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.’ (
'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.
Fotheringhay Church
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 Deadline 19 May 2019.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:


Sandra Horn said…
Wow! What a great post - conjuring a story from travelling a familiar road and making it intriguing and exciting. Thank you, Alex!
Bill Kirton said…
I echo Sandra's appreciation of a great post, Alex, but...
OK, I don't have your comprehensive knowledge of history and the various associations between events and locations, but it's more than that which divides us when it comes to appreciating the A1. The weekend before last, I drove from Aberdeen to Sunderland to spend what turned out to be an idyllic weekend with my 2 brothers in our Dad's city, watching his team beat our team in the wonderful Stadium of Light.

Living in Aberdeen necessarily involves long drives when visiting family and friends, most of whom are in Devon. My 3 (middle-aged) 'kids' and their kids are in Glasgow (3 hours), London and Brighton (an eternity). But I'm so grateful for the M6 and all the other Ms I take en route (even the M25). That awful crawl down the (2-way traffic) A1 last week was purgatory. Sorry.
Susan Price said…
I'm like Bill -- I appreciate the romance of 'The Great North Road' but never use it. We often travel to Edinburgh and beyond but always go up the M6 (nothing sterile about the scenery as it passes through the Lake District) and then cut across from West Scotland to the East. It's about 6 hours to the Kingdom of Fife. Ten to Oban (if you start a sparrow fart to avoid traffic.)

The Great North Road is far better than Route 66! It was a Roman Road, Harald Godwinsson marched up it and -- my favourite -- the news of Elizabeth I's death was carried up it by a man riding post. The Royal Post had 'posts' at intervals all up the road, where a horse was kept saddled and bridled, day and night. Urgent news was carried by a rider who leaped from one horse and onto another every twenty miles. The news reached James VI of Scotland in three days -- he was now James One and Six, of England and Scotland.
Penny Dolan said…
I often travel what's now the A1M from Yorkshire and love the names of the places we pass as we hurry down to visit relatives in London or wearily and urgently, back home again. So often I've wondered about making the trip a slower journey, with a couple of overnights in there, so I can visit all the historic "names".

I'd also like to have a route or map of the Old North Road, as the A1M has so many new stretches and by-passes that following the original route is not a simaple task.

One of Hitler's mistakes, I once heard, was in not bombing the bridge over the Don at Doncaster as this one crossing strike would have taken out road, rail and waterway routes all in one go. (This was also an explanation behind the dreadful city traffic jams, too.)

Do like your reading of the road too, Sue!
Rolland said…
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Zubair Ahmad said…
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Alex Marchant said…
Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I have to admit to not yet driving north of Scotch Corner on the A1 so can't comment on the stretches above there. My partner used to drive us that way en route to work/friends in Scotland many years ago, but more recently we've taken the M6 route - the countryside along which I totally agree is far from sterile. (I really only mentioned 'sterility' with regard to the M1 - the inorganic development of the route meaning it's now flanked by out-of-town sites, rather than the historic towns themselves (fortunately), although some of the countryside is lovely - albeit not on the magnitude of the northern M6.)
Interestingly, Susan, I believe the post-horse system from Scotland to London/Westminster that you mention was instituted by Richard when Duke of Gloucester, to take news from the war down to his brother Edward IV, when the latter didn't quite make it up their to lead his army himself. I use the first part of it in 'The King's Man', when my young characters need to travel swiftly after the battle of Bosworth....
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