From Little Chefs to muddy fields: Finding beauty in a 1980s motorway

Eve Watling
Thursday 10 December 2020 15:47
Cafe Assistants, Compass Cafe Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, November 1982
Cafe Assistants, Compass Cafe Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, November 1982

In 1981, 25-year-old photographer Paul Graham packed a wooden large-format camera into a borrowed Morris Mini Traveller. Starting in London, he set off up the A1 motorway, stopping to photograph spots along the way. It would be the first of many journeys over a two-year period. He wanted to examine the road as a space to be experienced and seen, with its own unique architecture, social ecosystems, and even a romantic magic, rather than a place to be traversed as a necessary chore.   

When Graham was a child, the A1, formally known as the Great North Road, was a destination in itself. “To an impressionable five-year-old, travelling up the Great North Road seemed a close contender to visiting the moon,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1983 photo book, A1 – The Great North Road. “Towns like Grantham, Newark, and Doncaster marked our progress, along with key route points such as the Comet Roundabout, Selby Fork, and Scotch Corner… places I had never seen before, as I peered into the inky night from the back of our speeding car.” 

Little Chef in Rain, St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, May, 1982

Lorry Driver, Beacon Services, South Mimms, Herthordshire, May 1982

Couple on Day Trip, Washington Services, Tyne and Wear, May 1982

The A1 stretches around 400 miles from London, through the midlands and the northeast, all the way to Edinburgh. The road germinated in Roman times, sprouting up through the country from London, a link between north and south. Highwayman Dick Turpin has been said to have fled across much of the road, and it is featured in Pickwick Papers and The War of the Worlds.  But the A1’s time as the main artery across the country ended in the late 1950s, when the faster and more direct M1 was built. Once-busy lay-bys, hotels and cafes saw a sharp decline in visitors. As Graham puts it, “the A1 soon entered a state of atrophy, underused and decaying.”   

It wasn’t just the route itself that was undergoing a deep change. “The late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK was the time of Margaret Thatcher… who was engaged in an economic war with the workers’ unions,” says Graham. “Punk had burned so brightly, then flamed out. Anarchy had not come to the UK. It was clear the country was being pushed toward a new paradigm, rightfully or not, so a journey across its length, repeated many times, felt valid and timely.” 

Tony, Tower Cafe, Caldecote, Bedfordshire, May 1982

Blyth Services At Night, Blyth, Nottinghamshire, February, 1981

Bus Converted to Cafe, Lay-By, West Yorkshire, November 1982

The result of this project is collected in Graham’s photo book, A1 – The Great North Road, first released in 1983 and now being rereleased by Mack. The A1 series, which united New Colour with the British tradition of documentary photography, would become an influential reference point for a generation of photographers to come.  

Graham left much of his trip up to chance, although he deliberately avoided over-stylisation or photographing “as though this was an American road trip.” Crucially, he wanted to “embrace the grey skies… the soft light [in Britain] has its unique qualities and tonality that one should respect.” Graham photographed in colour, which was unusual for art photographers at the time, capturing the soft glow of service stations at night and the deep, sodden green of the hedgerows. Truck drivers, weary and tattooed, sit in dilapidated roadside cafes; captured in large format, the images have the peace and stillness of a fresco. 

Bible, Drivers’ Bedroom, Blyth Services, Blyth, Nottinghamshire, February 1981

Ferrybridge Power Station, West Yorkshire, November 1982

Interior, John’s Cafe, Sandy, Bedfordshire, April 1981

In his new introduction to A1, Graham sees that his work has become a journey through a version of England which has changed beyond recognition. Fleeting fashions have melted into the landscape along with Little Chefs and power stations. “The history of those times, of punk and privatisation, are now as much a part of the Great North Road’s legacy as Highwaymen, or Romans, or defunct British car brands,” he says. Despite the changes it documents, the appeal of A1 remains the same. It asks us to look at the unloved and the in-between, finding richness in the moments which usually resist our attention.  

A1 – The Great North Road by Paul Graham is available now from MACK

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