ONE of the last roadside petrol stations from the pre-motorway age is for sale as a development site.

Willow Bridge Service Station is an art deco building, square and white, built in 1936 beside what was then the busy Great North Road between London and Edinburgh. But in the 1960s, it was bypassed when the A1 was built from Scotch Corner around Darlington and so now it stands next to a road that is so minor it doesn’t even seem to have a number as it connects the villages of Barton and Stapleton.

The Northern Echo:

From the roof of the Willow Bridge Service Station in January 1962 after a kink in the Great North Road had been ironed out, leaving the original Willow Bridge, far right, unused

“My father had eight staff on the pumps all day every day, and it was heaving from seven in the morning until 11 at night,” says Campbell Dawson, who has lived in the station since 1954, “but when the motorway opened in the1960s, it flattened everything.”

The property, with one-and-three-quarter acres, is now on the market for £695,000, with planning permission for two substantial houses on its site.

It really is a throwback to the old days of motoring, when every stretch of road had a petrol pump and a mechanic who was capable of repairing unreliable vehicles, and every junction had a pub that offered refreshments to travellers undertaking difficult journeys. Nowadays, of course, we just get in our cars and drive 250 miles guided by our satnavs without stopping for fuel for either man or motor.

The Northern Echo:

Willow Bridge Service Station is for sale for £695,000

The story of the stretch of road that Willow Bridge stands beside is, in many ways, the story of travel in Britain.

In the dim, distant horseback past, there were narrow lanes connecting Scotch Corner to Darlington, and crossing the Tees over a medieval bridge at Stapleton. This was washed away in the 14th Century, and then they had to get a ferryboat across or pick their way over a dangerous ford at Blackwell.

In the early 1830s, the road was privatised, or “turnpiked”. It was taken over by a group of businessmen who spent money improving it but, in return, were able to charge travellers for using it.

The Northern Echo:

Willow Bridge Service Station on August 10, 1946

They began on June 5, 1832, by having railway solicitor and borough bailiff Francis Mewburn lay the foundation stone for a new bridge at Blackwell.

It was designed by Newcastle architect John Green, who is more famous for Grey’s Monument in Newcastle and the Penshaw Monument overlooking the A1, and it is built with stone quarried on Gatherley Moor, a few miles south of Scotch Corner.

Because the bed of the Tees is shifting sand, "bales of wool and faggots (bundles) of thorns" where used to create a stable base on which the legs of the bridge were built. Although it sounds amateurish to build a bridge on a woolly foundation, this method had been invented by Hurworth mathematician William Emerson in the late 18th Century and was quite widely used in the early 19th.

The Northern Echo:

Campbell Dawson, now a Richmondshire district councillor of 30 years standing, with a Lotus IV that he raced in his youth

The Tees, though, used to be renowned for its “bore” – a rapid surge of floodwater that came gushing downstream, often said to resemble a wall of water. On December 16, 1833, the Tees bore swept through the scaffolding around the new bridge, and swept everything away – all the timber, and a workman, Jeffrey Butterfield.

Clinging desperately to a length of scaffolding, Jeffrey white-water rafted two-and-a-quarter miles tp Croft Bridge over which a horseman was passing. Seeing his distress, the horseman galloped to Hurworth and launched a ferryboat which intercepted the sodden fellow just as he was about to breathe his last, having travelled about six miles on the bore.

The Northern Echo:

THE copperplate handwriting on the bottom of this picture says: "Motor mail wrecked by fire, 9pm, July 16th, 1908 at Willow Bridge near Barton."The Northern Echo two days later explained that the fire had been caused by leaking petrol.“In a very short time the motor was completely wrecked, only the chassis and the charred framework of the van remaining,” it said. “The car was running as a relief at the time and contained no mail."

Blackwell Bridge was soon completed without further incident. On its Yorkshire end is an intriguing cottage with a top floor opening out onto the bridge deck and further floors falling away out of sight to water level. A barrier blocked the road at this point, and the tollkeeper lived in the cottage, collecting fees from those using the road.

The other major piece of work took the road over Clow Beck, which flows into the Tees at Croft, on Willow Bridge. Willow Bridge was first mentioned in the 13th Century and £40 was spent repairing it in 1659, and it looks as if the turnpike businessmen used the old structure.

The Northern Echo:

An old Michellin man looks down on customers as they pay for their diesel at the Willow Bridge Service Station

Tolls were abolished on midnight on October 31, 1879, when new highways authorities took the roads back into public ownership and tollkeeper Elias Clarkson was made redundant.

To commemorate the creation of the new highways divisions, the authorities lined their roads with metal mileposts, only one of which survives on the Barton stretch. Rather confusingly, its black hands point in the wrong direction, which suggests that it has changed sides over the years.

At the start of the 20th Century, petrol engines began to replace horses, and in 1936, Arthur Stephenson built Willow Bridge Service Station, a classic piece of 1930s design. In 1954, Campbell’s father, Campbell Dawson, bought the garage – and it has hardly changed since.

The Northern Echo:

Blackwell Bridge by AB Dresser

As cars improved, better roads were needed, and in 1961 the kink in the old turnpike road over Willow Bridge was ironed out. A new bridge was constructed, and the old one was left to one side, unused – at this time of year, it is almost entirely hidden by overgrowth.

Bigger changes were happening elsewhere on the roads network. The motorway age was dawning. In the 1950s, the A1 to the south of Scotch Corner was dualled and then work began on the Darlington bypass. It was formally opened on May 15, 1965, taking the road around the west side of the town and robbing the Willow Bridge Service Station of much of its travelling trade.

Campbell, a motor enthusiast as well as a district councillor for 30 years and a past president of Blackwell golf club, turned the service station into a repair garage as well as a petrol forecourt.

Having lived at Willow Bridge for more than 65 years, Campbell, who raced Lotus VI cars in his day, has decided to move on, while he still has years left in him “to chase a white ball around with a stick”.

The next age of motoring looks likely to be powered by electric batteries. The days of rural, roadside garages are numbered, so the future for Willow Bridge may well be as houses.

However, Willow Bridge is especially evocative of the pre-motorway age of motoring because a few years ago, an album of 1940s pictures of the garage was discovered in a skip in London. Someone spotted the connection with this corner of North Yorkshire and gave the album to Campbell. He has kindly allowed us to use the pictures.

The Northern Echo:

The only remaining milepost on the road between Scotch Corner and Darlington - once there were five

IMMEDIATELY to the south of Willow Bridge is the hamlet of Newton Morrell. The hamlet gets its name because in 1165, William Morrell was granted the land and a mill here as a reward for his services at Richmond castle. However, his son, Ralph, gave the land to St Agatha’s Abbey at Easby. The Morrells, then, only owned the land for two generations and yet, nearly 900 years later, their name is still associated with it.

It is a shame, then, that Newton didn’t take its name from a chap who acquired it in 1687. He was called Butler Buggins.

Immediately to the north of Willow Bridge, the road rises up gently before it drops down into the village of Stapleton. The rise is known as Murder Hill – it would be magnificent if anyone could tell us what murderous activities once took place here.

The Northern Echo:

Willow Bridge Service Station

ANOTHER question: the only other building at Willow Bridge is a little brick-built shed with a steep, tiled roof that was a telephone exchange. At Stapleton, about three miles away, there is a very similar building that says it too was a telephone exchange. Why should there be two telephone exchanges in such close proximity? Please tell us their story…