From Roader's Digest: The SABRE Wiki
|Length:||61.4 miles (98.8 km)|
|Meets:||B6528, B6309, B6321, A68, A6079, B6320, B6319, B630, B6357, A7|
|Route outline (key)|
The B6318 is the longest B-road in the UK. Originally it followed Hadrian's Wall for 30 miles in Northumberland, whilst the A69 took an easier route to the south. The road was quickly extended to the west and now runs across three counties and crosses a national border. It is also in the interesting position of being about twice as long as all the other B631x roads combined!
How long is the longest B-road?
"I clocked the B6318 at exactly 61.4 miles. That was from crossing the give way lines at the eastern end to crossing the stop line at the lights at the western end."
"I used Autoroute and got 61.2 miles, pretty darned close, especially as exactly where the start and ends are could easily cause a few hundred yard discrepancy."
"I got hold of the AA's digital map data and did some spatial queries on it using GIS software Mapinfo. By summing up all the line segments in their data set I got 60.57 miles."
The longest B-road in the country, four miles longer than the B709, it is certainly the most varied. The road consists of two very distinct and different sections, on its way from Heddon-on-the-wall in Northumberland to Langholm in the Scottish borders. The first section from Heddon-on-the-wall to Greenhead is the section most people will be familiar with. It largely follows the route of Hadrian's Wall and many of the associated tourist attractions can be accessed from the road. The road here is a good quality single-carriageway road and is often used by drivers to bypass the overloaded A69. After Greenhead the road takes on an altogether different character and is a narrow and twisty country lane running up to and across the border.
These days Hadrian's Wall is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the highest form of protection any landscape can get. However this wasn't always the case. Over the centuries the majority of the wall has been demolished to provide stone for new buildings and the Military Road itself is also responsible for the removal of long sections of the wall. Indeed, parts of it were built on top of the wall!
It was all completed in 1746 by the army of General Wade in order to ease troop movements from garrisons at Newcastle into Dumfriesshire and Scotland as a whole, to prevent another Jacobite uprising. Wade built a great number of roads all over the north of England and Scotland, and many parts of the A82 also owe their existence to his works.
General Wade is also made famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) by the fourth verse of the British National Anthem, which understandably was removed before it was made official:
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.
Heddon-on-the-Wall to Greenhead
We start our journey in Heddon-on-the-Wall, now infamous as the source of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. It runs off the B6528, which until the early 70s was the main A69 linking Newcastle to Carlisle. The first half-mile follows the line of the wall, before zigzagging across the modern A69 dual carriageway, a manoeuvre requiring the B6318 to perform a TOTSO. If we stayed straight on here we'd end up on a minor road going to a farm, instead we turn off to the left.
Like most Roman Roads, Hadrian’s Wall was built in straight lines to the horizon, at which point the builders pointed the road at a spot on the next ridge and continued building. Although the B6318 is not in itself a Roman road the fact that it follows the line of the wall means that this section of B6318 is a series of straights – some extremely long – with frequent dips and blind summits that add unseen changes of direction to the hazards for motorists. The only times that the road has any real bends is when it deviates off the alignment of the wall, such as when we pass through Harlow Hill, the first cluster of houses and farms we reach on the journey west.
Just after the village we pass Whittle Dene reservoirs. There are a total of six small reservoirs here, with waterfalls connecting one with another, well worth a short walk to look if the weather is good.
The reservoirs you see on either side of the B6318 date back more than 160 years to the 1840s/1850s. They were constructed by a company started by William George Armstrong, the famous Tyneside industrialist.
Before the construction of the reservoirs here, Gateshead and Newcastle were reliant on mostly local sources for their water, such as extraction from the Tyne and Team rivers, with all the subsequent problems of low water pressure and water-borne disease.
Armstrong realised that if reservoirs were constructed higher than the city, then they would have sufficient water pressure to feed the whole of Gateshead and Newcastle with clean water. Whittle Dene reservoirs were constructed for this purpose, originally only south of the Military Road but later additions were added to the north.
In 1845 Armstrong used the pressure created by the head of water in the reservoirs to power a hydraulic crane some 12 miles away in Newcastle.
Today, the reservoirs still provide part of the Newcastle and Gateshead area's water supply and are part of the The Great Northern Reservoir Nature Reserve, which is designated as a Site of Nature Conservation Importance due to its value as a wintering site for wildfowl.
At Milecastle 22 we reach the A68, which here follows the route of the Roman Dere Street, linking York and the Firth of Forth, having passed through Corbridge a few miles to the south. We continue in a straight line for another 4 miles. We pass a wooden cross which marks the Battle of Heavenfield in AD 634 which took place on the Roman wall in this area (the church hidden behind trees to the right is dedicated to St Oswald, who as King of Northumbria won the battle). Just afterwards we hit Brunton Bank. The A6079 crosses as the modern B6318 weaves downhill towards its crossing of the River North Tyne – the wall took a straighter, steeper alignment to its own river crossing.
