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Tag: The North

A1 Love – The Greatness of The Great North Road

Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire

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.

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.

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.

Bring Back the Danelaw

The legend of the Danish King Cnut attempting to bid back the waves springs to mind when considering the response of London apparatchiks to Scotland’s tidal movement away from the Union in general and London in particular.

Scotland, led by a Scots Nationalist government recently re-elected by a landslide, is gearing up for a vote on independence. This isn’t going down well with London, which hates not being at the centre of everything.

Worse is in store, however: London is going to be ignored. In preparing for an independent future, Scotland is also beginning to shift its attention away from the Sassenach south, and back to its historic neighbours in the east and north.

‘An independent Scotland would shift much of its attention away from the UK to become a member of the Scandinavian circle of countries, with its own army, navy and air force modelled on its Nordic neighbours, according to detailed plans being drawn up by the SNP…. They reveal that SNP leaders want an independent Scotland to look north and east in Europe for partnerships, trade and key defence relationships, rather than continuing to focus on western Europe and the Commonwealth, as the UK does now.’

This story caused howls of anger and ridicule in England – or rather, in the London media and political elites which seem united in their bitter opposition to the increasingly inevitable prospect of Scottish independence. Largely because this means the end of the imperial/global pretensions of ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’, and of course those London institutions founded on it.

Personally, I welcome and support full Scottish independence. Partly because I think it will do them a power of good, but mostly because it means us English will have to finally find out who the hell we are.

And closer ties with its Scandinavian neighbours seems to me a perfectly sensible move for Scotland. The Scots have much in common with the Scandinavians. Many are descended from them. Scotland and Scandinavia are oil-producing, socialist-leaning, sparsely-populated regions which also tend to produce very similar hard-drinking morose TV detectives.

But then, England, when it isn’t tuning into the latest series of The Killing is in denial about its own Scandinavian heritage. By rights, we should talk not about ‘Anglo-Saxon’ but about ‘Anglo-Saxon-Danish’. As a result of large-scale settlement by Vikings the English language has been greatly enriched by a host of rather useful Danish words, such as ‘law’, ‘sky’, ‘window’, ‘knife’, ‘husband’, ‘call’, ‘egg’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘arse’. Without the Danish contribution to English our TV soap opera scripts would be very difficult to write indeed.

As a measure of the influx of Danish blood, English patronymics ending in ‘son’– e.g. ‘Clarkson’ or ‘Simpson’— are likely to be Danish in origin. And under the Danelaw in the 8th and 9th Century, half of England was occupied and run by the Danes, from my hometown of York (then Jorvik), which was at the centre of a thriving trade network stretching from Iceland and Dublin to the Black Sea.

And in the Danelaw, not only were Danish/Old Norse words borrowed by English, Anglo-Norse dialects which were in some ways more Scandinavian than English took root, bequeathing us the distinctive sounds and argot of the Lake District, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the early 10th Century the Danish King Cnut the Great managed to preside over a kingdom that included Norway, Denmark, all of England and much of Sweden. His reign in England was said to have been maintained in part through ‘bonds of wealth and custom’ rather than sheer might. In other words, a shared trade and culture. A wise and popular king, it was only the Cnut’s failure to produce a lasting heir that brought the collapse of his Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom (and single currency) which would have changed the history of these islands, and perhaps Europe itself.

His famous bidding back of the waves was not a sign of megalomania but rather a deliberate demonstration to his subjects of the limits of kingly power. It’s a lesson that Westminster really needs to learn again in regard to Scottish independence.

It was of course the successful invasion by William the Conqueror in the watershed year 1066 that finally oriented England southwards and towards the Continent for the next Millennia, replacing the ruling Saxon class with fellow Normans. But Francified William was of Scandinavian descent himself: ‘Norman’ means ‘men from the north’. And he defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold at Hastings in part because Harold was exhausted by a forced march to York (and back again) to defeat an invasion by… Norwegians. 1066 was a very Scandinavian year indeed.

So as a ‘-son’ of York who dwelled in London for a decade or so but has since returned to his ancestral stomping grounds to become a provincial lesbian, I say good luck to Scotland with its dreams of a future safe in Scandinavia’s arms. And if a newly single England still won’t acknowledge its own Scandinavian heritage, or if the south keeps inflicting a London/Norman/Tory government on the rest of us maybe the east and north, where valleys are Danish ‘dales’, streets Danish ‘gates’, and counties are still — no matter what the south insists — Danish ‘ridings’, should just revolt and bring back the Danelaw.

 

The Smell of Chip Fat at Teatime

By Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 28 January, 2007)

Stuart Maconie is looking for the North. It’s not really so difficult to find, but we’re only a few pages into his new travelogue ‘Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North’ and he’s already hopelessly lost. Perhaps he’s spent too long in the south (the blurb describes him as “a northerner in exile, stateless and confused”), or perhaps he’s visited the buffet car once too often. Whatever the reason, he’s more off-course than the MSC Napoli as he claims categorically, ludicrously, that “the north” (and it should be ‘The North’, by the way) “undeniably begins in… Crewe”.

