A1-The Great North Road

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The Doncaster Mayor, he sits in his chair,

His mills they merrily go;

His nose doth shine with drinking of wine,

And the gout is in his great toe.

The profits of the town mills were at one time assigned for the mayoral expenses, hence the anonymous ditty, but there were earlier taxes.  From the 1247 Calendar Patent Rolls (1232-47.p.498):  Grant to the good men of Doncaster that to build the bridge of their town of stone they may take a custom of 1d on every cart with merchandise crossing the said bridge from Easter, 31 Henry III, for three years.  And in 1311 we find (Cal. Pat. Rolls 1307-13, p410): Mandate to John de Donecastre, Walter de Harom and Thomas de Cresacre to collect the customs granted for three years on all goods and wares brought along the causey, or way, which leads from the greater bridge of the town of Doncaster to le Bordel towards the north, in aid of the repair of that causey.

Celia Fiennes, riding through Doncaster in 1697, wrote:Almost all the road between Blith and Doncaster is sandy way, to Rosdin, thence to Doncaster; and here the Musick wellcom'd us into Yorkshire: Doncaster is a pretty large town of Stone Buildings, the streets are good; there is a handsome Market Cross advanc'd on 20 steps at least, the Church is neate and pretty large; here is also a good large meeting place; we were here the Lord's day and well entertained at the Angel, thence we went to Wentbridge and pass'd by woods belonging to Sir Wentworth; by his house 7 mile to Wentbridge where had been a fire the night before caused by the Lightning and Thunder which was remarkably great, as we took notice of 2 barnes and a house burnt.  Thence we ascended a very steepe hill and so to Ferrybridge where we pass'd the fine river called Aire, large for Barges as was most of those Rivers I have mention'd.   

While just a few years later, Defoe noted: Doncaster is a noble, large, spacious town, exceeding populous, and a great manufacturing town, principally for knitting; also as it stands upon the great northern post-road, it is very full of great inns; and here we found our landlord at the post house was mayor of the town as well as post-master, that he kept a pack of hounds, was company for the best gentlemen in the town or in the neighbourhood, and lived as great as any gentleman ordinarily did.

Here we saw the first remains or ruins of the great Roman highway, which, though we could not perceive it before, was eminent and remarkable here, just at the entrance into the town; and soon after appeared again in many places: Here are also two great and lofty stone bridges over the Don, and a long causeway also beyond the bridges, which is not a little dangerous to passengers when the waters of the Don are restrained, and swell over its banks, as is sometimes the case.


A racecourse first appears on a map of Doncaster at Town Moor in 1595 with The Doncaster Cup being run from 1766 and the the St. Leger in 1776.

The Grand St. Leger Hotel stands at the roundabout opposite the racecourse.

In 1875, Mayhall described the town thus:  Doncaster is pleasantly situated, chiefly on the south bank of the river Don, and consists of several streets, of which High-street, about a mile in length, is spacious and handsomely built.  The town is well paved and lighted with gas, at the expense of the corporation, under whose direction also the inhabitants are amply supplied with water, of which the cost is defrayed by a rate.  Little either of trade of manufacture is carried on here; there are two or three foundries, a sacking and twist manufactory, and a flax spinning mill.  The traffic arises chiefly from the situation of the town, in the midst of a fine rural plain, on the line of the great thoroughfare from London to Edinburgh.

In 1922 Home told us that: Doncaster was the Roman Danum, and has been on the highway between north and south from the earliest times.  Today the great express trains to York and Scotland arrive here from London in as many hours as the coaches took days to cover the distance, and turning over the pages of its history one finds records of many a royal visit to the town caused by the need for halting for the night. 

And from the 1926 A.A. Road Book: A busy industrial town conveniently situated on the River Don, and of Roman origin.  The power loom was first used here by Cartwright in 1786.  The handsome Mansion House was built in 1745, and there are other spacious public buildings.  Conisborough Castle was built in the XII century, a noble relic of which, the Norman Keep and the Norman arch, are features.  It was the home of Athelstane in 'Ivanhoe'.  Over the extensive green levels, the Town Moor, the St. Ledger is run, first so called in1778.  A marked out course, with a stand for spectators, was there in 1600.

