THE GREAT NORTH ROAD

INTRODUCTION

Of all the roads in the British Isles, surely the Great North Road is the greatest, with the most history, grandeur and romance about it. The Bath Road, the Great West Road, is puny in comparison, at about one quarter the length, and has never had the same significant traffic throughout our history. The same could be said of the Portsmouth Road. The Dover Road, immortalised by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, has plenty of romance, and it has witnessed the comings and goings of monarchs and of many overseas travellers, but it too is much shorter. The Holyhead Road, which shares an exit from London with the Great North Road, was Telford's masterpiece and has some pretensions to stature but it led to Ireland which has not consistently been so central to our history as have Scotland and the North.

Since its origins in pre-Roman times, the Great North Road has been the main north-south thoroughfare of the country and played a part large or small in so much of our history. Probably the coffin containing the uncorrupted body of Saint Cuthbert and the head of Saint Aidan was carried up it from Ripon towards its final resting place at Durham a thousand years ago.[1] Edward I carried his queen's body down part of it in 1290, and marked the stops with Eleanor crosses, three of which stood on this road. The catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 used it to march towards the capital. Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, travelled north to marry a Scottish king along it. Butcher Cumberland, fresh from his victory at Culloden, made his triumphant way south down this road. Nearly every monarch of England or of the United Kingdom has ridden, driven or trodden on it and so have most of our statesmen and writers, especially the diarists. As a result there is an abundance of comment and description of most significant places on the route. 

The Romans built Ermine Street and its continuations to the north as a military road and even after centuries of neglect Harald was able to use it to march his army to York and back in 1066. The Scots used the route to invade England, Warwick the Kingmaker died on it and many of the battles of the Wars of the Roses were fought on and near it. Cromwell's family lived beside it and Monk brought the Coldstream Guards down it during the Civil War. Not least it served as an artery linking many of the RAF stations built on the eastern side of Britain before and during the last war, and many aircraft, before assembly, were carried along it.

Walter Scott called it the dullest road in the world, though the most convenient for the traveller[2], and, while this may be an exaggeration, no one can deny that some of the scenery in the flatlands on the eastern side of England is hardly exciting, especially since they became the grain growing factory that they now are. But there is a romance about the road that Scott himself captured so well in The Heart of Midlothian and which infected even that dour Yorkshireman J B Priestley.

Nearly 400 miles separate the capital cities of England and Scotland which stand at either end of the road. The smallest and the largest counties in England are traversed. For most of its length the road runs over low lying land and there are very few hills of any height or length, the highest said to be at Scotch Corner. Stevenage High Street is claimed to be the highest street between London and York. Before new bridges and bypasses were built, there were sharp gradients at several river crossings, such as those at Wentbridge, Durham and Newcastle, which created problems for horses and early motor vehicles. The route through the east of Scotland avoids most of the southern uplands, though the slope up Penmanshiel to Cockburnspath has presented a challenge for travellers through the ages.

The heyday of the Road was undoubtedly the era of coaching, which really started when the Royal Mail began to be carried by coach in 1784 but lasted only until the advent of the railway destroyed the coaching trade in the course of about ten years in the 1830s and 40s. There was a second flourish when the motorcar appeared in the early part of the 20th Century. To this day the road remains one of the most highly used and therefore congested routes in the country. The modern road still essentially follows the line taken by ancient travellers, though the width, surface and volume of traffic would astonish anyone from previous times. But still it has a distinction and flavour all of its own.

Who can set out from London, following the signs to "The North", without feeling something of the romance that the Times Correspondent quoted on page 83 captures in his article? The road may now be heavily congested, but it still has a poetry about it that defies the concrete and tarmac, the flyovers and the roundabouts. And as the northern half of the road is reached, and York left behind, the glimpses of the Pennines to the west and the moors to the east create an aura of wildness, which disappears temporarily around the industry of County Durham and the Tyne, but reappears in the rugged country of Northumberland and the Borders.

Some of the greatest buildings in our islands lie within sight of this road. The cathedrals at Durham and York, the great houses at Hatfield and Burghley, the railway bridge over the Tweed at Berwick, the castles at Alnwick and Edinburgh, the hidden gem of Tickencote Church and the mellow stone town of Stamford are all spectacles to match any in this country or possibly the world. 

The modern road has been straightened and diverted, but in many places the old route can be seen, as another road - perhaps the A1000 or the A197 or the A167 or in many places a B road - in lay-bys or even tracks. Once you start looking at the loops and diversions, you begin to wonder about its history. And once you dig into that you realise that there have been many Great North Roads and that there is no definitive route that can be pointed to through the ages. Leland surveyed the road in 1533-39 but the earliest map is probably Harrison's of 1577. Ogilby in the 17th Century and Paterson and Armstrong in the 18th all give us their versions of the road. Even in the 20th Century not all maps have agreed on the route of the Great North Road and its successor the A1. This is especially true in Yorkshire, where roughly one fifth of the length of the Road lies, where there have been many routes at different times and even at the same time, with York included or avoided according to the requirements of trade and speed.

It is, without doubt, the premier road in the country, recognised by the authorities in 1922 when the number A1 was awarded to it, and its story is one to fire the imagination. This book attempts to tell the history of the Great North Road in the context of the development of transport generally in this country and then, in Part Two, to trace its route in all its variations over the whole 400 miles from the capital of England to that of Scotland.

[1]It is likely that, north of Scotch Corner, the monks followed the Roman road from Piercebridge to Chester-le-Street.

[2]Diary  29 May 1828 He was specifically referring to the stretch from Alconbury Hill to Ferrybridge.