Great British Roads - A1: London - Edinburgh The first mile: Barbican - Islington
Road begins: Aldersgate (Museum of London)
Britain's most important trunk road starts somewhere rather unimportant. This wasn't always the case. The A1 used to begin outside St Paul's Cathedral, following an old coaching road north up St Martin's-le-Grand, past Little Britain and past the site of the magnificent Victorian General Post Office. That was before the IRA came along, causing City authorities to erect 'the ringof steel' in the mid 1990s. The A1 now starts a few yards past an unstaffed security checkpoint at a shadowy characterless roundabout. A circular brick island rises up in the centre of the roundabout - this the well-hidden entrance to the Museum of London (which is well worth a visit, by the way). And the A1 heads north from this lonely spot, unlabelled, unsigned, unnoticed.
This is Aldersgate, a medieval street once the site of one of the seven gates into the old city of London. There's nothing medieval about the road today, however. Here lies the Barbican estate, a sprawling monument to 60s architecture complete with arts centre, lake, tall towers and a baffling labyrinth of concrete walkways. I looked into renting one of the two thousand posh flats here when I moved down to London, but a quick check of my bank balance soon put an end to my dreams. Those with deeper pockets might appreciate the huge residents' car park beneath the Barbican, from where it's easy to slip one's BMW or Bentley out onto the deserted A1. A little further up the road lies the rather less affluent Golden Lane Estate, the northernmost outpost of the City of London. Weekly rents here are only in double figures, and rows of grimy net curtains betray the fact that the residents here are more likely to be cleaning under a desk in some financial institution rather than sitting at one.
A griffin on a pedestal near the junction with Old Street marks the shift from the Square Mile to the London borough of Islington. There's an obvious change as Aldersgate becomes the Goswell Road - lower wealth, lower status but not quite lower class. The Hat & Feathers pub (Victorian, yellow and ornate) has long closed down through lack of business, and there's a gaping scar behind which has been taken over as a makeshift NCP car park. For a few hundred yards the A1 is lined by small shops and services, including Dennis Motor Accessories, Nicola Jane (mastectomy wear) and Spunkies Imaging (they look quite legit, don't worry). But after Kings Square Garden (think dog waste bins, patchy grass and pigeons) the A1 opens out and heads rapidly downmarket, bordered by boxy modern tenements and one very ordinary tower block. You wouldn't imagine such social housing to exist so close to the financial centre of town, but a lot can change in a mile.
Mile ends: The Angel, Islington
At the Angel the A1 climbs gently to meet London's Inner Ring Road, the A501, and the road number is signposted for the first time. All of a sudden there is proper traffic, and a bustling busyness that hasn't been present along the road before. Cars whizz round the one-way system, trapping pedestrians on a small triangular island in the middle of the flow. A well-kept clock stands here on a square green pillar in the middle of a pristine flowerbed. On each side is written in gold leaf the name of J Smith& Sons, once eminent local clockmakers, along with their long defunct telephone number - Clerkenwell 1277. Just around the corner Upper Street beckons, and thence the long journey to part of Britain that only really exists on road signs - The NORTH. There are still 408 miles to go until the A1 reaches Edinburgh's Waverley station, but I suspect the finalmile is rather more impressive than the first.