Home news Britain on the verge: Life along the A1

Britain on the verge: Life along the A1


Winding across the United Kingdom, the A1 is the longest numbered road in Britain, providing a route between the capitals of England and Scotland.

Embarking on a visual road trip, Peter Dench photographed the characters and locations he encountered as he drove the length of this road. This project was intended as an homage to Paul Graham who undertook a similar photographic expedition in 1981.

Despite the nature of the task, Dench admits, “I don’t like driving cars; I don’t like the smell of cars, the sound of cars, the process of refuelling cars or even talking about cars, but I do like taking journeys.”

Regardless of his misgivings, he hit the asphalt with the specific aim of exploring the idea of British identity in the age of Brexit.

Dench wanted to meet the real people of the UK and says, “The A1 was to be my tendril to them, an artery that connects as much as it divides. It would provide a route of certainty in a time of tumult, through a nation on the verge.”

The A1 begins near St Paul’s in the City of London, passing the concrete blocks of the Barbican Complex. Dench captures the city workers texting in their slick suits, as others make their way through the busy city.

Further north in Holloway, he photographs young Muslims removing their shoes as they prepare to enter a mosque.

The Holloway Mosque can hold around 300 worshippers and is headed by Imam Shafiullah Patel, who advises the community to exercise their right to vote.

At another point on the Holloway road, Dench met Mark, a 32-year-old fruit and vegetable seller from Essex.

Mark believes that his business has suffered because of price rises in transportation and import costs as a result of Brexit.

Despite this, he remains optimistic that the business will survive until things “settle down”.

At the Baldock Extra Motorway Services, Dench encounters Challis and her boyfriend Arnold, both dressed in camouflage tracksuits, socks and open-toe pool shoes. They are making their way north to visit family in Great Yarmouth.

Further north he meets Matthew, the proprietor of the Rockery Centre in Bedfordshire which lies on the A1.

He is more positive about the state of business. On sale for £6,000 is a selection of animal sculptures, specially imported from Kenya. “You’ve got to do something different,” he explains. “It’s the only way to survive.”

Babs sits under the menu board in the BABS cafe by the side of the road in Blyth, Nottinghamshire.

Alongside her husband Pendleton, she has worked in this roadside cabin for 27 “long” years.

Just over a mile up the road, visitors to Flo’s cafe can read complimentary copies of the Truckstop News while a cardboard cut-out of the Queen watches over.

Not far from the A1 in West Yorkshire Norman lives in a retirement home for the over-40s. The park was originally aimed at the over-50s but, due to poor business, the proprietor painted the sign down by a decade.

One of six siblings, Norman recently lost a brother to bowel cancer, the same disease that cut short his father’s life at 37. It’s a disease that Norman has survived.

He attributes his own illness to habitually eating bad food at unconventional times, having worked on the railways from the age of 15.

Originally a left-leaning voter, he has been influenced over the years to vote Conservative by his wife. They are both keen to move house but are having difficulty selling up, due to the location.

The Angel of The North, a large public sculpture by Anthony Gormley, welcomes visitors driving into Gateshead.

Around 33 million people a year see what is believed to be the largest sculpture of an angel in the world.

One visitor takes a detour off the A1 in order to take a selfie with his daughter.

Dench captures a French couple, who have come via ferry to Hull, documenting their passing into Scotland.

On reaching Edinburgh, he encountered another group who have recently arrived in the UK: a family on holiday from India. They wait at the northern end of the A1, at the junction of North Bridge and Princes Street.

Looking back on his experience, Dench feels conflicted. “Driving the length of the A1, Britain doesn’t seem full,” he says. “At times it feels lonely. This is Britain on the verge.”

All photographs copyright Peter Dench.

A1: Britain on the Verge will be on show at Project Space, Bermondsey Street, London 16-20 January 2018.

Source: BBC Yorkshire