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.