Norfolk BBC cyclist rediscovers sidelined road

Author Steve Silk with his bike next to a road sign for the Great North Road

Author Steve Silk cycled the 400-mile route ('500 my way') in 11 days - Credit: Hachette Book Group

Exactly a century ago the main road between London and Edinburgh was, says Loddon writer Steve Silk, “quietly steered onto history’s hard shoulder.” It left at least parts of the historic Great North Road ideal for cycling.  

In the summer of the Great British holiday Steve has come up with an intriguing and inspirational idea and even if you don’t plan to follow his 400-mile, 11-day cycling adventure up hill, down dale, through pretty market towns and into historic coaching inns, the resulting book is an entertaining read. 

Steve’s previous books traced the Wherryman’s Way and Norfolk rivers by foot and by canoe. Before attempting his Great North Road trip his cycling had mainly been confined to the lanes of Norfolk so this is no Tour de Lycra. Instead Steve shares map mishaps and industrial estates as well as the high points (literal and metaphorical) of what he calls “the most romantic and most historic highway in the United Kingdom.”    

Great North Road by Steve Silk.

Great North Road by Steve Silk. - Credit: WATERSTONES

Steve Silk

Steve Silk - Credit: supplied by author

As well as telling the story of his London to Edinburgh bike ride, Steve tells the story of the ancient road. Through the centuries the Great North Road had carried monarchs, armies, traders and travellers – on foot, on horseback, in carts, carriages and stagecoaches, and eventually on bicycles and then cars.

But in 1921 the new A1 was opened. “The Ministry of Transport had declared that numbers were the future, not names,” said Steve. And over the past century the originally route has undergone almost constant changes – bypassing many of the towns it once connected and leaving stretches of road where, said Steve: “It’s remarkably easy to visualise a time when the mail coach was still king of the road.”  

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However, he does not take a mail coach but an old-fashioned bicycle, inspired by writer and artist Charles Harper’s 1901 book, Great North Road. He follows as much of Harper’s route as he can 120 years later, on a sturdy tourer in British racing green. Steve also stops at some of the remaining coaching inns Harper used - and includes details of his favourite places to stay and practical tips for long bike trips as well as his favourite stretches of an illustrious road. 

Back home, Steve is a journalist working for BBC Look East. His acknowledgments include thanks to his wife and two daughters and ‘The many members of the Loddon Mountain Bike Club (Minus the Mountains) for helping me get in good enough shape for The Big Ride.’ 

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The Great North Road - 11 Days, 2 Wheels and 1 Ancient Highway, by Steve Silk is published by Summersdale for £9.99. 

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