A1-The Great North Road

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In the 18th century the stage coaches passed Leeming only if Penrith and Glasgow bound, the Great North Road winding the Edinburgh coaches through Dishforth, Topcliffe and Northallerton.  North of Boroughbridge the A1 follows the line of the Roman Dere Street, long known as Leeming Lane, to Scotch Corner, except to bypass west of Leeming and Leeming Bar.  Although the road is drawn pretty straight on the maps, the real road waves a little to left and right as if it has slipped off the Roman line.  Another ancient route, Ricknield Street, comes from a little west of south joining Dere Street a couple of miles north of Boroughbridge, having crossed the Ure close to where the A1 now crosses it.  Ricknield Street, which some regard as pre-Roman, was drawn on Warburton's 1720 map of Yorkshire and recorded by Armstrong but is not included in Margary's Roman Roads, nor is it marked on modern OS maps.  It may have been a route parallel to but west of Ermine Street, crossing the River Dearne a little west of Doncster.  Further south, Ricknield Street is regarded as the route from Derby and Birmingham.

Margary describes the Roman road from Aldborough to Catterick Bridge thus:

The main northern road was continued upon the same north-westward alignment right through the Roman town of 'Isurium' at Aldborough, and on by what is practically the same line all the way to Catterick. For the first 2 miles past Kirby Hill the course is derelict through the fields, partly marked by a parish boundary, and little trace can be seen, but then the Great North Road takes up the line until close to Catterick.  Parish boundaries follow it continuously for 9 miles.  The road is still remarkably straight for very long distances and is often well raised, by 2-3 feet or more in places, but the road has now been so altered and modernized, in part with dual carriageways, that there is little of its original form to be noted, save only the alignment.  Street House at Burneston takes its name from the road.

At Leeming Bar the road crosses the Bedale Beck and makes a reversed curve in doing so which appears to be on the original course, perhaps to keep upon firmer ground. The alignment beyond the crossing is almost but not exactly a continuation of the previous line.  Half a mile short of Catterick village (which is a mile south of the Bridge) the present road bears away eastward, but the Roman road is clearly visible as a large agger going straight on through the farmstead of Bainesse to the west side of Catterick village, where the Manor House stands on it.  The road has been shown very clearly by air photographs, to go straight on past the west side of the racecourse to the River Swale, where the new northward alignment begins, though this cannot be seen on the ground, and it passed through the settlement of 'Cataractonium' just before the river was reached.

Margary noted the double bend near the stone Leeming Bridge but the situation is not simple.  The 1857 OS Map shows both the present road and a more direct path marked Leeming Lane that crosses the Bedale Beck a little upstream of the bridge, presumably at a ford.  A row of houses is also curiously non-aligned with the present road.

Apart from Leeming and Leeming Bar (which grew up after the Wensleydale Railway and the pie factory arrived), there appears to be little settlement along the road.  But this is not a deserted landscape, nor has it been since the Bronze Age.  There is a line of villages, Kirklington, Carthorpe, Burneston, Theakston, Exelby, Kirkbridge, Langthorne, Hackforth, with long histories, set back a mile or so to the west of the A1.  Folk must have had reasons other than long distance travel for where they located themselves and a minor road connects them all.

This settlement pattern was noted, though not explained, by Ella Pontefract: From Boroughbridge to Catterick these towns and what were Anglian villages lie a mile or so off the Great North Road, which itself cuts a lonely way through the country.  Mothersole is more forthcoming: To anyone travelling along this Road, especially on a bicycle or on foot, the absence of villages is very noticeable.  Not a single one breaks the monotony of those 13 miles till Leeming is reached, and then there is not another till we reach Catterick.  All the villages (and there are plenty of them), lie a mile or so off to east and west, and are reached by branch roads.  It takes us back to the days when it was dangerous to live on a main road, along which all marauding bands would have to pass in travelling from north to south.   

There are a few isolated buildings along the main road, some of them, such as the New Inn, Georgian House and Oak Tree were former coaching inns.  Theakston Grange is now deserted but one dark night the tenants were woken by the crash of a lorry demolishing the garden wall.  There followed the furtive hiding of cannabis plants from the greenhouse under the flashing blue lights of the police, whose eyes were concentrated on the wrecked vehicle.  Theakston is not the home of good beer.  This comes from Masham, six miles to the south west, where the Old Peculiar Theakston Brewery was sold by the Theakston family to Scottish and Newcastle.  The Theakstons soon set up another brewery, The Black Sheep, next door.

Not too far from Leeming is the Thorp Perrow Arboretum. Go through Bedale and another mile along the B6268 and turn left.  The arboretum has one of the best collections of trees in the country and includes the National Collections of Walnut, Ash and Lime.  They have about thirty species and varieties of ash (Fraxinus), with another thirty species of lime (Tillia) and a dozen Walnuts (Juglans).  There's plenty of beauty and interest for the botanically challenged and, of course, a tea room.  In the church at Bedale there are several pieces of Robert Thompson's woodwork with the little carved mice.

