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Great North Road: cycling the old route from London to Edinburgh

·8-min read

As any cyclist will tell you, there’s something strangely uplifting about being on the road early. Mostly it’s a case of enjoying empty roads and morning light, but perhaps there’s a smidgeon of self-righteousness, too. Mamils have a lie in? Never. As we wheel our bikes out of the Olde Ship in the village of Seahouses, nothing seems to be moving. With a gentle westerly blowing in from our left, we pass the deserted crazy golf course, shout good morning to a lone dog walker and head north close to a lazy expanse of sand dunes.

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With the smell of the North Sea in my nostrils, I feel a long way from central London, where my journey began amid the tangier aroma of delivery driver diesel. My plan was to go in search of the old road between London and Edinburgh: the one that had served the mail coaches, witnessed marching soldiers and highway robbery, and had an ancient and evocative name: the Great North Road.

The first 10 days had, in fact, involved pragmatism and compromise as well as history and adventure. For a start much of the Great North Road lies directly underneath its modern replacement, the A1. But the reason I was attempting this pilgrimage was to mark theanniversary of the former being replaced by the latter. We take our road numbering system for granted, but the big decision was made by the Ministry of Transport 100 years ago this summer. In July 1921 the A1 was born and the Great North Road was quietly shunted on to history’s hard shoulder.

I find it easy to visualise a time when the mail coach was king of this road, hooves clattering and horns blowing

Over the last 300-odd miles I’d been pretty faithful to the old road – or at least as faithful as you can be while avoiding dual carriageways and speeding drivers. The key is to find stretches where the new has been built next to the old, rather than on top of it: an orphaned mile or so at Tempsford in Bedfordshire, Stilton in Cambridgeshire or Cromwell in Nottinghamshire. On these forgotten high streets I find it remarkably easy to visualise a time when the mail coach was the king of the road – the horses’ hooves clattering and the guard blowing his horn.

For most of the trip I’d been on my own, but my buddy Dave had joined me just north of Newcastle. The previous day we cycled 55 miles across Northumberland, crisscrossing the modern road and marvelling at an ever wilder landscape – one far too beautiful to glimpse only from a car window at 70mph. For example, where the A1 throws a concrete bridge along the Coquet gorge, we took the old route, down precipitously through the village of West Thirston, over a medieval bridge into Felton and steeply up again. Car drivers in a hurry make do with soulless service stations; Great North Road cyclists can settle in at Felton’s Running Fox cafe, which serves fantastic views across the river and generous slices of cake.

But back to Seahouses, which isn’t on the Great North Road: we were tempted there by the tourist accommodation. Our job this morning is to get back to the true path, but not before we’ve continued up the coast alongside the magnificent Bamburgh Castle and then west around Budle Bay, with its mudflats punctuated by winding rivulets and hundreds of wading birds.

Before long we’re at Belford, another village the modern traveller normally ignores. It’s too early for a cafe, but the newsagent couldn’t be more hospitable. Coffee comes from his Nescafé machine. Deckchairs are dug out of the back.

“There you go lads, lovely morning,” he says, leaving us to get on with it.

It is a spectacularly beautiful morning. Not least because I am sitting directly on my beloved highway. Belford was bypassed in 1983, so it still looks like an original Great North Road settlement. Two elderly locals shuffle in and out of the shop, each raising a furled-up newspaper by way of salutation – and perhaps half an eyebrow at the cyclists lounging around looking as if they own the place.

You're in Scotland now: the road is the border, so the minute you stepped off it you crossed the line. Welcome!

We head north, picking up National Cycle Route 1 and following its signs towards Holy Island, cut off at high tide and reconnected at low. The diversion is very tempting but we resist, contenting ourselves with a bridle path across the salt marshes. The only sounds are a gentle swish of the waves and the odd rattle from my bike, complaining but coping on rougher terrain. To our right we can see both the island and a steady stream of cars on the causeway. The wind is coming from the other direction, so not a sound comes across the water. We may be some distance away, but beyond the shimmering sands Holy Island still manages to maintain an air of mystery.