In those days traffic went straight through the town centre.  After passing the racecourse, the Great North Road ran along South Parade, Hall Gate, High Street, French Gate and over Marsh Gate to cross the River Don before reaching the fork where the A19 branched off for Selby and York.  The line of the old road is pretty much straight through the centre of modern Doncaster and forms the main shopping street, pedestrianised in part but with the old buildings largely intact on both sides of the road it is not too hard to imagine how the road appeared one or two centuries ago.  Along with York and Newcastle, Doncaster retains the finest set of Georgian buildings on the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh.


One of the fine old buildings on the route of the Great North Road in Doncaster


It'll never be large but it could be lovely if a new tenant is found, this is the oldest building in Doncaster's main street.

While the millennium has been commemorated by a timeline of historical scenes depicted in tiles in the pavement.

At the north end of the town the road had to cross the Don Navigation and the River Don.  The railway crosses the road at about the same point and there was a level crossing until 1910 when a lengthy iron bridge took the road over the railway, canal and river.  This is all being replaced with a new structure to be completed in 2003.  Despite the long distance traffic on the A1(M) using  another crossing upstream there is a great deal of local traffic that has to use the A638 crossing of the Don a little downstream, bypassing the town centre to the east.  On the north side of the Don is the ancient division of the Great North Road, the left fork being the main road for Tadcaster and York or Wetherby and beyond, while the right fork formed the York road via Selby.  The junction is now a large roundabout, marking the start of the A19, the alternative North Road that brings us back to the A1 north of Newcastle.

The solid grandeur of the new arches supporting the roadway's approach to the new Don bridge is reminiscent of early 18th century engineering on the Selby road to the north.

Construction of the new bridge on the line of the Great North Road.  The recently opened bridge carrying diverted traffic for the A638 is in the right background.

From 1902 to 1935 there was the Doncaster Tramway running along the route of The Great North Road from the racecourse, through the town centre and northwards, branching off to the west to reach Brodsworth.  The routes were converted to trolleybus use until 1963.

Adwick-le-Street, as the name suggests, should lie on the line of the Roman road but the Great north Road, while following broadly the same route, zig-zagged across the Roman line first one side then the other from Doncaster to Barnsdale Moor.  The road did not go through the old village, which lies a little to the east and the Roman road actually runs just west of the Great North Road. And also strangely, a skeleton from Adwick-le-Street was missing both feet and its left hand.  

South-east of Adwick-le-Street to the east of the Great North Road (A638) is Hangthwaite Castle, an earthwork motte and bailey, with a wide wet ditch surrounding the motte.  There's a path to it from the main road just south of the B1220 roundabout.  The sinking of Brodsworth Main colliery in 1905 transformed the area. From a population of 294 in 1901 Adwick-le-Street grew to over 12000 by 1921.  Many of these lived at Woodlands where Brodsworth Colliery commissioned architect  Percy Houfton to design a new town of cottages with gardens around a village green. It is a conservation area now.

Red House

A minor road called Red House Lane connected Adwick-le-Street with the main road just south of where the Wakefield road branched off the Great North Road.  This is now Junction 38 of the A1(M) and is called the Red House Interchange.  Doncaster is now by-passed to the west by the A1(M). This was one of the three early bypasses on the A1 built in the 1960s to motorway standard, opening in  Autumn 1961, the others being round Stevenage and Darlington.  It rejoins the old road from Doncaster at this point.  The junction's name derives from a coaching inn called Red House, on account of it being painted red, that stood at the corner.  The house is visible from the road from a mile away to the north and must have been a vivid sight in the setting summer sun.  Bradley describes it as ...one of the minor coaching inns, and its front was graced with long settles and wooden benches, at which the neighbouring farmers sat enjoying their pints and 'churchwardes', and awaiting the arrival of the different coaches.  A few of the coaches were horsed from this house, but the number could not have been very great, as there was only standing room for about a score horses, which probably plied principally on the cross roads.  At this point the road branches off to Wakefield, which was the route pursued by some of the Leeds coaches.  It closed in the mid 19th century but continued to be repainted red for some time.  It still stands, occupied as a farmhouse, the old stabling now housing cows and the red-painted front door opening onto the slip-road for the south-bound A1(M).  

