Steve Silk cycles the route of Britain's most prestigious road, the London to Edinburgh road. It is now called the A1, but until 1921 it was called the Great North Road. With each pedal stroke the author experiences more of the towns, landscapes and remarkable history of this route.
The journey is around 500 miles over 11 days and Steve wonderfully describes the sense of adventure when heading north:
"For reasons that I can't quite explain, the compass point is important. Which proper traveller can resist a road sign with a crisp, white arrow pointing to "The North" in no-nonsense sans-serif?"
Steve came across the books of Charles G. Harper who wrote about doing the same journey over 100 years ago. Throughout the book Steve reflects on Harper's experiences of places along the way, nicely weaving this with modern day comparisons. In honour of Harper, Steve buys an old fashioned bike, a Jamis Aurora, to do the journey on the 100th anniversary of the A1.
The adventure begins in a cool London bike cafe called Look Mum No Hands. Steve's description of travelling through busy London is brilliant and really captures the atmosphere and sights of the capital. I love that he records that sudden moment when London ends, the buzz is replaced with greenery and tranquility at a place called Hadley Green. I imagine that this is the kind of detail that you are more likely to notice travelling by bicycle and miss if you are driving.
The heyday of the Great North Road was when stagecoaches raced up and down it. For me this was the most fascinating aspect of the journey and the book is interspersed with tales of the romance of the coaching era. The most visible legacy of that time is the coaching inn and Steve visits many of them along the way and there is a lovely round up of his favourite ones at the end of the book. I found that his writing about this period was very evocative and it really felt like I was stepping back in time.
I learned so much about parts of Britain that I am unfamiliar with. For example, the commuter town of Stevenage had been planned as cycle-friendly in the 1950s and 60s with 26 miles of cycle lanes. Then there is the Bedfordshire clanger- a pastry with meat filling at one end and a sweet filling at the other!
That was one of the great joys of this book, discovering new things about Britain. On his route Steve visited the birthplace of Newton that still has the famous apple tree in the grounds. He even visited inside Margaret Thatcher's childhood home. I am ashamed to say that I had no knowledge of these places before reading this book. The lesson I have learned is that a cycle touring adventure in Britain can be just as revealing and as exciting as any journey that you might take overseas.
The Scotland section of the road is mostly in East Lothian. Steve uses routes familiar to me and his writing captures the landscapes and sights of the area really well.
The Great North Road is a captivating read. Here is an adventure that we can do in our own country, with so much to see and experience along the way. I loved how the book beautifully combined the past and present stories of the road, in particular transporting the reader back to the era of stagecoaches. Reading this book made me want to book some nights in historic coaching inns and jump on my bike to get there.