A1-The Great North Road

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Anyone who loves the sight of old English towns should not miss Boroughbridge, with its quaint inns, forlorn and desolate now that the coaching days are over, its memories of the annual Barnaby Fair, and its possession of the three mysterious monoliths, known as the Devil’s Arrows, concerning which no archaeologist has yet been able to say a definite word.  Whole days of pleasure may be spent about Boroughbridge and Aldborough – together they form a little centre of their own, wherein the lover of the past finds an abundance of interest and delight....J.S.Fletcher, The Enchanting North, 1908

Such a contrast to the A1.  Once on the Great North Road, Boroughbridge has a main street with fine buildings from the coaching era.   The first mail-coach passed through in 1789, the mails having been carried on horseback till then.  The Crown Hotel, its blue plaque boasting of its one time stabling for 100 horses  now has a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and gym.  It has been an Inn since 1672 but stands on the site of a 13th-century manor house, which was a rendezvous for "The Rising of the North" rebellion of 1569 to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.  Maybe she should have just settled for a facial.

"Pons Burgi" is first mentioned  in a charter of Newburgh Priory in 1145. It was created as a new town some time in the early 12th century at the highest navigable point of the River Ure where a timber bridge was built across the river.

In 1675, John Ogilby wrote in the notes to Plate IV of his road map London to Barwick, "Burrowbriggs.  The Straight Road from Ferribriggs by Wetherby falling in here on the Left, Saves the traveller 9 Miles of what the Dimensuration by York enlarges his journey: Half a Mile to the East of this Town appears in the Valley Aldburgh or Aldborogh a small village, in Antonine Isurium, an eminent City in the time of the Romans, and near it certain Piramidal Stones supposed to be Erected by the Romans as a Signal of Victory, by the Country People called the Devils Bolts. 

And a little later, probably in 1697, Celia Fiennes wrote , "...we went to Burrough Bridge a famous place for Salmon, but then we could not meete with any but we had a very large Codfish there, above a yard long and more than half a yard in compass very fresh and good and cost but 8 pence; I saw as big a one bought for 6 pence, and six Crabbs as big as my two hands - the least was bigger than one of my fists - all cost but 3 pence." 

Mayhall describes how on the 27th  of July 1872, Boroughbridge "...was the scene of a great demonstration to celebrate the abolition of an ancient and inequitable toll, levied for centuries at the bridge and at each entrance to the town at fairs."  But then, for centuries, folk had flocked to the town for the fairs at which any householder could sell drink so long as they hung a green bush over their door.  They liked to party.

The bridge over the Ure is a grand structure but has had a chequered history.  The present structure is a repair job on John Carr's late 18th century bridge, whose central arch collapsed in 1945 when a rather heavy load tried to cross. It seems that a 50 ton transporter with an 85 ton load and two 20 ton tractors tried to cross.  The transporter and load fell to the river leaving the tractors on what was left of the bridge.

The older OS maps mark a battle site, dated 1322, south of the bridge but by the Landranger series it had moved to the north bank.  The following account from Langdale's Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire, of 1822 suggests that some of the action was on (under or through) the bridge itself.

Near this place, in 1322, that unfortunate Prince, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, with some of the nobility, disgusted with the royal favourites, the Spencers, made stand against the forces of his nephew, Edward II. but was taken by Sir Andrew de Harcla, who, being insensible to entreaties and solicitations, and after suffering every possible indignity that cruelty could suggest, was mounted on a sorry horse, and brought before the King, who ordered, without any form of trial, his head to be struck off, on an eminence near Pontefract. One of his partisans, the powerful John de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, in passing over the bridge, then made of wood, was run through with a spear, by a soldier, cowardly placed beneath for that execrable purpose

The Guide to the Battle Fields of Britain and Ireland states boldly,  "No battle on British soil made less impact on British history than Boroughbridge. It's interest lies in the fact that it was fought precisely on one of the most famous roads in the British Isle, the A1." Actually it was a pretty unimportant battle though it is claimed that subsequently no bridge was allowed to have gaps between the planking.  Later that year, Edward fought, and lost, a more decisive battle at Scotch Corner. (Actually is was the army that did the fighting, Edward himself was having a drink with the Abbott of Byland at the time, and was able to escape when he heard about the disaster up the hill.)  And what happened to the Earl of Lancaster?  In 1522 a stone coffin containing a beheaded corpse was found at Ferry Fryston, between Ferrybridge and Pontefract.

