The drive of our lives: 50 Years of Britain's motorways

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They promised to speed us towards a modern age and rev up the post-war economy. So what happened? Fifty years after Britain's first motorways opened, Simon Usborne finds out how much we owe to our superhighways – and why the wheels had to come off

From the air, there is something odd about Birmingham. Look it up on Google Earth and you'll see that, unlike most of Britain's major metropolises encircled by major roads, the M6 appears to have been pulled into the centre of Birmingham as if by a massive magnetic force. At the city's heart is Gravelly Hill Interchange, where 18 ribbons of asphalt converge in a multilayered mass of coiled steel and concrete. Zoom in closer to the interchange, better known as Spaghetti Junction, and it looks almost organic. In Google's photograph, taken on a sunny day, one might even say it's beautiful.

At ground level, on a wet Thursday morning in November, the view is very different. It's the back end of the morning rush-hour, and one of Britain's busiest bottlenecks is blocked. There is no sunlight to glint off the grimy crash-barriers because the clouds are so low that they seem to scrape the tops of the 40-ton articulated lorries lined up in the slow lane. Only the weeds breaking through the crumbling central reservation seem pleased about the rain. Behind the wheel of my borrowed VW Polo, I am moving so slowly that when I drive under the shelter of the only two sliproads that climb higher than the carriageway, I have to turn my wipers off to stop them squeaking.

This isn't how it was supposed to be. Further up the M6, in Lancashire, another stretch of road skirts the city of Preston. There is nothing to suggest that the eight miles between junctions 29 and 32 are important. But they are – 50 years ago, on a sunny Friday morning, on 5 December, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan took his seat in the back of a polished black Austin Sheerline limousine and set off from what is now junction 31. Sweeping along the pristine carriageway in the winter sun, he became the first man in Britain to travel by motorway.

Crawling past Spaghetti Junction half a century later, I look around me to find drivers – nearly all of them alone – staring at the stream of red tail-lights stretching north. There are none of the smiles that beamed on opening day, only looks of resignation and heads resting on hands. One man is scanning a map in a futile attempt to find another route. A woman lowers her window to flick cigarette ash on the asphalt, where it dissolves.

Our attitudes to motorways fall along a scale ranging from loathing to indifference, usually linked to the speed at which the traffic allows us to drive. Today, the needle's resting on "loathing".

***

How did it come to this? I've driven up the M1 from London, forking off at junction 19 to spend two days driving the length of the M6 – "the backbone of Britain" – to meet the people whose journeys, or even livelihoods, depend on this 230-mile motorway, the longest in the country. Fifty years after it all began, has this become the most hated road in Britain? The first person I talk to is uncommonly positive. At the Costa Coffee in Norton Canes services, motorist Richard Morris has stopped for a cappuccino and a Danish on the way home to Maidenhead in Berkshire. "Generally this stretch is fine," he says. "I've been using it for five years and it gets me to where I need to go as quickly as possible. It's clean, clear and predictable." If Morris's characterisation sounds perverse, that's because we're not on the original M6. We're on the M6 Toll, a 27-mile anomaly on the motorway map of Britain.

The first indication that a different kind of road lies ahead comes with the appearance of a purple gantry supporting a giant dot-matrix sign on the southern approach. It says: "M6 congested. M6 Toll clear." And then it starts. It's like being transported to the South of France. The road is a rich black, and as smooth as linoleum. The familiar rumble of rubber on road hushes to a low hum and the carefully mown grass banks beside the spotless hard shoulders are dotted with young trees. The glass-and-steel service area looks more like a Norman Foster airport terminal than a motorway truck stop. It's a motorist's dream.

First planned in 1980, the Toll was designed to ease congestion at Spaghetti Junction but grew into something different. "We wanted to set up as a premier service," says Tom Fanning, in his plush chief executive's office at the headquarters of Midland Expressway, the private company that was awarded the contract to build and run the road. "We spent an extra million pounds to lay quieter tarmac to decrease noise on and around the road, and replaced the 10,000 trees we had to remove with a million new ones."

