By MIKE SMITH
Living here at Powburn, the A697 is a road we use all the time. So, it is interesting to take a moment to consider its history and to look at why it developed here, since the history of the road and the village are connected.
As is often the case with major roads in England, the A697 around Powburn is Roman in origin. From AD142 in the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius to AD162 in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Northumberland became part of the Roman Empire. This was a period when the Antonine Wall, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and not Hadrian’s Wall, marked Rome’s northernmost frontier. During this period the Romans built one of their roads, the so called Devil’s Causeway, which ran from Corbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed. This road passed very close to the easternmost houses in Glanton, proceeding across the fields, briefly touching the Glanton Road near the former Greenfields Nursing Home, and came down the hill to pass behind the Plough Inn, Powburn. It then followed the course of the A697 from Powburn to cross the River Breamish, and continued northwest before leaving the A697 at the slight bend just before Wooperton Sawmill. It passed on through Chillingham Newtown and continued on to Berwick. Whilst the Romans had retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall within 20 years, their road would have continued to be used by the native peoples who (re-)inhabited the area. Much of the rest of the course of the current A697 would have been formed over time from old drove roads or ancient tracks, some of which are visible on early maps.
The course followed by the A697 became a main route between Newcastle and Edinburgh, principally because it was possible to ford the River Tweed at Coldstream. When the new bridge opened at Coldstream in 1766, the A697 became an important alternative to the established Great North Road (the modern A1). As trade increased, and coaches and wagons became heavier and more frequent, the state of the roads all over the country deteriorated. Concerns were raised, particularly by the army, and Parliament was forced to intervene in the 18th and 19th centuries by passing Turnpike Acts that gave local bodies (Turnpike Trusts) the power to charge tolls on most main roads in Britain. The revenue from the tolls was to be used by the Trusts for repairing the roads and bridges, and to make improvements. The Wooler and Breamish Turnpike Trust, which maintained the road from Longhorsley to Milfield, was formed in 1831 by the merger of earlier Trusts dating from 1751 and 1806/7. The improving state of the road brought about by the Trusts attracted more coaches and travellers. By 1769, passenger stagecoach services between London and Edinburgh were being run along the A697 route, which was preferred at the time because of the poor state of repair of the competing Great North Road. By 1785, a daily coach service for passengers and parcels began from the Turks Head Inn, Newcastle, via Wooler and Cornhill, to the Black Bull Inn, Edinburgh. A mail coach service ran from 1824 on the Newcastle-Morpeth-Wooler-Coldstream-Kelso-Lauder-Edinburgh route. This increase in passing trade seems to have stimulated a phase of building as evidenced by the Georgian architecture seen today in buildings such as the Plough Inn, the Bridge of Aln Hotel (c.1840) and the imposing former Castle Inn in Whittingham (c.1830).
In 1835 the road was still going up the steep hill through High Powburn, passing through Glanton and Whittingham, and onwards on what are now farm tracks, to join what is now a minor road running below Thrunton Woods. A big change occurred in c.1840 when the new Trust diverted the road to a new course through Crawley Dene (the wooded valley east of Powburn), where it remains today. The improvements were described by Northumberland historian Dippie Dixon thus:
About 1840 the new road was made, which left the old coach road half a mile to the south of Rimside Moor House [i.e. at the easternmost turning for Thrunton Woods], and took a straight course through Roughlee Wood, Bridge of Aln, where a neat posting house was built, on through Crawley Dene, rejoining the old road at Powburn.
The Bridge of Aln Hotel also dates from when the road was diverted in c.1840 and is probably the “neat posting house” referred to above (the term usually applied to inns where mounted mail couriers could change or refresh their horses).
When the east coast railway from York to Berwick opened in 1849, and the Royal Border Bridge across the Tweed at Berwick opened in 1850, the London-Edinburgh passengers and mail moved on to the railways. The old stagecoach and mail coach services died out very quickly, and the Wooler and Breamish Turnpike had to deal with reduced traffic and income. Eventually, the Local Government Act of 1888 gave responsibility for maintaining the main roads to county or borough councils, and the Turnpikes and tolls ended.
A large improvement for all roads was the arrival of tarmac surfacing, which enabled higher road speeds and, therefore, cut journey times. Tarmacadam (later shortened to tarmac) was first used in England in the 1830s, when road builders in Nottingham began using a blend of coal tar (a by-product of town gasworks) and ‘macadam’ (graded stones), heated and spread over a stone foundation, and finally dusted with sand. Where bitumen was used instead of coal tar the product was called asphalt. However, both surfaces were rarely used for road building schemes in the 19th century. Most road builders continued to surface their roads with gravel, crushed stones and water-bound sand and grit into the 20th century. As motor vehicles became more abundant and faster early in the 20th century, the roads were prone to becoming rough and pot-holed. They turned to mud in wet weather or blew up in clouds of dust in dry weather. As a result, Kent County Council began tarring their roads in 1903 but it was not until the 1930s when many arterial roads in Britain began to be surfaced with tarmac or asphalt. The bridge over the River Breamish – known as the County Bridge or Hedgeley Bridge – underwent widening and improvement in c.1968. The earlier bridge had been much narrower with overhead steelwork, looking a bit like the current Tyne bridge. Like many roads, the A697 underwent widening and some straightening largely in the 1960s and 1970s to create finally the modern road we use today.