A1-The Great North Road

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The Great North Road's route through modern Newcastle is not immediately obvious and its history has seen various roads come in and out of favour.  The original Tyne Bridge was on the the site of the Swing Bridge from which traffic was faced with a steep ascent.  The road turned east to Sandhill, now the site of the Guildhall, and crossed a small stream with a tidal inlet called the Lort Burn.  It then climbed Akenside Hill, once called Butchers Row on account of the many butchers hereabouts, and then doubled back to continue the climb up Pilgrim Street, which led into Northumberland Street.

Newcastle plan from John Speed's 1610 Northumberland map.

The Lort Burn was gradually arched over and by 1686 completely culverted in The Side forming a road on top allowing traffic easier access to Groat Market and by 1789 the Lort Burn in Dean Street was not only culverted but its top built up with clay, stone ash and brick rubble to form a broad surface suitable for carriages. A steady gradient from the bridge and waterfront to Grey Street, now topped by the Grey's Monument, was thus formed.  A right and a left turn led to Northumberland Street and the rest of the Great North Road.  When the High Level Bridge was opened in 1849 a western route round the city centre became easier for through traffic.  Traffic passed St. Nicholas Cathedral, into Groat Market and Bigg Market, along Newgate Street, passed St. Andrews, Newcastle's oldest church, along Percy Street and Haymarket to meet the top of Northumberland Street at Barras Bridge.

The relative importance of the two north-south routes though the city centre, to the east via Pilgrim Street and to the west via Newgate, at different times, is hard to judge.  Traffic associated with the market areas would have taken the western route whilst the gentler gradients leading to Pilgrim Street would have made the eastern route favourable.  Both routes were established at least by medieval times and both led to gates in the northern side of the city walls.

When the new Tyne Bridge was opened in 1928 a direct high level route from Gateshead leading into the top end of Pilgrim Street and Northumberland Street was created.  Traffic now had a clear run through the heart of the city, an unsustainable situation with traffic rising to 80 000 vehicles per day crossing the Tyne Bridge.  The solution was to create an inner city by-pass to the east, a course now followed by the A167(M).  This grade separated junction north of the bridge, obliterating the lower part of Pilgrim Street, marks the start of the motorway standard road.  The road lost its A1 designation with the opening of the Tyne Tunnel in 1967.


For the older routes, Barras Bridge was a focus at the north end of the city centre.  Here was a toll bar by a stream, the Barras Burn; now it is a triangle of grass with a church, a war memorial and a civic centre, all overlooked by an Angel on a tall pillar, commemorating the Boer War, his back facing South Africa and his laurel wreath pointing up the Great North Road.

Across the road from the green lies much of the university and several places to visit.  There's the Playhouse theatre and the Hancock Museum, which has a lot more than the stuffed birds it started with.  Through an archway one enters a beautifully kept quadrangle with an art gallery, the Hatton, tucked in a corner on the right and the Museum of Antiquities secreted in the opposite corner on the left.  This museum is run jointly by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and the university's archeology department.  It houses a great many Roman altars.


The Great North Road appears to come to a sudden stop opposite the Hancock Museum.  Actually the modern road, now the B1318, dives into a cutting to go under the A167 to continue on the old course across the eastern end of Town Moor, meeting the A1, here the Newcastle Western By-pass, by the race-course and then heading for Morpeth.

Even cyclists are banned from Northumberland Street, once part of the Great North Road.

In September 2002, Grey Street was voted, by Radio 4 Today Programme listeners the Best Street in Britain.  This from the Today Programme website:  "Said by many to be amongst the greatest streets in 'England if not Europe', this gently curving and rising street has been 'sensitively restored and improved in the last decade'. One voter describes coming up the steps from the Metro every morning and being 'filled with joy at the sight of the street unfolding'. Another comments, 'the shop fronts may not be original but they are in keeping with the spirit of the original design and fit in very well with the scale of the buildings.' 'A street on a human scale with a grand vision', says another. Although approaching its 170th birthday, the street still works well for pedestrians and traffic alike because it is 'well maintained, has activity day and night and is respected by Geordies and visitors alike'. Design, maintenance and activity in perfect harmony, it seems to us."

