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A Potholed History of Motorways in Great Britain

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The M6.

For millennia the best way to get from A to B in Great Britain was by road. The Romans were rather good at roads; they built a network of straight ones linking the main towns. Even after they left, people still had the need to get from A to B, and so the road system grew, until by the start of the 20th Century there was a network spanning the land.

Then came the car, which was followed by more cars, buses, trucks, more cars, lorries, motorcycles, and even more cars. The roads had a problem. In general, the problem was C. When the roads were built from A to B, they generally went through town C. The narrow streets combined with local traffic in town C meant that people wanting to get from A to B were delayed in their journey.

A solution to this1 was the bypass. The bypass was a section of fast road around town C; however, it still meant that parts of the road from A to B (generally called an A-road) were still mostly slow, single carriageway. In 1958, a bypass was opened around the north-west city of Preston, which was going to change the face of motoring by becoming part of the the first motorway to be built: the M62.

So How Will I Know I Am On a Motorway?

A good clue is that the road signs are blue, and may give the name of the road you are on as 'M' plus a number. Only motorways can use blue signs with white lettering for mileage and upcoming junction information. If most of the following points also apply, you are probably on a motorway (some of these rules are true on some major roads, but they are enforced in the planning of a motorway):

  • To join a motorway (apart from at the start and end of the motorway) you must use a slip road. All junctions of minor roads with motorways are graded junctions, meaning that the motorway either passes above or below the other road. The short stretches of road that link them are known as slip roads.

  • There are no traffic lights on the carriageway apart from at toll booths.

  • The start and end of a motorway are signed. All entrances to a motorway have a blue sign with a white road heading under a blue bridge. All exits have the same sign with a white slash going through it.

  • There are direct links from one motorway to another.

  • Pedestrians, bicycles, horses and agricultural vehicles are banned, as are scooters, invalid carriages and learner drivers.

  • There is a central reservation, a narrow area between the carriageways which generally has unbroken Armco barriers3 on either side.

  • There are emergency phones along the side of the road at regular intervals.

  • There are no lay-bys and parking is not allowed on the hard shoulder (see below) which is only for breakdowns and emergencies.

Now I Know I Am On a Motorway, How Do I Drive On One?

When driving on a motorway, you should stick to the inside lane unless you are overtaking. The inside lane is not (as may seem logical) the lane nearest the middle of the road, it is the one nearest the left-hand edge of the road, next to the hard shoulder. The outside lane is the one nearest the central reservation.

All locations on motorways are referred to by what junction number they are near. People who regularly use the same road will often talk about differing conditions between motorway junctions. A general rule is that if people do not mention the word junction, ie, '...on the M4 between 4 and 5...' it is best to move away slowly.

Most long-distance motorways have service stations. These give drivers a chance to stop and rest, and also to purchase overpriced petrol, takeaway food, or compilation CDs of long-forgotten 1970s pop artists.

Speed Limits

The current motorway speed limit is 70mph4 unless it is stated otherwise, but this is generally ignored by drivers in the outside lane. It should be pointed out that speeding is dangerous and against the law. Drivers in the outside lane will point out that modern cars are capable of driving safely at much higher speeds than cars of the 1960s (when the speed limit was introduced). Other drivers will point out that outside lane drivers think that no traffic rules apply to them and no matter how modern the car, it is not safe to tailgate people with your headlights flashing.

Driver speed on some inner city motorways is limited to 50mph; this is also ignored by some drivers. Electronic overhead signage is used on some motorways to announce variable speed limits. If the indicated speed limit sign has flashing lights surrounding it, then it is a recommended speed limit and drivers generally ignore it without too many guilty feelings. If the indicated speed is in a circle then it is a legal limit and drivers will generally think twice before ignoring it. These lower limits are often applied around roadworks and enforced by cameras. Roadworks are not sited for maximum annoyance, but are generally aiming to improve the road, so drivers should slow down for the workmen. However, the only speed suggestion that is generally obeyed is the 40mph signage displayed because of traffic jams, and this is only because traffic is actually crawling along at 10mph.

On most motorways, overhead information signs will also tell you if there are traffic jams, road closures and adverse weather conditions ahead.

The Hard Shoulder

The hard shoulder is the strip of road that runs along the edge of the motorway, and is for stopping in emergencies only. Parking is not allowed on the hard shoulder because it is an extremely dangerous place to stop. When passing a car on the hard shoulder, it is tempting to take a look and try to work out what has happened. This practice is known as 'rubbernecking', and leads to delays due to cars slowing down and possibly hitting each other. On the other hand, discussing how a family of four managed to fit in a 1980s Ford Fiesta along with a full-size table football table, and whether this caused the car to shed its rear axle and catch fire will make the next half-hour of your journey pass more quickly.

