‍The Great North Road

Two Roads Become One

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.


April, 1922.

Next: To Be Decided

Section 1 Menu

The Age of Coaching
Introducing a world of horse-drawn public transport

Beginning to End
How long did the Great Age of Coaching Last?

Coaches to All Parts
The world of coach travel - surprisingly familiar; just slower and wetter.

Where Could You Go?

A list of destinations which is remarkably familiar to the modern day traveller.

London to Stamford

What was it like to travel by coach on a winter’s day. Come on the first stage of a journey from London to Stamford.

Driving a Mail Coach
Mail coaches were the high speed elite. What was it like to drive them?

Two Short Videos
Although we have no films from the time, modern producers have imagined coach travel for us.

Then and Now

Comparing rail and coach travel in 1888!

An Incident at Wansford

Things didn’t always go smoothly and this amusing incident took place on the Great North Road.

Charlies and Hackneys

A recollection of life in London before taxi cabs, policemen and even electricity.

The Peacock at Islington

The northern coaches all stopped here to pick up passengers. The scene was amazing.

Perils by Water

One of the many hazards that could be encountered was flood water. This is near St Neots.

London Coaching Inns

A description of the London termini from which coaches ran

Some famous London Inns

A list of London coaching inns and where you could travel to from each.


Go to Section 1

Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.

Go to Section 2

Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.

Go to Section 3

Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.

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