When the Great North Road Came Through Pontefract

by Eric Houlder

When studying local history it is important to do so critically, recognising the erudition of the writer, but also taking into account the state of knowledge at the time he/she was writing. This is particularly important when studying the work of pre-20th century scholars who did not have the advantages of relatively modern disciplines like archaeology, aerial photography and palaeoclimatology.

Thus, when Richard Holmes considered the 1255 visitation report on St John’s Priory, describing it as on the high road from England to Scotland, he could only conclude that the writer was being a little inaccurate, for everyone knew that the Great North Road had always gone through Ferrybridge two miles north eastward.

However, the modern scholar – if I may so describe myself – having access to aerial photographs, reports on excavations of ancient roads, and accurate climate charts, can plot the route of the nation’s most important road from Wentbridge to Darrington, along Street Furlong Lane, down Baghill, along Tanners’ Row onto North Baileygate, turning right at St Nicholas’ Hospital into Mill Dam (by which the St John’s Priory main gatehouse undoubtedly stood) and exited the ancient town either northwards via the rock cutting at Monkhill to cross the Aire at Castleford, or turned right towards Ferrybridge where the Aire could also be crossed.

This ancient highway has never been lost, has always been in plain sight, but was invisible to modern eyes until a fortuitous set of circumstances revealed it. My friend Harry Battye discovered tantalising hints of it in documents, but it was aerial photography which clinched its discovery, or should it be re-discovery? The full story with maps and all the evidence is in my book, “Ancient Routes Through Pontefract: from Roman Roads to the Broken Bridge”, the remaining stock of which is held by the civic society.

This is just one of the examples I shall use in my forthcoming talk to Pontefract Civic Society on Tuesday, 8th October. Other discoveries include Major General Lambert’s Fort Royal from the Civil War, and the site of the Saxon battle of Winwaedfield, AD654.

This article was featured in Issue 4 – May 2019.

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