Long Bennington Local History Society


Footpads, Kings, and Highwaymen on the A1


In modern Britain there’s no dispute about what is the Great North Road (GNR).  Since 1923 it’s been the highway labelled as the A1.  It may have been altered a little when it was upgraded to a dual carriageway but remains essentially the same.  Prior to this imposition of order the GNR was the route followed by those who travelled between the two capitals, London and Edinburgh or to destinations along the way.  The Saxon king Harold must have marched his army North up his 11th century version of the GNR to defeat Harold Hadrada and Earl Tostig at Stamford Bridge, a small settlement on the Roman road from York to Bridlington. The pace with which his army moved northwards suggests that relics of the Roman roads remained in service even then.  Then Harold marched his army back South and met his fate at the hands of the invading Normans.  How closely did his North and South journeys follow the same track?  Without maps and signposts with neither compass nor clocks to point direction the two paths could well have differed by a little, if not by a lot.  There were only a few small centres of habitation where information might be garnered.  King Edward I, “the  Hammer of the Scots”, followed a GNR with his armies as, indeed, did several other armies commanded by English Kings in attempts to gain and wield power in North Britain.  All must have followed the road North but a multiplicity of feet, many iron shod hooves, and lots of wagon wheels soon form a sludgy slough through the verdant path.  They might even make a knee-deep mud floored cutting to impede further the progress of man and beast.  No wonder those who wanted to travel more quickly or with less effort deviated from the path or even changed direction.

After 1066 the Normans were busy quelling Saxon resistance, defending their possessions at home and in France, and squabbling amongst themselves so they had neither time nor inclination to maintain the Roman roads.  Their contribution to terrestrial navigation was by building castles around which grew towns.  Travellers welcomed the amenities of “urban civilisation”, such as it was, and made their way towards the towns.  Paths grew to tracks which turned to roads and, in a few cases linked up to form a major highway.  When there was a river to cross the town with the best bridge or most accessible ford provided an almost ideal staging point.  Nottingham with its excellent stone bridge (still partly visible in the 1960’s) crossing the river Trent could be considered to be an alternative part of the GNR but after the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution it ceded place to Grantham as the East Midlands town situated on the GNR. 

18th century military maps showed clearly that the preferred route northwards was through Grantham to Long Bennington then on to Newark.  Then it proceeded to Doncaster, York, and into Scotland.  The army had to be able to reach Scotland as quickly as possible to counter Jacobite rebellions; the route through Grantham must have been the most convenient and very likely the quickest.  The drovers who had used this road for generations had worked out the way to best suit their purposes and their choice had now been endorsed officially.  Nottingham was truly off the GNR map.

As the 18th century faded away toll bars were introduced to provide finance for metalling, improving, and maintaining roads.  Tarmac was invented and road surfaces improved to the extent that Dickens’ description of the stage rattling along the road was no exaggeration.  The future for roads in particular trunk roads such as the GNR looked bright but the arrival of the railways, the iron roads, provided quicker and more convenient for travellers, especially those who intended to cover long distances.  Roads became much less important, being left to horse drawn vehicles, riders, and pedestrians usually taking short journeys.

The first glimmerings of a revival for roads came with the introduction of a novel form of wheeled transport, bicycles.  Then the internal combustion engine was developed and provide power for motor vehicles.  As these became more important for the carriage of goods and passengers so the roads demanded more attention.  Accurate road maps were provided and the system of road classification emerged.  The “name” A1, short and easily remembered became current and the title GNR became an anachronism.  GNR or A1, however it is named, appears to have been always a way in Lincolnshire from Grantham towards Newark via Long Bennington.  There is a variety of reasons why a diversion through Nottingham was sometimes used, but believing it to be the GNR seems a slight exaggeration.

Ian Morgan gave a talk which provided his audience with interesting information about the Great North Road on its way to Bawtry.  He met with loud applause when he had finished.

David Williams