A1-The Great North Road

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The Great North Road struggled to get through Nottinghamshire.  The Romans avoided the area with the north-south alignment of Ermine Street through Lincoln keeping many miles to the east.  The Roman road from Lincoln to Doncaster crossed the Idle at Bawtry and the Fosse Way kept east of the Trent at Newark.

The road from London as far as Markham Moor had been turnpiked by 1726 and by 1765 all the way to Berwick, except for the section from Markham to Doncaster.  From Markham Moor the road ran northwest through West Drayton and on to Barnby Moor and Ranskill leaving Retford a couple of miles to the east.  This route sensibly avoids the lowest ground, running on a slight ridge between the River Idle to the east and the River Ryton to the west.  But it is now marked on maps as “Old North Road” with the Great North Road passing further east through Retford.  Retford had been a market town since the 11th Century and as traffic on the road increased the potential opportunity to commerce in Retford must have been noticed and on January 26th 1757 Retford Corporation applied to their M.P. to bring a Bill to Parliament to turnpike “…from where the old guide post stood upon Markham Common to a bridge upon the North River in Scrooby Parish”Jacskson but via Retford, crossing the Idle close to the market square.  The Act was passed in 1766, local roads became the main highway and the old road between Markham Moor and Barnby Moor never became a turnpike and soon deteriorated.  In 1760 coaches took a whole day from Newark to Doncaster but by 1832 the mail was timetabled to leave Newark at 9.20am, Barnby Moor at 11.49 and arrive at Doncaster at 1.12pm.  Retford’s fortunes must have improved with this road traffic and further enhanced with the opening of the Chesterfield Canal in 1777 and the evidence can been seen in the many fine Georgian buildings around the town centre.  In 1922, Harper predicted a return to the Old Road for the Great North Road's route: "The time seems to be approaching when this original road will be restored, to effect a relief to the heavy traffic through Retford." But this was not to be, though eventually the good burghers of Retford decided that they had too much of a good thing and traffic was diverted onto a ring road to the east of the centre allowing the once Great North Road to become a pedestrian precinct.  And finally the A1 took a westward lurch, across the Old Road to Ranby, now missing Retford by further than ever.

John Piercy, in 1828, writes thus:

"It must be acknowledged, that Retford, standing on the line of the Great North Road, from Edinburgh-to London, is considerably enlivened and benefited by the constant succession of travellers whose business or pleasure may lead them to visit or pass through it. Formerly, however, it did not contribute much to the welfare of the town, but passed across the forest, leaving the present line at Markham Moor, and entering it again at Barnby Moor: from this circumstance may be inferred the paucity of information which we possess respecting the state of the town at different periods of its history, as it was considered out of the course of general tourists, and consequently but little noticed. One traveller, however, seems to have made Retford in his route, - I allude to drunken Barnaby, who, in one of his peregrinations to the north, took up his quarters here, and of which he wrote in his usual rhyming style as follows,

'Thence to Retford, fish I fed on,
And to th’ adage, I had read on,
With carouses I did trim me,
That my fish might swim within me,
As they had done being living
And in the river nimbly diving.'

"About the middle of the eighteenth century, the advantages of bringing the line of the North Road through Retford, became quite apparent to the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood. I find the following minute in the books belonging to the Corporation.

'Jan. 26th, 1757. - It was ordered that the Town Clerk should write to Mr. Bright, the junior bailiff," (who was then in London,) "desiring him in the name of the bailiffs and burgesses to apply to the Members of Parliament; for the Borongh, to bring a Bill into Parliament to make a road or turnpike from where the old guide post stood upon Markham Common, to a bridge upon the North River in Scrooby parish, and that he should wait upon the county members, desiring their concurrence and assistance in getting the same enacted.'