In the control room, a video wall shows feeds from cameras positioned along the road. One screen stands out – cars are backed up nose to tail. "That's not the Toll," says Mick Deakin, the traffic controller on duty. "It's junction six to seven of the M6. They had a car fire." The hold-up will take hours to clear; at busy times, queues can build up at a mile a minute, yet take 20 minutes a mile to clear. On the Toll, traffic flows so freely that jams are unheard of, but even those who pay the £4.50 (£9 for lorries) it costs to drive here complain that it's too expensive. Summer driver numbers were down 12 per cent on last year. Fanning is confident traffic will pick up after the recession, but for now it seems destined to be a "rich man's rat run", as one driver I met dubbed it.

***

After paying my £4.50 at the north end of the Toll, I rejoin the old M6, which is like landing at Heathrow after a flight from Hong Kong airport. The weather hasn't improved but at least the traffic is moving, albeit slowly. I head north for Preston, to see where it all began. Before Macmillan set off in his convoy, there was an opening ceremony. The official booklet issued to the dignitaries who gathered to witness history in the making is full of dry facts about the maximum curve radius (3,015ft) and gradient (1 in 25) of the road. Only page six hints at the significance of that day.

"The opening of the Preston By-pass marks the beginning of a new era of motoring in Britain," it reads. "It is the first link in the network of motorways, which, progressively completed, will contribute to an increasing extent to the health of the community and to the national economy."

And it was a new era. Britain in 1958 was a country on the brink of modernisation. The Tories had swept to victory in 1951 with the promise to "Set the People Free"; rationing had come to an end and young people were demanding a new freedom and mobility. On the same day that the bypass opened, a young Queen Elizabeth II, who was in Bristol, made a direct telephone call to Edinburgh, 300 miles away – then the longest call that could be made without the aid of an operator. Britain was beginning to shrink and motorways were accelerating the change.

"The impact of this kind of travel was huge," says Sir Peter Hall, a renowned urban planner and the professor of planning and regeneration at The Bartlett School, University College London. "In the West Midlands and the North in particular, motorways have acted as great agents of decentralisation – allowing people to live anywhere, drive anywhere and work anywhere." It's impossible to imagine the wheels of commerce rolling without motorways. Supermarkets, Royal Mail, the haulage industry: none could function without a network of (usually) high-speed roads.

Sir Peter, 76, remembers taking a drive up the Preston bypass as a young man, a few days after opening day. "We had never seen anything like it," he says. "We lived in Blackpool, so my father drove my brother and me up there in his Humber Hawk. It was very unusual. There was very little traffic and back then there weren't any crash barriers but we sailed along at terrific speed."

Within a year of opening, cracks began to appear in the bright new vision of high-speed Britain, the first fault-lines that would eventually bring about the gridlock now so common on key sections of the network. "Nobody envisaged how heavily motorways would be used," explains Colin Loveday of Tarmac, the construction company that laid the Preston by-pass. "Cars would break down because, more used to tootling around local roads, they would overheat. Preston also showed up weaknesses in road surfaces. Months after opening water got under the surface and the whole thing collapsed and had to be rebuilt."

***

New road technology means that Tarmac's surfaces last 20 years now, but the M6 is a motorway beset by a new stress – congestion. It isn't known how many vehicles followed Macmillan's Austin past Preston on opening day, but today the M6 carries an average of 125,000 vehicles a day. As a whole, Britain's 1,800 miles of motorway represent just 1 per cent of the total length of the country's roads, yet account for 20 per cent of its traffic. The elevated section of the M6 past Birmingham alone frequently peaks at more than 160,000 vehicles a day, making it by most measures the busiest bit of motorway in Britain.

The stretch north of Preston is free-flowing and I head towards a symbol of what British motorways were meant to bring: Forton Services, or Lancaster Services as it's now known, 10 miles south of Lancaster. Unlike the Preston bypass, it's impossible to miss. Opened in 1965, its centrepiece is the concrete Pennine Tower. Designed to resemble an air traffic control tower, it evoked the exclusivity of airliner travel. At the top, chefs in white hats manned a swanky carvery to which diners would flock, whether or not they happened to be on the M6.

Forton was the perfect example of what architectural historian David Lawrence, a non-driver and probably the only man in the world with a PhD in motorway service areas, calls the desire to "showcase a newly democratised and modernised British society where people driving Ford Cortinas and Vauxhall Vivas could rub shoulders with the great, the good and the famous." Lawrence, the author of Always a Welcome: The Glove Compartment History of the British Motorway Service Area, says service stations are still microcosms of British society: "They are also places where people can be anonymous, places where romances develop, people write books, and criminals exchange money."