Crewe.

Possibly, just possibly, to indulge a perfectly likeable Radio 2 DJ with good taste in music and the star pundit of “I Love Any Decade You’re Making a Series About”, you might say that the North West begins at Crewe. But then, no one is interested in where the North West begins. That’s why Maconie’s travelogue is called “In Search of the North” not “In Search of the Granada TV Region”.

As everyone should know, The North begins (or rather ends, if you’re looking at England from the right way up) further south than Crewe on the other, more important, more attractive, more modest side of England in Grantham, Lincolnshire. On the usefully named Great North Road and Great North Eastern Railway.

A helpful hint: if you departed for The North from Euston station or turned left at Watford Gap you’re going the wrong way. Sorry to be pedantic, but The North is, well, north.

Grantham is the real gateway to The North partly because the name forces you to speak Northern (it’s definitely not pronounced “Hugh Grantham”), partly because you can taste the self-reliance and bluff no-nonsense in the air, like chip fat at teatime, even in an air-conditioned coach at the station, but mostly because it’s on the Eastern/Yorkshire side of the country — ie the correct side.  And the next stop is Doncaster.

The North isn’t a mythical, imaginary or obscure place. It was clearly mapped out, more or less, in the Dark Ages AA Atlas. But back then it was called the Danelaw: the Danish Viking kingdom which ran the better half of England from the late 9th century until the early 11th century with its capital at Jorvik/York. Roughly speaking, everything above a diagonal line from Chester to London was Norse and horny-helmeted. Everything below it was Radio Four.

Despite what the history books may say, the Danelaw never really ended and god’s own county of Yorkshire remains at the proud, stoic heart of The North. However, as London has grown exponentially over the centuries, the South Eastern boundaries of the Danelaw have retreated further northwards — to Grantham (well, would you want Peterborough?).

Now, it’s not really Maconie’s fault that he’s so confused. He’s from Wigan, you see. By a terrible accident of birth of the kind that can seriously shake your belief in a benign creator, he’s a Lancastrian. So of course the poor lad has no idea what he’s talking about — all that matters to a Lancastrian is that he’s talking. Perhaps this is why some of this book seems less written than transcribed from an especially long and breathless on-air motormouth monologue, full of random facts, random connections and random geography — diverting enough, but not really going anywhere. Save Crewe.

OK, OK, he does cover the North West rather well: visiting pie-loving Wigan, leafy Cheshire (the designer-sunglasses shop capital of England), up-and-coming Liverpool (soon to be cultural capital of Europe), booming Warrington (home to the UK’s very first IKEA), strumpet Blackpool gearing up for Super Casinos, and makeover Manchester (“a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place”, quoting from both Morrissey and Peter Shaffer at the same time).

But, as I said, who’s interested in the North West? Yes, our kid Maconie makes a reluctant day-trip across the Pennines to the actual North, visiting Leeds, Durham and Newcastle (where the locals understandably denounce him as being “from the midlands”) but this is really a book about the damp, camp North West that pretends to be about the glamorous, shining North.

Perhaps you think me unkind. Perhaps you think me a tad biased, as a son of York (did you guess?). Well, you’d be right. But you should read some of the things Maconie has to say about Yorkshiremen. Apparently, we’re dour, cold, humourless and mean (clearly he knew this review was coming).

But the truly unforgivable slur is that he thinks that Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are closet Yorkshiremen. If Maconie can capriciously decide to exempt Lancastrian Liverpool from The North because he feels like it (apparently they’re more New York than Northern), why can’t I exempt the whole of the North West?

But even Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians have something that can bring them together: the south. As someone who has lived in York, Sheffield, Manchester and London, but who now lives just off Scotch Corner because I reckon that here I might just possibly be out of range of Ken Livingstone’s next extension of the Congestion Charge Zone, I cheer on Maconie when he moans about the way that the decadent South loves to patronise the glorious North, the way that the BBC has a “North of England Correspondent” but no “South of England Correspondent” — whom is he corresponding with? Half of the population of England live in the North.

The way that populist faux-northern films like Brassed Off, The Full Monty, and Billy Elliot portray The North as a poverty-stricken wasteland gasping for the generous charity of southern audiences; the way that Englishness is always cast by the London media in terms of the south, despite the obvious truth that Englishness, like pop music, is clearly Northern: the English language was invented in the North (by a Geordie monk), along with The Beatles, The Smiths, ABC, the Human League, the Artic Monkeys and Alan Bennett.

“If Durham were in Kent or Sussex we’d never hear the last of it…” writes an amazed Maconie, having happened across the magical beauty of the place. “It would have its own boat race and its own folk festival and its own TV show where an irascible, beer-swilling, opera-loving detective finds corpses in every cloister and bookshop.”

And if it were in the North West instead of The North it would probably have had its own chapter in this book, instead of a mere few pages.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

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