The nearby village of Snape is worth a look.  A prtetty village with a stream running down the middle and some old hand water pumps that still work.  There is a bit of castle where Katherine Parr, the wife of Henry VIII that outlived him, lived.  Snape and other villages in the district were important in the woolen industry before the large-scale use of water power moved the business to West Yorkshire.  A number of Snape residents moved to Bradford when the trade shifted.

  Between Snape and the line of villages that parallel the A1, Carthorpe, Burneston, Theakston and Exelby, is a curiously flat yet hummocky landscape known as Snape Mires.  Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire (1890) has this description: The land is generally low, and the soil partly clay and sand, except in the north west about Intake house where it is of a peaty nature, indicative of a lake or marsh in former times; its name too, Carthorpe - the thorpe by the Carrs - is corroborative of this. Some fields here bear the name of Boghills from the numerous little hillocks which they contain. These we are credibly informed, when levelled down, rise again in four or five years. The rise of the mounds is not gradual but sudden; the explanation of the phenomenon we leave to others.

South of Snape is the village of Well, which has an ancient well, St Michael's Well.  The well never runs dry and was until recently decorated.  It was a religious shrine in Norman times and was probably pre-Roman, as Anne Ross states: '...it was the focus of a cult in Roman times although the presiding deity is now unknown'.  There was a Roman bath house on Holly Hill or Holy Hill but when I asked a local resident where it was she replied, "Underneath that bungalow".  It lies, coincidentally of course, in line  with the three Neolithic henges at Thornborough.  The easiest to visit is on the north side of the road between West Tanfield and Thornborough.  Climb up onto the circular embankment and look into the great flat arena and imagine what sports the bronze-age folk watched in this stadium.  Chariot racing, football...hmm...you won't read that in the archaeology books.  They just talk of religion and ritual landscapes but it feels like a sports stadium to me.

Arrgh! It seems that the bad people at Tarmac want to dig this place up for sand and gravel.  But there are good people at www.friendsofthornborough.org trying to stop them.  Please help by joining the Friends.  For background reading see Jan Harding's 2003 book about Henge Monuments and Nicholas Thomas's original paper from 1955 describing the excavations at Thornborough.

 Stop Press!! This letter was received by the Friends of Thornborough from English Heritage 13th June 2003:

As monuments of national importance all three of the Thornborough henges, the associated cursus and adjoining landscape are designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Scheduling, or designation, allows the Government, with advice from English Heritage, to give legal protection to nationally important sites and monuments. The Secretary of State must be notified of any works which might affect a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and will not usually give consent for works which may damage or disturb the site. The henges can therefore be regarded as fully protected and not under threat.

The current mineral extractions at Thornborough, which are outside the scheduled monument area, are the result of previous permissions granted to Tilcon-Tarmac by North Yorkshire County Council. At this stage English Heritage has no statutory authority to limit or prevent the extractions, which are within the scope of local planning permissions. Archaeological mitigation has followed the written scheme of investigation agreed by North Yorkshire County Council's Heritage Unit as a condition of the existing planning consent.

English Heritage remains concerned about the wider landscape setting of the monuments and is currently funding Dr Jan Harding of Newcastle University to undertake extensive archaeological research, at a cost of over 145,000. Dr Harding's work has two principal components: firstly, he has produced an archaeological desktop assessment of the monument complex, clearly defining their significance and landscape setting, and assessing the archaeological potential of the area. Secondly, he is undertaking a programme of extensive fieldwork to ascertain more fully the nature and preservation of the archaeological remains within the landscape around the henges. It is hoped that the results of Dr Harding's work will help to influence the future management of the henges and their landscape setting.

In order to ensure the conservation and appropriate management of the henges and surrounding landscape, English Heritage has worked hard to develop effective partnerships with the owner of the central and southern henges and other relevant organisations. The owner has entered into a Countryside Stewardship agreement with DEFRA which has seen the reversion of the cursus, central henge and intervening landscape from arable to pasture. Given that significant archaeological remains will be confined to the upper 1 * 1.5m of the soil horizon, agricultural activity such as ploughing and root crop production has a devastating effect on archaeological features. The potato cultivation which was then proposed by the owner would have seriously compromised any surviving archaeology in these areas. The Countryside Stewardship area is delineated by the hedges which you refer to in your message.

We are aware that Tilcon-Tarmac are expected to submit an application for further mineral extraction in the near future, and have been engaged in discussions with the company about future applications. English Heritage is, however, firmly opposed to any additional mineral extraction which affects the Thornborough Henge complex and the integrity of its landscape setting. We aim to continue working in partnership with the owners, the local community and Local Planning Agency to ensure the survival and effective management of the henges and their surrounding landscape.  

Lindsey Martel on behalf of John Hinchliffe, Acting Director, Yorkshire Region, English Heritage.


