Motorists face one of the busiest days on the roads in several years today as a combination of a late Easter, back-to-back bank holidays and Mediterranean-style weather threatens to bring gridlock to popular holiday routes.
Jams are expected to start building from midday, with holidaymakers heading to the South-west, while traditional blackspots such as the M6 approaches to the Lake District will start to feel congested from mid afternoon, and M25 users can expect a heavier than normal rush hour to kick in from 4.30pm.
Graham Smith of Trafficmaster said that while there may be less work traffic around than usual, the roads would still be very crowded. "I would anticipate probably one of the busiest bank holidays for five years. It has been a long time since the Christmas break and many people are looking forward to a whole week off, and, of course, we have this fantastic weather – probably the best weather we have ever had at Easter because it is so late," he said.
There was, however, some good news for motorists who according to the AA will be paying an extra £2 to travel 100 miles compared to last year due to escalating fuel prices. The Highways Agency said the fire-damaged section of the M1 would be fully open from today and that the anticipated contraflow would not now be needed. There will still be a 50mph limit across the affected stretch between junctions one and four, and further closures are anticipated.
Rail travellers were also facing difficulties, although Network Rail said 18 per cent more trains would be running compared to last year. Buses were due to replace trains between Crewe and Wigan and Liverpool and between Carlisle and Motherwell on the West Coast main line.
Buses will also be pressed into service on the Stansted Express on the morning of Easter Sunday. Disruption is likely to Great Western line trains, while engineering is set to hit services in Hampshire, Kent and East Anglia, with work being done on the Great Eastern line out of London's Liverpool Street.
An estimated two million people are expected to head abroad over the weekend – despite the fact that London was hotter than Rome and Gravesend outstripped Malaga yesterday. BAA said passenger numbers would peak at its airports today with 337,000 jetting off. The most popular destination from Heathrow this Easter is New York, with Amsterdam, Malaga, Dubai and Tenerife also proving magnets for passengers from regional airports.
Travel company Tui, the parent of the holiday firms Thomson and First Choice, said its Easter sales were 22 per cent up on last year with Spain's Costa Brava and the Spanish islands of Ibiza and Menorca also proving popular.
Temperatures are expected to peak at 26C in London today, where parks are once again expected to be crowded with sunbathers. With the exception of the occasional shower, conditions are likely to remain warm and sunny into the rest of the weekend.
However, parts of Scotland and the North-east could be misty with some rain while other areas might catch a shower. The South-east was likely to enjoy the best of the warm sunshine.
The heatwave, which has brought early bounties in the form of wisteria and other flowers, is being caused by warm continental winds and clear skies. But gardeners and farmers are growing increasingly concerned over the lack of rain.
After the driest March for 60 years, less than a fifth of the normal amount of rain fell across England in April, prompting fears of future hosepipe bands and drought. This month is already on track to equal the previous warmest April which was in 2007.
The Met Office forecaster Charles Powell said there would be little respite for people's parched gardens.
"Showers will be quite isolated and intermittent. One or two of those isolated showers could become thundery, but those too will be isolated. Temperatures have been quite warm and well above average for this time of year," he said.
Today's travel blackspots
Primary route to: Popular West Country beaches such as St Ives in Cornwall. Best to avoid today between: noon and 6pm.
Primary route to: Attractions such as Chatsworth House in North Derbyshire. Best to avoid today between: 3.30pm and 6.30pm.
Primary route to: The North, including the Lake District, and Alton Towers. Best to avoid today between: 3.30pm and 6.30pm.
Primary route to: Pretty much everywhere if you live in the South-east. Best to avoid today between: 4.30pm and 7.30pm.