It seems that the long-promised improvements to the A1 might become a reality in the not too distant future. If so, this will be just the latest episode in the long story of the Great North Road in Northumberland, a route that has long held a fascination for me. The name itself evokes images of a journey into a wilder and more remote part of Britain. For much of its length between the two capital cities of London and Edinburgh, it has, like most of the main roads in Britain, Roman foundations. But from Newcastle, the old Roman route went west, not north, and on its journey though Northumberland, the Great North Road takes on an English character
Without the Roman foundation, this route through Northumberland was, for many centuries, an ill-defined and rough track, linking the various river crossings. Its main use would have been by the armies of both England and Scotland using the fords at Morpeth, Felton and Alnwick to march north or south during the many wars that were fought between the two nations. Indeed, we have a reminder of this just to the north of Alnwick, where we can find Malcolm’s Cross, which is dedicated to Malcolm III of Scotland, who was killed near this spot in 1093, while he was besieging Alnwick Castle. And couple of miles further north, there are remains of Heiferlaw Tower, which was a look out post for Alnwick during the days when incursions by Scottish raiders were a regular occurrence.
With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the road became the main means of linking the two capital cities of the new kingdom. Indeed, one of King James’ first actions was to order the building of the bridge over the Tweed at Berwick to facilitate this. But in his novel, ‘Heart of Midlothian’, Sir Walter Scott, wrote of 1737, “so slight and infrequent was the intercourse betwixt London and Edinburgh, that men still alive remember on occasion that the mail from the former city arrived at the General Post Office in Scotland with only one letter in it.” At this time, travel was almost entirely on horseback, and it is said that travellers often rewrote their will before setting out as there was a chance that they wouldn’t complete the journey.
In 1763 there was only one coach a month between London and Edinburgh, with the journey taking between 12 and 16 days. The development of the Royal Mail did serve to improve journey times, but it was not until the Turnpike Acts which allowed the levying of tolls which could then be applied to road improvements that the name Great could be first properly applied to the North Road. Linked with the improvements in road building techniques, pioneered by John MacAdam and Thomas Telford, the journey times started to fall, and by the 1830s, the time between the two capitals was less than 48 hours. The journey between Newcastle and Berwick was just a few minutes less than seven hours with the addition of a half-hour stop at Belford. This represented the high point of the coaching roads, however, as the coming of the railway from the middle of the 19th century marked the start of the steady decline in the condition of the country’s road network. It was not until the early years of the 20th century, with the advent of the bicycle, and later the motor car, that investment restarted in the road network.
Today, the bypasses and dualling have reduced both journey times and congestion in our towns. Many will still remember the chaos when the main route north ran through Alnwick’s Narrowgate and Berwick’s town centre. But at the same time, the road is, perhaps, losing its essential character. Happily, when the new sections are built, the older parts are often retained as lower order roads and we can still drive these parts today and where we can see the occasional old milestone. These sections can evoke memories of when the journey was as important as the destination, when people lived and worked beside our main roads and where they built things that were important to them, such as the old dovecote at Buckton, to the north of Belford, which has recently been restored. It reminds us of an earlier time when doves were an important source of meat, eggs and fertiliser.