Iain Anderson, on his motoring trip from Scotland in 1935, gives us this experience: "Newcastle introduced us to Belisha Beacons, those marigolds of the streets.  I recollected all I had read of the respective rights of motorists and pedestrians and decided that exceptional caution must be taken with those pedestrian lanes.  Entering Newcastle from the north, we received our first impression of the disregard of those beacons.  Stopping the car to allow some pedestrians to cross one of these safety zones, our attention was suddenly drawn to a motor-car behind us by its urgent and persistent hooting.  We continued to stand until the pedestrians were clear of the car, then moved forward, signaling to the motorist behind to pass us.  As he did so we literally received a broadside of abuse for loitering - and that is the impression gained of how count­less motorists regard Belisha Beacons.  They seem to be street ornaments - unless there is a policeman in sight."





It was a memorable 3 days' period when the first Stuart King of England came south to Newcastle, with the claim to wear a second crown.  Upon the many occasions that this northern city has cheerfully entertained its chosen royal guests, none were so wonderful as that of the Spring of 1603.

James VI of Scotland was great grandson of Margaret Tudor who had travelled so joyfully upon the Great North Road, to become Queen of Scotland in 1503.

It was upon a Saturday night of that particular Springtime that James lay peacefully in his bed at Holyrood Castle.  Startling news reached him that a stained rider had brought him important news.  Sir Robert Carey was then led to his bedside.  He had spurred desperately all the way from London in order to be first to tell James Stuart of the Queen Elizabeth.  Kneeling humbly he informed this king of Scotland that he was now heir to the English Crown.

On the next morning, Sunday, James attended service at the High Church of Edinburgh, and after the service he addressed the people, telling them the great news.  Thereupon he promised to visit Scotland at periods of a year or two, to see that every subject had justice.  Three days later James was proclaimed King of England, Scotland and Ireland, at the Cross of Edinburgh.

After another two days he began his spectacular procession to London.  A month was spent in getting there.  At the spot where the route entered each county the royal party was met by a gathering of noblemen and gentry. These accompanied the procession to the boundary of that particular county.  All jails in these counties released their prisoners excepting murderers and traitors

At Stamford Hill the new king and his party were welcomed by the Lord Mayor and Alderman of London, also a huge body of citizens all mounted.  Amidst great rejoicing James was crowned King at Westminster.

That, at least for Bessie Garfoot-Gardner in her description of the Great North Road "Between two Crowns", was key moment in Newcastle's history.

Margary: ...Roman bridge, Pons Ælius, over the Tyne to the fort upon Hadrian's Wall at Newcastle... Ælius represents the family name, Ælianus, of the Emperor Hadrian, and the bridge stood upon the site now occupied by the Swing Bridge.  Traces of Roman bridge were found during reconstruction work, and it appears to have had stone piers, but probably a timber superstructure, with a roadway about 18 feet wide.

The Gentlemans' Magazine of 1859 (New Series Vol.VI,p.58) records a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries held on December 1st 1858 at the Castle of Newcastle.  There was an unusually large attendance to hear John Hodgson Hinde, Esq.,  read a paper,  "On the Old North Road".

Eating out in Newcastle - we had a really excellent curry at the Thali in Dean Street and an amazingly good value for money Indian meal at the Salaam Bombay in St. Andrew's Street.

North from Newcastle, the Great North Road runs along the eastern edge of the Town Moor into Gosforth High Street, now designated the B1318.  (Gosforth used to be called Bulmers Village).  The old road meets the A1, in the form of the Newcastle Western Bypass, at the western end of Newcastle Racecourse but continues northwards through Wide Open and then as Front Street through Seaton Burn.  The new A1 takes a straight course between Wide Open and Brunswick Village and keeps west of Seaton Burn.  The junction just north-west of Seaton Burn sees the return of the A19 which left the A1 on the northern outskirts of Doncaster to take an eastern line through Selby, York, Thirsk, Teesside and the Tyne Tunnel.  The junction is called Seven Mile House after a house just beyond the seventh milestone from Newcastle.  This is about a mile north of another house called Six Mile Bridge which stood just north of the sixth milestone.  A bridge over the Seaton Burn, a little to the south, is called Six Mile Bridge.  The Great North Road between Six Mile House (the house) in Seaton Burn (the village) and Six Mile Bridge (the Bridge) over Seaton Burn (the burn) is called Bridge Street.  I hope that's clear.




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©Biff Vernon 2001, 2002