Which Motorway Am I On? A Guide to Numbering

All motorways have an M-number. The first rule in motorway numbering is that if the motorway was built as a relief road for an A-road, it takes the number of that A-road. For example, the M2 was built as a relief road for the A2. One obvious exception to this is the M5 which was originally built as a relief road for the A38 but was deemed important enough to have a single digit number. It was thus given the number five as the A5 already had a relief road in the M1.

The second rule is that the single-digit road numbers mark out sections of the country which then determine the numbering of other motorways in the country.

  1. Take a map of Great Britain. Mark on it the River Thames and the Scottish border.
  2. Draw on the M1. Everything in England to the east of the M1, and north of the Thames is in Zone 1. We'll come to what the zones mean soon.
  3. Draw on the M3. Everything south of the Thames and east of the M3 is in zone 2.
  4. Now draw on the M4. Everything between the M3 and M4 is in zone 3.
  5. If you aren't getting the hang of this yet, zone 4 contains everything north of the M4 but south of the M5.
  6. Zone 5 gets everything north of the M5 but west of the M6.
  7. The zone to the east of the M6 and west of the M1 is zone 6. This finishes at the Scottish border.
  8. Mark the zone north of the Scottish border but south of the M8 as zone 7.
  9. Zone 8 is north of the M8, but west of the M9.
  10. The rest of Scotland is in zone 9.

The first digit of the motorway is based on the furthest anti-clockwise motorway zone on the zone diagram that the motorway travels though. For example, the M56 runs from zone 5 into zone 6.

To every rule there are exceptions; some have reasons, others don't. The M62 was never meant to go into zone 5. It was originally designed to loop round Manchester (with another motorway, the M52, running between Liverpool and Manchester) so it was numbered in zone 6. However, it was thought that this would give the M62 a silly shape, so it went all the way across to Liverpool instead, taking it into zone 5. Likewise the M65, which only just stretches over the M6. The M271 was numbered to make it clear it was a spur road from the M27, while the M48 used to be part of the M4. The M25 and M49 don't have excuses.

The A57(M) and Other Hybrids

The poor relations of the motorway world are the upgraded A-roads. These generally have all of the same restrictions of motorways. Some like the various parts of the A1(M) are major roads, while others such as the A6144(M) are just glorified slip roads.

Some notable motorways

  • M1 - London to Leeds
  • The M1 was the first full-length motorway opened in Britain, in 1959. On opening it went from Watford to Rugby. It was later extended to go to useful places such as London and Yorkshire. The M1 also has the first motorway service station, the infamous Watford Gap5. The M1 covers the route of the A5 south of the Midlands, and eventually links up with the A1 north of Leeds.

    There is no junction 3 on the M1. It was planned to be a junction with a high speed link to the A1, so traffic could use the M1 to bypass the A1 as it went through the suburbs. However, the plan was shelved and the slip-road goes only to the Scratchwood services.

  • M2 - Rochester to Faversham
  • The M2 is unique as it is the only British motorway, rather than upgraded A road, that doesn't connect to any other motorway. It was opened in the 1960s as a bypass to the A2 through the Medway towns. It is only 26 miles long.

  • M3 - London to Southampton
  • The M3 is noted for Twyford Down, a patch of land that became a battleground for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the EU and the Ministry of Transport in the early 1990s. Contrary to both European and British environmental protection laws, the government of the day added an extension to the M3 through a cutting running through the face of the Down. This was the final section of the motorway that was originally started in the 1960s, with the first section having opened in 1971.

  • M4 - London to West Wales
  • The M4 runs from London past Heathrow airport, through Oxfordshire, past Bristol and over the New Severn Bridge before heading through Cardiff and Swansea. From Heathrow into London there is a bus lane for travel to the airport. This is a rather controversial inclusion, as with both tube and rail lines running between the capital and airport, the bus lane is not well-frequented.

  • M5 - Walsall to Exeter
  • '...couldn't find the freeway, had to take a little back street called the M5.'
    - Fawlty Towers: 'Waldorf Salad'

    Begun in 1962, the M5 links the south-west with Birmingham. It starts from the M6 before forming the western side of the ring of motorways that orbit Birmingham. It then passes north of Bristol, over the Avonmouth bridge.

  • M6 - Rugby to Carlisle
  • At 230 miles long, the M6 is the longest motorway in the country. It runs from Rugby to Carlisle and goes through Birmingham as well as threading its way between Liverpool and Manchester. The Preston bypass section of the M6 was the first part of the British motorway network to be built in 1958. The rest of the motorway was finished in 1972.

