Biggleswade, Sandy and Tempsford feature in BBC journalist's book 'The Great North Road'

'When you're cycling you can stop to explore the road and its history properly - you wouldn't find out any of this in a car'

By Joanna Gravett
Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 3:58 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 3:58 pm

Biggleswade, Sandy and Tempsford all star in a new book about a BBC journalist's cycling adventure along the Great North Road.

Steve Silk, of BBC Look East Norwich, hopes Chronicle Country readers will enjoy his literary tour from London to Edinburgh, which passes through the county and features a comfy cafe, a special war memorial, and an iconic Bedfordshire bake.

You can read about Steve's cycling trip in 'The Great North Road: London to Edinburgh 11 Days, 2 Wheels and 1 Ancient Highway', paying homage to a road that was "Britain's backbone for centuries".

Steve with his trusty bike. Photo: Steve Silk.

Steve, 45, said: "The book is being published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the abolition of the Great North Road - Britain’s Route 66 - which was replaced by the A1 in 1921.

"We think of roads as having a numbering system, but before there wasn't anything in that sense. There were roads going between towns, with the exception of the Great North Road, which slowly coalesced into an established route that became really solid in the great coaching age of 1780-1830.

"Throughout history, kings, queens, soldiers, rebels, mail coaches and highwaymen used the Great North Road to get from A to B, but I feel it's been forgotten - and this is my elevator pitch!"

Steve is a keen cyclist and when he was able to travel for 100 mile stretches he found himself looking for a challenge to push his fitness to the test.

This, coupled with a desire to publish a new book, sparked the idea to feature the forgotten route.

The author explained: "Throughout my life I have lived on the Great North Road. I was based in Newcastle in the late 80s, was a journalist in Darlington and a TV reporter for Anglia in Peterborough.

"I had a desire to learn more about its history, so I thought why don't I go back there to mark the 100th anniversary of its abolition?"

Steve told the Chronicle that "generally speaking" the A1 is based on the Great North Road of old, with some diversions and exceptions along the way.

However, the reporter, of course, stayed loyal to its original route, and was impressed by his visit to Bedfordshire.

Steve, who undertook his trip in 2017, said: "I'm hoping Surfin Cafe is still in Biggleswade. I love that place; it's such a welcoming cafe.

"The town to me feels like it's got a soul and everyone in the cafe seemed to know each other and they were all friendly towards me.

"Biggleswade also has the history of Dan Albone the famous cyclist and the Ivel Cycle Works; it's just my kind of place."

Dan was pleased that the town paid homage to its hero, and passed the car park in Dan's name, while he imagined The Crown Hotel's role as an inn with the mail coaches thundering through.

Meanwhile, in Sandy, he stopped off to sample one of Bedfordshire's famous treats.

Steve said: "I went to see David Gunns in Gunns Bakery and had three Bedfordshire Clangers: gammon, potato and onion with stewed apple, lamb with jam, and a Bombay clanger - a vegetable curry with mango chutney.

"The were very good, had a high calorific value and kept me going all day!"

In Bedfordshire, Steve also passed through Tempsford, in which he saw its war memorial memorial dedicated to the women of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War Two.

The SEO was a secret department tasked with finding ways to undermine the enemy in occupied zones - think espionage, sabotage and supporting foreign underground groups - and it was at RAF Tempsford that the SOE was based for some of its work.

Steve told the Chronicle: "I read a haunting poem from a person who had lost their fiancé.

"When you're cycling you can stop explore the road and its history properly - you wouldn't find out any of this in a car."

As Steve headed north he battled steeper hills and gradients, but enjoyed the wild landscape especially as he crossed the border into Scotland.

The Great North Road also held other quirky gems along they way, such as a bagpipe museum in Northumberland, and Steve kept a journal over his 11 day journey to document his discoveries.

Persuading readers to pick up his book, he said: "I don't think people realise the glamour and grandeur that this road used to have.

"I hope people enjoy it as a travel log, but I am unashamedly encouraging people to get on their bike and and be more adventurous; if I can do it, anyone can!

"I would love the Great North Road to be a semi-official cycle route."

Steve would like to say thank you to "the many people who came to find out what I was doing and who just wanted to stop and chat", and to his friends and family who supported his cycling mission.

He also paid tribute to the authors Charles G Harper and Norman Webster, who wrote books about the Great North Road in the early 1900s and 1970s respectively, describing Charles as a character he was "quite in sympathy with".

'The Great North Road: London to Edinburgh 11 Days, 2 Wheels and 1 Ancient Highway' is published by Summersdale (part of the Hachette Book Group).

It is available from booksellers including Waterstones and Amazon.