I learnt to drive on the Great North Road, or rather its modern incarnation, the A1. My soon-to-be wife taught me. Her technique was to sit patiently while I crunched the four troublesome gears of her elderly Austin Metro, a tiny city car not intended for long distance travel. It was noisy, cramped, twitchy at speed, and lost power when it rained. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but I see now that we were lucky to be travelling in the 1990s: a journey along the Great North Road by mail coach from London to Edinburgh, took eight or nine days. Coaching inns made an arduous journey just about bearable.
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road—a sturdy paperback tough enough for the glovebox or door pocket–is published by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and arranged linearly, as a journey, starting in London. The holloways and open roads of the past have long since given way to tarmac and motor traffic, and part of the appeal of this book—and the pubs it describes—is in the glimpses it offers of a slower-paced world now bypassed, and in many cases almost entirely erased. These twenty-first century pubs in all their variety–including those, like the Queen’s Head at Morpeth, Northumberland, that have closed down—carry in their long histories a collective memory, of old battles, famous visitors, and journeys taken, when to travel was to endure hardship barely imaginable today.
It is difficult now to visualise the road as it was—terrorised by highwaymen, all but unusable in winter—but some of it is still visible. Much of the old road between London and York, away from the modern A1, was based on the Roman road known as Ermine Street, laid down in dead straight miles made for marching soldiers. And many of the coaching inns along the way have also travelled to the future with us. There is the Bull and Last, on Highgate Road, so-called because it was once the last stop before London; and the George of Stamford, an inn with a six hundred year history that grew, Roger Protz tells us, to “it’s present pomp and glory” in the eighteenth century. Back then it handled 20 coaches, and their horses, each way, every day—the stables must have been enormous. Others have been less fortunate: The Golden Lion, at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire, is the last remaining coaching inn in a village that once thrived as a crossing place on the River Aire. Now, completing its fall from grace, the only beer it serves is “John Smiths keg ale”. When I checked this last point for the purpose of this review, I discovered it currently serves Greene King IPA, which many people will not consider a great improvement.
Protz’s descriptions of the inns are vivid and opinionated. The sin of being a gastropub is absolved by a good range of cask ales, while the historic and preserved are celebrated generously. The ancient and splendid Angel and Royal at Grantham—perhaps the oldest coaching inn in Britain—gets a potted history going back to 1203, though the obvious enthusiasm and affection in the description includes what might be a slightly waspish mention of “Bertie’s Bistro,” named after King Edward VII. The Yorkshire town of Doncaster is not so easy to like. Protz says that its “importance as a Roman camp, and an Anglo-Saxon fortress, lie buried” under car parks and a shopping centre. Thankfully, marks are awarded for effort, and the Red Lion, a Wetherspoons pub dedicated to the St Leger horse race, and to Thomas Crapper, inventor of the ballcock valve system, sounds comfortable and unpretentious.
Historic Coaching Inns includes 46 featured pubs, charting a wavy course up the East Coast of Britain from London to Edinburgh, and taking in York (204 miles from London, 219 miles from Edinburgh), where every pub seems either to have a connection with highwayman Dick Turpin, a ghost, or a combination of the two. An old favourite of mine in York is the Olde Starre, off the Shambles. The collection of pubs in the book seems ready-made for people ticking things off lists, but there is plenty of background material too, on the history of the road, the people who used it, famous or otherwise, and topics such as how the Great North Road was built, the types of mail coach that used it, and the process of making Stilton cheese. Shorter sidebars offer places to visit during your stay at one of these historic inns.
I don’t recommend learning to drive on the A1. When I finally had a proper driving lesson in a modern car, after thousands of miles of practice, the instructor reminded me gently, as we joined a dual carriageway at an ear-bursting 70mph, that his car had five gears, and I should use them all. And that goes for pubs too. For its role in commerce, and the transmission of ideas between North and South, the Great North Road is just as important to British history as the great cathedrals. The coaching inns that punctuate it–the cared for, and the neglected–are as significant, in some cases, as any cloister. Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road is not going to make the modern A1 a tourist destination, but if you ever find yourself driving on the Great North Road, and looking for somewhere interesting to rest, this book should be with you. You can buy it direct from CAMRA:
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road: A Guide to Travelling the Legendary Highway, by Roger Protz. St. Albans, Hertfordshire: The Campaign for Real Ale, 2017.