Road to ruin

One of my first professional archaeology jobs after I completed my undergraduate degree was as a site assistant on an English Heritage fieldwork project along the edge of the A1 (‘The Great North Road’) around Catterick. This involved fieldwalking and excavation on the site of the Roman town of Cataractonium, in advance of a scheme for widening the road to three lanes. My abiding memories of this job are the joys of fieldwalking in light snow cover and digging in shin deep mud.

Little did I know that I would later come to know this stretch of road extremely well. Having variously worked in Northumberland and Durham for the last eight years, I must have now driven up and down this section of the A1 hundreds of times. As it happens the road widening scheme is only now just beginning (a mere 16 years after I was working on the site). What has surprised me is how attached I’ve become to the landscape along the road, including not just the farmhouse, copses and fields, but also the garages and service stations. They’ve all become embedded in my own personal landscape of the commute to work; as such its rather strange to see these private landmarks and distance markers being bulldozed away Its also a shame to see some important aspects of the modern (post-medieval landscape) disappearing. The Great North Road was the main road north from London to Edinburgh since the medieval period, and became particularly important as the route that the mail coaches ran in the 18th and 19th century. It is only with the advent of the railways and more recently the construction of the M1 in the late 1950s and early 1960s that its key role has been circumvented. Even now, it is still the main road north from York to Edinburgh (and once north of Newcastle, is still single carriage way in places).

Its history has meant that it has created its own distinct landscape. Although it now by-passes the centres of most villages and towns, many of which still contain historic coaching inns, many farms still lie close to the road (and at a microtopgrapic level are clearly aligned on it). It’s still crossed by B roads and farm tracks, and in several places former bridges can be seen just beyond the edge of the road. On top of this more ‘historic’ landscape, there is also the post-war infrastructure of a main road, including petrol stations, cafés and service stations. Much of these features are now being sacrificed to the need for a few additional lanes of road. Whilst I would not argue that the Little Chef at Dishforth is of the same historic value as the Roman town at Catterick, it is sad to see the erosion of these elements of an historic landscape. I suspect that there has been little recording of these structures (though I might be wrong).

These ‘modern’ road landscapes aren’t entirely overlooked; Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital explores the M250- the kind of inbetween landscape so loved of the late JG Ballard; there’s also Edward Platt’s Leadville: A Biography of the A40 (a road I spent a lot of time staring at blankly at the Oxford Tube ferried me into London in the mid-1990s. This kind of writing is not even a particularly modern phenomenon: the artist John Piper wrote a long description of the modern and ancient sites along the old Bath Road (A4) as long ago as 1939 (Architectural Review (May 1939), 229-46).

Postscript: a link to the wonderful website Pathetic Motorways

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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1 Comment

  1. I think the 20th Century society have a publication on the \”road houses\” of the 20s and 30s – I would have to check to be sure. Leadville is a very disappointing book – very wistful and journalistic without much solid content.


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