A battlecross, erected in Boroughbridge to commemorate the battle, was moved to to Aldborough in 1852.

Much of the time the river is easily fordable and looking at the massive structure of the stone bridge in summer one wonders why they bothered.  But the Ure’s catchment is wet Wensleydale and the water can rise astonishingly.  The roundabout north of the bridge was closed in the floods of autumn 2000.  Only a well-built bridge would survive the frequent floods.  There is a weir just upstream and a lock and canal, opened in 1769, allow navigation up the Ure.  John Smeaton, of the Newark Viaduct fame, was the canal engineer.  A boating holiday between York and Ripon takes one through delightful country.

John Metcalf, 'Blind Jack of Knaresborough', appears to have had a hand in bridge building at Boroughbridge.  In his autobiography, and recounted by Smiles in his Lives of Engineers, there is an account of negotiations leading to a contract for building a bridge for the Great North Road.  But it seems this cannot have been over the Ure for here John Carr's credentials are clear.  

A tributary stream, the River Tutt, a substantial enough river in wet whether, runs through the town from the south to enter the Ure just downstream of Carr's bridge.  The Great North Road forks in two as it approaches the town from the south, the left fork running directly towards the Ure bridge while the right fork wends via the market square.  The left fork soon crosses the Tutt and it seems likely that this was Metcalf's bridge.  The old bridge did not stand the test of time however and the river now runs through a concrete culvert but there is plenty of 18th century looking masonry remaining.  I wonder what happened to the old arch.

According to Smiles "...the building of a bridge at Boroughbridge was advertised, and Metcalf sent in his tender with many others.  At the same time he frankly stated that, though he wished to undertake the work, he had not before executed anything of the kind.  His tender being on the whole the most favourable, the trustees sent for Metcalf, and on his appearing before them, they asked him what he knew of a bridge.  He replied that he could readily describe his plan of the one they proposed to build, if they would be good enough to write down his figures.  The span of the arch, 18 feet," said he, "being a semicircle, makes 27: the arch-stones must be a foot deep, which, if multiplied by 27, will be 486; and the basis will be 72 feet more.  This for the arch; but it will require good backing, for which purpose there are proper stones in the old Roman wall at Aldborough, which may be used for the purpose, if you please to give directions to that effect."  It is doubtful whether the trustees were able to follow his rapid calculations; but they were so much struck by his readiness and apparently complete knowledge of the work he proposed to execute, that they gave him the contract to build the bridge; and he completed it within the stipulated time in a satisfactory and workmanlike manner."


The right fork of the road, after passing the church and market also crosses the Tutt just before reaching the Crown.  Again any ancient bridge has been replaced but if one is walking by take a glance over the wall on the south side of the road.  There is a curious extension to a building, suspended over the water as a bridge on iron girders and pillars.

A couple of miles downstream from Boroughbridge, the river meets the Swale.  Myton Bridge (no relation of the modern one in Hull) has crossed the Swale since 1865. There was formerly a ferry over the Swale here, which belonged to St. Mary's Abbey. A bridge, the private property of Major Stapylton, now crosses the river. It is open to the public on payment of a toll. from Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire 1890.  It's now a restoration project.

Here is the site of another battle, The White Battle of 1319.

