A selection of wondrous sights on or seen from British motorways
Let’s face it: a trip along any motorway can be boring at the best of times. Any sense of originality or quirkiness is eschewed in favour of the bland. The same sodium lights, speed gantries, and overpriced motorway services.
If you look around, there is some features which stand out from the norm. Some of which may be survivors of the early days of high speed motoring.
Today’s motorways seem to have assumed the guise of local bypasses in urban areas. Though the M62’s intention was to offer a fast route from Lancashire into Yorkshire, the slowest section forms part of the M60. As any passenger or driver can testify negotiating Denton Island.
For this month’s Not So Perfect Ten, I shall put aside any arguments about badly designed junctions and focus on the high points of travelling on Britain’s motorways. Not only the quirkiness but also the challenges faced by its builders.
Our Not So Perfect Ten
- Forton Services, M6 (between Preston and Lancaster);
- Scammonden Bridge, M62 (between Denshaw and Huddersfield);
- The M61 interchange, M60/M61/A666 (between Walkden and Farnworth);
- Tinsley Viaduct, M1/A631 (between Meadowhall Shopping Centre and Templeborough);
- Stott Hall Farm, M62 (between Denshaw and Scammonden);
- Penrith to Killington, M6 (scenic views);
- Queen Elizabeth Bridge, A282 (M25) (between Dartford and Thurrock);
- Daventry radio antennas, off the M1 motorway;
- Walsall to Halesowen, M5 (industrial views);
- Avonmouth Bridge, M5 (between Bristol and Bridgwater).
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1. Forton Services, M6
A motorway services is seldom the kind of establishment which lends itself to aesthetic appeal or a cult following. The one exception to that rule is Forton Services on the M6 motorway. Now known as Lancaster services, its crowning glory was The Pennine Tower, an hexagonal observation tower on its northbound approach.
Till the early 1990s, this housed a restaurant which afforded diners a view of the Bowland Fells. Above was a sun deck. A reward for climbing several flights of stairs. On the 15 October 2012, its tower became a Grade II Listed Building
Forton Services (to give it its proper name) opened in 1964. Its stylings contemporaneous with the buildings seen in Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Stingray programmes. To date, it is the only motorway service area to have made a cameo appearance in a promo video for Half Man Half Biscuit (the song being Dickie Davies Eyes).
2. Scammonden Bridge, M62
Make no bones about: the M62 from Rochdale to Leeds is undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century. Say what you like about the Channel Tunnel, the Humber Suspension Bridge or the Anglo-Scottish WCML electrification, this dwarfs them all.
Why does this dwarf them all? Firstly, the hideous conditions its road builders faced. The demanding terrain (Denshaw having the highest section of motorway in Britain). As well as their collective efforts (all well documented in BBC Four’s The Secret Life of the Motorway and Yorkshire Television’s Motorway documentaries), their masterpiece is Scammonden Bridge.
Opening on the 10 December 1970, it carries the B6114 (Saddleworth Road) to Elland. The size of the span is so great that it can fill Wembley Stadium (with its new fangled arch fitted snugly against Scammonden Bridge).
If you thought the bridge was good, a few yards eastbound is Scammonden Reservoir. The M62’s embankment doubles as a dam for the reservoir.
3. The M61 Interchange, A666/M61/M60
Spaghetti Junction on Gravelly Hill could have been a more obvious choice for our Irksome Interchanges category. Instead, our third entry sees the convergence of two motorways and a bona fide Road To Hell. Not the M25 as immortalised in Chris Rea’s song, but a route into Bolton, Kearsley and Pendlebury.
Starting at Worsley from the A580 East Lancashire Road, it offers drivers the choice of continuing to Yorkshire along the M60 and M62, or Blackpool via the M61. As well as sporting 10 to 12 lanes at its widest point (including slip roads), it is distinguishable by its tunnels, weaving its way through the A666 and the M61.
4. Tinsley Viaduct, M1/A631
If you’re going to Skegness from Greater Manchester, there’s half a chance the M1 would feature. Inevitably this means passing Sheffield on one side, or Rotherham on the opposite. A remarkable engineering achievement on one of the later sections of the M1 motorway is the double decker viaduct in Tinsley.