    Much of the M6 is notorious for congestion - the sections through the West Midlands (which include the infamous Spaghetti Junction, otherwise know as the Gravelly Hill Interchange) and Cheshire are often stop-start. The three-mile section that runs from Spaghetti Junction to Castle Bromwich is the longest section of elevated viaduct in the British road system.

    In December 2003 the M6 Toll was opened. This is a 27-mile stretch of motorway that bypasses Birmingham. The joys of traffic-free passage though the Midlands were tempered by the charges for use. Originally there were separate charges for peak and non-peak travel, but there were no signs saying when peak times were. To people who travelled through late on Sunday evenings but were being charged full price, it was easy to believe that off-peak was a myth. By 2005, the tolls for cars had almost doubled, making braving the original M6 a more enticing prospect. One improvement to the tolls is that they are now clear about on and off-peak times.

    It's also possible to avoid the Midlands congestion by using the A5 or using the M1 and A50 to Stoke-on-Trent. Plans are in the pipeline for a similar scheme to speed up travel through Cheshire.

  • M8 - Edinburgh to Greenock
  • The M8 runs in two parts: the eastern half runs from the end of the M9, west of Edinburgh to the A8 and A73 junction south of Airdrie. You then follow the upgraded A8 to the M73, where the M8 starts again. This western section runs though the centre of Glasgow before crossing south of the Clyde, passing Glasgow airport and heading towards Greenock.

  • M9 - Edinburgh to Dunblane
  • The M9 starts west of Edinburgh, at the same place as the M8, and heads north past Stirling to Dunblane.

  • M10 - M1 to St Albans
  • When the M1 was first designed the planners realised that it would dump loads of traffic on one local road at the London end, so they planned the M10 to take off some of the traffic and plonk it onto the North Orbital Road (A414) which would then join both the A5 and A6. The M10 duly opened with the M1 and M45 in 1959. However, the A5 has now been diverted away and the A6 stops at Luton. So now the four-mile-long M10 skirts round a bit of St Albans before giving up just before it reaches the M25. It lost its legal motorway status6 in 2004 and is soon to be reclassified as part of the A414.

    Interesting fact: At the end of the M10 is Park Street Roundabout which was used in the Highway Code books as an example of a roundabout.

  • M11 - London to Cambridge
  • The M11 starts confusingly at junction 4, where it is part of a concrete tangle of roads and canals that also includes the North Circular (A406) and a link road to the A12. It used to start further south and was originally intended to link with the M15, which was to be an inner motorway ring road. The road stretches for 50 miles, flowing into the westbound A14 near Cambridge. The M11 was finally finished in 1980.

  • M20 - London (M25) to Dover
  • The M20 started out as the Maidstone bypass, then numbered A20(M), in 1960. In the 1970s, it became the M20 as it was extended towards London. The 1980s saw a separate section built from Ashford to Folkestone, with drivers still having to use the A20 to get between the two parts. When the Channel Tunnel was opened in 1991, the missing link was completed. The M20 now provides a direct motorway link from the M25 to Dover via the Channel Tunnel terminal.

    The M20 starts at Swanley on the M25, between the junctions for the A2 and A20. It passes by Brands Hatch motor-racing circuit on a viaduct, giving a great view to drivers who have followed the brown sign on the clockwise M25 for the circuit which seems to point down the M20. It is actually placed for the A20 junction soon after.

    When there are problems with the ferries or tunnel across the English Channel, sections of the M20 are closed off under Operation Stack, and the carriageways are used for parking lorries.

  • M25 - Dartford to Purfleet - The London Orbital Motorway
  • The M25 has had more jokes told about it than any other road in the country. It has been described as the world's largest car park, and it is said that both 'The Road to Nowhere' and 'The Road to Hell' by Chris Rea are about the road. The author Terry Pratchett has gone as far as to suggest that the M25 is the best evidence for the existence of Satan.

    The M25 starts south of the A282 Dartford River Crossing and travels for 117 miles before reaching the north end of the A282 in Essex. Since it does not quite make a complete circle it holds the record as the longest bypass in the world. Construction started in 1975, and was finished 11 years later. The M25 is the only one of five proposed concentric ring roads suggested in the Abercrombie plan of 1945 to have been built around the capital. Later plans were made for two motorways, the M25 and the M15. The M15 was never fully built but its route is roughly that of the A406 North Circular and A205 South Circular.

