It runs, like a weird spinal column, from London to Edinburgh. Rich in history, it's the longest, the oldest and the most dangerous - memorably described as `400 miles of death'. Yet it's much preferred, both by lorry drivers and Sunday motorists, to the motorways. Now, however, the transport caffs are going, the Little Chefs moving in, and a whole way of life is changing. By Christopher Middleton. Photographs by Trevor Ray Hart
he start is at St Paul's Cathedral, goes along Upper Street in Islington, veers left at Peterborough, right at Darlington, then carries on past Lindisfarne and Holy Island, across the River Tweed at Berwick, and, after 414 miles, finally comes to rest outside the main Princes Street Post Office in Edinburgh.

The Al is Britain's longest, least-loved and most underestimated road. The majority of car users may stick to motorways, but to a hard core of professional drivers, and to Sunday motorists, it means work, food, home - life.

The Al is a mess, though. It veers from two lanes to three to one, with varying degrees of warning. When it is two lanes, it has lorries in both the fast and slow lanes. When it is one lane, the lorries in front of you crawl and the lorries coming in the other direction go so fast you can not overtake. And when it is three lanes, they don't last long enough to get any speed up before slimming down to two again.

Logically, if you are driving from London to Edinburgh, it has to be on the Ml and the M6 - three lanes all the way, and you probably won't have to change gear for 400 miles. Not so the Al. Look at any road atlas, and you see that the Al is pitted with unsightly stops and starts and crossroads that come from nowhere.

The most primitive section is the old, single lane along the Northumberland Coast, from Morpeth to Berwick, where the head-on collisions come thick and fast and the county council put up signs listing the latest accident statistics. "When we drive Americans along this stretch, they get very scared," says Graham Appleby, who takes tour parties round Britain in a minibus. "They're not used to that kind of roadside advertising."

Another quaint but lethal feature of the Al is the number of right turns you can make across its central reservations. To make one of these is to know how a hedgehog feels as it approaches a major trunk road. Taking a right turn on the Al is the same as on a motorway, except that you have two lanes of thundering 70mph-plus traffic on either side of you, as opposed to three. Someone once waited 23 minutes for a gap in the traffic. This was at a turn just north of Wetherby, in Yorkshire.

"Sometimes, you can be sitting there so long your leg muscles start to twitch over the clutch and accelerator," says van driver Trevor Olliphant, who is based in Worksop. "You realise that, if your foot slips, you'll go straight out and under a 40-ton lorry. Sometimes, I've actually had to turn the engine off and calm down. On other days, I just say `sod it' and drive on to the next roundabout and back. It adds 20 miles to the journey, but it's better than being dead."

Only slightly less fraught is joining the Al from a side-turning. Again, you just have to wait for your moment, and, when you see a gap, try and gun the motor up to the speed at which the lorry is looming in your rear- view mirror. It's about the only situation in which your car's nought- to-60 capacity is elevated from mere status symbol to life-saver, especially when the lorry not only looks like it's about to swallow you whole but its driver is frantically flashing his lights.

But we motorists are being unfair to lorry drivers, it seems. "A lot of car drivers think that when we flash them, we're saying, `Get out of the way'," says Joe Doyle, who has spent the past 30 years driving up and down the Al, carrying everything from bricks to Mercedes Benzes. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Actually, it's the reverse. We're saying, `Come on in'."

Indeed, an elaborate ritual exists among Al regulars. When, for example, you are overtaken by a long-sided lorry, you are expected to flash the driver at the point when the rear end of his vehicle has passed the front of yours. He will then pull into your lane and acknowledge by winking his tail lights.

"You get very few car drivers who know the drill," Joe laments. "The only ones that are a little bit clued-up are the sales reps - you can always tell them from the jackets hanging up in the back. Those are the only car drivers for whom we've really got any respect."