In the year 1319, the Scots entering England under the command of Randolph, earl of Murray, laid waste the country with fire and sword, and continuing their depredations, advanced to the walls of York; after burning the suburbs of that city, they returned northwards, on which William de Melton, Archbishop of York, immediately raised an army, composed of clergymen, monks, canons, husbandmen, labourers, and tradesmen, to the amount of 10,000 men; with this undisciplined band the Archbishop overtook the Scots at Myton; a battle ensued, the Yorkshiremen were defeated, and upwards of 2000 of them were slain. On which occasion, such a number of ecclesiastics fell, with Nicholas Flemming, the lord mayor, that this fight was; for a long time, called ironically, the White Battle."...Langdale's Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire, of 1822


Although Boroughbridge is on the Great North Road, the town centre is really just to the east of the road.  The main street with a market square at its south end and a charming cobbled area in front of Boroughbridge Hall at the north end, is full of little shops that have seen little influence of the modern shopping mall. The greengrocer and the florist have particularly lovely displays of their produce on the pavement.  I met a man in the Bull who has written a history of Boroughbridge pubs.  He assured me that in the coaching days, traffic wended its way through the market square and this little row of shops and taverns rather than taking the direct route south from the Three Greyhounds.  The Bull, which boasts a history from the 13th century, is one of the few survivors of the thirty or more pubs of mid 19th century Boroughbridge.  You can buy the history from any of the pubs.

Boroughbridge Hall was the birthplace, in 1831, of Isabella Bird.  She only spent her first 11 years here, of a lifetime of exploring the world.  Isabella published ten books about her travels, numerous articles, and two books of photographs. She was the first western woman to travel up the Yangtze River or climb Mauna Lao, and her written accounts of the assassination of the Korean Queen and Japan’s invasion of Korea were considered major news stories. She was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and the first woman Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh. Her travel books that still, one hundred years later, inform and entertain, made her one of the most famous women in late-Victorian Britain.  Enough to deserve the blue plaque on the Boroughbridge Hall gatepost.

At the south end of Boroughbridge, take the turn signposted to Roecliffe. Stop just before the road goes under the A1.  Here we have the product of one of the greatest feats of pre-historic endeavor in the country.  On the left, just by the roadside, stands a 30 foot monolith, described, on its blue plaque, as one of the ‘Devil’s Arrows’, unsung, almost unnoticed by the A1 traffic, heavier than the largest stone in Stonehenge and completely mysterious as to the its origin and purpose. Two more such stones stand in the field opposite and a fourth fell over (or was pushed) and was probably broken up for use in the foundations of a bridge over the River Tutt in the 17th century.  Made of Millstone Grit they probably came from Plumpton Rocks, two miles south of Knaresborough.  They are almost but not quite, in a straight line and almost but not quite aligned north-south.  Had people erected them, they would surely have been more tidily arranged so I expect their real origin is as follows:

The King of the Brigantian Celts, to weigh the merits of the Druids' lore against the newly-come teaching of the Christians, bade that both should be debated before him. At first the new faith made ground, until a late arrival among the Druids turned the tide by his strong personality and his ridicule. But a movement of his cloak showed that his feet were melting the rock he stood on, and sinking into it. Discovered, he rose into the air in a smother of curses. He moulded into bolts the masses of half-molten rock which clung to his legs and flew towards Iseur, the capital city, intending to destroy it. But the bolts were miraculously intercepted, and fell harmlessly to earth.

Some say that the name ‘Devil’s Arrows’ come from a legend that the great stones were actually crossbow bolts that the Devil fired at nearby Aldborough, which, at the time, was a Christian settlement.  Actually, the association with the Devil can be traced no further back in the literature than 1692, by which time they were already ancient.  The date of their erection is problematic.  Late Neolithic to early Bronze Age would span a period from 2700 to 1600 BC.  Burl in a thorough study of the stones, considers a date of around 2200 to 2000 BC most likely, putting them somewhat later than the Thornborough Rings and much later than the Middle Neolithic cursuses which have been radio-carbon dated around 3500 BC.


