A1-The Great North Road

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The Great North Road from Thirsk to Northallerton is now the A168, relatively quiet now, now that a new north road in the shape of the A19(T) completes a dual carriageway from the A1 at Dishforth to the A1 north of Newcastle.  John Wesley had something to say about this road, but let's step back a couple of millennia.  The Roman road from the south, sometimes known as Malton Street, went through Old Thirsk on the east side of that town, crossing the Cod Beck between North and South Kilvington.  There is a mile long straight stretch of the A168, past Street House leading to Thornton-le-Street but then things get confused.  Margary describes the route clearly and the road can be followed on the ground as a public footpath from Crosby Grange to Crosby Court leaving Thornton-le-Beans to the west. A minor road takes the line through Bullamoor, two miles east of Northallerton.  Near here, at Castle Hill, there is thought to have been a Roman signal station.  North of the A684 another minor road, known as Long Lane, takes up the Roman line as it heads towards the Tees near Middleton St. George, where County Durham is entered.

The confusion at Thornton-le-Street is illustrated by Warburton, on his 1720 map of Yorkshire. He prefers to send the Roman road from Thirsk to the west of Northallerton, through Romanby and then via Langton and Kipling Hall along the north east side of the River Swale, to meet Dere Street north of Catterick Bridge.  Armstrong's map of 1776, also draws the Roman line west of Northallerton, through Romanby and along the north-east bank of the River Swale, a route not recognized by Margary.  This route certainly makes less sense than one that leads clearly towards Durham, Chester-le-Street and Newcastle, with the frequently encountered evidence of minor roads, green lanes, footpaths, hedges and parish boundaries along the line.  Perhaps Armstrong just copied Warburton without checking on the ground, his main focus being the turnpike route, but what led Warburton to mark this Roman road for which we have a dearth of evidence and omit the northerly route described by Margary?

Codrington lends a little support, for he describes: "...a Roman road shown on Warburton's map from the north of Stamford Bridge, through Sutton-le-Forest, Easingwold, Thirsk, and Northallerton, and joining Erming Street on the north of Catterick.  It is marked by Warburton on his map as visible through Thormanby and by Thirsk to Northallerton, and he mentions it in a letter to Gale as more entire from Easingwold to Thirsk.  It was faintly distinguishable at the beginning of last century between Thirsk and Northallerton, and there seem to have been some remains between the latter town and Catterick."

And Langdale's Yorkshire Dictionary  of 1822 gives us: "ROMANBY, ... A small pleasant village, which derived its name from the Roman road passing by it", or is that just too obvious?  Another explanation of the Romanby place name derives from a Viking called Hromund.

Codrington does acknowledge the easterly road as well: "Another Roman road seems to have branches northwards from the Thirsk and Catterick road near Thornton-le-Street. At about two and a half miles north of the latter place a parish boundary begins to follow a lane, first for two miles, and then on in the same line for half-a-mile, then nearly the same line is taken up by a lane and a parish boundary to Bullamoor, and after a break of one and a quarter miles, boundaries continue in a straight line from Hallikeld for five miles to the Wiske river, lanes following the same line for most of the way. After a gap of a quarter of a mile the line is taken up by a lane, joined in five-eighths of a mile by parish boundaries which follow it for two and a half miles almost to the river Tees. For 123 miles the indications of a Roman road are thus evident, and on the north side of the Tees a line of highways continues on nearly due north for about eight miles, by Fighting Cocks, with boundaries along it for two miles, and on by Street House and Stanton-le-Street. This would give a road to the north on the east of the rivers Ouse and the Swale, in the direction of Chester-le-Street."

And Cade said that the Rycknild street separated from the road leading to Catterick, and stretched in a direct line by Sowerby crossed the Tees at Sockburn. The road is sometimes referred to as Cade's Road, Rycknild Street being the name of a Roman road from the West Midlands. Cade was an 18th century antiquarian who first identified it as the principal north-south route through Roman East Durham leading up to Newcastle.


The Spotted Dog

A hundred years ago Harper described this view as "...the remains of a huge old posting establishment, once familiar to travellers as the 'Spotted Dog', standing on either side of the road. One side appears to be empty, and the other is now the post office."   In Baines's Directory of 1823 it is listed as the plain 'Dog', no spots but by 1890 in Bulmer's directory it had become the 'Old Spotted Dog', now occupied by a farmer not a victualler, so presumably closed.


