FROM its origins in Roman times, through the regular historic skirmishes between England and Scotland and the mailcoach travel of the 18th and 19th centuries, to today’s high-speed concrete highway, the Great North Road has remained a vital artery connecting London to the faraway towns.
And a new book by pre-eminent beer writer Roger Protz celebrates the coaching inns which still serve weary travellers along the route. For though it now takes the more prosaic title of A1– and in places A1M – and though the journey is quicker and no longer beset by highwaymen, the Great North Road is still an artery of refreshment, sustenance and rest.
In Doncaster, he visits the 18th century Red Lion in the Market Place. It is now a Wetherspoons, but still has many of the features which would have made it a welcome stop for hardy passengers on the mail coach, three days into their four-day journey to York. 15 rooms upstairs still provide overnight accommodation; a passageway leads to the rear where once the horses would have found their own respite. Elland and Daleside breweries provide liquid recuperation too.
The Angel in Ferrybridge was once considered one of the finest on the whole route; the great Scots writer Walter Scott would once meet his London agent at the nearby Swan; Dickens wrote parts of Nicholas Nickleby while staying at the Greyhound. All three are long gone, though many in York remain to remind us of those days long before the power stations and three-lane motorways.
Of these, Protz highlights just four. First is the Blue Boar in Castlegate, where Richard III spent a last night of comfort before travelling towards his death at Bosworth Field; then there’s the ornately fronted Golden Fleece in Pavement, allegedly the most haunted inn in the country. At the Old White Swan in Goodramgate, where the stagecoach bar recalls its historic role, he delights both in the Georgian spendour of the dining room – and in the choice of eight real ales on the bar. He notes that the gorgeous Olde Starre in Stonegate opened as Cromwell’s forces laid siege to the city.
From here, he follows a curious dogleg in the route to reach Wetherby, half way from London to Edinburgh, and home to the imposing Swan and Talbot where hearty pub dining and beer from local favourites like Rudgate, Leeds, Black Sheep and Timothy Tayor breweries maintain a tradition of hospitality which stretches back more than 400 years.
Boroughbridge, just a short hop from the modern day motorway, was once an important stopping point on the route, where the Great North Road crossed the River Ure. The Crown in Horsefair, now a plush hotel with a sauna and swimming pool, nonetheless retains the huge oak beams, stone walls and mullioned windows which would have been familiar to coachman Hosea Eastgate whose “New Genteel Two-End Glass Coach Machine” first set out from here in 1754 on route for Soho. But, never a big fan of saunas, Protz is rather more taken by the simpler pleasures of the Black Bull in St James Square with its John Smith and Boltmaker ales.
From here the route heads due north to the impressive brick fronted Golden Fleece and palatial Three Tuns in Thirsk’s market place, and onward to Golden Lion and Black Bull in Northallerton – before heading out of the county and into the wilds of the far north.
Whether your passion is beer or architecture or history – or somewhere at the intersection of all three, Protz’s book, Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road – a Travellers’ Guide to their past and Present, is a fabulous read. Priced at £12.99 it’s available in good bookshops and at camra.org.uk