To you and me, the Al is just another stretch of tarmac, but dig deeper and you find this culture, this code of conduct - which is why professional drivers choose the Al every time over its motorway counterpart. "It's given great service to the industry," says Joe. "The Al was here before the Ml, and it'll probably still be here when the M1 finally cracks up."

When pushed about their preference for the AI, lorry drivers all cite the thing car-drivers hate most: the roundabouts. "Roundabouts do no harm at all, in my view," says Joe. "Driving on a motorway, you can become hypnotised, just staring out at this endless concrete wilderness ahead. Roundabouts stop you drifting off - I'd say they've kept many a truck driver alive."

Current policy is to remove these roundabouts and turn it into the Al(M) road. It may happen, but then at the last count there were 17 different up-grading or widening schemes for the Al that had been postponed indefinitely because of lack of funds. The Labour government is a degree or two more hostile than the Conservatives to road transport - lorry transport, in particular - and this is not just because Peter Mandelson's car was nearly wiped out by a stray truck tyre before the election.

"Labour wants more freight to go by rail, so there are fewer heavy lorries clogging up the roads, roaring through villages and belching out fumes," declares transport spokesman Andrew Smith.

The history of the Al is of piecemeal expansion from single lane to dual carriageway to three-lane motorway. It was in 1918 that the Ministry of Transport came up with the idea of allocating numbers to each of the six main routes out of London. First in line was the thoroughfare which ran like a spinal column down the entire right-hand side of the country. Hitherto known as the Great North Way, it was re-christened the Al, and the adjoining roads it had sired were to bear the patronymic digit 1 (the A14 to Cambridge, the A17 to Kings Lynn).

At the turn of the century, the A1 was not one road but many, joined together by the fact that they happened to enter the same town from different angles. Going back further, to the 3rd century, the Romans built two straight roads that to this day still make up large stretches of the Al: Ermine Way, which stretched from Sandy in Bedfordshire to Stamford in Lincolnshire, and Dere Street, which went from just north of York (Eboracum), through the garrison town of Catterick (Cataractonium), and on to Scotch Corner, where for centuries Scottish cattle drovers used to meet and trade with West Durham colliers - and where today there's a Granada service station.

Unfortunately, after the Romans left Britain, the Al declined. "Tis one of the most frequented roads of the kingdom, though it has none of the best way," wrote the author of Ogilby's Description of the Roads of England in 1674.

In the 17th century, there were plenty of places where you could tie your horse up for the night. Twenty years ago, there were something like 150 independently owned cafes up and down the Al. Today, the figure is down to a dozen permanent places, and maybe two dozen caravans and mobile stalls.

But there are Little Chefs, 30 of them - where lorry drivers are not welcome. "Strictly No Heavy Goods Vehicles" reads a sign outside the Little Chef at Rainton in South Yorkshire - and the Little Chefs that don't have the sign don't have the space to park a 60ft lorry.

"It's all economics, isn't it?" sighs petrochemical tanker driver Mick Blunt, 47, who's been driving on the Al for 27 years. "A lorry takes up the parking space of four cars, yet it's only going to produce one customer. Four cars could produce 16 customers."

Travelling with Mick or Joe is rather like accompanying an old soldier through a battlefield. Every so often, they point to a roofless shack or an overgrown lay-by and tell you how that used to be a lovely place for liver and onions or for a quick cup of coffee and a 2am chat.

The Compass Cafe at Colsterworth, Tony's of Grantham, the Red House at Adwick Le Street, the Blue Star at Blyth - all gone, or else turned into Burger Kings and Travelodges. Even the famous old Kate's Cabin, outside Peterborough, mentioned in guidebooks from the 1830s, has now become KC's, a fast-food place with dayglo orange signs.

For every stop that welcomes lorries, there are now three or four that either don't or can't. "Everyone hates us, but they don't know why," says Alex Mitchell, one of Joe's colleagues at Richard Lawson Transport. "Nor do we, for that matter. On the continent, the truck driver is king. Over here, people don't want to know us."

