Great British Roads - A1: Edinburgh - London The (other) first mile: Princes Street - Meadowbank
Road begins: Wellington statue (National Archives of Scotland) At the non-London end, Britain's most important trunk road starts somewhere very central. In the heart of Edinburgh, adjacent to the Balmoral Hotel, at the northern hub of the UK road system. Heading west from this staggered road junction is the start of the A8, heading along Princes Street towards Glasgow. Heading south is the start of the A7, crossing the chasm across Waverley station to the Royal Mile and on to Carlisle. And heading east is the start of the A1, up a hill, with virtually no traffic whatsoever. This way to London. [map]
The first building along Waterloo Place is a restaurant, currently shrouded by scaffolding heralding the arrival of a new Travelodge above. There's a corner shop, not quite on the corner, where they sell all the same cheapo stuff as in Islington (400 miles down the road) plus boxes of souvenir shortbread. And within a few yards there's an ornate bridge over a lesser road below, narrow enough that you might never notice, not unless you were properly studying the streetside architecture. Very tasteful.
The A1 then curves around the flank of CaltonHill. No access up top for car drivers, sorry, but those on foot can ascend the path to the summit and revel in a glorious view across the whole of the city. Every Edinburgh calendar features a snapshot towards Princes Street and the Castle crag - it's the perfect skyline panorama. Another extinct volcanic plug rises to the south - the startling strata of Arthur's Seat - temptingly close but rather tougher to climb. Less geological are the tightly-packed streets rolling down towards the Forth, where you might just catch sunshine on Leith. Or stare closer to home, and enjoy the motley assortment of towers, observatories and unfinished Parthenons that dot the hilltop. Like I say, the view's A1.
The Great North Road continues around the hill, with a sheer drop below, past a government fortress and an old High School built for show. There are two well-weathered cemeteries, one Old, one 'New', their tombs crammed in tight wherever contours allow. And inbetween stands a squat rotunda, resembling a giant pillared urn, bearing witness to the literary talents of Robert Burns. In Regent Gardens there's a very different, verymodern memorial, where 32 chunks of indigenous rock (one from each Scottish local government area) have been laid out in an artificial circle. With the tenement mansions of Regent Terrace strung out alongside, and Arthur's Seat towering opposite, this short stretch of the A1 is an elegant visual treat.
A lowly Bowling Club at the foot of the hill is the first sign of approaching reality. Beyond the turreted wine merchants there's a petrol station, then a string of chiropodists and bookmakers and the like, as the street metamorphoses into "London Road". I can't imagine that anybody driving along here is heading that far - more likely to the car park outside the The Meadowbank Shopping Centre where Sainsbury's and TK Maxx pull in the crowds. We're in proper Edinburgh now, the part that tourists never reach, packed with everyday shops and flats and a Chinese restaurant called Xanadu. Here the A1's a very ordinary road, yet to evolve into a dualled monster, and all the more endearing for it. From one capital to another, it's the one. Mile ends