Simon Calder: How London got its ring road

The road to hell was, indeed, paved with good intentions. Thirty-five years ago this month, the first stretch of the M25 opened. Britain's fast track to the future, we were invited to conclude, was finally under construction. The Seventies planners envisaged that the messy business of getting through London for families from Luton going for a day out in Brighton, or truckers from Glasgow en route to Dover and onwards to Europe, could be solved by the creation of an orbital motorway – a vast London bypass.

Juggernauts and joy-riders would, so they theorised, be lured away from the capital's hopelessly inadequate North and South Circular Roads on to a verdant rural freeway revolving endlessly through the Green Belt. Motorists would breeze on to the orbital motorway at Swanley or Reigate, filtering off with a cheery wave to their fellow drivers when they reached the turn-off for Hatfield and the North.

Other countries had long enjoyed revolving around their peripheriques, beltways and tangenziales, which helped prevent a capital city's arteries being choked with through traffic. What could possibly go wrong?

Let's start with the road number, shall we? Mimicking governmental indecision about roadbuilding, the Ministry of Transport could not even settle on a name for the project. Initially the revolutionary road was called the M16, until (presumably) someone pointed out possible confusion with a shadowy branch of the secret service.

A committee then came up with "M25" because the motorway was originally intended to have 25 junctions, in precise divisions of five miles around a circumference of exactly 125 miles.

As you have probably spotted, I made that last bit up. But it is no less ridiculous than many of the other myths orbiting endlessly in cyberspace about the M25 – one of which insists that the name and true nature of the M25 was concealed right up until the moment the circuit was completed at 9.30am on 29 October 1986. Prior to that, the story goes, each element of the motorway carried the number of a different A-road.

Tosh, as anyone who followed the tortuous 5,000-day building programme from the day in May 1973 when the first (poor) sod was cut between present-day junction 23 for South Mimms and 24 for Potters Bar will know. But as any self-respecting road enthusiast will tell you (and there are plenty around – just consult the internet), this first section, when it opened in September 1975, was initially known as the A1178. The road that dare not speak its name, indeed. In fact, the M25 plundered its number from the A-road that the motorway parallels for much longer than any other: the A25 through Kent and Surrey, which it shadows for around 20 miles between Sevenoaks and Reigate. Just as the M4 mimics the A4, and the M8 supersedes the A8, the M25 was named after the A-road from which it stole the most traffic.

As a traveller, I find journeys from A to B usually more rewarding than those from A to A (or – in the case of the orbital motorway, junction 1A for Dartford to junction 1A). And as a taxpayer, I am horrified by how much cash has been squandered in creating a multi-billion-pound problem instead of a solution to the endless tangle of traffic congestion. But however much we love to hate the M25, it is integral to many people's travel plans.

The capital's main airports – Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted – dangle from it; Ebbsfleet station in Kent was built where the M25 intersects the High Speed One rail line; and countless holiday journeys from Bristol, Birmingham and Bradford to the Continent rely upon the road that first felt the rumble of a million tyres 35 years ago.

Good for the circulation

At 35 (years, not mph), the M25 is burned into the national sense of place. You are either located inside it, confined to Greater London within a coil of concrete, or outside – segregated from the nation's capital by a wall of traffic. Perhaps the place to be is actually on the motorway.

Plenty of drivers feel they already spend more than enough time on it. Department for Transport figures for the year to July show the M25 is far more congested than any other UK motorway or A-road. The stretch between Redhill and Uxbridge – connecting Gatwick and Heathrow is even slower than the rest of the M25. Yet I contend that the infamous loop around London provides the ideal way to connect some spectacular sights beyond the suburbs. And two Independent readers helped me test that proposition.

You say you want a revolution? How about once around the M25? Read the results here.

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