Red House

The date stone on the barn to the right of Red House retains fragments of the old red paint that otherwise lives on in name alone.

A significant road junction for hundreds of years, Red House Interchange is now a vast estate devoted to the distribution industry.  There are sculptures and a grand water feature in the landscaped grounds that front the new warehouses. 

Robin Hood's Well is situated six miles north of Doncaster, on the eastern side of the Great North Road. (SE518119)  A traveller in 1634 left this charming description, We tasted a cup at Robin Hood's Well; and then were in his rocky chair of ceremony dignified with order of knighthood and sworn to observe his laws. John Evelyn in 1668 wrote: We all alighted at the highway to drink at the crystal spring, which they call Robin Hood's Well, neere it is a stone chair and an iron ladle to drink out of, chained to the seat. The stream, known as the Skell, from which the villages of Skelbrooke and Skellow take their names, bubbled up into the well and flowed beneath the old Roman road.  Its early 18th century rustic dome designed by John Vanbrugh, the architect of castle Howard, can easily be seen from the road.

Robin Hood's Well gives its name to the hamlet, and one of the inns, the other being the New Inn.  The Royal Mails were horsed from the Robin Hood but both were busy coaching inns as this was a busy stretch of the road.  Bradley points out that a considerable amount of traffic along the road to Pontefract, which branched off at Barnsdale Bar, about a mile and a half further up the road and the bulk of these coaches changed horses at Robin Hood's Well.  Barnsdale Bar is now the A1-A639 Junction and the Pontefract road here follows the Roman road, known locally as Roman Ridge on account of its raised agger.  Bradley also notes that: "...the New Inn has, since the license left it, been occupied as a ladies' school". But that was in 1889.

Robin Hood's Well now forms a lay-by off the south-bound carriageway of the A1(M). According to Eric Houlder in British Archaeology, the well itself was first mentioned by local antiquary Roger Dodsworth in 1622, and had a Robin Hood's Stone close by, first mentioned in a deed of 1422 lodged at Monk Bretton Priory at Barnsley. The stone has since disappeared, but the well head stands isolated on the lay-by, removed from its spring of water because it stood in the way of the modern dual carriageway.  Though standing on a concrete base John Vanbrugh's Magnesian Limestone structure is a Grade II listed building.  It is visible from the north-bound carriageway but accessible only when south-bound or along the lane from Skellow and Burghwallis.

Drawing from Some Observations on the Earliest Spring Called After Robin Hood by R. W. Morrell which makes it look rather taller than this photo from Britannia.com Touring Online, or has the grass grown?

Why did the Bishop of Hereford dance unwillingly?


Nescit sitis artem modi, Puteum Roberti Hoodi Veni, et liquente vena Vincto catino catena, Tollens sitim, parcum odi, Solvens obolum custodi.



Robin Hood's Well is the site of a Roman roadside fort but not a lot is known about it.  Gill Burns tells me that: The Roman fort is located only by aerial photographs from crop marks, but the grid ref is: SE519120.   There were three forts superimposed on top of each other and the third one (also revealed by crop marks) was discovered in 1990.  The photo indicates that the present buildings that are at the side of the lay-by are sitting on top of the north west corner and the western boundaries of the fort.  This lay-by actually goes over this portion of the fort.  It is possible that the well may have been in existence during the Roman period as the fort would have required a water source.


