The story of The Great North Road
Why do we even read?
This was the question I was unconsciously turning over whilst spinning through a series of cycling memoirs, trying to find a suitable feature for May's Adventurous Ink.
I read one by a renowned cycle tourer as recommended by a subscriber. It was certainly impressive. What a long distance he covered. So many bandit infested territories bravely cycled through. Such a lot of conquests, and not just in the saddle!
I read one from an author I admired, who really nailed how we sell our souls to the man each time we upload sunset photos to social media instead of just enjoying the view.
And then I read Steve Silk's The Great North Road and felt like I had returned home slightly the wiser, if a little saddle sore, and settled in a comfortable armchair.
And in a way, I had, as his route passed through my home town. But more than mere childhood nostalgia, Steve brought into view something half-remembered but largely ignored, the remarkable history and character of our land. And he did all that simply by setting out to follow the old A1, revelling in its glory days before it was merely a number.
Despite being so far removed from its heyday, Steve does a great job of conjuring the road's historical high points mainly by visiting a series of vintage coaching inns. Or, often, groping through the undergrowth and searching the backstreets seeking vain proof of their existence.
He's aided in his task by the author Charles G Harper, whose quotes from his own 1901 publication, The Great North Road, footnote Steve's journey with echoes from the past. I particularly enjoyed Charles' reflection on Askern, where I grew up, or Askerne as it was apparently known:
Askerne, in a situation of great natural beauty amidst limestone rocks and lakes, and with the advantage of possessing medicinal springs, has been, like most Yorkshire villages, made hideous by it's houses and cottages, inconceivably ugly to those who have not seen what abominable places Yorkshire folk are capable of building and living in...
The great thing about this book is that even though much of this is comfortingly familiar, it still makes you think.
I found myself pondering just how much has changed in the last century, driven mainly by the motor car. It wasn't that long ago that we still ploughed north in horse-drawn coaches travelling not much faster than Steve, who takes 11 steady days to reach Edinburgh.
The transport technology of that era still shapes our high streets today, a realisation that took hold as I cycling along with newly opened eyes. Suddenly I understood the reason for all the archways, now leading onto courtyard carparks and beer gardens, with the converted stables doing a roaring trade in Airbnb'ing overnighters.
So as I reflected, whilst enjoying my third coffee stop on a ride of my own, you don't have to journey to the ends of the earth or perfectly encapsulate profound thoughts to find meaning and connection, and cake, out there.
All you need is a gentle nudge in the right direction, and you're off. Thank you Steve.
Inspired to follow his tracks with a cycle tour of my own, I stopped off in Boroughbridge to see what Steve had to say about the place...
Start any subscription during May to recieve The Great North Road as your introductory book. Use the code FIRSTINK at checkout* and your first one is on me!
*Not available on gift subscriptions