Infamous traffic lights go back to nature

Roads / Twyford Down
Click to follow
THE Government has completed its gesture of conciliation for driving the M3 motorway through Hampshire's highly protected Twyford Down and returned a major road to countryside. The road the M3 replaced, the A33 Winchester bypass with its hated Hockley junction, a notorious bottleneck, has been buried under thousands of tons of chalk and soil.

When the go-ahead was given in 1992 for Twyford Down to be bulldozed, in the teeth of fierce opposition, the then transport secretary, John MacGregor, promised to rip up the A33 and "recontour and landscape the historic link between Winchester and St Catherine's Hill".

The promise did not mollify the opposition but it has been fulfilled. What scars remain will soon disappear, and where two ribbons of tarmac once disfigured the lovely Itchen valley, there are now green scrubland, wild orchids, blue butterflies, even deer.

"We have reconstructed the side of a hill taken away in the past," says John Chapman of supervising engineers Mott MacDonald. The B3335, western arm of the Hockley junction that once bisected the Itchen's adjacent water meadows, has also gone. Nature is now being encouraged to take its course on land lost for more than half a century to a major road.

The M3 through Twyford Down is not a pretty sight. The cutting that eases the motorway gradient will never properly blend into a landscape mutilated by earth movers, though the planting of 120,000 screening trees and shrubs will help. But there is some good news.

For a start, the fuming tailbacks that could extend for miles on either side of the Hockley traffic lights are nightmares of the past. So is the roar of traffic suffered by residents to the west (the Winchester side). When the new flora is established and the temporary fencing (much of it to keep out rabbits) is removed, it will be possible to stroll and picnic where lorries once rumbled. "It's transformed this place," said a jogger. A dog-walker agreed. "St Catherine's Hill [a local beauty spot] used to be cut off from Winchester by the A33. Now there's open, peaceful countryside. It's wonderful."

An early plan to build the M3 extension next to the A33, leaving Twyford Down untouched, was rejected on the grounds that it would intensify local pollution and disturbance. Another proposal, for a 1.4km twin- tube tunnel, was felt to be too costly. So a cutting it was. Tarmac's successful pounds 25.9m tender included the heavy muscle required to restore the land occupied by the A33 to its original contours. The road was ripped up and covered, using the spoil from the Twyford cutting. It has been skilfully done. More recreational land has been recovered than lost, increasing the habitat of the chalkhill blue butterfly.

Much seed for the new downland was "vacuumed" up locally to avoid alien species, and 30,000 seedlings planted out. About 8,000 square metres of downland turf was also "translocated", to use the jargon. "As the downland species spread, the weeds will be crowded out," says Rowland Snazell of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, employed to monitor the reclaimed land for the next 10 years.

The restoration of the by-pass has set the precedent for an environmental manager at all major road-building sites. "We now have 15 in the South- east," says Roger Kent, regional landscape architect of the commissioning Highways Agency.

n A Twyford Down protester has accepted a pounds 4,750 out-of-court settlement from Hampshire police for wrongful arrest in May 1993. Paul Lawrence, 23, of Southsea, was detained for seven hours for obstructing a police officer, a non-arrestable offence.

To see the reclaimed land, aim for the Garnier Road car park in Winchester. Take the footpath alongside the Itchen Navigation canal between St Catherine's Hill and the water meadows.