Skoda Karoq: a race against time from John O’Groats to Land’s End

The plan is to leave John O’Groats as the sun sets and reach Land’s End before first light the next day, a north-to-south run giving us fractionally more night. Snow is falling as I drive the Karoq north to meet snapper Stan Papior at Inverness airport, and by the time we reach the Seaview Hotel at John O’Groats, the TV forecasters are standing next to maps covered in huge arrows and warning of an approaching Arctic front. The increasing popularity of the North Coast 500 has brought many more travellers during the summer – and a fair crop of supercars, to judge from the pictures in some of the businesses. There’s even a Starbucks franchise, where we kill a couple ofhours waiting for the sun to set and watching the wind whip the North Sea. Skoda has wisely chosen to fit our Karoq with Bridgestone Turanza winter tyres, which are quick to indicate theirlack of enthusiasm for higher speeds on the twistier sections. After twilight, the arrival of darkness reduces distractions, with the most noticeable being the sight of oil rigs far out to sea, brilliantly illuminated and with flare stacks blazing orange. Things are picking up in the North Sea to judge from the number of them, both at work and towering over the small town of Invergordon, where they come for repair and refurbishment. Travelling by night was meant to cut down on traffic but we encounter a five-minute queue for roadworks that have reduced the bridge over the Cromarty Firth to a single lane. Progress stays slow and sticky until we pass Inverness, just a couple of minutes adrift of our bogey time, but with the rain turning to snow. My instinct is to try to claw back some of the lost time, but it needs to be fought hard: the entire length of the A9 is now policed by average-speed cameras, past Perth and all theway to the M9. For the next couple of hours, speed management means little more than knocking the cruise control up and down to take account of the different limits. But the Google Maps navigation, which is running as back-up, now causes alarm, reckoning we’ll reach Land’s End one hour later than the time predicted by the Karoq’s own system. Crossing the English border just six hours after setting off means we’re ahead of schedule again, and with enough margin to switch to a two-stop strategy. Another problem with choosing February is soon evident: the numerous sets of roadworks that have sprung up as, I presume, budgets are spent before the end of the financialyear.There are five temporary worksites between Preston and Birmingham, most of which reduce the motorway to a single lane, plus a grindingly long stretch of camera-enforced 50mphzone. Brum brings some modest excitement, and confirmation of Google’s omnipotence in spotting a snarl-up: the first bit of the M5 is closed, as is the obvious diversion along the M6, two facts the normally shouty motorway matrix signs remain silent about until we’re practically in the queue. We turn to Waze navigation, which reroutes us on an anthropologically interesting tour ofWest Bromwich, where many people are still heading home. When we get bored of podcasts, discussion turns to speculation on what would be the fastest way to complete the journeywe’re on, with closed roads and a free choice of car. By the time we turn onto the A30 at Exeter, there’s a sense of entering the home stretch, and as the road gets steeper and twistier, the Karoq even gets to experience some steering input again. We arrive at Land’s End to a complete absence of cheering crowds and with more than an hour to spare – long enough for a snooze in the corner of the car park before the sky starts to lighten. Like John O’ Groats, itfeels like a place that’s accidentally famous for no especially good reason, with spectacular sea views but shuttered retailers dedicated to lightening tourist pockets. We left Land’s End at the stroke of midnight and made such good time on our journey north that we reached John O’Groats by late morning, the rapidity of our progress helped by the absence of speed cameras and the Maestro’s anonymity. Heavy traffic around Birmingham seemed to blow our chances but Dalton’s rally- honed skills were sufficient toget us back to Land’s End at 11:47pm on the same day.