An <i>IoS</i> guide to A-road Britain (Part 1)

Before motorways and satnav, families ventured forth on routes that delighted the eye, drew them into hidden history, and furnished gentle lessons in national geography and local idiosyncrasy. David Randall introduces our two-part series on the country's great roads

Sunday 15 August 2010 00:00 BST

When I think of a long journey by road my mind still goes back, despite all the trips across country with my wife and sons, to my father and the holiday drive to the West Country circa 1962. Only a mildly travelled man overseas (thanks, in approximate order, to Adolf Hitler, the British Army, and Erwin Rommel), he was, because of his job, a vastly experienced driver all over southern England.

Not that you would think it to see his preparations. They began, several weeks before, when he would write off to the AA for the fruits of a service they then offered members: a personalised holiday route, with each road from door to door marked, charted, and calibrated. This, although he knew the roads better than most, he would study until it was time for the next phase of the operation: checking the engine, cleaning the spark plugs; topping up the oil, water, and air; putting this year's selection of boiled sweets into the glove compartment; and finally, the evening before departure, a drive to the local filling station for a tank full of four-star.

The car was packed as the light faded, the radiator grille given a final polish to remove young fingerprints, and a 3.45am reveille ordered. You'd think we were invading Poland. At 4am, with the holidaymakers aboard, the two-tone Wolseley 16/60 was started.

The holiday began there and then, for the journey was part of it. Landmarks we had not seen since this time last year were commented upon (Guildford Cathedral looked even more like a Victorian prison in the half-light, and the roadhouse on the Hog's Back had fewer guests' cars than last year, we thought); the meaning of pub names wondered at; the changing architecture and geology noted (from the half-timber and sandy heaths of Betjeman country, through the prairies and grey stone of Wiltshire, to the red earth and cob cottages of west Somerset); and our stop-offs (Stonehenge, breakfast at a café in Cannington, and a final pause in a lay-by in the Quantocks) eagerly anticipated.

My wise father didn't like to hammer across country, shouting out his split times as he passed landmarks; he liked to see in close-up detail, and, if he wanted to, stop and inhabit the varied territory through which he passed. Even when motorways became available, he'd shudder at the thought of using them. M4, M5? No thank you. Much better the As 3, 30, 303, 361, and 39. He was, in every sense, an A-road man.

And who, we'll hope you say after our two-part series, could be otherwise? Who, apart from long-distance lorry drivers and those who want every journey to look the same, could prefer motorways? Insulated by high embankments from surrounding geography, you travel them deprived of all stimuli save that of the mad, erratic incompetence of fellow drivers.

How unlike the A-roads, with their pubs, villages, lay-bys and dry stone walls; their cottages, barns, hump-back bridges and farm shops – all the things you experience, however fleetingly, with the constant option of stopping and enjoying.

The best of them are a way of journeying deep into history – far more than the fetishised nostalgia of a "preserved" steam railway where everything has the artfulness of a film set. A-roads are works in progress, with their past visible in the buildings that line them, and, especially, in their routes. The older ones are roads made, not by planners' diktat, but by centuries of need. Some, in parts, follow ancient trackways; and others have sections on top of, or very close to, a Roman road, such as the A29 (Stane Street). By the time of turnpike trusts, many of the major highways had spawned villages, which, if they had coaching inns (the horses on the mails needed to be changed every 10 miles) would have grown into towns.

These roads would, at first, have been uneven dirt and stone, characterised more by wheel ruts and potholes than flatness, and reduced to the consistency of lumpy porridge in wet weather. During the 19th century, they were macadamised – the process, named for the Scottish landowner who invented and popularised it, of metalling a road with granite or limestone chippings and giving them a camber, or a slight arc, so rain ran off. (To complete the history of road surfaces, it was becoming standard by the turn of the 20th century to add tar – hence, tarmac.

Later came concrete and then asphalt – a naturally occurring substance, the chief source of which is the 100-acre Pitch Lake in Trinidad, discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh. Little he could have known, as he slapped his doubletted sides in amazement at this black expanse, that he was looking at the future surface of the A303.)

What are now A-roads were maintained by parishes, then turnpike trusts, and, late in the Victorian era, by the new county councils. Not a penny of central government money was spent on them until 1904 – fully 15 years after the first cars appeared. The trunk roads were still then known by their ancient names: the Dover Road, Great West or Bath Road; Holyhead Road; and Great North Road.

This was fine when very few road journeys were over long distances, and almost no one needed a road map, but impractical in the age of the car, which the 20th century became at break-neck speed. In 1904, there were 28,000 cars on the road, but by 1913 there were 132,000, and their drivers wanted to know where they were going. And government, if it was pumping in money, wanted roads categorised and organisable. So, just before the First World War, the Roads Board began to plan the change without which our current network would be unintelligible: the classification and numbering of roads.