Thornton Stud occupies the grounds of the now demolished Thornton-le-Street Hall. The west gate still stands, a memorial to Wellington.  For other reminders of the Napoleonic Wars along the Great North Road see Norman Cross, Felton and Edinburgh.

Photo by Stephen Powell of Yorkshire Racing

Just north of Thornton-le-Street a side road to the east crosses the Cod Beck, which runs close to the Great North Road here, by a fine old bridge.

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Romanby Packhorse Bridge

Roman road or no, there is an ancient packhorse bridge close to the supposed Roman line at Romanby over the Brompton Beck, a tributary of the Wiske, which itself flows south into the Swale.  The Wiske runs close to the Great North Road branch from Topcliffe to Northallerton for many miles.  Thanks to Northallerton-Online for the photo, by Ian Tyerman, of the bridge.


"This town being situated on the great northern road, an immense number of post-horses were maintained for the accommodation of the great northern families travelling to London; those days of prosperity were palmy times for "Mine host"; besides eight stage-coaches which dashed through daily, a great number of carriages and stage-waggons, with their high-piled loads, almost like moving mountains, slowly lumbering along, with their four or six horses, were continually arriving, and had either to stay all night, or bait, necessarily causing a great consumption of oats, hay, and other provisions.  The rejoicing landlords might well exclaim - 'Oh what a glorious thing's a turnpike road!' " So wrote C.F.Davison Ingledew in 1858, only fourteen years after the railway opened.


Northallerton's origin as a town is generally regarded as Saxon, with a stone church built on the site in 885, possibly on the site of an earlier wooden one.  Place name evidence indicates a substantial Viking influence in the ninth and tenth centuries but the area did not fare too well when William arrived here in 1069.  A couple of decades later Domesday still records a lot of 'waste'.  For the next three centuries peace was punctuated with wars with the Scots.  On the Great North Road (A167 here) a couple of miles north of Northallerton, a stone obelisks stands on the eastern roadside.  It commemorates the Battle of the Standard, fought in 1138 on land to the east of the road.

The Battle of the Standard, described in the mid-19th century, according to GENUKI"David King of Scotland, entering the English territory, ravaged Northumberland, Durham, and the northern parts of Yorkshire, in a merciless manner, and advancing to the very gates of York, encamped before that city. In this emergency, Thurstan, Archbishop of York, who was Lieutenant Governor of the northern parts of the kingdom, summoned the warlike nobles to the defence of their country. The barons having assembled their followers, ranged themselves under the command of Ralph, Bishop of the Orkney Islands, Thurstan's Lieutenant, and Walter L'Espec, and William de Albemarle. On hearing of this armament, the Scottish king retired from before York, while the barons advanced to Northallerton. On Cuton Moor in this parish they erected their standard, which was a tall mast, fixed in a huge chariot, upon wheels, having at the top a pix, with a consecrated host, and a cross, from which were suspended the banners of St. Peter, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfred. the Bishop made an oration to the army, and at the conclusion pronounced absolution of their sins to all that should fall in the war. The English, thus encouraged, waited the approach of the enemy. The Scots, relying on their superiority of numbers, rushed on to the attack; but although the King of Scotland and his son, Henry, gave, on this occasion, the most astonishing proofs of valour and intrepidity, their army was totally routed, with the loss of 10,000 men, and they were glad to retire to their own country with the shattered remains of their forces. The battle was fought on the 23d of August, 1138, and from the excitation produced by the chariot-mounted banners, obtained the designation of The Battle of the Standard."

April 5th 2002

The new gilded slate plaque is put into position on the Battle of the Standard monument on the Great North Road a couple of miles north of Northallerton by stonemasons, Mick & Matthius, from Dick Reid of York.


The design for the new plaque is based on medieval drawings representing the ship's mast and cart used to carry the flags or Standard.  These pictures are from the Ælreous manuscript, Historia de bello Standardi, a printed version of which was published in 1652 in Twysden's Decem Scriptores.


At the north end of town there is a pub called the Standard with an elaborate sign.  Ignore the setting, it's just a terraced house opposite a supermarket and car tyre dealer.  But inside it's a lovely old pub with good beer from Black Sheep of Masham, excellent pub grub and a fine collection of old photos of the town and information about the Battle of the Standard.

However terrible, the Anglo-Scottish Wars were an intermittent affair and it was almost two centuries later in 1318, during the reign of Edward II, that the town was sacked and the parish church burned by an invading Scots army, after the Scots' victory at Bannockburn.  The castle, founded in 1130, was destroyed on orders of the King after an unsuccessful rebellion in 1176. The bailey of the castle still remains, in a field off Springwell Lane.