This map was by Thomas Jeffries, published about 1770.  It shows the Great North Road crossing Doncaster Bridge in the south-east.  At York Bar it takes the right fork, the left fork being the route of the Roman road, known here as Roman Ridge.  Curiously, Red House appears to mark as complex an interchange as it does today over two centuries later.  Here the Great North Road rejoins the Roman road and passes Robin Hood's Well where there was a Roman fort.  The Roman route was abandoned between York Bar and Red House in favour of the more easterly and slightly less direct route taken by the Great North Road.  The diversion is, perhaps accounted for by the steeper gradients encountered on the Roman line, which follows higher ground except where the ridge is dissected by a small stream, the River Pick. The roads diverge again at Barnsdale Bar, just off the north-west corner of the map.


Little John's Well

Hidden in woodland alongside the A638 at Hampole, a mile north-west from the Red House interchange (J38) towards Wakefield, is Little John's Well. First recorded in 1838, this may mark the spread of the legend rather than a genuine association, although it is in the right area for an early derivation. Like Robin Hood's Well not far away, this spring no longer carries water, turned dry in recent times as a result of quarrying behind it. The vertical stone marking the spring shows signs of antiquity, and could possibly be a Roman gravestone, whilst the collecting basin, badly damaged by vehicles, is 18th century.

Barnsdale Bar

North of Robin Hood's Well the A1 climbs gently onto the higher ground of Barnsdale.  After about a mile we come to Barnsdale Bar, once a toll bar, still a road junction, with the the Roman Ermine Street, or Roman Ridge as it is here called, forking to the north-west and occupied by the A639. This road leads through Pontefract and Castleford and, as the A656, back to rejoin the A1 south of Aberford.  In former days this provided an alternative route for the Great North Road, perhaps used more by drovers and packhorses than wheeled vehicles.  Armstrong, while marking it as Ermine Street does not give it as a crosroad, Pontefract being reached by turning west off the Great North Road from Knottingly or Ferrybridge.  It follows the Roman road more closely with the Romans probably crossing the Wharfe at Castleford rather than Ferrybridge.  There are some grand views to be had towards the east from the high ground of Barnsdale over the flat land of the Humberhead Levels beyond Askern.  If it's a clear day turn down the minor road to the east for Campsell and match up Fletcher's description: On a clear day, the view is one of the widest in Yorkshire, covering a vast portion of the land that stretches from this, the highest point of ground between the Great North Road and the Trent.  Under favourable climatic conditions, Selby Abbey and the great tower of Howden Church are clearly visible; the two curiously shaped hills near Selby, Hambleton Haugh and BraytonBarugh, are very plain; the estuary of the Humber shines in the distance, and in the far background the lines of the Wolds fills the picture.  The toll house at Barnsdale Bar stood at the corner of a wood where the Pontefract road branched off to take the Leeds coaches.  A square solid building, sheltered in among the trees, Bradley described it in 1889 but by 1970 Webster recorded that it had become ruinous though ...the reason that its shell endures is due to the thickness of its massive outer walls.  


Conisbrough's holy well Photo John Greenhall

 A rather lager structure is Conisbrough Castle, one of the best preserved Norman Keeps in the country.  There are rumours of a pre-Norman stronghold here but the tenth century Saxon King Athelstone's adventures with Ivanhoe owe more to Sir Walter Scott's imagination than to archaeology.



St Helen's Well, Barnburgh

   Fieldwalking and resistivity surveys of the area around the Mediaeval St Helen's Chapel near Barnburgh in South Yorkshire have possibly posed more questions than they have answered. Resisivity surveys have shown that the chapel was once enclosed in a bank of unknown antiquity. However, fieldwalkers have found a number of pieces of Mediaeval and Roman pottery scattered around the chapel which lies next to a Roman road. Interestingly, some 34 fragments of worked flint were found scattered in the area, about half of which were in the location of the neglected St Helen's Well, the water from which was renowned for it's medicinal properties.

   The evidence points to a healing well site with a long and seemingly continuous history of activity, from prehistory through the Roman era to Mediaeval times. It would thus appear that this site held some particular significance even before the Church sanctified the area. The question is, was the water from this well considered to have healing properties before the Church Christianised the site? Or did the association appear after the church was built?

Thanks to Northern Earth, 80, p.12  and the Wellsprings Fellowship for that information.


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