THE GREAT NORTH ROAD

The Route

PART 2 CHAPTER 3

Alconbury Hill to Stamford

From Alconbury Hill the motorway descends Stangate[i] Hill, past Stangate Hole - the "most noted robbing-place in all this part of the country", according to Defoe. Birch Reynardson mentions that Monk's Wood, which he characteristically identifies as a famous fox covert, to the right of the road as it descends the hill, was noted for its red kites and he claimed to have seen as many as 27 of these raptors in the air at the same time on one occasion, though he said he had not seen any there for 30 years.[ii] At the foot of the hill is Sawtry, meaning salt marsh, where there was once an abbey. There was also a tollbar just south of the village. The recently replaced section of road including Sawtry bypass was started in 1939, though not finished until after the War. The local newspaper commented, while the work was under way, "The section from Alconbury to Glatton is the worst in the entire length of the Great North Road.... this section is little better than a country lane.". The article went on to say of the new road, in a passage which reads strangely today, "It is reminiscent of the German Autobahnen or motor roads, and so far from intruding upon a beautiful landscape, it merges harmoniously into it as it skirts spinneys and copses and lays ribbon-like over the broad backs of the green pasture-lands."[iii] Half way between Sawtry and Stilton, on the right side of the road, is a house which was once the Crown and Woolpack, a posting house. To the east of this point is Peterborough Airfield, built as RAF Glatton in 1942-3.

In Stilton, the next village, a famous coaching stop, there is an exceptionally wide main street, which, in the days of coaching, was busy day and night with 42 scheduled coaches and mails stopping daily and many private carriages and post-chaises either travelling on the Great North Road or connecting with such services. Pevsner, writing in 1968, said that bypassing the village had left it "in a sad state of dereliction and dispiritedness."[iv] Two old inns face each other; the Bell with its elaborate wrought iron sign and the Angel, now a shadow of its former self masquerading as the Stilton Country Club but once the leading house in the village; a third inn, the Talbot, is a few yards up the road. In 1974, when Webster wrote, both the Bell and the Angel had closed and the Bell's sign had disappeared, but today both seem to flourish, with the old sign back in place. A close examination of the Angel's facade reveals an escutcheon with "Angel 1741" on it. Stilton was also one of the points where the drove road met the Great North Road and where there was great business to be had shoeing cattle.

But Stilton's chief fame is for the cheese that once was sold here. It was in fact made in Leicestershire, originally by Mrs Paulet in Wymondham, near Melton Mowbray. She sold it to Cooper Thornhill[v], landlord of the Bell, for coach passengers to eat while their horses were changed. It does not sound too appetising, however, in this account by Defoe "...Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call'd our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring you a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese." In spite of that, it became so popular that people used to buy the cheese to take away and eventually the landlady of the Angel, Mrs (sometimes called Miss) Worthington, took to selling it too. The first Stilton bypass was built in 1958.

To the east of Stilton, where the railway line now runs, there was once a huge lake, as observed by Celia Fiennes:

From Huntingdon we came to Stilton and came in sight of a great water on the right hand about a mile off which looked like some Sea it being so high and of a great length, this is in part of the fenny country and is called Whitlsome Mer, is 3 mile broad and six mile long, in the midst is a little island where a great store of wildfowle breeds, there is no coming near it in a mile or two, the ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes in the Mer, but at other tymes people boat it round the Mer with pleasure; there is an abundance of good fish in it this was thought to have been Sea some tyme agoe, and choak'd up, and so remaines all about it for some miles a fenny marshy ground for those little Rivers that runns into the Sea, some distance of miles.[vi]

This, in modern spelling, was Whittlesey Mere and it is still marked on the Ordnance Survey map, though it was drained in 1851. When the railway line was built, the Great Northern Railway followed Blind Jack Metcalf's example and sank layers of faggots and peat to displace the water still held below the surface of what was then known as the quaking bog.

Less than a mile from Stilton, until 1998, was the roundabout at Norman Cross, which as early as 1963 was known as a notorious bottleneck. Here the coaches for Peterborough, Louth, Lincoln and Hull turned off. There was an inn at the junction which was popular with cyclists, but it has been replaced by a modern motel. A little farther on, its site now under the motorway, near the drive to a farm with the romantic name of Venetian Lodge, stood until recently one of the landmarks of the Great North Road. This was the gilded bronze French imperial eagle mounted on a column which was a memorial to the French prisoners of war who were incarcerated at Yaxley Barracks during the Napoleonic Wars, 1770 of whom died in captivity. The barracks, which stood close to the junction at Norman Cross, was built in 1796 and demolished 20 years later after Waterloo. A eyewitness account described the prison:

It consisted, if I remember right, of some five or six casernes, very long, and immensely high; each standing isolated from the rest, upon a spot of ground which might average ten acres, and which was fenced round with lofty palisades, the whole being compassed about by a towering wall, beneath which, at intervals, on both sides sentinels were stationed, whilst outside, upon the field, stood commodious wooden barracks, capable of containing two regiments of infantry, intended to serve as guards upon the captives. Such was the station or prison at Norman Cross, where some six thousand French and other foreigners, followers of the grand Corsican, were now immured.[vii]

Harper tells an interesting story about the French PoWs. Those who were considered trusty were allowed out on parole, providing they stayed on the highroad and returned to the barracks by sunset. Any one who disregarded these rules could be shot at sight, and the GPO offered a reward of £5 to any of its guards who shot a prisoner breaking parole. After several innocent passers by had been shot at from passing coaches, people fled at the approach of the Mails.

