The motorway effect: movement, not travel

Historical Notes

Brian Harrison
Friday 19 June 1998 00:02 BST

IN FORTY years, motorways have changed everything. Until Harold Macmillan opened the Preston by-pass (now part of the M6) in 1958, they seemed un-English: symbols of American extravagance or (worse) of German militarism. But their engineering triumphs, elegant bridges and imaginative landscaping soon made an impact. "These are the cathedrals of the modern world," wrote Barbara Castle in 1966, watching the Almondsbury interchange being built near Bristol, where the M5 joins the M4. The "Spaghetti Junction" between the M5 and the M6 near Birmingham seemed a marvel when opened in 1972, and when the M25 at last encircled London in 1986 the tentacles joined to form a national network.

Motorway mileage rose more than five-fold in the 1960s and more than doubled again in the 1970s. The entire country was drawn more tightly together, and backwaters joined the mainstream. The M11 and M25 opened up Essex and East Anglia, for example, and old railway towns like Crewe and Nuneaton went into relative decline. Big warehouses sprang up on the greenfield sites suddenly enhanced in value by motorway junctions. England's London / Birmingham / Manchester commercial and industrial axis was reinforced. So much so, that on 3 April 1997 the IRA thought it worth seeking the publicity value of disrupting the central motorway system with two bombs and a hoax device planted at strategic junctions.

Life speeded up, railways went into steeper decline, lorries grew bigger, and motels (the first of them, the Dover Stage, built in 1956-57) appeared. The 70 mile-an-hour speed limit, introduced in 1965, was being breached by a third of drivers 10 years later because better technology made it easier to drive fast. Relatively safely, though. The accident-rate fell dramatically: no more suicide lanes and hazardous overtaking on major trunk routes. It seemed an age since the early 1950s when it took a complete morning to get from London to Cambridge, a whole day to get from Oxford to Cumberland.

By the 1960s, disillusionment was setting in. "We do not ride on the motorway," Thoreau could have said; "it rides upon us". When the scheme for an inner-London "motorway box" was rejected in the early 1970s, a limit was set to motorways' destruction of British towns. But when the motorway protestor John Tyme published his Motorways versus Democracy in 1978, he could still blame them on a sort of malign conspiracy. Motorway noise has gradually crept up on us. A survey in 1995 showed that within the preceding 30 years an area of tranquillity the size of Wales had been lost. Motorways had spread out their spikes of noise from the towns, leaving only Lincolnshire, the north Pennines, North Devon and the Welsh marches in peace. "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" William Cobbett hated road improvements, and long ago praised peasants who spent their lifetime in one place. Motorways would have rendered him speechless.

Attitudes changed as a result. For pleasure as well as work, we drive ever faster and further. "Motorway madness" soon became a familiar phrase, with the American term "road rage" first making its appearance in June 1994. Fewer people now lived in their county of birth. The wrinkles of English localism - once central to cultural, religious and political life - were being ironed out. J.B. Priestley predicted in 1933 that for a people moving at 400 miles an hour "there will be movement, but, strictly speaking, no more travel", because the places visited would have become identical. We're already getting there fast.

Brian Harrison is writing the final volume in `The New Oxford History of England (1951-90)', to be published by Oxford University Press

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