Lets step back a bit, back to the road and back in time.  Since the Celts had carts and chariots they had probably established a road network before the Romans arrived.  Romans improved and extended them rather than built the system from scratch.  The most important road in Yorkshire during the Iron Age became known in the Dark Ages as Deira Street named after the Anglian Deir, a group who settled north of the Humber.  The word is derived from the British  meaning waters.  Deira Street appears on modern maps as Dere Street, and was effectively the northern continuation of Ermine Street beyond Eboracum (York), and eventually became the main road to the northern most outposts of the Roman Empire.  Confusion reigns, however, as many maps, including the 1st edition OS and various 20th century road atlases, call the road Watling Street.   The origin of the name Leeming and Leeming Lane is uncertain.  Stukely claimed it came from Lhe Maen, signifying the "stony way," in allusion to the stones wherewith the road was paved but its origin may have been leahm, the old Frisian dialect of Yorkshire for lime, which is hereabouts abundant.

Harry Speight, writing in 1897, plumps for Watling street with this account:  I will now make some observations on that ancient and wonderfully interesting highway connecting the three great Brigantian cities of Caer Ebranc (York), Iseur (Aldborough), and Caer Caratauc (Catterick), known to this day as The Street. Hoveden thinks it was called Watling Street from Wathe or Wathla, a British king.  Camden supposes the name to be derived from an unknown Vitellianus, but that the root of the word is to be found in the Saxon Wadha, a beggar, because the road was the resort of such people for the charity of travellers.  Another says that it ws planned by Vespsian after the various stations through the kingdom were finished, and that he named it in compliment to the Emperor Vitellius, Vitella-Strata-Via, 1.e., Watling Street Way.  Professor Wright says that King Wtla was no doubt a personage in Anglo-Saxon mythology, and that this road was connected with one of their own mythic traditions and called Wtlinga-street, the road of the Wtlings, or sons of Wtla.  Various and contradictory as these opinions are it may be after all that the original constructors of it, conscious of their marvellous achievement, exalted it above their mundane affairs and attributed to it some sacred or celestial appellation drawn from their perpetual obeisance to the heavens.  For inasmuch in Chaucer's House of Fame we learn that in medival times the starry 'milky way' was popularly called Watling Street, a name that may have arisen from some astonomical beliefs of the ancients.

That it was primarily British and constructed on an old chariot-path as far back perhaps as the introduction or manipulation of iron, five or six centuries before the Christian era, I think there is little room for doubt.  In spite of the contrary opinions of older authorities it is unmistakably of pre-Roman age.  The fact of it connecting three undoubted British cities within a distance of less than forty miles, is sufficient proof of this, but the road, moreover, is so irregular in its course, twisting and turning so frequently, that it distinctly opposes the Roman method of road-making which was usually a straight line.  These divarications are more particularly noticeable between Isurium ( Aldbro') and Caractonium (Catterick), which are described in the Fourth Iter as being distant from each other 24 mille passus.  From the village of Leeming it zig-zags according to the best ground-surface, avoiding some old swamps in this neighbouhood, and crossing the beck makes a sharp turn to Bridge House (formally an inn) and thence curving over the muddy flats to Leeming Bar.  Here the direction is about north-west and south-east, through Mr. Mattison's garden, near his reaping-machine works, where an old cobble pavement is met with about a yard below the present grassy surface.  From Leeming station it turned by the Sportsman's inn, along the existing old road by Killerby and the Castle Hills, joining the present turnpike near Catterick Beck, close to the village of Catterick, and thence to the station at  Thornborough.  Thence it pursued its northward direction in an equally devious course, joining the present highroad abut a mile above Catterick Bridge, but not always keeping the line of the present road, till it reaches the Tees at Pierse Bridge.  It was a cobbled way, with here and there large stepping stones where the ground was low and wet, and this seems to be particularly the case about Leeming Bar, where there is a thick bed of clay overlying gypsum.  I am told that large numbers of small horseshoes of an antique pattern have been dug up in this locality, likewise a stone quern, and it is not unlikely that at this point of Leeming Lane there was a public resting-place and a forge where horses could be shod, and perhaps hired or exchanged.  Situated at the junction of a branch way from Northallerton to Bedale, joining the old road to Brachium (Bainbridge) it thus lay at four important cross-roads.

Mr. Ecroyd Smith thinks it not improbable that this portion of the Watling Street called Leeming Lane, derived its name from the second appellation it received of Via Heleniana, in honour of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great.  Other and similar explanations have been advanced.  But if this road be as old as the earliest foreign occupation of north England, and contemporary with the so-called Druids, which it is hard to believe, the name may be pure Gadhelic, leamham, meaning an elm-tree, though it is difficult to conceive what elm-trees can have to do with denominating a highway.  Dr. Wilkes, however, says that Watling Street was originally constructed of wattles, and as the elm is well suited for such purpose, being remarkable for its durability under water, having been in medival times largely used in making of water-pipes), can it be the elm was the tree so employed?  If so, we have in the native elm elucidation of the meaning of both Watling Street and Leeming Lane.

To continue exploring Dere Street go to the other two pages : Dere Street in Co. Durham and Dere Street in Northumberland



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