William Stukeley’s explanation from 1725 is more down to earth than devilish:

"Here was, in the British times, the great Panegyre of the Druids, the Midsummer meeting of all the country round, to celebrate the great quarterly sacrifice; accompanied with sports, games, races, and all kinds of exercises, with universal festivity. This was like the Panathenian, the Olympian, Nemean meetings, and games among the Grecians. These obelisks were as the Metae of the Races; the remembrance hereof is transmitted in the present great Fair held here, on St. Barnabas Day."

Leland describes four stones, but in the seventeenth century, one of them was pulled down.  Richard Frank, an angler, in an account of a tour, published in 1694, says that he saw near Boroughbridge, seven stones.  Presumably this was just a fisherman’s tale.  Whatever their origin and purpose, the A1 traffic thunders past them, oblivious.  The stones have stood here since before the wheel was invented and will probably still stand after its demise when we will float by these timeless monoliths on some silent non-polluting mass transport system yet to be invented.  Meanwhile a nearby housing development is romantically named ‘Druid’s Way’.


This curious little sketch of the Devil's Arrows was made by Samuel Buck in about 1723.  Buck was an artist who travelled with John Warburton, making sketches for a planned topographical description of Yorkshire.  Although Warburton published a new map of the county in 1720, this larger project was never completed.  The sketches are kept at the British Library (Lansdowne MS 914) and have been published in facsimile with an introduction by Ivan Hall.

From Boroughbridge to Scotch Corner the A1 more or less follows the course of the Roman road, Dere Street.  But Boroughbridge is a little to the west of the Roman route , which, coming from Aldborough, crossed the Ure near Milby.  Early 19th century accounts tell us that the great Roman road leading from York to the Roman Wall crossed the Ure by a Wooden bridge the remains of which may yet be discerned when the water is low.

And earlier still?  The A1, following the Roman road, north west from Boroughbridge, lies on slightly raised ground between the rivers Ure and Swale until it has to cross the Swale at Catterick.  This area must have been of great significance in the Bronze Age for it is a landscape littered with barrows and henges.  Most lie to the west of the road, the most famous being the three great circles of the Thornborough Henges.  Take the B6267, signposted for Masham for about four miles, turning left at Nosterfield. The central henge, at SE 285795 is the most accessible and is really one of the most impressive prehistoric structures in the land.  Sitting on the embankment it is easy to imagine one is in an enormous stadium watching Neolithic chariot racing or some such sport.  Some people talk of ritual landscapes and religion but it is sport that gives us the biggest buildings today.  Why should it have been different 5000 years ago?

Here is Burl again, writing about the fashion for finding significance in alignments: "It is noticeable that the Arrows stand south of the River Ure.  To the north is an irregular triangle of level countryside...between the River Ure and River Swale.  Within this area are at least two Middle Neolithic cursuses, six henges and a score or more of Early Bronze Age round barrows.  An outstanding feature of the henges, one of the cursuses and the Devil's Arrows is the manner in which they respect the lie of the land.  The Ure and Swale both flow NNW-SSE between the Pennines to the west and the Howardian Hills and the Yorkshire Moors to the east.  The two entrances of each henge were also set out NNW-SSE.  The line of the three earthworks at Thornborough were laid out on a similar orientation.  Even historic structures followed this pattern, a Roman road, the railway line, the A1.  It should be no wonderment, then, that the Devil's Arrows row observes this alignment.


Whilst staring wistfully at the stones one might notice there is a road between the stones and the A1.  This used to be the A1.  About ten miles of motorway was built from north of Wetherby (actually just north of the bridge over the River Nidd at Walshford) to near Dishforth (junction 49).  The work was done in 1993-4.  The old road is still there but now called A168 and it is just fine.  If you are not in a desperate rush like everyone else on the A1, then use it.  Nobody else does.

