Although we think of the Great North Road as one road, it used to be two distinct routes out of London which merged at the top of Alconbury Hill, just north of Huntingdon.
The older route was called simply the North Road and was based partly on the old Roman Ermine Way which led to Lincoln. It started in Shoreditch and went by Kingsland to Tottenham and Enfield, and then through Waltham Cross, Cheshunt, Ware, and Royston, eventually merging with the other route after passing through Caxton and climbing Alconbury Hill, sixty-eight miles from London.
The Great North Road on the other hand, took a different route out of London. Starting at Hicks’s Hall, Smithfield, it went past the “Angel” at Islington, and then followed a straight and continually rising course for Holloway and Highgate, before going on to Barnet, Hatfield, Welwyn, Stevenage, Biggleswade, and Buckden to Alconbury where the two routes merged into one.
This book follows the Great North Road, but starting from the General Post-office in St. Martin’s-le-Grand. This, or the nearby old inns, is where the stagecoaches of the historic past departed and arrived.
“The Great North Road”
By 1901 the motorcar was still a very new thing. It was only five years since an Act of Parliament had removed the need for every motor vehicle to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag and people would turn to gaze in wonder at a mechanically-propelled vehicle. Very few had ever travelled the entire distance between London and Edinburgh in a motor vehicle. They were still in a more or less experimental stage and if you set out on any long journey you couldn’t sure of finishing it. Even if you did set out, the speeds possible were not enough to make long journeys at all exhilarating.
By 1920 things had changed to the point where every summer and autumn would see large numbers of touring automobiles on their way to Scotland and the moors . . . and the Great North Road had changed from being a rather lonely highway into a much travelled one.
As a result, some of its old features, which had seemed to be lost forever since the coming of the railways and the passing of the coaches, had reawakened into a new life. For example, “The Bell” on Barnby Moor just north of Retford had closed in about 1845 with the loss of the coach trade and been converted into a farmhouse, No-one would have predicted that it would ever reopen as an inn. But in 1906, it was opened again for travellers, this time for the use of motorists rather than stagecoaches.and there it is to-day.
But, apart from the tarred and asphalted condition of the actual roadway in these times, the route, all the way between London, York and Edinburgh, looks much the same as it did. Only, where perhaps one person might then know it thoroughly, from end to end, a hundred are well acquainted with the way and its features. It is for those many who now know the Great North Road that this new edition is prepared, giving the story of the long highway between the two capitals.
CHARLES G. HARPER.
The world of long-distance coach travel.
Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches
The coachmen, the inns, the coach proprietors - they’re all here. Come in and meet them
Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history. Coach travel was very difficult until they improved
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed
Home Page of the Coaching Website
Sources and information about how I came to create this website