A1 Love — The Greatness of The Great North Road

Mark Simpson goes on a road trip con­nect­ing four coun­tries: England, Scotland, the UK — and Yorkshire.

grey A1 Love   The Greatness of The Great North Road

What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impa­tient era as the A1?

Well, if you’re unfor­tu­nate enough to find your­self in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the sig­nage rightly has it. And unlike the more pop­u­lar M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of peter­ing out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shin­ing, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.

For all its butch­ness, the A1 is also the most glam­or­ous road in Britain, con­nect­ing the cap­it­als of four coun­tries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, start­ing in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flow­ing up the east­ern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splend­our of York, once England’s second city, spool­ing up and over the much-contested bor­der fort­ress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and fin­ish­ing with a flour­ish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand pan­or­amic, kil­ted sweep of Princes Street.

True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glam­our always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.

Above all, the A1, still mostly dual car­riage­way, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a vir­tual ‘M’ road built and engin­eered to con­nect indus­trial centres as fast and as bor­ingly as pos­sible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to down­grade the whole of the A1 to motor­way were dropped in 1995).

OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lor­ries labour­ing up a hill, one over­tak­ing the other at a speed dif­fer­en­tial of 0.5 MPH. Or dur­ing the sum­mer months, those sub­urban jug­ger­nauts of des­pair – oth­er­wise known as cara­vans. But non­ethe­less, and des­pite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detour­ing the A1 from the old ‘coach­ing’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hid­ing it behind cut­tings and another Unwelcome Break.

A lush, low­land Eastern England of mar­ket towns and fer­tile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, coun­try houses and gar­ris­ons – and, just out­side sleepy Grantham… a road­side sex shop. Try find­ing one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steam­ing cool­ing towers, loom­ing like con­crete castles with dragons lurk­ing within – a leg­acy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.

grey A1 Love   The Greatness of The Great North Road

Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the blood­i­est battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists tri­umphed over the Lancastrians leav­ing 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.

If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decis­ive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the pre­pos­ter­ous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final rest­ing place of the father of English his­tory, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hid­den from the cur­rent A1 route. But as a con­sol­a­tion prize you might be able to fleet­ingly scope Lumley Castle, once the res­id­ence of the Bishop of Durham and now a lux­ury hotel where trav­el­lers can break their jour­ney in tur­reted style.

Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s fam­ous Angel of the North, wel­comes you, wings out­stretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the bene­fit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as loc­als dub him, is a steely sign com­mand­ing you to start pay­ing ser­i­ous atten­tion, man, pet.

For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western sub­urbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 fre­quently nar­rows and slows to a single lane the bet­ter to allow you to enjoy the time­less, undu­lat­ing land­scape, and per­mit you per­haps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and eas­ily most pho­to­genic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little fur­ther on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just bey­ond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, pat­ron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.

grey A1 Love   The Greatness of The Great North Road

Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?

Over the Tweed and just over the bor­der you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbre­vi­ated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs over­look­ing a shock­ingly blue North Sea, and on to the glit­ter­ing Firth of Forth, with the brood­ing prom­ise of the Highlands bey­ond – if it’s not rain­ing hori­zont­ally again.

But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.

Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak bat­tle­field where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been pro­claimed King of Scotland in defi­ance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly inter­na­tional road again. Possibly with bor­der posts, pass­port checks and maybe even the occa­sional bor­der skir­mish and raid just like in the good old days.

Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defend­ers, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loy­al­ists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.

This piece ori­gin­ally appeared at lease­plan.

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