Compared to the bland and brazen utility of, say, the M4, the A303 – which comes off the M3 at Basingstoke and runs down to Honiton in Devon – is a rich and magical road. For me, and I am sure many others, it has always been, and is now, if not a highway to the sun, at least a highway to a windy beach, with a good few sights along the way. I remember picnicking on the stones at Stonehenge – in the days before they were roped off – during a stop-off on the way down to a holiday in Minehead in my parents' Morgan. While the motorway might get you west more efficiently, the A303 offers more freedom, more poetry. It is a romantic road. It meanders. It is not just about travelling from A to B.
What Tom Fort has done in this excellent primer is to combine English history and myth with a host of nerdish facts about the road, some cultural analysis and not a little literary reflection to boot. There are quotes from Thomas Malory about King Arthur and his trip to Amesbury; visits to grand houses such as Montacute; perorations on the state of British farming. Fort gets down on his hands and knees to decipher the ancient lettering on ancient stones and reveal stories from the days of Ethelred.
Fort's book is also a meditation on the motor car itself: is it a force for darkness or for liberation? Certainly in the early days of motoring, even writers not known for their love of modernity praised the machine fulsomely: "Before I bought a Citroën," Aldous Huxley wrote, "no subject had less interest for me; none, now, has more." And Virginia Woolf noted in her diary: "The motor car is turning out the joy of our lives. Soon we will look back at our pre-motor days as we do now at our days in the caves."
Stonehenge, satisfyingly, merits a good few pages. Fort explores the world of Druidry, and tells the story of the Battle of the Beanfield, in 1985, when Wiltshire Police clashed with the summer solstice free-festival goers. And The A303 also wanders off into the worlds of the pig, of the Little Chef chain, of Camelot, of Jeremy Clarkson, naturally, and of 1970s transport ministers, and tells the fascinating tale of the murderer, imposter and "monacled mutineer" Percy Toplis, who killed the taxi driver Sidney Spicer on the A303 in 1920. Fort is rightfully scornful of Solstice Park, the industrial estate whose name sends me into paroxysms of rage when I drive past it.
One of the advantages of the A303 is that the driver is not tyrannised by service stations with their pricey big-brand offerings; instead you are free to stop at independently run and very reasonably priced roadside burger vans. Fort's book concludes with a visit to Annie's Tea Bar, situated at the very end of the A303 where it rejoins its "old rival", the A30, where he enjoys a full English breakfast and a chat with the proprietor, Annie. It's all very charming, like the road itself.