We cross the North Tyne on a signal-controlled single-track stone bridge at Chollerford. We turn left at the roundabout here; the B6320 continues straight on to Bellingham and Otterburn.
Bridges at Chollerford go back in time as far as the Roman Wall itself. Around half a mile downstream of the current bridge, you can still find the remains of two Roman bridges which ran directly into Chesters fort.
The modern bridge over the North Tyne is as old as the Military Road, dating back to 1745 but this was itself a replacement for a previous bridge constructed around 1394. Unfortunately this bridge was destroyed with the infamous Great Flood of 1771 which laid waste to most of the Tyne's bridges include the original medieval Tyne bridge connecting Newcastle and Gateshead.
In 1976 Chollerford bridge was narrowed to single track with traffic light controls in order to provide a pedestrian footpath and to improve safety, as vehicles had been known to strike the side of the bridge. The site is a Scheduled Monument and Grade II listed building.
Chesters Fort is then on our left before another steep climb and a few twists get us back onto the alignment of the wall. Despite having run alongside (even on top of) Hadrian’s Wall since leaving Heddon-on-the-Wall, we haven't seen any remains so far – that will soon change, and the next section is more heavily populated with tourists. The road also has much longer straights for the next section – some offering several miles of clear view of the road ahead, others bobbing up and down over densely packed ridges.
(Illustration of the straight road with 'bobbing up and down')
We pass several Roman tourist sites, the first being Brocolitia Roman Fort, which is visible as grassy mounds to the left of the road. Then just over 4 miles later Housesteads Fort appears on the hillside to the right. Vercovicium, or Housesteads was built to defend a gap in the Whin Sill in around AD 124, soon after the construction of the wall itself began in AD 122. The site is now a popular tourist attraction owned by English Heritage.
Brocolitia Roman Temple (or Carrawburgh) sits on the southern side of the road after the climb out of Chollerford. There isn't much left to see of this site now, as only earthen mounds remain, nevertheless it is at least as historically important as nearby Housesteads.
The temple was dedicated by Roman soldiers to Mithras, the God of Light. Worship of this cult originated from Persia (now Iran) and was particularly popular in the Roman Army. Remains of the temple were first unearthed in 1950 and showed that the temple was built in the early third century and was in use until the fourth century. The original altars are now in the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle, where there is a life size reconstruction of the Mithraeum.
As we leave Housesteads the remains of the Roman Wall are clearly visible to the right running atop the Whin Sill which affords some beautiful scenery. The road runs through two “Severe Dips” where we follow a deep, steep-sided depression in the ground. Scrape marks on the tarmac give an idea that too many motorists have been caught unawares and bottomed out.
(Photo of one of the severe dips, we were still some distance from it at this point and you can't see it as clearly close up, so I've linked to a full res version here (1Mb) so that you can make it out. )
As you go through the second of these dips it's worth taking a second to look to the right to see Sycamore Gap. Sycamore Gap is a depression in the Whin Sill, which the wall duly follows, in which there is a large sycamore tree. Many readers will recognise this location from one of the opening scenes of the film "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves".
Almost immediately we reach Once Brewed, one of the main centres for visitors to the Roman Wall, where there is a car park, visitor centre and Youth Hostel, and the adjacent Twice Brewed Inn, a busy restaurant for tourists and an overnight stop for cyclists and hikers. This is a very popular location as the Coast to Coast route and the Pennine Way meet here, and the nearby section of the Wall at Steel Rigg, half a mile to the north, is one of the best preserved.
The peculiar names stem from the thirsty soldiers building the Military Road in the 1750s whose gratitude at reaching the local inn was tempered by the weakness of the beer, and they suggested that it needed to be brewed for a second time to make it stronger. The name "Twice Brewed" therefore became associated with the local inn, and the hamlet that grew up around it.
Roll forward a couple of centuries to 1934, and the opening of the Youth Hostel (one of the first in the country) by the local Lady Bountiful. As she was a confirmed teetotaller (and the YHA was a temperance movement) she disapproved of the boozy association of the hamlet's name, insisting that nothing stronger than tea would be served in the Youth Hostel, and that only needed brewing once! So was coined the name of the Youth Hostel, and subsequently the adjoining Visitor Centre.
Nearby, on the Roman Stanegate, which runs parallel to, and south of, the Military Road and the Wall, is the location of Vindolanda Roman auxiliary fort. Digs are still ongoing at the fort and archaeologists are regularly unearthing new finds, including very rare examples of Roman handwriting (letters from home, etc.). A museum on the site displays some of the best finds in addition to a full size re-creation of a Roman temple.
