Britain's road numbering system was born 100 years ago on 1st April 1923. This was the date on which the Ministry of Transport published a booklet called "List of Class I and Class II Roads and Numbers", a catchy little tome which alerted the public to these new alphanumeric designations for the first time. Overnight the Uxbridge Road became the A40, Cheadle High Street the A521 and the main road through Withernsea the B1242. These road numbers soon appeared on maps and signposts, which was useful because sales of the booklet had been poor, and they're now embedded in our national psyche.
A selection of road-based media has been celebrating the centenary this weekend, including Highways Magazine, the comprehensive Roader's Digest and the launch of a brand new section on the always-excellent roads.co.uk. Look there for details of the non-intuitive nine sector system, its origins in Napoleon's Routes Impériales and a comprehensive selection of anomalies. I have instead been for a walk.
I chose to walk the Great North Road... or as it's been known for the last the century the A1, the road with Britain's premier alphanumeric code. I didn't walk all the way to Edinburgh, just the first six miles from the City to the obvious place to pause. And rather than regurgitate a familiar travelogue I've chosen to tell the tale of the A1 through the classified roads it meets, from the aforementioned A40 to the downgraded B519.
A40: St Martin's Le Grand A1211: London Wall
The A1 kicks off somewhere understated, the Rotunda roundabout outside the defunct Museum of London. It had a few other starting points in the early days including Bank road junction and the historic edge of the City at Aldersgate Bars, but the arrival of the Ring of Steel in the 1990s shifted it here. This postmodern roundabout has walls of brick and glass, a roof of concrete and a pointless central pavement that loops nowhere. None of the exit roads at this auspicious junction are signposted but one is the A1211 and leads to Liverpool Street, another is the start of the A40 and could take you to Pembrokeshire and one is secretly the road to Edinburgh. The A1 heads north between forgettable office blocks towards the looming hulk of Lauderdale Tower, and those on two wheels are gifted 20 metres of cycle lane before that silently peters out.
B100: Beech Street
At the first junction Britain's first zero-emission street disappears into a tunnel beneath the slab of the Barbican estate. Exhaust-belching is currently permitted while the City consults on making the ban permanent so best enjoy driving down Beech Street while you can. It's also Britain's lowest-numbered B-road and previously blogged, so let's not got through all that again.
A5201: Clerkenwell Road/Old Street
A griffin on a pedestal marks the shift from the Square Mile to the London borough of Islington where we'll be spending the next ten paragraphs. High finance already feels a long way away. The junction with the A5201 is undashably broad and is fronted by a Costa, a Pret, a dead pub and a hospitality furniture supplier called Table Place Chairs. The ex-hostelry ahead is the Hat and Feathers, whose custard yellow Victorian facade conceals the awful truth that it's been 'sensitively converted' into Hotel Indigo Clerkenwell, a bland boxy layover which was an NCP car park the last time I blogged this walk in 2005.
B502: Perceval Street/Lever Street
In barely half a mile the A1 has gone from city hubbub to residential backwater, such are the vagaries of inner Islington. This junction has two mundane corner shops, one of which can't spell its name properly, and also a white bike commemorating a cyclist's death because muted does not equal safe. TfL have ignored the Pear Tree Street bus stop for so long that it has a tile for a bus route that ceased running last summer, a poster for a consultation that ended seven months ago and a warning about strikes that ended last year. Chief amongst the local flats is Turnpike House, immortalised by St Etienne's 2005 album, and the A1 perhaps never gets more lowly than this.
A501: Clerkenwell Road/City Road A401: St John Street
The Angel is a messy circuitous junction across London's inner ring road, and also the place where the A1 first shouts its name. Turn right ahead, says the sign, for the fabled destination that is The NORTH. That squat green clocktower mid-gyratory features the name of J Smith & Sons, once eminent local clockmakers, although their telephone number Clerkenwell 1277 no longer connects. The junction is named after the famous Angel pub which stood on this street corner for three centuries before being replaced by a hotel which has since been occupied by a Co-Op. The Wetherspoons nextdoor has the right name but the wrong building.
B515: Liverpool Road
This looks like the turnoff for Chapel Market but is actually a shortcut for the A1, should you choose to take it, deftly dodging Highbury Corner and half a mile of the Holloway Road. You'll know it's reappeared in the narrative when you spot a photograph featuring Arsenal fans tackling a zebra crossing.
A104: Essex Road
Essex Road once merited a significantly low A-road number because it is indeed heading for Essex, eventually expiring in the midst of Epping Forest. A statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton oversees the fork in the road at the head of Islington Green, where I was fortunate enough to come across two pearly kings, the Mayor of Islington and a crew of cadets gathering to celebrate the RAF's 105th birthday. Each to their own. The A1 instead follows Upper Street, a magnet for middle class hospitality, as evidenced by run of ten consecutive food and beverage businesses sandwiched between a pair of estate agents. Gracie Fields lived above the pizza restaurant (although back then it was a sweet shop).
