For centuries The Great North Road was the main highway between England and Scotland, with Yorkshire at its heart. But in 1921 Ministry of Transport bureaucrats decided numbers and not names were to be the order of the day for the nation’s road network. The Great North Road disappeared, on paper at least, and became known as the A1.
One hundred years on and half of its 400 miles are now effectively motorway, as reflected in its upgraded name of the A1(M). But cultural and folk memories of The Great North Road still live on – as evidenced by the Sting song Heading South On The Great North Road and the Radio 4 drama South on the Great North Road.
Whatever romantic memories of rebels, highwaymen and mail coaches its old name may stir, the nature of the road would not immediately lend itself to a cycling expedition to most people.
But keen cyclist and Norwich-based BBC Look East journalist Steve Silk had long been determined to give a go – inspired in part by his days as a young reporter at the Darlington & Stockton Times where the A1 “had started to seep into my soul” as he travelled around North Yorkshire and County Durham.
“The paper’s heartland was the Yorkshire Dales and I covered the agricultural shows and the magistrates courts and got to know the A1 well, heading off to places like Hawes and Leyburn,” Silk explains over the phone.
He finally decided to pursue the idea after finding out about the writings of Charles G Harper, a “slightly old-fashioned and very conservative” author who had also travelled the route between London and Edinburgh himself in 1901 when it was still the Great North Road.
Silk set out in early 2019 to follow in Harper’s tracks, with a route that wouldn’t go along the modern A1 for obvious reasons but instead stuck as closely as possible the old route via the traditional inns, of country stretches, and through the towns and cities in its path.
“Charles Harper was the driver. To find this chap from the end of the Victorian era who had done the journey on a really basic pushbike probably without gears or pneumatic tyres motivated me, it was pub talk before that.
“He was such an incredibly powerful eyewitness of what the road was like at the time. I felt he was my guardian angel as I went along the A1.
“The descriptions he gives of the places he finds along the way were just fascinating. He also made drawings and it was great fun trying to find where he had stopped to capture a scene and see what had changed and what hadn’t. He was very much of a southern Englishman and he got a bit out of his comfort zone from Lincolnshire onwards. He was not always complimentary about the North of England particularly when he found industry. Coal mines were certainly out of his comfort zone.”
While Silk hoped that, like Harper, he would end up with a book out of the experience when he set off from London, he was uncertain whether he would even complete the journey let alone be able to write about it.
“I wasn’t too daunted but everyone thought it was slightly too ambitious. I had trained to the extent I was building up to doing 30, 40, 50 miles on the bike and I had done a 100-mile journey, but what I hadn’t done was put it all together over consecutive days of being on the bike. I did set off from London genuinely not knowing whether I would make it.”
His new book The Great North Road explores his 11-day journey along the route through England and Scotland – four of which were spent in Yorkshire.
Like Harper, Silk hails from the South of England – which he hopes gives his book a different feel to other writing about the North, with the road’s route taking him to often-overlooked and little-discussed places.
“Books about the North tend to be written by people from the North. I’m that rare thing – a Southerner writing about your part of the world,” he says.
One thing that immediately strikes Silk was the incredibly friendly reception he received from people as soon as he arrived in South Yorkshire.
The book recounts how he crossed the border into Yorkshire at Bawtry and was taking a picture of a coaching inn visited by Harper and still doing a roaring trade to this day when he was asked what he was doing by a passer-by, who then went onto explain everything and everyone worth knowing about locally.
“The whole North/South divide on friendliness is both a cliche and something I’m fascinated by,” he says. “I couldn’t get away from people in South Yorkshire.”
While Harper was frequently uncomfortable travelling around the county’s pit villages, Silk greatly enjoyed his trip through modern-day Yorkshire – with just a couple of exceptions.
He writes that travelling through Knottingley, close to the former Kellingley Colliery, brought him through “one of the most desolate of urban landscapes” on his journey and “for the only time during my entire trip I feel conspicuous cycling on a touring bike through the housing estates – an obvious outsider”.
However, his unease at being watched on his way through is swiftly eased when he passed by a local cricket match.
Silk also found some practical problems as his journey went on up through Yorkshire as he travelled along some fast and busy roads on his way.
In one section near Thirsk he ends up on a dual carriageway for a “scary mile-and-a-half on the hard shoulder” before rejoining the original Great North Road, while the route from Northallerton to Darlington the following day along a busy A-road also proved a considerable test of nerve.
“There were cars streaming past me but I had got 400 miles and I had to stay true to my mission,” he reflects. “That wasn’t always easy to achieve.”
Despite those incidents, Silk says one of the most pleasant surprises of his journey was how simple cycling was for most of the route.
“With Harper’s help, I found a lot more continuity than I did differences between then and now,” he says.
“The biggest change in recent years is just about every town is in the process of getting its act together when it comes to cycle paths. We are not there yet and not like Holland or Denmark but massive progress is being made.
“My dream is this book will help lead to a formal Great North Road cycle path. That would be special.
“I would also love this book to be an inspiration for people to do more cycling. Getting out on a bike is one of the easiest things you can do to feel good. If this book helps people feel a bit more adventurous about cycling, that would be brilliant.
"I’m a firm believer that if you gave me any 100-mile stretch across Britain you would find interesting places to go, people to meet and pubs to go to. This route took me to places I would have never thought to go and I discovered great things along the way.”
Wetherby starred for Steve on Yorkshire leg of journey
The Yorkshire leg of Steve Silk’s journey along the Great North Road took him from Doncaster up to Knottingley, Sherburn-in-Elmet, Tadcaster and on to Wetherby.
He went on from there past Walshford, Boroughbridge, Dishforth and up to Northallerton then passed through Great Smeaton and Croft-on-Tees before heading into Darlington in County Durham. Silk says he particularly enjoyed his time in Wetherby, the halfway point on the journey.
He stayed overnight and had a meal at the Sant’ Angelo Italian restaurant, which used to be the Angel Inn at the time of Harper.
The Great North Road: London to Edinburgh – 11 Days, 2 Wheels and 1 Ancient Highway by Steve Silk (Summersdale) is available from all good retailers.
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