Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Travelling North


Shed on Lindisfarne
Photo: Karen Rivron


I like long roads, so long as I don't have to travel down them too often - and the A1 is one of my favourites. (OK, so 'long' is a comparative word: there must be roads in the USA that are longer than the UK itself). I'm sure I'm not alone in this: my mother tells how she often used to go for a walk with her father just “to look at The Great North Road” as the A1 used to be known. Whenever I'm travelling up it Northbound, I think of mountains I've climbed and remote places we've visited. The fact that the road, like all roads, is a continuous strip of tarmac appeals to my imagination – it's as if it makes everywhere along its route into a part of everywhere else. If I bend down and touch its surface, I'm touching the same road that flows over the Forth Bridge, past Lochnagar, all the way to The Dirrie Mor and beyond.

As you progress North from Scotch Corner you become aware of a gradual change in the quality of the light. You pass The Angel of the North, skirt Gateshead and Newcastle and by the time you arrive in Northumberland it's somehow lighter, clearer. Is it just my imagination? Is it just that the road is moving subtly closer to the sea?

Just before you reach Alnwick you pass a sign to the village of Shilbottle. I always feel the suspense rising as I approach it. What will it be this time? Will vandals have changed the L to a T? Will the amateurishly added crossbar have been ineffectually painted out? Or will the the whole thing have been replaced with a shiny new sign? The thing seems to proceed cyclically. I searched the internet for a picture of a Shilbottle sign and found none. The best I could do was this, with it's similarly distressed 'L'.

It's always tempting to stop at Alnwick: some rave about the gardens, but for me the pull is the massive second-hand bookshop. However, I usually press on to Lindisfarne, as it's a truly magical place. Of course, whether or not you can visit the island depends on the tide but, to my mind, if the tide's in, even the parking place at the mainland end of the causeway is worth a visit. We've stood on the road at the water's edge communing with the seals more than once. Even if they're not there, it's a great place to be. It's a good impromptu place to spend the night in a car, too, if you're into that kind of thing. (I should add that you're probably not supposed to. I take the view that if you're discreet, and leave places as you find them, there's no harm done).

I've never visited the castle on the island, but I've walked round the outside. It's a quaint, singular structure, a cross between a house and a castle built (appropriately for one on an island steeped in religion) on a rock. The new sculpture of St Cuthbert is also worth seeing although, strictly speaking you have to pay to get into the ruined abbey to see it. It's far more impressive than the one of St Aidan. The flaming torch he's holding up is far too like a cornet full of Mr Whippy to be taken seriously.

It never seems to take long to get to Edinburgh from there – past Berwick (it certainly used to boast a decent fish and chip shop, and probably still does) and the nuclear power station (eerie at night). But I always find this part of the journey a bit boring, and find myself wishing I'd taken the A68, another favourite road, instead. This runs past places with names at least as strange as Shilbottle (like Wallish Walls - well, what else would they be?). More remote than the A1, it takes you along hilltops, past woodlands and crosses the Cheviots (and the Scottish Border) at Carter Bar. The layby there always seems to be teeming with people: there's a great view, the border itself (you can stand with one foot in England and one foot in Scotland) and , last but not least, a caravan selling food. A quick search of the net tells me that in 1575, it was also the scene of one of the last battles between the English and the Scots, the Redeswire Fray.


7 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi! Love Karen Rivron's photo of the shed on Lindisfarne. Also love the whole idea of The Great North Road. As a child my father and I would walk to Markham Moor Hill and stand and watch the traffic on the Great North Road. He loved maps and place names - spent hours tracing roads on the map with me at his side, hence my love of Geography and maps too. Yet travelling didn't appeal to him. He went to London once in his seventies - on a day coach trip - and didn't enjoy it - he thought london was "very small" I think this was because they just went round the sights in the centre. Whenever we went along a winding road he always quoted "The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road" - these by roads were appealing to him - but The Great North Road was still his favourite because of the exciting places it lead to.

Rachel Fox said...

The A1 (especially the northern end) has always been a big part of my life! When we moved to London from the north east when I was 16 we drove on it for what seemed like days! Our furniture took even longer...

Now we use it to get from our home in Scotland to family in Yorkshire. There is a different change once you are north of Newcastle...more light, more sea, less traffic! The bit between Newcastle and Leeds these days is just madness...a lot of vehicles crammed onto a not really very big road and all going so fast. It doesn't feel much like a great north road down there!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this. Yes. I most commonly have to drive down that crazy bit - but it's craziness does have quite a lot to do with the time of day.
I never mentioned the M62 (that's near Leeds): another of my favourite roads (well, the remote bit), where it cuts through the Pennines, and the Pennine Way crosses it via a spindly footbridge beside Blackstone Edge... I could ramble on...

Rachel Fox said...

Yes I like the M62... with no traffic on it. And that stretch up high east of Manchester is lovely when it snows!

Sorlil said...

Very nicely written, I like the bit about touching the road.

Ken Armstrong said...

I like the bit about touching the road too.

We left London after fourteen years when our eldest was born. In an odd quirk of fate, I have never been back since although my lovely wife goes pretty much every year for 'the tennis'.

London was great but here, with it's extra time, is now greater.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for the comment, Ken. You're right, London is a great place to live. There are things about it I still miss - but I wouldn't go back, as there are other things (the pace, the cost) I don't!