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Motor Mouth articles 2009

A milestone for the motorway

THOSE more nostalgic members of society, otherwise known as the elderly, are wont to recall with affection the glorious days of yore when Britain’s peaceful highways and byways were places of joyous tranquillity and driving was one of life’s pleasures.

They were halcyon days when birds sang all the year round, traffic lights were always green, yellow lines and seat belts weren’t so much as a gleam in their inventors’ eyes and a few pints of foaming ale were the perfect preparation for a journey.

There was Vimto for the kiddies, crisps came in one flavour and included hidden salt wrapped in blue paper, curry was for foreign chaps and the British ate blancmange and kippers at almost every meal.

Roadside verges were clad in scented flowers, car seats were made of leather and British cars ruled the roads, sporting the proud badges of Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley, Standard, Triumph, Hillman and Humber. No-one laughed at Rovers then.

Motorists boasted that they had synchromesh on their top gear and could hit 80 on a long, downhill stretch. Petrol was served by cheery pump attendants, there were garages every 100 yards and supermarkets were unheard of.

There were no speed limits out of towns, indicators were dimly-lit plastic arms that clunked from the side of the car or human ones that waved from wind-down windows, heaters were a luxury but it mattered not a jot as the weather was always warm and in-car entertainment was granny playing I-Spy in the back.

The memories come flooding back whenever we see a 1950s movie but, of course, many of them are rose-tinted distortions while the true bits are, sadly, consigned to history, never to return outside of throwback parts of our Celtic dominions. And Cornwall.

But one big change that most motorists would agree has been, largely, for the better has been the advent of the motorway, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the opening of Britain’s first, the M1, a motoring milestone that transformed journey times and brought a new dimension to travel.

Prior to the arrival of motorways, any journey of much more than 100 miles tended to mean an overnight stop. Dorset to London was like an inter-continental odyssey, something requiring meticulous planning.

Now, with high-speed roads and high-reliability cars, we do the round trip in a day and still find time to spend a few hours in the capital. At least we can if it’s not rush-hour or there hasn’t been a ghastly pile-up on the M3 near Bagshot.

The fact remains, though, that almost every far-flung part of mainland Britain is now comfortably accessible within a day’s driving and that is thanks largely to the motorway, perhaps not everyone’s favourite road for a relaxing drive but unrivalled as a quick, efficient way of getting from A to B by car.

The M1 between London and the Midlands began to bridge the nation’s north-south geographical divide. It opened in December 1959 and stretched from St Albans to Rugby.  It was designed to cope with 13,000 vehicles a day, but this capacity was reached the day it opened and today it carries ten times as many. Originally it had a grass verge instead of a hard shoulder and an open reservation with no barriers.

Now there are more than 2,200 miles of motorways in the UK, yet a total of 41 counties have no motorways at all. Dorset is one of them.

Half a century into the age of the motorway and the only real developments have been a few extra lanes, the occasional introduction of tolls, illuminated gantries and soul-destroying services serving horribly overpriced food that makes British cuisine a world-wide laughing stock. I wonder where we’ll be in another 50 years.

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