Recent years have seen the start of attempts to provide special facilities for these outcasts of the road. BP has set up a series of Truckstops, where drivers can shower, park overnight and sleep in a bed rather than their cab. The aim is to reverse the usual discrimination process. "It's pounds 14 to stay here if you're a lorry driver, and pounds 18 if you're a car driver," announces the woman on reception at the Alconbury Truckstop in Cambridgeshire.

The normal ratio of diesel pumps to petrol pumps is also turned upside down; and lorry drivers are given "bunkering facilities", which means they can pay with a special BP credit card rather than their own money. Quite useful when, like Joe, the cost of filling your tank is pounds 164.95 a time.

Eighty miles up the road, at the Markham Moor Truckers Stop, there is even a sign on the food counter saying "Priority Is Given At All Times To HGV Drivers". It has a special truckers-only area for watching TV, which is divided from the rest of the cafe by log-effect trellis and decorated with a John Wayne tapestry and Marilyn Monroe posters. But of more immediate interest to drivers is the fact that a full breakfast here (toast, egg, bacon, sausage and all the trimmings) costs pounds 2.85. It's pounds 5.25 at a Little Chef.

What lorry drivers hanker for is company, however - which is what they get at Londonderry Lodge, just south of Scotch Corner. Set back 100 yards from the roaring Al, sited next to the runway of a RAF jet training base, and not blessed with any architectural loveliness other than a derelict stable block at the back of the lorry park, the Londonderry Lodge is not much to look at.

Across the checked, lino flooring of its main dining room, there runs what looks like a scale model of the San Andreas Fault. On the shelves behind the counter are arranged a bizarre selection of items representing the everyday needs of the lorry driver: shampoo, nail clippers, pain killers, alarm clocks, batteries, deodorant - and leather clogs at pounds 24.99.

"Very comfortable, so the drivers tell me," explains Maurice Gibb, proprietor of the Lodge for the past 20 years. He and his wife bought the place as a run-down concern (it was originally opened in 1953). She has now "moved on to other things", but Maurice remains, getting up every day to cook the men's breakfast at 8am (doors open at 5am), and locking up at midnight: "We used to be open all round the clock, but when the fish lorries stopped travelling overnight, we packed it in."

Witness to this change of policy is a thin patch of white paint on the peeling sign outside, under which you can see the lettering "Open 24 Hours". Not that the customers seem the kind to lose sleep over small design touches. Most are busy with their bacon sandwiches and the latest issue of Truckstop News. "There's places better than us, and there's places worse than us," admits Maurice. "One thing we are, though, is friendly - and cheap."

That much is borne out by the bright pink sign which informs patrons that evening meal, bed and breakfast costs just pounds 13.95. Since most drivers get an overnight allowance of pounds 19.50, this leaves them enough for a couple of pints while watching the football in the TV room.

"When we took this place over, the drivers used to sleep in dormitories with six or seven beds to a room," recalls Maurice. "In those days, we could fit in 52 people a night, and the place was always full. Since we've converted the rooms to singles, we can only do 29.

"Not that we're ever full - these days, most of the drivers sleep in their cabs, and some of the younger ones don't even stop for a chat. I can't understand that. They've been driving on their own all day, yet in the evening they still don't want company. They come in here, buy a Coke and a packet of crisps, and drive off to a lay-by down the road, just to avoid being with people.

"In the old days, too, if a driver saw another broken down, he'd stop to help. These days, they all just drive past. The drivers aren't even allowed to change a tyre themselves. They have to call a contract company and just sit there till they come. The trucks are worth so much, the drivers aren't allowed to touch them."

Maurice has spent all his life within a five-mile radius of the Lodge. When he was a boy, the Al used to go right past the front door. Then the bypass was built, and the traffic moved 100 yards away. The Lodge survived that change, but it won't survive the next one, when the road is up-graded to a three-lane motorway and they close the Londonderry turn-off.