    The M25 is infamous for being continually widened to take account of ever-increasing traffic. It is the second busiest motorway in Europe after the Peripherique in Paris, and some sections are planned to be ten lanes wide. The section between the M4 and the A3313 is in the Guinness Book of Records as the busiest section of motorway in Britain.

  • M40 - London to Birmingham
  • The M40 was opened in the 1960s, reaching a hill-top somewhere between High Wycombe and Oxford. The TV comedy series Yes Minister noted that from the 1960s Oxford had two motorways linking it with London, while Cambridge got the M11 only in the 1980s. The reason given in the series was that The Department of Transport's Permanent Undersecretaries were all from Oxford University. The M40 has also appeared in a Thunderbirds film and in the opening credits for The Vicar of Dibley.

    The motorway was extended to meet the M42 at Birmingham in 1991.

  • M42 - Bromsgrove (M5) to Ashby-de-la-Zouch
  • The M427 runs through the Midlands from the M5 and forms the southern section of the Birmingham orbital complex. It crosses the M6 and heads north to Ashby-de-la-Zouch where it becomes the A42.

    On 28 August David Le Grys was clocked doing 98.21mph (158.05 km/h) near Alvechurch. He was on a bicycle and the road was closed.

  • M45 - M6 near Rugby to somewhere else near Rugby
  • The reasoning behind the M45 was the same as that behind the M10; it was to split off some of the traffic that would arrive at the northern end of the M1. This was great when it opened in 1959, however, improvements to the motorway made it relatively redundant. It is virtually unused, and has not been improved to meet modern motorway standards. If you fancy a flashback to fifties motoring, head here; there really is no other reason to use the M45. It stretches eight miles to the A45 which goes on to Coventry, but by carrying along the M1 to the M6 you could reach Coventry much more quickly.

  • M56 - Manchester to Chester
  • The main problem with the M56 is that it is the best way to get into south Manchester and Manchester Airport from the south. This wouldn't be a problem if the northbound M6 joined the M56 towards Manchester, but it doesn't. Traffic has to use a single carriageway A-road though Cheshire, which is a notorious bottleneck.

  • M57 - M62 to M58, Liverpool Orbital
  • The M57 is one of the few British motorways that does not have direct links with any other motorway, even though it has other motorways at both ends. Joining the motorway from the M62 at Huyton involves going round a roundabout, while at the other end, drivers have to pass though the Switch Island area of Aintree to reach the M58.

  • M60 - Stockport to Stockport, Manchester Orbital
  • The M60 is the only motorway in Britain which is a complete loop. The 35-mile-long M60 is pieced together from parts of the M66 and M62, as well as incorporating the whole of the M63 - are are renumbered M60. The first part of the road was finished in 1960, but it wasn't a finished loop until 2000. The embankments up to the Barton High Level Bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal by Trafford Park were created from earth dug up to form a landfill site. This was the first bit of construction for a motorway in the country.

    The M60 nominally starts from Stockport. This is so that the junction numbers on the northern part of the M60 are the same as they were when they were junctions of the M62. It should be noted that reaching some southern parts of Manchester such as Didsbury and Withington is difficult from the anti-clockwise M60 as you can only exit the motorway heading south until you reach Stockport.

  • M61 - Manchester (M60) to Preston (M6)
  • The M61 has two claims to fame. The first is the Worsley Braided Interchange, where various lanes connecting the M60, M61, A580 and A666 lie next to each other, creating the widest section of road in Great Britain.The second is the Bolton West service station where an episode of That Peter Kay Thing was set.

  • M62 - Liverpool to Hull
  • The M62 is the major coast-to-coast road in Northern England. It is 105 miles long and was built between 1970 and 1976. The motorway is, in fact, split into two separate parts: the western section that runs between Liverpool and the M60 / M602 in Eccles, and the eastern section that leaves the M60 east of Manchester and crosses the Pennines. The north section of the M60 was the M62 until it became part of the Manchester orbital motorway.

    The M62 across the Pennies and Saddleworth Moor is the highest motorway in the country, and a major engineering achievement. At its highest point, it splits to negotiate a farmhouse.

  • M67 - Denton to Hyde
  • At five miles long, the M67 is a case of what could have been. Instead of being a direct link from Manchester to Sheffield it is now just an example of how half-hearted planning and execution can ruin traffic flow for miles around.

    The only section of the M67 to be built runs from the M60 in Denton to a roundabout near Hyde in Tameside. It does bypass the A57 which runs though the town centres of the Manchester suburbs, but it is not all good news.