Nearby, the Bishops palace lasted rather longer.  Built in about 1200 at the site of the present town cemetery, it was used as a hostel for passing kings for the next four hundred years but was uninhabitable by the time Charles I called by in 1641, so he stayed at Porch House, built in 1584, and now one of the oldest houses in Northallerton.  Charles returned six years later but as the prisoner of the Parliamentary Commissioners.  The Porch House is still open for Bed and Breakfast.

The 18th century saw the refurbishment of much of the Northallerton road frontages with pleasant Georgian architecture while the population was crowded around narrow passages or yards behind, in what for a long time remained virtually a one-street town.  But fashions of what makes good housing change and through the 1950s and 60s we find much of the yards demolished and an enormous development of council housing.  On the modern 1:50000 OS map, the words 'HM Youth Custody Centre' are printed across the estate.  Not that there is any connection.

Some folk took pains to search out a bit of peace and quiet.  Mount Grace Priory was one of the few Carthusian monasteries in England.  A part of the ruins was rebuilt a century ago and recently further restored to show how the monks lived in individual two storey 'cells', each with a little enclosed garden.  The priory lies east of the A19 between the junctions with the A684 and A172, just far enough off the road for the monks' peace and quiet to be preserved.  It may have been a busy place two centuries ago when the drovers brought their Scottish cattle past but it is tranquil enough now to be a good spot for stoat watching.  A substantial colony of this pretty little mammal makes use of the medieval drains and the abundance of rabbit hunting.

The Priory was supplied with water from St John's Well, in the wood to the south-east of the Priory.  Grainge, in his History of the Vale of Mowbray states that young ladies cast bent pins stuck through ivy leaves into the water whilst thinking of the wish most dear to their heart.  The wish, if kept secret would surely come to pass. 

This milestone is just south of the Standard monument on the west side of the road.  There are two more along the road northwards.  Triangular cast iron milestones were introduced early in the 19th century.  The plain V-plan without vertical headplate was, according to Haines, more common in the latter half of the century but after 1888, when County Councils took over responsibility for roads, one might expect the lettering NRYCC for North Riding of Yorkshire County Council to appear.  A bit of paint would not come amiss.  There are four similar posts between Topcliffe and Northallerton.


Close to the site of this milestone, Ogilby's 1675 map shows a couple of sharp bends in the road just north of Northallerton and the kink was still evident on Armstrong's 1776 map.  By this time there was a toll bar two miles further along at Lovesome Hill.  At some stage the kink had been straightened out for the A167 has only the gentlest of curves.

Across the Wiske, lies the village of Yafforth, birthplace of Thomas Rymer, appointed Historiographer Royal to William III in 1692 and author of the Fœdera.

At Little Smeaton the A167 crosses the River Wiske by a modern bridge but the lay-by on the west side of the road runs over the old bridge, approached by a stone causeway across the flood plain.  Does white van man appreciate 18th century civil engineering?

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Wisk Bridge

Great Smeaton has two pubs, the Black Bull and the Bay Horse, each with a history of a couple of centuries but a third, The Blacksmith's Arms, was the coaching inn and post office in pre-railway days but it closed and was converted to cottages in the mid 19th century.  There was only room for a few horses but the faster mail coaches used it for a short seven mile stage from Northallerton.

Great Smeaton is followed to the north by High Entercommon, eight miles north of Northallerton by the milestones.  Here was once a turnpike gate and an inn, the Golden Lion, now long gone but once used by stage coaches that passed Great Smeaton but required a shorter stage than could be offered by Croft.  A little further on, at Low Entercommon, the road turns sharply to the west but a minor road, known as Entercommon Lane, continues northwards.  It seems likely that this was the early route of the Great North Road, perhaps until the mid-18th century, when the present road to Croft gained favour.

Dalton-on-Tees, according to Harper, "...shows little to the passer-by on the Great North Road," and now shows even less since the roads takes a gentle curve on the west side of the village instead of the old sharp turns through the village.  Just to the south-west, across the railway, is Croft Aerodrome, war time home to Canadian Bomber Squadron 419 (Moose), and since 1964 a motor racing circuit.

All the way from Northallerton to the Durham border at Croft-on-Tees the A167, once the Great North Road, is a wide road with broad grass verges.  The edge of the tarmac carriageway is marked by small stone blocks, set at an angle to form a sloping kerb, a feature which gives the road a character unobtainable with concrete kerb-stones.  I hope these blocks gain listed building status.  


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