The memorial, erected on the eve of war in 1914, was removed during the night of 16 October 1990 by thieves who came equipped with a lorry and lifting gear. The remains of the base could, until the motorway was built over them, still be found beside the road. It is said that there are plans to replace the French imperial eagle, perhaps nearer the site of the Yaxley barracks.

The motorway continues in a north westerly direction past the East of England Showground until the present-day farmhouse that was once a well-known landmark, Kate's Cabin Inn[viii], which is just past the point where the A605 joins the A1, where it reverts to ordinary dual carriageway. It now bypasses the little village of Water Newton with its pretty church dedicated to St Remigius, which is close to the point where the Roman road crossed the River Nene, probably by a ford. The Romans also had a pottery here, which from the 2nd to the 4th century sent pots of "very high technical and artistic quality"[ix] to all parts of the country. At the tiny hamlet of Sibson, the old road went further north than the new and after the Nene Valley Railway was built there was a level crossing at Wansford station. This was bypassed in 1929 when Wansford bridge was also avoided. The Sibson Inn on the west side of the dual carriagway was until recently a farm and in its yard is the last remaining of Edmund Boulter's milestones, which doubled as upping (or mounting) blocks. The inscription E.B.1708 can still be seen on it though no distances are legible. Thoresby must have seen these stones when they were brand-new for he wrote in that same year: "This day we met with a great number of horsing-stones, each of three steps, inscribed EB 1708; being erected by Edmund Boulter, Esq. uncle to my kind friend the present Lord of Harewood, both of them charitable gentlemen, and benefactors to the public."[x] A rich, and apparently stout, Yorkshireman, Boulter set up such stones on the Great North Road between Stilton and Grantham pro bono publico and no doubt for his own convenience too.

Celia Fiennes, when passing through towards Wansford in 1698, noted: "As I pass'd the road I saw upon the walls of the ordinary peoples houses and walls of their out houses the cow dung plaister'd up to drie in cakes which they use for fireing-- its a very offensive fewell but the country people use little else in these parts."[xi]

[i] Stangate = stone way, referring to the Roman paving still to be seen in mediaeval times.

[ii]He was writing in 1875.

[iii]Peterborough Advertiser 9 June 1939.

[iv]Nikolaus Pevsner The Buildings of England: The County of Huntingdon and Peterborough. Penguin 1968.

[v]Who, in 1740, for a wager rode to London and back, a distance of 154 miles, in 11 hours, 33 minutes and 46 seconds.

[vi]Fiennes p 82.

[vii]George Borrow (1803-1881) Lavengro This book is widely supposed to be autobiographical. The young Borrow and his mother arrived here by boat, which was possible before the fens were drained.

[viii]This name, which sounds so modern, wasused in Byng’s time (1791). The café slightly south of the modern junction inherited the famous name, but recently has become Kc’s Diner.

[ix]Pevsner Op cit

[x]Ralph Thoresby Diary 29 December 1708

[xi]Fiennes p 144

[xii]The river marks the boundary between Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire and, as is commonly the case, the villages on each side of the river have different names.

[xiii]Harper quotes this rhyme, which apparently comes from an early 18th Century book called Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys to the North of England. Defoe also mentions this story in A Tour through the Whole Island of Greta Britain. So does Celia Fiennes in her diary.

[xiv]A Tour in the Midlands 1790. 29 June 1790. A close is a small field.

[xv]See pages 72-3.

[xvi]A Six Months Tour Through the North of England.

[xvii]That Lord Exeter also refused to let the railway, intended to follow the Great North Road, cross his land with the result that the line goes through Peterborough and Grantham but by-passes Stamford to the east.

[xviii]Pevsner Op cit

[xix]The Times 5 October 1927. The entrance to Burghley mentioned is the one passed on the descent into Stamford on what is now the B1081, with the “bottle lodges”.

[xx]The Times 8 October 1927

[xxi]Sunday Times 28 April 1963

[xii]Fiennes pp 82-3.

[xiii]Jenkins says that the town “has the finest collection of medieval churches of any small town in England and makes impressive efforts to keep them open”. He awards St Mary three stars, All Saints and St Martin (Cecil tombs) two each and St George (herakdic glass of Knights of the Garter) one.

[xxiv]Timothy Mowl Elizabethan & Jacobean Style Phaidon Press Ltd, London 1993.

[xxv]Stamford = stone ford.