    Turning onto the M67 from the M60, you will see the start of a viaduct into central Manchester, known as the Ski Jump. Although buildings were knocked down to make way for the road, which would have been a quick way into the inner ring road from the east, it was never built. The drive though the cutting is generally traffic-free, and there is a reason for this - regular travellers know what is ahead and use the A57, so clogging up the town centres. The east end of the M67 is a roundabout with the A57, with a traffic jam normally starting half a mile before the end of the road. The problem is that the road towards Sheffield is a single carriageway road up a hill with a traffic light-controlled junction at the top. Both the M67 and the A57 have to feed into this, so normally there is stationary traffic round the roundabout and all the way up the hill.

    Residents of the village on the hill, Mottram-in-Longdendale, are split on the environmental issues. Half think that the damage caused by a bypass around the town will be worse than having a traffic jam though their village night and day; half don't. There are remnants of the M67 that were actually built in Yorkshire, calling itself the Stocksbridge bypass.

  • M96
  • The M96, which runs for a mile near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, is closed to the public. It is used for training the emergency services.

  • A38(M) - M6 to Birmingham - The Aston Expressway
  • The A38(M) starts at Spaghetti Junction and heads into the city centre. It does not have a central reservation, which allows the road managers to alter how many lanes are used in each direction during the day. Generally more lanes go into the city in the morning, and more come out in the evening.

  • A57(M) - The Mancunian Way
  • Part inner-city ring road, part rollercoaster; the A57(M) is just over one mile of ups and downs. It goes through the campuses of both Manchester Metropolitan University and The University of Manchester (formerly UMIST). People passing underneath the motorway on the A34 will see a slip road that comes off the motorway and stops in mid-air. The road planners only realised half-way though construction that for this slip road to be useful, the entire one-way system in Manchester would have to be reversed!

    The junction from the anti-clockwise carriageway onto the A34 is a mix of fun and danger. The slip road splits in two, with the right-hand side joining a local road where it is guaranteed that there will be cars parked just after the blind bend, causing traffic to merge suddenly. The eastern end of the A57(M) is shrouded in bureaucratic mystery. Due to the road layout, the A57 goes around a roundabout, which means that the flyover which carries on from the Mancunian way can't be the A57(M). This 300-metre stretch is the A635(M).

  • A6144(M) - Sale (M60) to Carrington
  • Britain loves losers, underdogs and gallant failures. That is why for the motorway enthusiasts8, the A6144(M) holds a special place in their hearts.

    The A6144(M) runs towards the Carrington fuel depot. It has no hard shoulder or central reservation, and unlike all other upgraded A-roads, the A6144 is not a trunk road, so it is looked after by Trafford Council rather than the highways authority. Trafford Council have confirmed that the A6144(M) is to lose its motorway status, and both it and current A6144 will retain their numbers, leading to two branches of the same road.

Former Motorways

There are many reasons that motorways disappear: sometimes better roads are built, others are incorporated into new motorways, and some vanish into red tape. The A102(M) and A40(M) both lost their motorway status when TfL (Transport for London) came into existence in 2000. TfL took control of all the roads in the capital, except for some unknown reason, motorways, so both of these lost their status.

Glossary of terms

  • Carriageway
  • The driveable part of the road. On a single carriageway road, also know as a two-way road, the carriageway is everything between one curb and the other. On a dual carriageway road, a central reservation splits up the two streams of traffic.

  • Slip Road
  • A stretch of road bringing traffic onto or off the motorway from another road. Normally they are sloped, as most roads either run over or under motorways.

  • Spur Roads
  • These are short stretches of motorway that branch off from their parent roads. Some (like the Gatwick Spur of the M23), keep the same number, while some (like the M602 in Manchester) have numbers that relate to their parent road (in this case the M60 and M62).

  • Trunk Road
  • A major A-road. Trunk roads are Primary Routes9 that are looked after by the Government rather than the local council.

Map of English motorways'Tube map' of English motorwaysPathetic MotorwaysChris's British Road DirectorySociety for All British Road EnthusiastsA412930http://www.bbc.co.uk/topgear
1For the purpose of this entry, we will ignore the fact that by this time the railways were much quicker and easier to travel on than the roads.2At this point in the show, the reader is required to imagine some black and white footage of a man standing near a few miles of empty road while some rousing music is being played.3Strong metal beam barriers that are about a metre high, designed to stop cars crossing the central reservation.4113km/h. Although the metric system of measurement is now widely used in the UK, speed limits are still given in miles per hour.5As most residents of Watford will insist on telling you, Watford Gap is nowhere near the Hertfordshire town of Watford.6The motorway restrictions remain in force since the only way on and off the road at the northern end is the M1.7This road is only included because it features the number 42.8And there are surprisingly many!9A-roads which are identified by having green signs with white text.

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