Wheel of fate turns full circle for Spaghetti Junction: Martin Whitfield traces the history of junction six on the M6, a symbol of the motor age when it opened 21 years ago

NOW it is like any other urban motorway. Dirty, noisy, congested and plagued with roadworks and traffic cones.

But when it was opened 21 years ago this week, Spaghetti Junction represented a new era of personal freedom. It was modern, a technical marvel and a symbol of the motor age.

Britain had joined the 21st century with a 1,000-mile motorway network and the final gap closed on the 300-mile journey from London to Carlisle. Early photographs show a handful of vehicles flowing freely in the triangle of the Midland links, the junctions connecting the M1, M5 and M6. People would take day- trips to the first service stations, just for the experience.

Junction six on the M6 became famous. Ken Dodd, the comedian, called it the eighth wonder of the world. 'You get on and wonder how to get off.'

Lord Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, reflected the mood when he opened the pounds 110m scheme: 'This is the most exciting day in the road history of this country. We are opening the motorway hub of Britain.' The surge in road traffic in the intervening years has dimmed the enthusiasm for motorways and has seen them enter popular demonology. The M25, the last comparable road project, is dreaded, hated and deeply unpopular.

Protesters and professional lobbyists would have a field day if the Government proposed today to build 23 miles of six-lane road, all in a built up area, passing within two-and-a-half miles of the centre of Birmingham. In the 1960s, things were different.

'It was progress,' said Joyce Bell, 68, who had a bird's-eye view of the whole construction process from a tower block she has lived in since it was built 37 years ago. Her late husband's allotment was bulldozed, along with much of Salford Park, to make way for Spaghetti Junction which links the M6 with the Aston Expressway (A38) and local roads.

Walking in Salford Park today is not much fun unless you like the constant roar of traffic overhead. The elevated junction, supported by 559 graffiti-clad concrete columns, dominates the suburb of Gravelly Hill, while on the Birmingham side of the M6 lies an area of factories criss-crossed with canals and railways, hallmarks of earlier industrial ages.

Spaghetti Junction has been absorbed into the local consciousness, Birmingham residents take no notice unless it does not work. Twenty-one years ago, the local newspaper published special reports on the new link. This week's headline on the anniversary day showed an alteration in perceived priorities: 'Sex Shame Priest Fury'.

A generally reported decline in the area around the junction is not ascribed by many older locals to the unfavourable environment of four miles of motorways and slip roads within 30 acres. Instead, it is given a racist twist and put down to the arrival of 'Pakis and coloureds'.

John and Edna O'Connor, both 61, who have lived in the same street in Gravely Hill since they married 38 years ago, said they had learnt to live with the noise and the motorway gave them easy access.

'When you had the racing pigeons, you were forever up and down the motorway chasing them,' Mrs O'Connor said to her husband. The street is full of semi-detached houses found in many of Birmingham's residential suburbs. The street ends with the start of the A38 slip road. 'People say 'it must be terrible', but we have got double glazing. In the summer if you open the windows, it's a bit noisy at the back.'

Spaghetti Junction is carrying more than double its intended traffic volumes and its reinforced concrete pillars are corroding under the pounding and the poisoning of years of winter salt spraying. More than 750 million vehicles have used it since it opened.

A Department of Transport exhibition in the centre of Birmingham jokes about the regular rush-hour delays. It ascribes the motorway's congestion to its very success and is planning a new motorway ring to the north and west of the city.

Teresa Hughes, 23, finds entertainment and information in seeing the jams from her tenth-floor window.

'We can see the M6 . . . It's very nice in the summer. I can sit on the balcony and watch it for hours. If we are going out, we look at the motorway to see if it is busy,' she said.

(Photographs omitted)