A little farther north I pop into Goswick Golf Club to fill my water bottle, and realise that we’ve left the Geordie accent behind. Everyone is up for a chat but the banter is more guttural and less melodic than I’ve heard for the past 100 miles. The accent, the coast and the vast empty spaces somehow create an impression that we’re running out of England.

The Elizabethan town wall at Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The Elizabethan town wall at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Photograph: Alamy

In fact we’re pretty sure we can see Scotland in the distance. In the village of Spittal I spot my first orange-and-blue Irn-Bru sign – which has to be good news. Spittal becomes Tweedmouth – and the full vista of the River Tweed. Berwick lies on its northern bank, looking as though it belongs to another country – which of course it did for spells throughout the middle ages.

Berwick is very much a town unto itself, worth a weekend all to itself too. Parts of it look like a smart Edinburgh suburb; elsewhere it has the feel of a provincial French town. It’s still enclosed by ramparts – a mile and a half of them, dating back to Elizabethan times. Stroll along them – it’s virtually obligatory for visitors – and you appreciate the scale of the Tudor project. But, reluctantly, we leave it behind, climbing steadily and getting a glimpse of the Tweed glistening to our left. We’re forced to shadow the A1 – in bypass mode – for a few hundred metres until a tunnel sets us free, allowing us to head due north on the narrowest of lanes.

We carry on, wondering how much longer we can remain in England. There are no signs so when we spot workmen renovating a building on the left, I take the opportunity to check.

“Excuse me, this might sound a stupid question, but are we in Scotland?”

“You are now.”

“How do you mean.”

“That road’s the border: the minute you stepped off it, you crossed the line. Welcome to Scotland.”

“Er, cheers.”

The minute we’re in Scotland the route becomes more rugged. There’s a relentless but scenic climb up to Lamberton Moor followed by a drop towards Ayton. Across the Eye Water valley is Ayton Castle, with its red sandstone turrets. You could call the architectural style “Disneyland fantasy”; the experts prefer “Scottish baronial”.

We’ve found our climbing legs now and encourage each other onwards. Dave does particularly sterling work along a ruler-straight section across Coldingham Moor. We’re running parallel to the A1, but this A1107, a few miles to the north, seems to have been a recognised alternative in the old days. Our reward for all that effort is mile upon mile of descent to Pease Sands. Every downward stretch along here is exhilarating – cracking scenery and kind weather combined with sheer speed.

“I’ve picked the best bit of your trip, haven’t I?” shouts Dave as he overtakes me, both of us hurtling downhill at more than 35mph. It’s hard to disagree, harder still to catch him up.

From now until Dunbar the contours are kinder. Torness power station – painted pale blue in a vain attempt to blend in with the skyline – pops up on the coast before we escape on to a side lane. Our road then becomes a path in the lee of the railway line, but freshly laid tarmac keeps us motoring. We only realise how recent it is when we see guys laying the latest steaming stretch in front of our very eyes. Thanks fellas.

At Dunbar I leave Dave at the hotel and head to Victoria Harbour. Perhaps the most famous story here is from the 14th century, when Black Agnes, the Countess of Dunbar, successfully withstood a siege from a vastly superior English force. Named for the colour of her hair, she not only rebuffed the Earl of Salisbury’s 20,000 men, but seems to have positively revelled in doing so. After the English battered the castle walls, she sent her maids out in their Sunday best to ostentatiously wipe away the marks with their handkerchiefs. History, it seems, is everywhere more vivid here – as much legends and heroes as bloodshed and battle.

I grab a seat on a pile of yellow fishing crates. Looking out towards the harbour’s mouth, I contemplate just one more day in the saddle. If you’d asked me at Grantham or Northallerton, I’d have been happy to simply limp into Edinburgh. Now all that’s changed: I feel I could keep on going to Inverness if I had to. That’s the thing about life in the saddle, once you’ve started it quickly becomes addictive.

The Great North Road: London to Edinburgh – 11 Days, 2 Wheels and 1 Ancient Highway by Steve Silk (Summersdale, £9.99) is out on 8 July

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