Road to nowhere: The M25 celebrates its 25th birthday

The M25 is all this and more. As the motorway marks its quarter century, Sean O'Grady rallies to the defence of 'the world's biggest car park', circumnavigating the orbital's chequered history.

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In his classic work of psychogeography – a discipline that still doesn't command the respect it deserves – Iain Sinclair described the M25 as "the dull silvertop that acts as a prophylactic between driver and landscape".

He and a companion had spent a year circumnavigating it, wrote a book about their experiences and reflections – London Orbital, published in 2002 – and they took the right attitude to this "grim necklace" at least in one sense. As anyone who has travelled on it will attest, it tends to be something that is endured rather than enjoyed. It is not, in travel industry parlance, a "destination experience", and indeed logically, I suppose, could never be such.

Its associations are redolent of nothing much: Clacket Lane; South Mimms; the Dartford Tunnel; Cobham Services (opening next year and complete with KFC, WHSmith and Etap hotel); the Staines turn-off (no double entendre necessarily intended here). Only the delightful blue-brick Chalfont viaduct, built almost a century before the motorway and through whose arches the M25's lanes gracefully pass, could be called remotely pretty.

The ghosts of Henry VIII, Pepys, Jeremiah Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Junior, as well as numerous other lunatics and war-wounded, may haunt the M25 as it passes their old palaces and lodgings, once so remote from 'London', but as Sinclair put it, "the trick is to move back, treat the road as a privileged entity, a metaphor of itself".

Yet one wonders if Sinclair, and countless other less well-read detractors, aren't overindulging themselves in their cri de coeur against modernity and mobility, as with most other references to the M25 that have turned off at the slip road to culture. Chris Rea's "Road to Hell" overtakes Sinclair in its irrational loathing of the 117 miles freeway. The lyrics are worth quoting:

"Stood still on a highway
I saw a woman...
She said, 'Son, what are you doing here?
My fear for you has turned me in my grave'
I said, 'Mama, I come to the valley of the rich
Myself to sell'
She said, 'Son, this is the road to Hell'"

Er, it's just a road, Chris. Why get grim about it? By contrast, Route 66 in the States, say, is regarded with enormous affection as a slice of Americana, complete with its corn dog stalls and retro gas stations; the Paris Périphérique is seen as a typically ruthless work of French economic planning; the German autobahnen, symbols of engineering and automotive strength with an unfortunate military dual purpose attached. All of these national roads have the lanes marked 'ridicule' and 'contempt' permanently coned off.

In the US, and around the world, 'Inside the Beltway' means political sophistication, not merely within the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) around Washington, DC. Yet all we can do is laugh at our finest motorway, the circular M25. (OK, it isn't a proper circle, as the Dartford Crossing bit is technically an A road, and that's because if it was designated motorway, non-motorway traffic would be unable to use the crossing over the Thames. By the way, the Dartford Tunnel dates back to 1963; the Queen Elizabeth II toll bridge to 1991.)

You get a lot of that with the M25. Negative vibes. "Road to hell." "Road to nowhere." "The world's biggest car park." Lynn Bowles' Radio 2 accounts of 10-mile tailbacks. Satirists Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman put it this way: "Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together, the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for exhibit A".

The worst press the M25 has had came after Kenneth Noye, then 63, stabbed 21-year-old Stephen Cameron during a fight on an M25 slip road at Swanley in 1996. Noye was in a Range Rover, his victim in a Bedford Rascal van, the principal witness in a Rolls-Royce. The road was, for a time, synonymous with a particularly virulent form of road rage. There was also an 'M25 gang' of armed robbers operating soon after it opened.

It is time, perhaps, to allow some more positive traffic, create more of a contraflow and pull into the service area of a peculiarly British organisation called Sabre (the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts), a sort of road-spotters body, and as far away from the rural obsessions of Sinclair and his ilk as it is possible to be without actually meeting yourself going the other way (all too easy on the M25, of course). So: "A prophylactic between driver and landscape"?

Well, yes, that is true, but then, as the Sabre website points out, there are other ways to look at the M25 and its major junctions. Take Bignell's Corner, for example; "A large three-level roundabout interchange providing full access between the M25, A1(M), A1081, South Mimms services and local roads. It is junction 1 of the A1(M), and junction 23 of the M25. The A1(M) passes underneath the roundabout in a north-south direction at the lowest level, with the M25 passing over the roundabout at the highest level in an east-west direction." That, in its own way, is poetry. (The highest point of the M25, in case your curiosity is aroused by the reference there to height, is in fact at Reigate Hill, some 700 feet up. Around Junction 7, that is.)