Finally, after commanding views off our ridgeline to the south and west (and of the A69 running below) we leave the alignment of Hadrian's Wall, dropping steeply into the village of Greenhead. Here we meet the old alignment of the A69, which used to run through the village having crossed the Newcastle-Carlisle railway line at a busy level crossing. To avoid the queues that used to build here the A69 now bypasses the village, but the remains of the old A69 are still accessible on either side of the village. On the eastern side the level crossing has now been converted to pedestrian only and beyond that the old road remains, although now rather overgrown and looking decidedly sorry for itself!
Greenhead marks the end of the first section of road - and indeed the 1922 western end of the B6318 as it ended on the then-A69. The road up until now has been a good quality wide and straight road running on top of a ridge line with often spectacular views. What follows is completely different but no less interesting for that.
One of the favourite pastimes of road enthusiasts is to discover how the road network has changed. Particularly when you discover that that insignificant-looking local road was once a major trunk road! Such an example exists at Greenhead, where the Military Road meets the modern A69 trunk road between Newcastle and Carlisle.
When the A69 was originally constructed it ran directly through the middle of Greenhead, but this presented a few problems. Not only did the traffic have to slow when going through the village, but it also had to cross the Tyne valley railway line on a level crossing, then after leaving Greenhead negotiate the steep climb out of the village. This was a especially a problem for lorries in the winter.
So, quite sensibly, a bypass was built to get around these problems. But just as with the rest of the Roman wall, there are remains to be found! After the B6318 drops down into the village there is a turning off to the left which just looks like an ordinary residential street, but this hides the fact that this was in fact the A69. Travelling further along this road and you get to the old level crossing, which is now gated off to be used by pedestrians only. Crossing over the railway you can find the remains of the old road, now looking very overgrown, but you can still see the stop line in front of the level crossing and the old centre line markings complete with cats' eyes.
Travelling through Greenhead the road ahead is now a no through road leading to a handful of properties, but it's a rather over-specified road just for property access, because of course this was also the A69. You can now drive up the road as far as the last property and the remains of it are gated off, again looking rather overgrown and neglected.
Greenhead to Langholm
After passing through Greenhead we can turn left onto the 200-yard B630 which forms a connection to the modern bypass, but the B6318 turns right, with the old A69 continuing straight on to a dead end.
From here onwards the road is progressively narrower and very twisty. We reach the village of Gilsland after a few miles, and pass through a single-track arch of a railway viaduct.
We then pass a highway maintenance depot with its rows of lorries before reaching another TOTSO, with the B6318 turning off the main route – the road straight on leading to RAF Spadeadam and our Electronic Warfare testing ranges. The site was also home to our ballistic missile and space launcher programme until its cancellation in the early 1970s.
West of Gilsland the B6318 becomes even twistier and narrows to wide single track. But the road is rarely so narrow that two cars cannot pass safely. Indeed on closer examination of the road surface, the remains of a normal dashed white line can be seen on the road, long since burned off to prevent drivers having a false sense of security on what is a narrower road than many drivers will be used to.
After several miles like this we widen back out to full width and run straight along a ridge-line – only to do an abrupt 110-degree right turn around a farm building at Nickie's Hill. The road remains full width and runs in a series of straight lines linked by sharp bends.
In the farming hamlet of Lyneholmford we reach another TOTSO, with the number leaving the main route once again. From here we run steeply uphill to reach Roadhead, a small village signposted for miles around but missed off most road atlases because it's too small. A sharp 90-degree turn off another minor unclassified road, and the road narrows again. We pass through the southern end of Kershope Forest, and pass lots of logging operations. Another pair of 90-degree bends sees us out of the forest, continuing to zig-zag our way towards the Scottish Border, which we finally cross after another steep twisty run down to a river crossing – this time it's Liddel Water.
Next is a staggered crossing of the B6357 which comes down from Newcastleton heading for Longtown. The road beyond is an altogether newer construction (although was made part of the B6318 in the 1930s extension), but unfortunately even narrower than we've been used to up to this point. We meander drunkenly through farmland towards Langholm, dropping down into the River Esk valley, following the valley side closely as it twists northwards. Finally the B6318 narrows to a single track before meeting the A7 at a set of traffic lights, and we reach the end of our journey. Just north of here is Langholm, a pretty little Scottish town which is well worth a visit.
Our journey has taken us through World Heritage Sites with rolling farmland and spectacular views, combining a long series of straights with a narrow twisty series of roads where the route for the B6318 seems to radically change direction every few miles. From here, the A7 heads south to Carlisle, or north to Edinburgh, but the adventurous could take the B709 road through the Ettrick Valley almost all the way to Edinburgh. At 57 miles, it is the second longest B-road in Britain - an odd coincidence that the two roads should terminate so close to each other. Are there any other major British cities linked by B-roads almost all the way?