In case you, like me, had never really appreciated there was a method to it all, this is how it works: Britain is divided, like a peach, into segments with each one's roads having the same initial number. Thus, roads originating in the east are 1s (the A12 to Great Yarmouth, for instance, or the A149 North Norfolk Coast Road); the South-east gets the 2s (such as the A22 to Eastbourne); the 3s cover the South and South-west (A39, Bath to Cornwall), and so on round Britain in a clockwise direction.

Single or double-digit A-roads are more important than triple- or quadruple-digit ones. There are also B- and C-roads. The latter are not supposed to be marked on signs, but a few do sneak through, such as the C13 in Dorset and the C426 in Hampshire. And there are, although they are for our present purposes, perhaps best not explored, D-roads, a designation slightly above the U-, or unclassified, roads.

Occasionally, the logic of all this breaks down. For some reason, we have two A594s – one the Leicester central ring road, the other a much older road in Cumbria, from Cockermouth to Maryport. And then there's what happens when an A-road is replaced by a motorway, and it, or large parts of it, is downgraded. The old A11 (a thing of coherence, if not beauty) is now, variously, itself, the A104, B1393, A1184, or B1383. That may confuse us, but not homing pigeons. They have been seen following A-roads (which must look like rivers to the airborne and navigationally talented bird), and even making a sharp right at traffic lights, or following the exact curve of a roundabout. They'll be giving way to traffic from the right next.

By 1922 to 1923, the country's roads had been classified, with snazzy new metal finger signposts to match. Along, too, had come filling stations (the first was in 1914 – before then motorists bought petrol in two-gallon cans and carried it with them); roundabouts, in 1923 (a French invention); white lines in the middle of roads (the mid-Twenties); and, to help pay for all this, road tax (levied first in 1921 at a rate of £1 per horsepower). Increasing numbers were paying it – by 1930, there were a million cars on the roads.

And not just cars. The 1920s was the age of the charabanc, many ex-Army vehicles bought by veterans of the trenches and converted, with no little ingenuity into 18- or 26-seat coaches open to the elements. A fixture of the seaside for nigh on 20 years, they invariably plied for trade from near the pier, and offered outings to local beauty spots, historic houses, and, if there were none of those availably adjacent, then a "mystery tour". Some resorts were so short of suitable destinations that the only mystery was whether the charabanc would break down before the tea stop or after it.

But they were responsible, even before mass car ownership, for the great boom in visitors to what we now think of as the staples of British rural sightseeing. Stonehenge, for instance, had, in 1901, fewer than 4,000 visitors. By 1925, there were 60,000; by 1930, 100,000, and today, with charabancs long since replaced by everyone's personal runabout, it gets close to a million visitors each year.

Lest we car drivers and passengers sneer at the riders in present-day charabancs, these great streamlined coaches give their passengers – what my parents used to call "trippers" – one great advantage: unlike the car-bound, you can see over bushes and dry stone walls to a view the rest of us only glimpse through a gap in the hedge. (The other gain, if coaching with chums, is the sing-song, an experience I was introduced to as a child staying at a West Country holiday camp. Twice a week there was a ramble to a country pub for cider and skittles, and a coach would duly roll up to take us back for lunch. It had barely got out of the pub car park when the singing began, and otherwise respectable folk found themselves singing ribald songs at the tops of their lubricated voices.)

By the 1930s, despite the slump with which the decade began, the A-road had become a thing of fascination and fashion, not just a means of getting from one place to another. Noël Coward wrote a song in homage to part of the A3 – "Give Me The Kingston By-pass On a Saturday Afternoon" – and there arose an institution to cater for the well-heeled young things who could then afford a car: the roadhouse.

This word later became applied to catchpenny A-road pubs, such as those places whose food is advertised by day-glo signage offering "Valu Lunch's. Roast and two veg for only £6.95". The real roadhouse of the Thirties was designed to capture a different kind of clientele altogether. The Ace of Spades by the A3 on the approaches to Esher in Surrey had, if you can believe it: a 24-hour restaurant with seating for 700 to 800, ballroom, outside swimming pool around which fashion shows would be staged, miniature golf course (then something of a bright-young-things craze), polo ground, riding school, and it even, in the early 1930s, applied for permission to build an air strip. What killed places like this was the Alfs and Enids turning up in their second-hand Austin 7s. You no longer met a better class of person on the A3, my dear.

Roadhouses have no equivalent any more. They were not a meal-break, or comfort stop, but a venue in themselves. These days, we have the meal-deal places; quality pubs and hotels for the deeper-pocketed; and, for those with little time, three more options. First, and most ubiquitous, are Little Chefs, the butt of food snobs and those who've failed to appreciate that they now serve porridge, as well as voluminous cooked breakfasts. In my extensive, even enthusiastic, experience, they are slightly over-priced stops of enormous convenience, where the quality of the grub is consistently reliable – unlike the service, which can range from reasonably quick to the approximate speed of a stalagmite.

