Theme : Roads – Britain’s Longest

Here Be Monsters : Nostalgia For The A1

Mr Denning

The 1952 British film ‘Mr Denning Drives North’ is supposed to be a mystery thriller, so you’d think it would have been given a suitably mysterious title. And it was. Though its star, the excellent John Mills, was born in Norfolk and was never entirely typecast, his speciality was playing the essentially decent, resilient, middle class Englishman with an accent that is usually associated with what are known as The Home Counties – the Southern counties surrounding London. As such, the idea that he needed to ‘Drive North’ might have suggested mystery enough. Why would he ever want to do that, unless he had to for some, dark, dark reason?

The North/South divide is not confined to England. It exists in many countries and, I’d judge, is far more common than an East/West divide. There are many possible suggestions for why this is, but in part one might be climate. Climate affects character and, in more extreme cases such as Italy, the climate in Naples is very different from that in Milan. Even in the UK, Southerners generally get a softer time than those further North and this, combined with the fact that the Capital city is only about 60 miles from the South Coast, has increased the divide still further.

I was (probably) conceived in the North of England in Stockton-On-Tees, but I was born in a most quintessentially South town, Purley. My parents kept their friends in the North and we visited when I was a child so, although I’ve lived in the South for almost all my life, I’ve always felt a right to claim dual nationality. Therefore, as a kid, I found those signs that pointed ‘To The North’ bewildering. Although too young to analyse it, I knew they were wrong. The North was surely a direction, not a place, but here were signs that pointed to it with authority.

Yet they never reached it. On first consciously travelling North with my parents, we never came to a sign saying “Welcome To The North”. We just somehow, imperceptibly, ended up there and people were talking differently and the countryside was more exciting. How did we get there? Back in the early Sixties, just like Mr Denning, we drove North up the A1, the longest uninterrupted, numbered road in Britain.

IMG_2971The route North evolved from Roman Times when Ermine Street ran from London to York. Ermine Street became The Old North Road, a name presumably given to it in hindsight, which was replaced generally by The Great North Road which developed a more convenient route out of London. It’s interesting that these two were called the North Road, not the South Road. Although all roads might lead to Rome, apparently these particular roads lead from London. In 1921, The Ministry of Transport combined and succeeded these routes to form the A1.

In the early 70s, my parents moved North again for a while and I started driving the road myself. This time, more consciously, I started playing with the idea of when I felt I’d reached ‘The North’. Just after Peterborough, going through Stamford where the A1 kisses Lincolnshire, a tricky section with a bad reputation for fatal accidents I seem to remember, I felt that I’d finally left The South. Ninety miles or so later, once I saw the cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station, I knew I was in The North. In between there were The Midlands, the old Mercia, roughly defined by county borders, but partly by the whims of its residents at the North and South extremities. Once you are in Yorkshire, you must be in The North Of England which, on the A1, is near Tickhill. In fact, the A1 goes beyond The North, since it leads all the way into another country, Scotland, scenically round the coast.

Archway Toll Gate
Toll Gate : Archway

For several years, I lived at the foot of the A1, in Archway Road in London. Dating from the early 19th Century and carved through a hill, this gave it a high enough bridge to afford you almost certain death if you jumped from it, thus affording it a most notorious claim to fame as ‘Suicide Bridge’. In the Seventies, with the constant grind and stench of large trucks leaving London, Archway Road could be a depressingly impersonal place to live for some but, for me, there was the romance that it led directly ‘To The North’.

Great North Road
Link to film of the A1 shot in 1939 by Colonel Lionel Paten of Peterborough.

One evening in the early 80s I left a friend at Newcastle upon Tyne and started back for London. It crossed my mind that I should be able to achieve it in under four hours, traffic permitting, and that turned out to be (just) the case. It was a memorable drive since, although by then there was dual carriageway practically all the way, there were still junctions and roundabouts. I have fond memories of that red Renault 5, but maybe it was never the same again.

Neither really was the A1, at least the part of it in England. In the intervening years, the stretches of true motorway or quasi-Motorway, where all the roundabouts have been replaced by overpasses and slip roads, have increased substantially. The A1, once a notoriously dangerous road and home to a large gathering of ‘Accident Black Spots’ is far, far safer, but not faster. Speed cameras would probably prevent me from beating my personal record and I’ve really no problem with that. But it was a characterful road, a route of differences, and that has gone, which is a pity. I’d like to pretend that, when I was piling down it in my little red hatchback, I was thinking of the centuries of traffic it had seen. The real ones – Roman Legions, William the Conqueror’s Assessors, beasts being driven to London’s markets, unsuspecting victims on their way to meet the highwayman, Dick Turpin – and the fictional ones – Mr Pickwick and his friends and, of course, Mr Denning in his Rolls Royce. But I wasn’t – it’s just hindsight that gives me such nostalgia – at the time I was just living my own adventure : Mr Patrick Drives South.

