Over Christmas and the New Year I read a really good book that I’d been saving for myself since the autumn as a Christmas present to myself.
It was ‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ by Joe Moran. (There are good reviews in the Guardian and Independent.) It’s a very good book — probably the sort of book the word ‘discursive’ was defined for. Moran takes roads, or more particularly, major roads built this century — from the Kingston Bypass in the 20s but mainly from the advent of motorways — and meanders around the subject, throwing in some fascinating facts and anecdotes.
Having watched the BBC4 series ‘Secret Life of the Motorway’ in 2008 (I think) I recognised some material on motorways that was a little familiar — but fascinating nonetheless. It includes the history of the signage used on motorway signs — and which spread to all road signs in the 60s. The debate on font choice (serif or sans serif) got incredibly ideological.
Part of the appeal of the book is its discussion of what is very familiar to most people who travel round the country on motorways but is rarely discussed — such as motorway services, design of signs and so on.
The author mentions parts of motorways, such as the M1 in Bedfordshire or the M62 over Windy Hill or the M40 (the last major motorway to be built — all of 19 years ago), as if recalling old friends, which to many readers they are. He also discusses the irrationality of much of the road system — mainly as the grand designs of the 50s and 60s were scaled back on a piecemeal basis due to lack of funding and, latterly, anti-road protests. The irony is that a half-finished road plan is probably worse for the environment than if it was properly finished — such as the infamous stretch of the A57 through Mottram where the M67 discharges 3 lanes of motorway traffic into what’s effectively the main street through the village — a place to be avoided during the day. There are also plenty of urban motorways that similarly funnel traffic into inappropriate areas or are hugely underused as they hardly go anywhere (like the old M41 that nowprincipally serves as a feeder road into the Westfield Shopping Centre).
Moran gives the anti-road movement a lot of coverage. However, he points out many of their hypocrisies — such as how Winchester College was initially happy to sell the land through Twyford Down for the M3 extension but when the road came to be built the head (or however schools like that term the person in charge) was one of the prime protesters. He also mentions how the old A33, which the Twyford Down section replaced, has now been buried under much of the spoil taken from the M3 construction and has been very effectively reclaimed by nature. He argues that roads aren’t actually very permanent and neglected for a few years will start to be colonised by plants and trees — something that can well be believed seeing the way potholes emerged from under the melting snow recently.
He also argues that roads are no less destructive to the countryside than railways were and that many people are misled by the out-of-proportion markings of roads in an atlas (you need to get down to about 1:25,000 OS Explorer map scale before they’re anything like accurate). I’ve certainly noticed that, apart from big junctions, roads tend to be less visible from the air than railways.
I’ve followed the impressive reconstruction of the M1 between junctions 6A and 10 with great interest since 2006 — I even went to a local consultation display at Slip End near Luton. I was therefore fascinated to read that Slip End and the nearby hamlet of Pepperstock have a legendary status in British motorway history as the first earth was moved for a British motorway at Slip End and the opening ceremony for the M1 was held at Pepperstock (junction 10 as it is now). (The M6 round Preston opened earlier but I think construction started later.) I’ve driven on or under that part of the M1 most days for the last four or five years.
At the end of the book he dwells on our generally hypocritical attitude to roads — popular imagination (as stoked by cliches perpetuated by the likes of the BBC) would suggest the British hate their roads but Moran suggests the relationship is far more benign and complex.