Both roads cross the course of the The Pilmoor Boroughbridge and Knaresborough Railway, just north of the Devil’s Arrows before crossing the River Ure.  The single track line ran between Pilmore Junction, six miles south of Thirsk, on The Great Northern Railway and Knaresborough.  In 1950 Boroughbridge Station, on the north bank of the Ure, closed and the line closed for freight in 1964.  There is a weather vane in the shape of a steam engine, on the Kirby Hill and Langthorpe Community Hall, built on the site of the 1847 station.  At this time the Great North Road still went through the town centre and north, leaving Langthorpe to the west but passing through Kirby Hill. But let’s not hurry too fast.  At the north end of the bridge there is a roundabout, curiously arranged over the canal, which once formed an important parting of the ways.  The left fork to Kirby Hill and on to Scotch Corner, became the A1 but this was not the Great North Road of the coaching era.  This was the Glasgow road via Penrith.  The Edinburgh road took the right fork, the Great North Road heading for Northallerton via Dishforth and Topcliffe.  When Harper was writing in 1901 he took the right fork for the Great North Road.  “Kirkby Hill, a mile out of Boroughbridge, lies to the left, its church-tower just within sight.  This is followed by the unutterably dull, lifeless, and ugly village of Dishforth.”  Thus condemned, Dishforth soon lost its status as a place on the Great North Road.  By the time roads were numbered the left fork predominated and the Boroughbridge to Scotch Corner route became the A1 with the Boroughbridge - Northallerton road becoming the A167.  Then in the Second World War, an airfield was built south of the Dishforth right across the old road.  The A167 from Northallerton, was stopped short at Topcliffe and the A168, also from Northallerton but via Thirsk, was extended past Topcliffe to meet the A1 near Dishforth.  This southern bit connects the A1 with the A19 at Thirsk, providing a dual carriageway from Dishforth, via the Tyne Tunnel and back to the A1 north of Newcastle, which is actually a couple of miles shorter than the A1 itself.  This road was designated in 1996 as “Project: A19 Design-Build-Finance-Operate Road (Dishforth-Tyne Tunnel)” and is a 30 year concession agreement, to Autolink (that’s Amey, Sir Robert McAlpine, and Taylor Woodrow), let under the Government's Private Finance Initiative, to operate a 120 kilometre section of the A19, from Dishforth to the Tyne tunnel.  So Dishforth lives again as the start of an alternative route to Edinburgh a century after Harper's dismissal.

And talking of dismissals, we have an early record of a cricket match just up the road.

Wednesday, August 11th, 1797, ended the grand match at York Gate in Leeming Lane, betwixt WETHERBY, under the patronage of the Hon. George Motson, and SCRUTON, near Catterick, under the patronage of Mr. Millbank, for a hundred guineas aside. The match continued two days, and the contest (which was a severe one) terminated in favour of the Wetherby Club by several notches.

York Gate is now marked just by a York Gate Farm on the west side of the A1 half a mile north of the A61 intersection. but I don't know if this farm was once the Union Inn, listed in Patterson's Roads, or what happened to the cricket pitch.

Well spotters:

Copgrove, four miles south-west of Boroughbridge, has a holy well, St Mungo's, and a Sheela Na Gigg known as the Devil's Stone, in its little church

St Helen's Well, Rudgate      (SE 451 458)

Situated on the north side of River Wharfe east of Thorpe Arch, and about 400 yards from the river.

'This well was re-dedicated from a Pagan deity to St Helen's Well. Metal and pins were thrown into the water and ribbons tied to trees nearby. Waters reputed to be of specific use for eye troubles.' Speight, Lower Wharfedale.

'The well is now dried up due to the lowering water table but in the not too distant past people, particularly young girls, used to give offerings to St Helen in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the branches of trees around it. In this way, if done in secret, you would see your true love. Also, that ghastly hound the Bargest was supposed to haunt St Helen's Well rattling its chains. Leland mentions a chapel at St Helen's (now gone).' Guy Ragland Phillips.

     St Helen's Cross was found near the spring. There is a plantation to the NE of the well called Chapel Wood and the church at Bilton 3 miles to the North is dedicated to St Helen.

Plane spotters:






Tithe Farm Bed & Breakfast


©Biff Vernon 2001, 2002, 2008