"For some years after this, however, the measure lay dormant, and, as is generally the case in most new undertakings, numerous obstacles presented themselves, which were not fully overcome until the year 1760, when an Act of Parliament was obtained, the preamble of which runs as follows - 'Whereas, the road leading from Bawtry, in the county of York, through Barnby Moor and East Retford, in the county of Nottingham, and from East Retford to the south end of East Markham Common, called the West Moor, where it joins, the Great North Road, leading from London to York; and also the road from Little Drayton, to a certain bridge, called. Twyford Bridge, in the said county of Nottingham, is narrow and ruinous, and cannot be sufficiently repaired, widened, and kept in repair, by the ordinary course of law: May it please, &c.'

"In this Act one hundred and sixty eight trustees are named, out of which two only now survive; these are A. H. Eyre, Esq. of Grove, and his brother the Rev. Archdeacon Eyre, of Babworth. The first general meeting of the trustees was held at Mr. John Booth’s, the Crown Inn, at East Retford, on Friday, May 9th, 1760.

"From this time a new era commenced in the history of this town, and the vivifying rays of commerce began to shed their invigorating influence over the town and neighbourhood. The heavy carriages which were then employed in the conveyance of merchandize, and all letters intended for this part of the country, came direct to the town, and Retford began to assume an additional importance and respectability."

Piercy also sheds light on postal arrangements in the early 19th century:

"The Post Office is situated on the north side of Newgate Street, in a very convenient situation, being only about forty yards from the high road,—it is kept by Miss Elizabeth Barker. Letters from hence are forwarded to the north every noon, and to London, and the south at half-past one every afternoon, (saturdays excepted to the former place.) The office is open every morning at eight o’clock, and continues so until twenty minutes before twelve, it is open again a few minutes before two, and remains so until ten at night. By order of the Post Master General, a penny extra is charged upon every letter (besides the postage) delivered at the residence of the person belonging to the same.  Immediately on the arrival of the North Mails, (at a little before two o’clock;) a Mail Cart which arrives at half-past eleven every morning, is immediately despatched to Worksop, taking letters, parcels, &c. for that place and its immediate neighbourhood."

The Idle Bridge in Retford has had a varied and confused history.  Jackson (op.cit.) suggests that a new five-arched, 13 feet wide, stone bridge replaced the wooden one at the end of the 17th Century.  But he later reports its 1793 collapse, “despite renewal of some of its timbers in 1752” and 1794 rebuilding, 31 feet wide and 18 feet longer.  John Piercy again:

“The Bridge which crosses the Idle and connects the parishes of East and West Retford, was partly re-built, and considerably widened, in 1794, under the superintendence of Mr. Simpson, the architect.  It now consists of five arches, and although it cannot boast of any peculiar elegancies, it is sufficiently spacious and substantial to answer all the purposes for which it was erected.  So insecure and dangerous had the old bridge become, that in 1793 a waggoner, from the shaking of his team, was actually precipitated into the water, owing to the giving way of the sole of the bridge.”

But the bridge was not substantial enough, I fear, and there has since been a further rebuild.    There are now only four arches with the water flowing under the central two. These are faced on the upstream side with what may be Mr. Simpson’s stonework. The side arches are for floodwater only, being somewhat above the normal water level.  The substance of the bridge is now blue engineering bricks supporting iron beams under the roadway though 18th century looking thin red bricks are used on the floor of the flood spillways and form an arched culvert which takes the west bank flood channel under the garden of the house downstream of the bridge.  It appears a peculiar feature but once there was a water mill here and so it may have formed a mill race.  The eastern arch has been half blocked by a roadway whose supporting wall clearly post-dates the arch.  One cannot help wondering whether the arrangement does not significantly impede the flow in times of flood. This is not what the medieval bridge builders designed.  Even at low water the stream rushes through the two channels as if it is restricted.  I doubt whether it is now sufficiently spacious for times of flood.

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Idle Bridge, Retford, looking downstream.

Only the middle left arch is medieval stone.

    wpe24.jpg (51619 bytes) Looking upstream at the eastern arch, probably 1794 brickwork, but with the floodway partly obstructed by a later wall.


Lets get back to the Old North Road.  From the Markham Moor roundabout on the A1 take the A638 Retford road. This is the post 1776 Great North Road. Almost at once take the left fork for West Drayton just past the Markham Moor Inn.  This is the pre 1776 Old North Road though here it is called Old London Road. 