There's no sign of anything so exciting at Forton today. The paint around the tower's metal windows is flaking and the public are no longer welcome – health and safety executives closed the restaurant years ago. Restricted to the shops and cafés at ground level, today's drivers have no time for fine dining. For Paul Titterington, 47, motorway travel is anything but romantic. "I dread coming on the M6," he says, in between mouthfuls of panini at the Ritazza coffee shop. "I've just paid £5.50 for a toasted sandwich and a coffee, there's a draught coming through those doors, the furniture's naff and everyone's unfriendly."

It's the same story further north, where, robbed by the darkness of fine views west across the Lake District, I stop for the night at Southwaite Services near Carlisle. At the restaurant, a man called Dan opens the soup urn and uses his ladle to scoop out the last bowlful. A skin has formed and I see lumps of it going into my portion. Sure enough, when I take a seat on one of the luminous yellow plastic chairs and start eating, a congealed clump of soup slips down my throat, almost making me gag. It is as dispiriting a dining experience as I have ever had. Still hungry, I make the short walk to Carlisle Travelodge. Checking in, I take a risk and order the £4.05 breakfast. Ken, who's working the night shift on reception, raises an eyebrow. The first sign that the breakfast might not be very good comes when Ken presents it there and then, at 9.30pm, in a plastic bag.

The next morning I abandon my breakfast, which includes a cereal bowl with a carton of long-life milk as a lid, in search of something less depressing. If Lancaster represents the service station of old and Southwaite what they have become, then Tebay Services is a glorious anomaly. When the roadbuilders laid the M6 towards Carlisle in the late 1960s, the route passed through John and Barbara Dunning's farm. Rather than protest, they set up a roadside café with 20 seats and a couple of petrol pumps. Today, Westmorland, the company the Dunnings still run (daughter Sarah is now in charge) employs 500 people and includes a hotel. The delicious cooked breakfast I tuck into at a window seat looking out on the duck pond and a cloud-covered Howgill Fell comes from local farms. There are farm shops, an award-winning butchers and bakery.

"Some people come and ask if we have a Burger King," says Dunning, who grew up clearing litter from the car parks and making sandwiches for 50p an hour. "We have to explain politely that we do do burgers but that they're hand-pressed and come from our own herd."

***

Packed off with two sirloin steaks from Tebay's master butcher and a chicken and asparagus pie from the farm shop, I leave this gastronomic oasis and head back south for the final stop on my two-day M6 marathon. I want to meet the people for whom motorways are more than a way to get around, the people who have what must be one of the toughest jobs in the country – keeping Britain's clogged arteries flowing.

Michael Phoenix is a former soldier and lorry-driver. Now based at Hilton Park Services, on the Birmingham stretch where my journey began, he patrols the region's motorways in a Land Rover Discovery for the Highways Agency. Every day, he and colleague Chris Hudson attend breakdowns and collisions or clear debris and run roadblocks.

Sometimes things get more interesting – and rarely more so than on 17 May this year. "We had received a call that there were two female pedestrians in the central reservation," Phoenix says. "When we got there, the women had run on to the carriageway and been hit. One had taken the wing mirror of a car and broken its windscreen." Incredibly, both women got up and were standing with Phoenix and Hudson on the hard shoulder as the police arrived. As Phoenix briefed the officers, Hudson was standing with the women. "I knew she was going to go and instinctively grabbed her jacket to try and stop her." By coincidence, a BBC camera crew were filming with the police that day. Their chilling video, which has been seen by thousands on YouTube, shows what happened next. The woman slips out of the jacket Hudson is holding just inches from the slow lane and runs in front of a lorry. Seconds later, the other woman makes a dash, too, and is hit by a car. Amazingly, both women survived.

While motorways are known to be the safest type of road, the crashes that do happen are often grisly. Phoenix and Hudson accepted counselling, or "trauma diffusion", after their experience. So did the police officers who were on the scene.

Simon Westwood is an inspector with the Central Motorway Police Group, which covers major roads for the West Midlands, West Mercia and Staffordshire forces. Taking me on a tour of his patch in his Range Rover, he tells me that a big part of working the motorways is dealing with horrific incidents. "No amount of training can help, you just deal with it. If you can't hack it, you wouldn't be on this force very long. The last bad one was on the unlit section of the M6 up near Staffordshire, where a young girl walked out in front of a lorry. The largest part they could find was a piece of her hand."

