Great British Roads - A5: London - Holyhead The first mile: Edgware Road
Road begins: Marble Arch
The A5 begins in the dead centre of town. Not the middle, you understand, but at the TyburnTree - site of London's public executions for more than six centuries. More than fifty thousand criminals were hung here, originally from the branches of a tree beside the Tyburn river but later from a purpose-built wooden tripod of death. A memorial to these notorious gallows is paved into a traffic island at the very bottom of the Edgware Road, just to the left of the white van in the photo (and if you want to know more, I wrote all about the gruesome goings on here last year). The most famous landmark in the vicinity today is MarbleArch, originally designed by John Nash as a triumphant entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its existing location when the palace was extended in 1851. Of greater personal significance, however, are the hallowed seats of the OdeonMarble Arch on the corner with Oxford Street, the first London cinema I ever visited (to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks when I was an awestruck child of six).
Like the A2, the A5 follows the Roman road of Watling Street, of which this is the start of the northern section. The road from Marble Arch to the edge of the suburbs is the longest straight line in London, never once deviating to left or right for a full twenty miles. The first mile is a cosmopolitan shopping street, although probably not one you'd go out of your way to visit. Unless you were Lebanese, that is. There's a distinctly Arabian flavour to the very bottom of the A5 - perfect for stocking up on pomegranates, using your Bank of Kuwait cashpoint card or smoking aromatic tobacco out of some mysterious piped bottle. It'll be a handy local high street for Middle Eastern electioneer Tony Blair when he eventually retires and moves into his new townhouse just round the corner in Connaught Square. The local school is the architecturally innovative HampdenGurneyPrimary, a six-storey circular glass and brick tower with the hall in the basement and a sheltered playground on the roof. A few hundred yards further along, beside the hotel with possibly the worst view in London, the Marylebone Flyover cuts across the Edgware Road like a concrete wound. The elevated multi-lane A40Westway is a reminder of the twisted nightmare that the old Roman A5 could have become, but thankfully hasn't.
Directly north of the flyover is Paddington Green police station, the secure strongbox where Britain's most dangerous criminals and suspectedterrorists are locked away. Paddington Grey would be a more appropriate name. The shopping street continues, but it's now more markets and poundstores than Marks & Spencers. Here you'll find Church Street Market, Westminster's largest collection of stalls and traders, selling all the useful everyday stuff that Portobello doesn't. I watched one shopper in a dirty black anorak emerge from the market wielding a bottle of cheap perfume. She stood in full public view on the pavement and sprayed herself from top to bottom with the fake scent, masking one unpleasant smell with another, then shuffled off in the general direction of the tube station. I proceeded up the gentle hill until the shops ran out.
Mile ends: Regent's Canal, Maida Vale
The shops run out exactly one mile up the A5, at which point a miraculous transformation takes place. In the space of just a few yards, across a short bridge, the road suddenly becomes an extremely desirable place to live. Here the Edgware Road renames itself as upmarket residential Maida Vale and there isn't another shop to be seen. This is one of the few areas of London to be named after a pub - in this case "The Hero of Maida Vale" (in turn named after an 1806 Napoleonic battle). The border into respectability is marked by the Regent'sCanal, seen in this photo heading off towards LittleVenice (although I thought that there was more than a hint of Amsterdam here instead). Houseboats and expensive terraced villas line the waterway, while well-heeled ladies (wearing expensive perfume) take yappy canine triplets for walkies along the towpath. I reckon there's a whole new series of posts to be written about the canals of London but, for the time being, my trunk road trip ended here.
Road continues: Maida Vale, Kilburn High Road, Shoot Up Hill, Cricklewood Broadway, Hendon, Edgware, [15 mile gap past Watford], Harpenden, Dunstable, Milton Keynes, Towcester, [Watford Gap], Nuneaton, Tamworth, Telford, Oswestry, Llangollen, Betws-y-coed, Bangor, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Holyhead.