spirits are immediately lifted. Now I’m deep into Somerset, running on cruise control and making real progress. The fog lifted shortly after Truro, and the A30 has been completely clear through Cornwall and Devon.
It gives me a chance to start analysing the Citroën beneath me – and, despite its heft, I really like what I see. The seats offer excellent support, the long-legged gearing and torquey engine create a relaxed cruising environment and, just like Phil back in 1998, I decided it made sense to aim for Bristol and the M5 rather than risking getting mired on the A303 among the camper brigade celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge. They might fancy a damp morning’s ‘henge action, but I know I don’t.
0351 hours: The £79 fill-up at South Mimms on the M25/A1 intersection has me relishing human contact – even if it is to try and persuade some drunken revellers to snap me refilling the C5. Buying fuel at £1.30 per litre isn’t great when you’re not exactly getting brilliant consumption. The endless cones and 50mph restrictions on the M4 had kept down my average speed, but meant the fuel situation was as good as you’d expect with a 2.2-litre HDI with so few miles on the clock. With a cruising range of 500 miles, even at 37mpg, I’m already thinking about my fuel next stop, which won’t be until I pick up Matthew at Newark Services on the A1.
0450hours: Lowestoft is a welcome sight and looks wonderful in the early morning sun. I have to keep stopping myself from feeling too cocky about the fact I’m so far ahead of Phil in my virtual mind-map. The run through Suffolk has been fraught as it seems that all roads are full of birds scavenging an early morning feed – so far, I’ve only claimed one.
Lining up on the promenade by the pier after wending my way through the baffling one-way system and unco-operative traffic lights I snap away, but decide to leg it when I clock a police patrol in the distance heading my way. Minutes count, and explaining my madcap challenge to sane people could cost me dear…
‘I snap away, but decide to leg it when I clock a police patrol in the distance heading my way. Minutes count, and explaining my madcap challenge to sane people could cost me dear…’
0800 hours: Newark, and a much needed comfort break. Coffee helps stave off the onset of tiredness, and Matthew’s already livening up the proceedings getting me to pose for the camera. The run along the A17 and through East Anglia has been dull, despite the roads being interesting and lightly trafficked. At least presented the opportunity to test the C5’s massaging seats. They work. Backache is averted for now.
The chassis composure is also good considering I’ve been cornering more keenly than someone on a 24-hour marathon should be – once you learn that the Hydractive 3+ system responds best to smooth steering imputs, and the brakes need squeezing rather than pressing, and it covers ground incredibly swiftly.
1150 hours: This is beginning to seem too easy. Less than half way in, and we’ve hit the border for Scotland, and it feels like the end is almost in sight. Apparently I’m suffering the traditional Land’s End-John O’Groats failing of believing I’m almost at the end when hitting Gretna Green. The improvements in the road network are everywhere – the trans-Pennine A66, in particular, had been a road I was dreading, but in the end, it’s a dualled traffic-free doddle – I’m guessing that’s luck on my part though as the weather is continually atrocious. I keep waiting for the tide – and the gloomy weather – to turn.
1245 hours: The Citroën’s motorway performance is stunning – the low noise levels and cosseting ride continue to impress as Glasgow’s monolithic tower blocks loom through the insistent rain.
1500 hours: Time for a £61 refuel – ugh. This time we’re near Fort William and are still buzzing from the fantastic drive across Rannoch Moor. The A82 is near perfect – majestic scenery, sweeping bends and excellent visibility, and a timely reminder that it is possible to enjoy a good drive in the UK. It’s a caravan-free run, and when we do need to pass slower cars, the C5 has plenty of punch to make it stick. Changing down to fifth from sixth is as much as you ever need at legal speeds. Consumption steadfastly remains around 37mpg, though – and that’s a little disappointing considering this kind of run should be flattering the car.
1510 hours: The rain is driving now, and it’s time to jump onto our one ferry crossing of the day – the Maid of Glencoul is loading as we arrive, and within minutes we’re on our way crossing Loch Linnhe. Ardnamurchan can’t be far away now. It doesn’t look far on the sat/nav…
1700 hours: The drive to Ardnamurchan Point has certainly been memorable. After leaving the ferry, we’re riding a world-class driving roller coaster – open and lightly trafficked, and the C5 is in its element. However, the EU-funded superhighway ends after a few tingly miles, and we’re on single-track roads. As the sinuous switchback wends its way through the magnificent scenery, we keep our speed sensible – oncoming traffic is an ever-present danger, as are the blind bends. Once the pictures are done (and I had to re-enact the siren shot that Phil Llewellin’s piece had as its opening image in the 1998 feature), and we’re fully battered by the wind and rain, I check the sat-nav. It reckons we’re not going to make Dunnet (250 miles away) until 00.15. Five hours!
1820 hours: Battling up the A861 towards Fort William wondering when will these single-track roads will end? Luckily for us, the Scots are great drivers, courteous and well disciplined. If you’re going faster than them, they move over; if they catch you – you move over. It’s simple really…
2030 hours: The long drive on the A82 alongside Loch Ness and there’s little traffic, so we make excellent progress. The Vectra-driving caravanner keeps us amused for a few miles – he’s driving the curves far more quickly than his talent should allow, and more than a few times, it looks like he wants to join Nessie at the bottom of the cold, black loch. As soon as a straight appears, we’re past, and more than a little relieved.
The sat-nav’s ETA moves rapidly in our favour, and it’s soon apparent that it reckons the average A-road speed in Scotland is about 15mph. A culture shock as we head into Inverness, as we hit our first traffic queue in ages. A matrix sign gloomily announces that the A9 is closed north of the Black Isle – the direction we’re heading – but decide to press on, hoping the blockage will be cleared by the time we arrive.
2230 hours: After an uplifting drive along the North Sea coast, and a truly awesome inland sweep towards Thurso, the A9 has more than delivered its promise hinted at on the map. Caithness is bleak, but its peaty hills are strangely beautiful and it feels as though we’re a lot further than 1200 miles from Lizard Point. Keeping the speed respectable on the final leg of the route is proving difficult.
‘Caithness is bleak, but its peaty hills are strangely beautiful and it feels as though we’re a lot further than 1200 miles from Lizard Point.’
2303 hours: We’ve made it! We’re still relatively fresh as we roll towards the lighthouse that marks the most northerly point on mainland Britain. It’s still light enough to drive without headlights, but the howling wind reminds us that mother nature rules the roost up here.
As we gaze across the Pentland Firth towards the Orkney Islands, we can see a nasty rainstorm closing the gap quickly. We hurredly take our pictures, jog back to the relative safety of the car, and bask in what has been a challenging run completed 54 minutes quicker than Phil Llewellin managed back in 1998. Of course, the landscape had changed immeasurably since the first run back in 1998 – Phil had an additional ferry crossing to me, was driving a slower, noisier car (a Land Rover Freelander), and had to contend with A-roads where I had motorways and dual-carriageways. My 54 minute advantage doesn’t look that great after all.
It would be nice to conclude that I’d made the difference, but in truth it was the Citroën’s consummate long distance ability that also aced it for the 21st century effort. It covers huge distances without placing any demands on the driver – you cross an entire country, you get to the end, and are left wondering where to drive next. Sleep. Who needs it?
Based on the original story which featured in Diesel Car magazine and was first published on AROnline in June 2009.