"That'll be the end of us," muses Maurice, not altogether miserably. "According to the plans, the nearest junction would be six miles one way and three miles the other. It'll happen one day, no doubt about it. The only question is - when? With any luck, they'll leave it so long, it'll see me out."

The Al's inevitable advance towards becoming total motorway - the eradication of roundabouts, the sealing-off of anomalous side-turns - mirrors the changes that have taken place within the road freight industry as a whole. "We're not drivers today, we're steerers," says Joe Doyle. "In the old days, driving was a hard, physical job. When I got out of the cab, my left leg would be killing me from all the clutch changing. These days, the cabs are sound-insulated, temperature-controlled, and all I have to do to change gear is to move a handle forward half an inch.

"When I started out, you wore dirty overalls and got filthy. These days, I wear a uniform, and it's as clean when I end the day as when I start it."

Someone who has closely observed these changes is 64-year-old Bryan Lye, who, with his wife Maureen, has run the Quernhow Cafe, near Ripon, for 35 years. "Today, the trucker is an altogether more prestigious chap than he was 30 years ago," says Bryan. "In those days, he would be at the wheel of some beat-up old lorry and would come in here with hands all filthy and fingers missing from where they'd got caught in ropes. Now, though, they're driving units worth anything between pounds 40,000 and pounds 50,000, and they've got built-in TV sets.

"Personally, I've always worn a tie because I think it's courteous to be smart. When we started out, I was often the only man in the cafe wearing a tie. These days, half our drivers wear them."

New, too, is the concern of drivers about what they eat. They have a strict medical inspection every three years. If they fail, they can lose their licence. "A lot of drivers don't eat lunch at all," Bryan says, "and when they do, they go for baked potatoes and salads, which would have been unthinkable when we started out. Lasagne's very popular now. So is quiche."

In other ways, too, lorry-driving is becoming indistinguishable from office work, with the dashboard turning into a desk. As well as two phones, an ergonomic seat and a thick pile of paperwork, Joe Doyle has an in-lorry fax. His hours are regulated by European Union directive (no more than four-and- a-half hours without a break), and his every move is monitored by a tachograph, which each week has to be sent off for analysis. Even his driving speed is controlled - anything over 56mph and the engine cuts out.

All the way up the Al, he is peppered with phone calls asking for arrival times. No sooner has he pulled out of the terminal at Purfleet in Essex than he is being asked to say when he'll be in Bradford and Harrogate that evening - at the end of which, he's got to travel across to Immingham, on Humberside, to pick up a delivery coming in on the morning ferry.

"We're nothing more than mobile warehouses," grumbles Mick Blunt. "These days, manufacturers don't keep any stock because it takes up room and costs them money. They run their existing stock into the ground, then ring us up for more by midday tomorrow. You can be driving a load to one destination, and, halfway there, you'll be told to take it somewhere else."

Then there are the hours. Lorry driving has always meant time away from home. Talking to the drivers, you find the Al has a long record of coming between husband and wife, and of making fathers strangers to their children.

"I spent so much time driving up and down this road, I lost all my friends and never really saw my own son grow up," says Mick Blunt. "Now I've got a grandbabby, I'm determined I'm not going to miss a moment of him." To emphasise the point, he pulls out from his bunk a little needlepoint picture he's sewing for his grandson: a scene from 101 Dalmatians. "The other lads used to take the mickey," he confesses. "Now they're quite interested themselves. Most nights, there's only me on me own in the cab in some layby, so there's no one to see me, anyway."

There will always be a need for men like Mick and Joe - even if companies move their goods by rail, a lorry has to take the stuff to the station at one end and collect it from the other. Which means the Al will still be in business, too. "We believe the Al remains an effective route corridor," confirms the Department of Transport, somewhat stiffly.

Joe Doyle puts it more colourfully. After 30 years of driving every one of its 414 miles several hundred times over, back and forth, he views it with equal affection and resentment. "To me, the Al is more than just a road," he says. "It's a disease - a disease you can't get out of your blood"