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There is a most peculiar feature standing on the grass by the road junction.  I don’t know what it is but here's a picture.  Make of it what you will.  Webster has a photo of it in his book but merely points out that the Markham Moor Inn now seems to face the wrong way what with the modern A1 running to the southeast side on the inn while the Great North Road ran the other side.  He does not mention the stone erection.  Writing in 1901, Harper is only slightly more informative: "At Markham Moor...a battered pillar of grey stone with a now illegible inscription stands.  This may or may not be the 'Rebel Stone', spoken of in old county histories as standing by the wayside, bearing the inscription, 'Here lieth the Body of a Rebel, 1746.' " Haines includes a picture of the pillar in her book about milestones and assumes that this is one.  She tells us it is 7 feet 6 inches tall but provides no account of its origin or evidence that it measured the miles.

But both Harper and Haines may have it wrong.  I appears that the Rebel Stone is not the one standing at Markham Moor, but stands to the south of Tuxford.

Looking half a mile south west from the Markham Moor roundabout, one sees, solitary on its hill, a classical masterpiece of a building with a domed tower. All Saints church & Milton Mausoleum was designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1833 by the 4th Duke of Newcastle in memory of his wife, Georgiana. The East end transepts entered through a grand porch, were intended to serve as a mausoleum for his family.  (There is another Milton, just north of Cambridge, also with an All Saints Church and a brewery that brews a beer beer called Milton Mausoleum. Don't get confused)

There are some lovely old brick and pantile buildings at West Drayton but stop at the bridge near Eel Pie House.  Here the old road crosses the River Maun over what at first glance looks an ordinary little bridge with iron railings.  But stop, climb over the railings and look under the bridge.  Here is an ancient stone bridge with two pointy arches.  The old bridge was just 12 feet wide but this has been extended to twenty feet by cantilevered ferro-concrete beams laid across the old structure and protruding four feet either side.  The River Maun meets the River Meden west of West Drayton to form the Idle. 

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Not many people see this medieval bridge.

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New bridge on the Old Road while the traffic croasses the Meden 100 yards upstream.

The Old North Road crosses the Meden just by the A1 but there is no sign here of old stonework.  The bridge is a neat piece of very late 20th Century brickwork.  Neat brickwork but I’m not so sure about the design.  The arches look a lot smaller than the bank-full river channel.  I bet it would impede the flow in a flood.  I wonder what this bridge replaced.

The next bridge, on the River Poulter, is called Twyford Bridge.  Described in the 1760 Turnpike Act as ruinous, it was replaced at some stage by the iron bridge, now tucked away inaccessibly a few yards east of the A1 southbound carriageway.  The Environment Agency maintains a gauge to measure water flow on the River Poulter just before it too joins the Idle.  The gauge site is called Twyford Bridge so the name lives on.

Twyford Bridge, Photo by Chris Watson 

Continuing up the Old North Road is tricky.  Rejoining the A1 by the bridge means heading south again to Markham roundabout because you are on the wrong side of the dual carriageway.  And when you get back you still can’t get on the old road because Gamston airport has been built on top of it.  Take a diversion through Elkesley instead.  It was on the Worksop Road but came to be on the A1, with the dual carriageway skirting uncomfortably close to the northern edge of the village when the A1 moved from its Retford route to run further west, past Ranby and Blyth to the Doncaster motorway by-pass, opened in July 1961.  Elkesley's pub, The Robin Hood, reminds us that we are at the edge of what is left of Sherwood Forrest.

Out of Elksley and northbound on the A1 take the first on the right for Ordsall and in half a mile we regain the Old North Road.  At the crossroads is the Jockey House, which deserves a page of its own. 

South of Jockey House (and Jockey Cottage and Jockey Barn, the place now being divided in various residences) the Old North Road, here made of concrete, must have served as a rear entrance for Gamston Aerodrome.  It is now abandoned and overgrown with moss and grass.

