America’s Route 66 may be one of the most famous highways in the world (thanks in no small part to Nat King Cole and others who have covered Bob Troup’s song over the last 70+ years), but England has its own cross-country highway, and one with a considerably longer history.
The A66, like its namesake runs east/west (or vice versa if you prefer) and links Cumbria to Teesside. It’s one of the worst roads in the UK in terms of safety and there are a number of reasons for this.
For one, it’s the main route to The Lake District for many, so trippers and holiday makers hurry along it all year round keen to get to their hotel or guest house, or home to put the kettle on. A good proportion of those travellers will be towing caravans, and as there are many stretches on the road where dual carriageways revert to single it the journey can be a frustrating one; always a recipe for unnecessary risks. Add in the agricultural vehicles that are an outcome of the road cutting swathes through a lot of farmland, and the commercial vehicles struggling up the numerous hills as they traverse the country and the death toll is hardly surprising. Coat the road with snow drifts blown in by high winds…. There are snow gates now that prevent access during such conditions but 20 years ago I had just reached the high point when the lorry in front of me jack-knifed and closed the road. A long detour ensued.
There’s another risk/frustration factor though, albeit one that only affects drivers rather than passengers. The environment.
It’s an area rich in wildlife, where curlew, lapwing, oyster-catchers, buzzards and sparrow hawks are often spotted, whilst dippers and kingfishers are not.
The road has been here for millennia. The Romans of course didn’t call it the A66, and they may not have established the route either. They did build camps along the way though so recognised the value of the route, as did some other travellers from bygone days.
The road passes through gentle rolling fields, past Yorkshire Dales and Pennine moorland, skirts the lakeland fells of Blencathra and Skiddaw, and along the way passes castles, manor houses and farmsteads in various stages of dereliction or preservation. The transition from east to west marked by changes in the stone used to build these structures; cold hard greys and ochres in the east; warm reddish browns in the west.
One of those manor houses is hidden by the landscape around it, but the perimeter fencing gives it away. Rokeby Park is an 18th century Palladian villa designed by its architect owner Sir Thomas Robinson, who sold it later to the Morritt family who filled it with artistic treasures (but don’t permit photography). Of these one gained some notoriety; a Velázquez originally titled “Toilet of Venus”, but now better known as the “Rokeby Venus”. Sold to the National Gallery in the early 20th Century it was famously attacked by Mary Richardson, the suffragette, who badly slashed the work, though it has been successfully restored.
Velázquez supposedly based his work on a famous statue from antiquity (Hermaphroditus) so I feel fully justified in taking him as inspiration for my own pastiche. Who knows where the road of creativity will take you?