Despite the horrors Westwood and Phoenix have to face (last year there were 42 KSIs – incidents in which people are killed or seriously injured – in the region), they love their jobs. "I do take pride in it," Westwood says. "It might sound stupid but we're here to help, and you get a good feeling when you come across an RTC [accident] and you sort it out and help everyone get on their way. I've never had a boring day on the motorway. Some days are a bit too exciting, but I've never had a boring one."

***

Fifty years after Macmillan cut the ribbon, a network of blue arteries has radiated out of Preston, providing Britain with a heart to keep a modern economy beating. But what does the next 50 hold for our motorways? One thing seems certain – there are unlikely to be additions to the network. Where once governments saw new motorways as beacons of prosperity, they have become synonymous with pollution, frustration and dread. The focus has switched to improving existing roads. In July, Ruth Kelly, then the Transport Secretary, announced a £6bn package to improve key stretches of motorway, with measures ranging from road-widening to allowing use of the hard shoulder during peak periods.

Meanwhile, back on the M6, a chapter in the story of Britain's most important and maligned motorway is coming to an end. At its northern terminus near Carlisle, there is a six-mile stretch of A-road before the Scottish motorway picks up the trail at Gretna. Now the earth-movers and surfacing machines are back out in force to turn the green road blue and complete the uninterrupted motorway link between London and Glasgow, via the M1, the M6 and the M74.

As Phoenix drops me back at my car, I ask him how he'd characterise the British motorway. "They're like women," he says, "You can't live with them, you can't live without them." Whether or not his wife agrees with this sentiment, 50 years after Macmillan's ribbon-cutting promised excitement, hope and romance, Phoenix's assessment of what these superhighways of change have delivered – social and economic advancement, as well as frustration and misery – is spot on.

Life in the fast lane: The joys of Britain's motorways

Best service station

One of the outstanding pit-stops in the country is Tebay Services (right, top and bottom), north of junction 38 on the M6, according to Chris Marshall, founder of the specialist motorway website cbrd.co.uk. With its pitched roof and stone walls, Tebay looks like a farmhouse converted into a boutique hotel. Also recommended is Lancaster's Moto services, on the M6 between junctions 32 and 33, which is known for its iconic Pennine Tower.

Most picturesque drives

The stretch of M62 across the Pennines, and the M6 near the Lune river in Cumbria.

Least traffic

One of the quietest motorways is the M45, which leads to Birmingham. After the construction in 2003 of the M6 toll road, also leading into the city, the M45 has become much more tranquil.

Best architecture

Before it becomes the M40, Western Avenue (the A40), running westward out of London, has a line-up of interesting buildings along its route, including the 1932 Art Deco Hoover building (right). On the M9 near Edinburgh, one can spot the 15th-century Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Best place to hitchhike

The spiritual home of hitchhiking is Watford Gap service station on the M1, which is also a central location on the entire motorway network.

Best place to spot celebrities

Try the M40 in Oxfordshire: it was here, earlier this year, that a couple took a picture of Jeremy Clarkson driving at 70mph while talking on a mobile phone. They sent the photo to the 'Daily Mirror', prompting a police investigation, but the 'Top Gear' presenter escaped prosecution.

Memorable movie moments

Bruce Robinson's 1987 film 'Withnail & I' features an unknown motorway, though signs for the M25 can be seen in the background. (This is something of a blunder; the film is set in the 1960s, yet the first sections of the M25 opened in the mid-1970s). Scenes from Danny Boyle's science-fiction film '28 Days Later' (2002) were filmed on the M1, which was closed to traffic during filming.

2 4 6 8 Motorway...

The Doves reportedly recorded "M62" for their 'Last Broadcast' album underneath one of the motorway's bridges; Chris Rea's "Road to Hell" was rumoured to have been written about the M25 London orbital.

Best graffito

A slogan on a bridge over the M1 reportedly started life as "Hoot 4 Hunting", in support of the pro-hunting movement – but it was later changed to "Shoot a Hunter".

Highest point

Britain's high-speed road system climbs to its greatest altitude on the M62, close to Saddleworth Moor (right) in the East Lancashire Pennines; it reaches 1,442ft above sea level.

Rob Sharp

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