Fastest of all are the few remaining examples of what used to be called transport cafés. An infallible sign of quality is the number of motorbikes parked outside, for there is no finer judge of a bacon sandwich than the leather-clad motorcyclist. The image of these oft-misjudged men and women has undergone a transformation in recent decades. Known to an earlier generation as "ton-up boys", and thought to pack the menace of the Wild Bunch, with ugly British overtones, they are more likely these days to be architects or lawyers taking their 750cc playthings for a Sunday spin.

My parents' epiphany in this regard came when the serenity of a 1960s West Country holiday was rudely interrupted by the arrival outside the chalet next door, on loudly throbbing machines, of three bikers. My folks braced themselves for a week of mayhem, only to hear not an untoward sound. The bikers were bird-watchers, and spent the week nursing injured seagulls.

When all other catering fails, there is always a lay-by, where beverages can be dispensed from a Thermos rather more safely than at 65mph. For the resourceful, or campers (not always the same thing), the lay-by is seen as the perfect place for a picnic, complete with freshly brewed tea. My view is that even the smallest diversion off the A-road will bring you to a more congenial spot than 10 metres away from gear-changing juggernauts, others take a different stance. You don't have to go far on holiday routes to see ma, pa, and the kiddies seated on canvas chairs around a rickety but well-stocked meal table, and settling into their lay-by as if it commanded a choice view over some majestic panorama.

The original purpose of lay-bys is lost to us now, for I presume (but cannot find anyone to verify) that they were periodically built into A-roads for the benefit of those whose cars were ailing. Engines of earlier eras were prone to overheat, or, after an otherwise trouble-free trundle down the A30, suddenly give up the ghost entirely. The sight of a harassed motorist bent over a steaming engine, and just about to hit his head on the underside of the raised bonnet, was one of the more common lay-by scenes in the 1950s. As was that of a few Good Samaritans pushing an incapacitated Hillman into the sanctuary of one of these A-road pit lanes. This was why cars had tool boxes, and were often driven by people who knew how to use them.

For the rest, there was the AA or RAC man. He might be summoned by a call from one of the two organisations' many roadside sentry boxes, or, just as likely, come across the hapless scene as he patrolled on his motorbike and sidecar. These chaps, uniformed like Edwardian chauffeurs, rode about the countryside, and, when not actively giving assistance, would salute any car bearing the yellow AA or blue RAC badge. Payers of the annual subscription were known to complain if not receiving the promised salute.

What should have bothered A-road goers then was the appalling accident record on British roads. It may be bad in places now (the A57 in the Peak District is one of many routes, invariably twisting and bordered by dry stone walls or trees, which retain a lethal reputation), but in former times it was a genuine national disgrace. In 1934, with only 1.5 million registered vehicles, some 7,000 people were killed on the roads. Wartime blackouts added to the dangers of sharp-edged cars (many had radiators, mascots, wings, and headlamps which seemed positively designed to skewer pedestrians), and there were no safety belts, let alone crumple zones, or air bags. In 1940, 8,609 died, and a year later the toll reached 9,169.

Gradually, it began to occur to government and the car industry that there was scope for improvement, and, from 1970 (with fatalities still at 7,499) serious action was taken. Last year, 2,222 people died, almost exactly half of whom were car users. The maudlin flowers tied to crash barriers and lamp-posts may suggest otherwise, but the accident rate per journey now is a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1930s, or even the 1960s.

No such progressive tale with traffic jams. On Whit Monday 1950, something of a sensation was caused when the A24 to Worthing had a traffic jam spanning two and a half miles. It seems comical that such a minor clogging of the arteries should make headlines, but then we do now have 31,000,000 cars to fit on Britain's 245,366 miles of motorable roads – one private vehicle for every two inhabitants.

Small wonder then that, to qualify for a news story, snarl-ups have to be of the order of 28 miles (M5, 2009), 20 miles (M25, 2004), or 22 miles (M25 again, 1988). A-roads can still suffer aggravating delays (especially on roads such as the A27 and A303, which have sudden single-carriageway sections), but the sheep behind the nation's wheels have a habit of flocking to motorways, and this has made life on A-roads much better.

And, if you are going to get gummed up, then it's best to sit with your idling engine on a road with a handy turn-off, pub, lay-by, tea room, or view. Scenery – the intimacy of a village, or the sweep of a vista – is what A-roads deliver to those who venture beyond the city. Whether it's horses in a picturesque paddock, moorland stretched out before you, a "For Sale" sign on an old cottage that sets off a whole evening's reverie about moving to the country, the deep-pile trees of a West Country coombe, a cluster of oaks in a distant field, or that teasing first glimpse of the sea as you crest a rise, it is an engagement with the landscape that A-roads offer.

You can travel them by bike, bus, horse, or (unless it's a wannabee motorway like the A38), by foot. We hope you enjoy trying our selections, and find, as we did, that the best A-roads are a part of our heritage which has been undervalued for too long.

Next week...

Major roads ahead in part two of our series:

The A40 (Cotswolds); A39 (Somerset & North Devon); A149 (North Norfolk coast road); A686 (north Pennines); A3400 (Middle England to Stratford); and a mystery tour in Scotland.

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