Telford’s direct Edinburgh coach road, now the A697, was built in the first half of the 19th century. Naturally hillier than the Great North Road, he smoothed out some of the gradients and driving along it today is a very pleasant experience. It is also about 15 miles shorter than the A1.
The Great North Road had a daily mail coach from London to Thurso, which called principally at Alnwick and Berwick, as well as frequent stops at Morpeth, Felton and Belford to change horses.
There were three stage-coaches operated by J Radford and Co from Newcastle to Edinburgh, and it seems likely that these used Telford’s route. Each operated one return journey on Mondays to Saturdays, and as well as catering for local traffic, they provided for onward connections.
At Houndslow in Berwickshire, there is still a stage-coach station. The tower with the large clock face is a departure indicator, showing that the next southbound coach is due at 1.53. The white panels either side of the door show the mileage to the principal points served. Berwick is shown, though this must have been a local or ‘branch’ service as the main route would have used Telford’s road direct to Morpeth, beyond which are listed Newcastle, York and London. Interestingly, the list concludes with Dover, Portsmouth and Plymouth, the major south coast ports.
This will have been a very short-lived arrangement as the first railways were just being built and quickly put the stage-coaches out of business. This little station has been frozen in time for 200 years.
Railways were such a success that everybody wanted one, and too many were built for them all to be profitable. There was no thought that they were a national asset. That idea came after the First World War and was developed after the second, and the idea that they should be supported at public expense came after many were closed in the 1960s.
On March 1, Stagecoach/Virgin took over responsibility for the East Coast Main Line. It is marketed as Virgin, although Virgin only has a10 per cent stake. They are reducing standard fares to and from London as an introductory offer. We cannot expect this to remain, but it would be cynical to suggest that the trend will be a steeper rise.
East Coast has been operated by the state for five years. When East Coast took over, the diesel trains had only recently been painted so they were left as they were. The electric trains were still in the dark blue of GNER and needed a repaint so East Coast started to paint them silver. It must have found that too expensive as they soon changed to grey. It is to be hoped that Stagecoach/Virgin will put these into more attractive colours.
It is pleasing to see that there are the first signs of political pressure for the restoration of a better level of local train services through north Northumberland. This needs to intensify rapidly if it is to bear fruit in the early 2020s.
Local authorities continue to have their budgets squeezed, which makes it more difficult for them to support local bus services. Northumberland retains a basic network of bus routes, but apparently everything north of Alnwick (other than Berwick town services) needs support so some routes may have services reduced. This may suffice for the dwindling number of people who need weekly access to their nearest town, but it will soon reach the point where general purpose traffic ceases to be catered for by bus at all.
There will come a point when the pendulum swings, as it has for the railways, and bus services will begin to come back, but in the meantime it just makes life more difficult for those people who really need them.
John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.