A1199: St Paul's Road A1200: Canonbury Road
That's the longest walk yet between classified road junctions, all the way to Highbury Corner. These days it has three corners having been switched from a gyratory to a squarish chicane, as is TfL's preferred strategic plan. Deroundaboutification has created a central landscaped greenspace called Highbury Island that passers-by generally ignore, partly because it's a bit muddy and leads nowhere but mainly because it's surrounded by choking traffic. Islington's pigeons seem to like it though. The oldest building around here is The Famous Cock, which reassuringly is a pub, but I see they're currently promoting movie-themed Spicy Spellcruster pizzas that look very much like ordinary pepperoni so maybe avoid it like the plague. Holloway Road now beckons.
B515: Liverpool Road
Here's the other end.
A103: Hornsey Road
Blimey that's an even lower significantly-numbered A-Road and this one's only going to Crouch End. It does however pass Arsenal's stadium along the way, and pretty swiftly too, so is of considerable cultural significance. I arrived on the morning of a big match with home supporters already spilling out of Holloway tube station in search of somewhere to while away a few hours with food and multiple pints. A chancer on the street outside was attempting to flog half'n'half scarves emblazoned with Arsenal at one end and Leeds at the other, plus an 01.04.23 date that'd make any leftovers instantly obsolete, with no takers as yet. And oh look, up there on the railway bridge is an LNER service heading to (*checks app*) Edinburgh, and it'll get there much faster than anyone could drive.
A503: Camden Road/Tollington Road/Parkhurst Road/Seven Sisters Road
This next A-Road crosses Holloway Road twice, once heading one west and then again heading east. The A1 feels properly-proportioned now, a broad two-way boulevard between a string of decent high street shops. At the first crossroads you can choose between Sports Direct, Argos and Waitrose, and at the second Carpetright, slot machines and an evacuated former bank, so economically things are going downhill. Numerous prominent signs on lampposts remind drivers that the speed along here is now only 20mph, but it's been that way since 2018 and the traffic hasn't seized up yet. The A1 is buzzing here, indeed this may be the busiest retail section anywhere along its length.
A400: Junction Road B519: Highgate Hill
It's a long climb up to Archway where a fiveway junction has been massively re-engineered. A complex roadsign advises A1 traffic of the awkward wiggle they need to make ahead, diverting off before the tube station through a pedestrian precinct infested with pigeons. The Lion, once a bustling Irish pub, has been demoted to a Starbucks. The Archway Tavern no longer has pride of place, that honour now falls to a Wenzel's bakery. A brief section of the original A1 has been paved over and on Saturdays hosts a minor market flogging bread, organic veg and dubious art. Many years ago the Great North Road continued straight ahead and climbed Highgate Hill instead, a steep ascent given B road classification in 1923 to discourage use. We're taking the Highgate bypass instead.
(B540: Hornsey Lane)
Here comes the A1's first flyover, namely Archway Bridge, which carries minor Hornsey Lane over what since 1813 has been a deep and convenient cutting. You can't interchange between the two roads by driving, only climb a fairly vertiginous steps on foot instead. The current iron bridge replaced the original in 1897 and the road has been massively widened since with sufficient room for a bus lane in each direction. A splendid view across the city can be enjoyed on the descent, and also on the ascent if you remember to turn round and look behind you like Dick Whittington.
B550: Muswell Hill Road/Southwood Lane
The long climb that started back at Barbican here reaches its peak on the less snobby side of Highgate. We've just passed the A1's last tube station and are about to pass Highgate Wood, but in the meantime there are chemists, charity shops and a number of hair salons to take your money. The former coaching inn on the corner, The Woodman, is owned by sports glove deodoriser magnate Tom Helliwell and these days is more gastro than pub. The Parkland Walk and Capital Ring pass close by because we're now a long way outside central London. And let's do just one more classified junction before drawing this hike to a close.
B519: North Hill A1000: High Road
The B519 was also the road up Highgate Hill, you may remember, because here's where the original Great North Road veers back towards the modern A1. The junction is an elongated one-way loop with six houses and an Esso garage marooned in the middle, after which the two roads diverge again but more substantially. The original headed towards Finchley and Barnet, a historic road than now carries the designation A1000 as a four-figure nod to the past. The A1 meanwhile morphs into a serious dual carriageway and follows the valley of the Mutton Brook towards Henlys Corner and the North Circular, branching off alongside the terribly ordinary shops on Aylmer Parade. When Britain's roads were first numbered these were just fields, not even a dotted line on the map, but road classification has proven flexible enough to accommodate the Barnet bypass and every other upgrade in the century gone by. It's an A1 system, well worthy of a 100th birthday celebration.