An IoS guide to A-road Britain (Part 2) - Features - Motoring - The Independent

An IoS guide to A-road Britain (Part 2)

Welcome to part two of our series on some of the best and most scenic A-roads. Last week's instalment certainly got some of you reacting, and in such an interesting way that we would be falling down on the job if we did not pass some of your comments on.

The star contribution came from William Slack of Cambridge, who saw our photograph, from 1948, of two be-shorted sporty gals pausing with their bikes by a country road, and immediately recognised it. The reason is that he was involved in its conception. He wrote: "The two girl cyclists were not members of a cycling club, but were used by the cameraman Charles 'Slim' Hewitt to 'sex up' an article in Picture Post. I was working there at the time and had suggested a feature on my cycling club, the Becontree Wheelers. Slim Hewitt followed us from Dagenham into deepest Kent, but when the pictures were developed, the editors thought they weren't glamorous enough. So two girls from the office were persuaded to be taken by Slim to near Box Hill, where they were photographed. I would be surprised if they had cycled more than a few yards for the shot."

There were, among the emails and letters of appreciation, a few quibbles. "Mitchell_N_Beard", for instance, took issue with our contention that A-roads always give a superior viewing experience to motorways. He messaged our website: "Not all motorways are dreary. The M6 between junctions 37 and 38 is wonderful and the M62 crossing the Pennines is a marvellously engineered road, and the M40 between London and Oxford has dramatic moments. But mostly they are fast food for travellers; if you have the time, the smaller roads have much more to notice and enjoy."

There was one more gripe, albeit with the Highways Agency rather than ourselves. "Another Eye" wrote: "Consider the long-distance cyclist. When the M4 was built, the existing A4 was left alone: a fast route for cyclists with clear signposting ... Not so the A23 south of Crawley. As there is no motorway, the A23 has been 'upgraded' to be motorway-like. There is a 'parallel' cycle route but it is a patchwork of bits and pieces, a cumbersome afterthought. At some points, the cyclist has to cross fast slip roads, and to dismount at others. If only this had been considered before the road was upgraded."

Cyclists played a major role in the creation of the roads that were later classified as As, according to Carlton Reid. He is writing a book about road surfaces, and messaged our website to say: "Cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces 30 years before car organisations did. When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and badly repaired. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators to go on long journeys for a generation and helped 'save' many roads ... Cyclist organisations such as the CTC lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads ... This debt owed to cyclists is long forgotten."

We were, I must admit, braced for a certain amount of flak for writing admiringly about roads, anticipating comments along the lines of: "I see The Independent on Sunday has now sold out to the roads lobby and is carrying articles in praise of motoring. So much for being a green paper!" We were poised with our riposte – that we specifically mentioned and showed illustrations of cyclists using A-roads – but no admonishing word came.

This left us (well, me, actually) feeling a little cheated, because we could not then deploy our ultimate answer. So cheated, in fact, that we will now deploy it: the series was devised, and the introductory essay and two road pieces written, by a non-driver. This was myself, one of nature's passengers (as my family puts it), who has always thought that his far from equitable temperament and easily distracted attention was better suited to the role of navigator and in-car entertainments officer rather than being in charge of several hundredweight of metal at potentially lethal speeds.

Thus, seated to the driver's left, I become a sort of poor woman's mobile Peter Kay, ready with comments on the passing scene, gestures at ill-mannered road users, some half-ignorant wildlife-spotting, the odd piece of directional advice ("I said straight on! You've turned left!"), a few modest photographic requests ("Orchids! Can we pull over?"), and inaccurate estimations of our time of arrival. Some of my functions have now been usurped by a satnav, which, according to my wife, is both more accurate and swears less.

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