Mr Denning Film

6 thoughts on “Theme : Roads – Britain’s Longest”

  1. Thanks for that. As a foreigner I found the road signs in southern England that pointed to “the North” rather puzzling. There were a lot of assumptions behind such a sign.
    So long as a road respects the surroundings they can be charming. What has happened in the last 50 years is that habitations have “died back” from main roads like the A1. Some buildings are abandoned due to the noise. Others are degraded: what might have been a nice wayside inn in 1920 with a garden outside and a clientele of locales who walked or took a biycle becomes more of a truck stop. The garden is paved entirely. The little low brick wall is demolished. The three trees are felled and because the clientele is churning, the idiosyncratic and personal details are removed. Other changes are that along roads hedges are cut down to improve sight lines. Bends are straightened. All of that means the road serves to foment neglect or to alter the landscape it goes through. I see this in Ireland where nice old pubs end up a tatty two-storey buildings with a huge expanse of gravel or asphalt (mostly empty) around them. Ireland has a dearth of nice pit-stops, now I come to think of it. My recollection is that France does this rather better.

  2. Of course the Great North Road was famous for its coaching inns, which the A1 inherited. In a more innocent age (which I, incidentally, have never felt I lived in) the idea of breaking your journey for a fine meal and a couple of pints would have been one of the pleasures of a trip up the A1 – I’m sure that Archie Vicar had some recommendations. Maybe even break the journey with an overnight stay at The George of Stamford. The George still exist but, for obvious reasons, the isolated pub on a main road is a dying attraction.

    To temper my regret at the loss of the roads of yesterday, I only had to read some of the comments that went with a YouTube video (not the version I actually linked to) of The Great North Road filmed in 1939. It seemed to attract a bunch of nostalgists, which is no bad thing in itself, but some of them mixed this with an unpleasant (in one case rabid) yearning for an England of white faces and highly conservative values.

    Films like ‘Mr Denning Drives North’ are fine to watch now and then, but the idea of reclaiming that narrow-minded, class-ridden, claustrophobic world isn’t too tempting. Not that we’ll look that wonderful in 60 years time.

  3. The way I see it, we didn´t have to accept the running-down and neglect of the physical environment as a price to be paid for more tolerance. I suppose the Little Englanders look at the nice olde worlde scenese not for what they are, physically, but for the society that went a long with them. It´s not multi-culturalism per se that means the physical aspects of “olde England” were let fade and rot; I think it´s more to do with the sense of alienation created by a big, time-pressed society that sets a big value on the practical and the cost-effective. One reason people used to take care of the public world or semi-public world was that you knew who was looking at it. These days I suppose people don´t really have much a strong sense of the public. So if you don´t want a front garden for its own sake there is less of a reason to keep it. Ditton all those little features that make the older places so interesting and individual.

  4. As my parents made me aware, the England of yesteryear was not nearly as cosy as it’s depicted in films. Yes, there was a feeling that you should ‘know your place’, but that didn’t mean that people accepted it with good grace. So when we mourn the loss of the attractive and tidy facade of the past, we ignore the seething resentment and sense of social imprisonment that it hid. Viewed like that it becomes less attractive.

    There’s a beautifully kept 4m x 2m triangle of public ground beside the pavement up the road from where I live in South London, that a man has been planting for the past few years. I have no idea why he does so, but I think that is probably more impressive than 100 miles of neatly trimmed box hedges flanking the A1, just because he chose to do it, rather than felt it was expected of him.

  5. I abstract the social conditions of the 1950s from the physical conditions. So I feel free to wish that there was more care of our public and semi-public and indeed private spaces than there is without also wanting the racism and intolerance that co-existed. I think people can be more open and generous and also not pave over their sodding gardens or rip out trees for convenience´s sake. Or maybe the two do go hand in hand and a tatty, unkempt and brutalised public space is what you get when people don´t care about others. I´d call that indifference and not tolerance though. Sociology again!

  6. I feel you can’t have the tidy spaces without the ‘tidy’ minds, unless it’s Disneyland. But maybe I’m just talking about my own country. Modern Germany and Switzerland, for example, seem to be inhabited by perfectly decent and real people, yet seem to be far tidier than the UK – though I notice that graffiti seems more endemic.

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