Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Stand and Deliver (Word Wednesday: North)

The word North conjures many images in my mind. It is the direction that cold weather comes from. The United Kingdom is stretched from North to South alongside Europe. For me, in Cornwall, traveling anywhere generally means traveling North. This is my rational explanantion for why the word North immediately conjured up two other words to sit with it, Great and Road.

The story of this road which stretches from London to Edinburgh linking two of the countries of the Kingdom began a long, long time ago. With the Romans.

The Romans liked roads. They had to have them in order to link their grand empire and allow the swift movement of goods and legions. They were the arteries of the empire. The Romans are famed for building straight roads, they didn't go round, they took the straightest route.

One of these roads is know known as Ermine Street or the Old North Road. In 1012 it was called Earninga Straete but it's original Roman name has been lost. The Earningas were a tribe which inhabited the area the road passed through. It began at London and proceeded to Lincoln before ending at York.

From York Dere Street stretches north named for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Deira. It passed through Hadrian's Wall which was built across the width of northern England to keep the Pictish tribes of Scotland. Later on it was called Via Regia or the Royal Way and was used by Scottish pilgrims visiting the ecclesiastical sitesof the border lands between Scotland and England.

After the Romans left their roads remained, stone set in the ground and it is not surprising that the later inhabitants would use them. To be fair it was the ancestors of these people that would have provided much of the labour. Traveling north by the easiest route would have brought people to this road. All those feet would have kept it clear of trees and plants and ensured it's survival.

Towns grew up along the road. Some started as Roman settlements or fortifications while others started after the Romans had long gone. Many villages grew because of the road as they looked after the travellers and it is ironic that these settlements that grew on this road eventually caused it to change it's way. The great A1 road follows much of the route of these two great Roman roads but where the Roman roads went through the towns the A1 has had to bend itself round the towns. In many places the A1 has been upgraded to a motorway with six lanes of traffic. What would the Romans make of it?

I can not talk about this road without talking about the most famous person to make their living from it. For two centuries the the road was used as a stage coach route from 1650s to 1850s. Coaching Inns were successful in the towns along the way and the public stage coaches took paying customers and goods. They changed horses at the coaching Inns and made scheduled stops. As well as these rich Lordly folk used the route in their private coaches. All fantastic prey for highwaymen.

Dick Turpin was the most famous of these and his cultural image has become confused with his partner in crime, the Gentleman Highwayman. Dick was a failed Butcher turned cattle rustler who fell in with the notorious Gregory Gang of ~20 based in Epping Forest. They specialised in robbing isolated dwellings but were eventually tracked down and several gang members were hanged. Turpin escaped through a window.

Dick turned to robbing travellers on the highway and before long was working by himself. One day Turpin attempted to rob a man only to discover it was the Gentleman Highwaymen himself who was equally famous at the time and they became partners. Turpin eventually became a murderer and he also stole the grand horse known as Black Bess.

The horse was Turpin's downfall as it was used to trace Turpin and when surrounded Turpin accidentally shot his accomplice and believing him dead he fled on his horse. The Gentleman Highwayman was not dead, yet, and as he lay dying he told of their hiding places. Turpin returned to his hideout and quickly realised he had to flee. So began his legendary ride from London to York, 200 miles in 15 hours (not very likely) and so reached York before news of his deeds.

Turpin took the name John Palmer and turned to horse breeding but didn't have a clue and turned to rustling again. He was sent to jail as a debtor and from there sent a letter to relatives in Essex. Unfortunately they refused to pay the postage and the letter fell into the hands of the postmaster who had been Turpin's childhood teacher. He recognised the writing and turned Turpin in. Ironically Turpin was hung by a reformed member of the Gregory Gang who had been offered life as a hangman in exchange for a pardon.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant!! I loved the story of Dick Turpin as a child...mostly because of Black Bess!! :)....'twas lovely to revisit it..thank you!!