As for natural beauty, has not man always messed about with his landscape, from the drainage of the Fens in Roman times to the melting of the polar ice cap today? All very sinful, but not, in themselves, necessarily aesthetically wrong. As landscape, were the fens more attractive marshy or drained? Is Greenland any more or less majestic now than it was before we started to warm it up? The M25 is not a beautiful thing, except possibly from the air, but it is remarkable and impressive. As a way to get from A to A, so to speak, it works.

Are we really all so achingly bucolic that we can't appreciate in simple honesty the engineering achievement that is this road, and leave aside our psychogeographically-derived pretensions? Why not relax and allow oneself to be shaken by the rumble of the 200,000 vehicles a day that use it? Or its occasional 12-lane girth? Or the total "muck shift" of 3.3 million cubic metres of chalk that was needed to get it through the area of outstanding natural beauty that once was the Darent Valley?

Can we not just be awed that the M25's 117 miles were capable, in the days before speed cameras, of being raced in under an hour by the City boys in red braces, red Ferraris and black Porsches (including fumbling for change at the Dartford toll)?

Which should remind us of something less psychogeographical and more plain historical.

For the M25 is as much a monument to Thatcher and her -ism as, say, the towers of Canary Wharf, the destruction of the trade union movement, the industrial dereliction of much of the north of Britain, or that bronze statue of Maggie with a handbag in the central lobby of the House of Commons. It was she, after all, who championed what she called "the great car economy", who appointed her most faithful disciple, Cecil Parkinson, as Transport Secretary to build more 'Roads to Prosperity', as his White Paper was called, and it was The Lady who famously remarked that any man who found himself on a bus after the age of 26 could count himself a failure in life.

The M25 was opened by Thatcher on 29 October 1986 – just three days after the 'Big Bang' deregulation of the City of London opened the door to an unparalleled explosion in human greed. All three – Thatcherism, the City, the M25 – are still with us, and still monumental. But the late 1980s and early 1990s raves that were to be enjoyed (with plenty of tap water) around the circumference have gone, and we don't hear much of the band Orbital, apparently inspired by the smiley-faced culture of the era.

Thatcherite as it is, the M25 has its roots in Edwardian England. Conceived as long ago as 1905 as an almost HG Wellsian project, it took until 1973 for work on the great orbital road to begin in earnest. The original intention, set out in grand plans (notably one part authored by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937) was for there to be at least two large ring roads belting round the capital, that is with the north and south circulars – an M16 and an M25.

As usual in Britain, the cash ran out long before they could all be completed, so the various random bits of outer and inner rings that had been constructed were stapled together to make one orbital instead. The then Minister for Transport, Dr John (now Lord) Gilbert, told the Commons in 1975: "The two roads will be subsumed into a single motorway ring, the London orbital motorway (M25)". Such understatement. But admit it, if you didn't know that, you'd never have guessed, would you?

Should anyone north of Watford care? (Watford, that is, that is just inside the M25, off Junction 21a.) Yes. First, they could learn a lot from the Surrey folk, of whom one planning officer remarked, "It is not an edifying spectacle to see groups of professional, intellectual and articulate people, behaving at times as an unruly mob".

Democracy met economics and engineering when the road came to Surrey and the other home counties – 39 public enquiries, 700 sitting days (or six days per motorway mile). After all that, the home counties got their road, and the prosperity it helped foster, but they kept most of the motorway out of most of their back gardens (if not, in many cases, the background noise). Embrace the car economy – but do so on your own terms, is the lesson.

Perhaps appropriately, it is natural to come full circle to Iain Sinclair, who asked, "Did this conceptual ha-ha mark the boundary of whatever could be called London? Or was it a tourniquet, sponsored by the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency to choke the living breath from the metropolis?".

The thought that the M25 is a city-in-the-making is a compelling one, a girdle around a Greater-Greater London that will eventually occupy all within it. Then, even more than now, it may define the most prosperous corner of the nation, a tarmac moat that divides the metropolis from whatever is left of the United Kingdom.

It is no accident that the retail wonders of Bluewater and Lakeside are a shortish hop round the M25, and sustained by the rampant consumerism and money that breeds so magnificently within it. For many of those living within the 2,599 square miles of the M25's area, one of the greatest concentrations of wealth anywhere on the planet (and which I am neither celebrating nor condoning), it feels like a very comfortable sort of tourniquet. Increasingly, 'Inside The M25' will be a different country.

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