Not quite Route 66: the Great North Road - by Alex Marchant
In a few days’ time, I’ll be setting off southwards for a few days with family.
Having been born in Surrey in the south of England, but lived for more than two decades in Yorkshire in the north, this is a journey I undertake several times a year. My parents still live in the house where I grew up, and my sister and her (rapidly increasing) family live half an hour away, so it’s easy to kill lots of birds with one stone, so to speak. This time I’ll be meeting a new addition to the family so there’s plenty to look forward to.
|Not an East Coast train - the Flying Scotsman visits Haworth
Just a couple of years ago there were two options for the journey – either my partner would drive us down, or I would take the train (with or without my own children in tow). With ever-rising train fares in the UK, the latter sometimes seemed an expensive luxury – until I began writing again a dozen years ago, and discovered that the two hours spent in the ‘quiet carriage’ was the perfect opportunity to concentrate on my books. I estimate that around a third of each of my books has been written on trains.
The driving I left to my partner. I was a late learner – only passing my test a couple of months before my first child was born (I got the sympathy vote from the examiner when I struggled to put my seatbelt on over the enormous bump) – and then I did what I vowed I wouldn’t: avoided driving long distances and on motorways. My partner liked that sort of driving, so why did I need to do it? And there was always the train...
|Gateway to Middleham Castle
Fast forward to 2013 and the start of research for my books about Richard III. The first is set largely in Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales – a relatively short, straightforward journey. The second moves south, to Northamptonshire, London, Leicestershire, Suffolk. Location research drew on visits in previous years and on targeted family holidays. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again,’ came the chorus from younger family members.)
The real turning point came when The Order of theWhite Boar was published, in 2017 – a year when, not only did I start travelling to book events, but both my parents suffered major illnesses. And I realized that, to be of any help to them, I had to have a car when staying.
So I set off on my first long-distance solo drive. All of five hours in total – not much to anyone used to distances in the USA or Australia, perhaps, but a virtual marathon for me.
A choice of two routes presented itself. Both led ultimately to the M25 orbital motorway around London, which I dreaded, but I don’t think my selection was ever in doubt. Why would I even consider taking the soulless M1 motorway when the alternative A1 was available?
The A1 – also known as the Great North Road. A name that has an undeniable, historical ring to it. A road I had heard of in my extreme youth, before anyone in my family even had a car (my dad was also a late-starting driver), the Great North Road’s place in our national history is iconic. As former Northern Echo journalist Alen McFadzean says in his ‘Because They’re There’ blog, ‘For many hundreds of years it’s been the main arterial link between the capital cities of two countries – England and Scotland. It is woven into history, folklore and legend. Dick Turpin galloped up it to his death. The Gododdin rode down it to theirs. Bonnie Prince Charlie got part way down, bottled out and turned back. The Leather Boys drove all the way up and all the way down in one day from the Ace Cafe on the North Circular.’ (https://becausetheyrethere.com/2012/03/02/the-great-north-road-carved-by-feet-and-hooves/)
|'Withnail & I'
The only similar event I can conjure for the M1 is the scene in Withnail & I where the main characters, desperate to leave London, go on holiday in the north ‘by accident’ – and get there by hammering up the newly built M1 to the strains of ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
Nowadays the A1/GNR is a mixture of two-lane dual carriageway and occasional stretches of four-lane motorway (A1(M)) and can be a frustrating experience when large lorries clog up both lanes of the former. But I’ve discovered I enjoy the variety of the drive and of switching from one type of driving to the other, rather than the monotony of three/four-lane motorways, slicing monstrously through often sterile-seeming landscapes.
One thing the A1 isn’t is sterile. It must be horrific for those whose homes front on to its thundering torrent of traffic, but as a driver on a long journey, I would far rather mark my progress by way of the towns and villages and buildings passed (and sometime by-passed). For many of those places have their own importance in history – and driving through or very near them, that history is often recalled to mind. As Alen McFadzean goes on to say, the road ‘was imprinted on the landscape by people like us... Pilgrims, soldiers, peasants, vagabonds, rebellious armies, drovers, geese, cattle, coaches, kings and clerics – in a nutshell, humanity and its larder – passed along its length.’
Kings certainly did. And one in particular with whom I’ve been much concerned of late. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again.’) Richard will have travelled the Great North Road many a time between court and Parliament at Westminster and his homes in Yorkshire and other parts of the north. He will have journeyed along it on his way to war with the Scots in 1482 – when he oversaw the surrender of Edinburgh (at its northern end) and the border town of Berwick (which has remained English to this day).
|Now the Angel & Royal Inn, Grantham
And he hurried south along its length from York in the autumn of 1483, when his post-coronation royal progress was rudely interrupted by the stirrings of rebellion further south. After a brief stay in Lincoln, on 19 October he received the royal seal while staying at the Angel Inn at Grantham – now bypassed by the A1 – and there signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham, figurehead of that failed revolt.
Name after name recall events to my mind as I drive down that long road, and as I watch the changing styles of buildings that I pass, and the changing colours of stone and brick. But there’s always one that I look out for. Its coming is foreshadowed by the first houses and inns in the local honey-coloured stone. Past Stamford, past the RAF base at Wittering with its lurking Harrier jet, and past the signs for Peterborough and Leicester (‘avoiding low bridges’). It’s the turn-off for Fotheringhay, and all that remains of the castle where King Richard was born in 1452. His parents lie in tombs in the beautiful church there – reburied by their great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth I after their original tombs were destroyed by her father during the Dissolution of the monasteries – and a colourful stained-glass window commemorates Richard himself.
One further commemoration – of a sort – exists there. Totally unplanned. I discovered it on my first visit to Fotheringhay on my way down from the north. The turn-off from the A1 is at a tiny place called Wansford. Is it just a coincidence that, months before – before I even knew that place existed – I had given my main protagonist the name Matthew Wansford? He was named after the first recorded printer in the city of York – Frederick Wansford in the early 1500s, who makes an appearance in my books as Matthew’s elder brother. Given the millions of feet that must have tramped north and south on that Great Road, I guess it’s entirely possible that the original Master Wansford – or his forebears – lived in this small Northamptonshire village before making his way north to the country’s second city to make his fortune in the exciting new book industry.
Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/call-for-submissions-to-new-richardiii-anthology/ Deadline 19 May 2019.
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