North of Jockey House the Road makes a quiet green lane, a narrow strip of tarmac bordered by wide grass verges between the boundary hedges.  There is a section, of about half a mile, between where the Road crosses the B420 and A620that has not been maintained for a long time.  The tarmac is broken and partly buried in sand as it rises up a steepish slope.  Nature is winning and the County Council has seen fit to make the area, known as Green Lane a Nature Reserve.  Leave your car behind and walk this part of the Old North Road.  Maybe it looks much as it did 300 years ago.  (Ignore the electricity pylons.)

Across the A620 the Road passes the extravagant barbed wire architecture of a prison and then proceeds more peacefully with the road again bordered by wide verges.  Stop a while just over the Chesterfield Canal bridge.  This was Barnby Wharf, once busy with boats carrying Derbyshire lead ore under sail of Retford canvas.  There’s room to park and share your picnic with the ducks.

At Barnby Moor we rejoin the 1776 turnpike from Retford.  Here are the White Horse Inn and Ye Old Bell, which 50 years ago was called The Bell Inn.  It is certainly old.  It was trading in 1680, and throughout the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries it was called the Blue Bell.

During the heyday of the coaching era the Bell became one of the foremost inns on the Great North Road.  George Clark ran the business for the first 40 years of the 19th century.  He owned both the Bell and the smaller White Horse as well as surrounding farmland to provide fodder for the 200 horses used at the inns and for his bloodstock business.  Clark was a horse breeder and dealer renowned throughout the country.  Barnby Moor is 14 miles from Doncaster, a long stage but the road was level and good and just short enough to avoid having to change horses at Bawtry, though some changed just short of Doncaster at Rossington Bridge.  In an attempt to compete, Thomas Fisher moved his coaching business from the Swan in Bawtry to Scrooby Top.  Clark died in 1842, shortly after selling the inns and farm and just before the railway would put a stop to coaching.  The Bell, deprived of its locational advantage, closed but reopened as a hotel for motorists in 1906 and has since expanded its accommodation into the former stable blocks.

The Blue Bell at Ranskill

The Great North Road continues as the A638 to Torworth and Ranskill.  It’s a wide road, fit for Edinburgh, but with not much traffic now that the A1 lies a mile or two to the west. Not so much trade for the Huntsman at Torworth or The Blue Bell at Ranskill now.

Before we leave Nottinghamshire, how about a diversion?  Just a few miles westward and 12 000 years back in time takes us to the Upper Paleolithic of Creswell Crags.

Of course most folk will not be taking the scenic routes of the Great North Road through Retford or the Old North Road through nowhere much let alone searching out their Paleolithic ancestors but will be sticking to the A1.  So lets follow it for a while.  Several roads meet at the Markham Moor roundabout: the B1164 (old Great North Road from Tuxford), the A57 from Lincoln, the A638 (Great North Road to East Retford), a minor road to Milton and The A1 itself.  33000 vehicles per day use this roundabout and the Highways Agency has now (February 2003) published proposals to make this a grade separated junction.  Worryingly, the A1 become elevated on an embankment and flyover a pair of dumbbell roundabouts.  Worryingly because this may prove a noisy solution.  Much quieter to put the fast road in a cutting.  The HA says "There will be no change in noise levels to adjoining property".  We'll see, (or hear).  Leaving the A1 at ground level and raising the other roads is the proposal for a similar scheme at Appleyhead, the next roundabout, five miles to the north-west, where the A57 leaves Worksop bound and we are joined from the south by the A614.  This roundabout is even busier, at 35000 vehicles per day, revealing the importance of the A614.  And this is nothing new.  This road connects Nottingham with the A1 and was an ancient alternative Great North Road.  With the eastern route unreliable in wet winter weather a route that crossed the Trent at Nottingham has long been a significant alternative, running on less muddy ground though penetrating the heart of Sherwood Forest. Despite the straightness of the A614 south from Appleyhead to Olllerton, this road is not thought to have a Roman origin, nor was it one of the 100 'Principal Roads' included in Ogilby's Britannia.


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