On the subject of Roads – Romans, Motorways and Sleaze

Yesterday I wrote about the Roman road infrastructure and how this related to the modern highway network based on six single digit primary roads.  On now to the motorways which follow more or less the same model.

Six principal single digit motorways.  M1 to the north, M2 to the south-east, M3 to the south, M4 to the south-west, M5  Exeter to Birmingham  and the M6  to the north-west.

The first real motorway was  the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.



I have always thought this to be a curious choice of route.  Starting in London was sensible enough but it didn’t actually go anywhere and ended abruptly in a sleepy village in Northamptonshire.  Surely it would have made more sense to build a road between London and Birmingham.  The answer lies with the Romans because the M1 uses the Watford Gap which the Romans first used for the Watling Street (pictures above).  The Watford Gap is so convenient that it has been used for canals, railways and the M1.

This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men that is about one mile every eight days.

Guess what?  There was Tory cronyism even then.  The man responsible for the motorway building boom was the Minister for Transport Ernest Marples.

He both oversaw significant road construction and the closure of a considerable portion of the national railway network. His involvement in the road construction business Marples Ridgway, of which he had been managing director, was one of repeated concern regarding conflict of interest. Marples appointed Richard Beeching to head British Railways, who published a report which abandoned more than 4,000 miles of railway lines in the UK as the emphasis was switched to roads.

Substitute personal protective equipment for motorways and not a lot changes in Tory politics.

In later life, Marples was elevated to the peerage before fleeing to Monaco at very short notice to avoid prosecution for tax fraud.

The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a six-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

I mention speed limits because this encouraged car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 to conduct speed trials and in June 1964 a man called ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 MPH in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway.

In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.

The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.  When it first opened this was the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic!

25 responses to “On the subject of Roads – Romans, Motorways and Sleaze

  1. So interesting. I hadn’t twigged at all that the Roman network was responsible for our own. But you’re rather good on the History of Sleaze too. Do I feel another series coming on? Although it would provide few photo opportunities. Or anything positive at all.


  2. When it comes to roads govt are always behind, cost factor and planning tumble. All over the world mind you. Then for traffic congestion they eliminate usage lol!


  3. More good history. And, I believe, Marples made his money on road building


  4. I remember the day the M62 was extended towards East Yorkshire in September 1974 because it was the day before I started a new job in Leeds. Going back on the Sunday evening, I drove on to the empty motorway, gleefully put my foot down, and the fan belt broke. The roadside phones weren’t yet working. I walked across to the other side (climbing over the central crash barrier) and tried to thumb a lift back to the start of the new section at Whitley Bridge (the A19). Along came a police car. I explained what had happened and they took me back round the end to my van and called the AA for me (I was a member) who came quickly and fitted a new fan belt for free.


  5. That early M1 photo has more cars than I recall when my father drove us on the new motorway in the early 1960s!


  6. I thought the first section of motorway was part of what’s now the M6 in Lancashire? Or is there a reason you’re discounting that one?


  7. What’s the speed limit now? You, know, in case I’m ever on it.


  8. I’m enjoying your posts on highways. The M1 was very dear to me as I hitchhiked along it many times as a teenager.


  9. The name Beeching is very familiar, but I hadn’t heard of Marples. What a nice chap he sounds.


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