We all know the road bore, who arrives at a lunch party and explains in detail exactly how he (it’s always a he) got there, how the motorway was jammed solid, which shortcuts he took and how many minutes they saved him. Quite what he will make of Joe Moran’s engaging cultural history of the British road is anybody’s guess: definitions such as “it is a study in the living memory of roads” might leave him briefly baffled. Yet if he perseveres he will find himself engrossed by Moran’s wide-ranging but succinct exploration of what roads have meant for Britain since the advent of the motor car.
Moran’s main purpose is to chart the rise and fall, as he sees it, of our love affair with Tarmac. Although he delves knowledgeably into the history of the British road system, and makes entertaining detours to explore everything from hitchhikers to satnavs, it is the advent and development of the motorway system that provide the core of the book. And very instructive it is too. While British motorists were once content to putter along the winding roads that followed the contours of the land, designers and engineers had long envied Germany’s autobahns and Italy’s autostrada, and the reshaping of the battered country that followed the end of the Second World War finally gave full rein to their imagination. Well, up to a point. The first eight-and-a-quarter miles of motorway (the Preston bypass section of the M6) didn’t open until 1958, followed by the first 55 miles of the M1 in 1959, and for the usual British reasons — lack of money and space, parochialism — our motorways have never quite matched the scale and ambition found elsewhere.
Still, they have changed the face of Britain — by 1972, 1,000 miles had been built, and the total is now double that — and Moran lovingly details how: the rise of what he calls Shedland, those massive warehouses that have sprouted beside motorway junctions, the development of budget hotels, which “embodied the spirit of the roadside: uninspired, anonymous, informal, open to everyone”, the arrival of speed cameras. We have come a long way since the 1960s, when motorways seemed to herald a new age of speed and freedom, epitomised by the racing driver, Jack Sears, testing his AC Cobra up and down the M1 in four runs at speeds reaching more than 180 mph. The police turned a blind eye. Car enthusiasts from the legendary motoring journalist L. J. K. Setright (surely a model for Peter Simple’s J. Bonington Jagworth) to the historian A. J. P. Taylor argued against speed limits but were driving against the traffic: the 70 mph limit was introduced as an experiment in 1965 and has been with us ever since.
Rising prosperity poured cars on to the roads faster than they could be built to accommodate them and the British love affair was soon over, choked by congestion and replaced by the age of protest: against Twyford Down, the Newbury bypass, the M11 Link in East London. Swampy and his chums hogged the headlines and although they lost those battles, they won the war. The middle class was with them and ministers tired of fighting for unpopular and expensive causes. But Moran is scrupulously even handed in his judgments. He points out that after the M3 Twyford Down section was opened, the 1930s Winchester bypass was closed, recontoured with chalk from the Down and turfed over. An area of grassland nearly three times larger than that lost to the motorway was created. I don’t recall Friends of the Earth issuing a statement in praise of that.