On the top level is the M1 motorway (which needs no further introduction) with the A631 directly below. On opening, motorists from any of the two decks were treated to the now demolished cooling towers on the Rotherham side (as seen in Threads), or the Hadfields and Brown and Bayley Steelworks.
A few yards south of Tinsley viaduct was the magnificent Tinsley Marshalling Yard. Opening on the 29 October 1965 it replaced a number of smaller yards in Sheffield. By the 1990s, it was largely redundant thanks to the closure of the Woodhead line. Today’s travellers are likely to see a clump of anonymous warehouses on its site. In place of the steelworks, the less esoteric charms of Meadowhall Shopping Centre.
Eagled eyed film buffs looking at the southern end of Tinsley viaduct’s junction (34), should look out for a block of terraced houses near the southbound slip road. Just off Tinsley roundabout on a stumpy Sheffield Road, the aforementioned houses featured in the Chris Morris film Four Lions.
5. Stott Hall Farm, M62
Sticking to Yorkshire motorway is one of the greatest wonders of the UK motorway network. Marsden born poet Simon Armitage referred to this part of the trans-Pennine motorway as “M62 unzipping its fly”.
According to legend, Stott Hall Farm remains intact because Ken Wild didn’t want to see his farmhouse bulldozed. He had lived on the farm since the age of five. Au contraire according to one source, which claims the demanding terrain was the reason. The latter is probably most believable given how parts of the M5 (south of Bristol) and the M6 (within Cumbria) are split, thanks to geology.
Two tunnels were built under the motorway to allow for the transit of livestock. All 2,500 acres of the farm (bisected by motorway since 1973) dates from 1737. Which also predates the early trans-Pennine roads built by John Metcalf.
6. Penrith to Killington, M6
Continuing the slewed carriageway connections is one of the most picturesque motorway journeys in Northern England. As soon as the motorist or passenger sees Burton-in-Kendal services, the motorway takes a more mountainous route. At Killington, the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales National Park can be seen.
Shortly, the M6 runs parallel with the River Lune up to Tebay services. Being locally owned it offers a real alternative to the Motos and Welcome Breaks of this world. The reason being its locally sourced farm produce.
From the northbound services, our M6 (thanks to the wonders of geology) sees its central reservation swollen to allow for more farmland. Which gives the idea of your favourite Anglo-Scottish motorway route of being in the middle of parkland.
The passenger is treated to views of the Lakeland hills, cement works and quarries, and the West Coast Main Line. After seeing two attempts at conquering Shap Fell (road and rail), the Penrith turnoff is only minutes away. For me, turning left means I’m seeing The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic playing Workington.
7. Queen Elizabeth Bridge, Dartford, A282 (just off the M25)
Just off the M25 is a bridge that affords passengers a good view of the River Thames. The southbound section is negotiated via Queen Elizabeth Bridge, whereas northbound passengers have the ‘joy’ of the Dartford tunnel.
Southbound, you are given views of Tilbury Docks and the Lakeside Shopping Centre. The bridge itself is a typical suspension bridge though with the added bonus of seeing cargo ships in the background. Not quite in the same league as Avonmouth (more later) but a joy to behold. One, which alas, attracts a toll.
8. Daventry radio antenna, off M1
If you’re heading south on the M1 motorway, you might just pick out a single mast from Watford Gap way. Today, Arqiva’s DAB mast on Borough Hill, Daventry, is the sole survivor of a once vast field.
From 1925 to 1992, Borough Hill had up to 40 radio masts, relaying Long Wave, Medium Wave and Short Wave radio signals. In its heyday, it was radio’s equivalent to Birmingham New Street station. In 1925, signals from 5XX, BBC’s first national radio service came from Daventry covering 90% of UK homes.
Today, all of Borough Hill bar the DAB mast is a country park. The history of Daventry’s radio antennas is covered in great detail in Daventry Calling The World (Norman Tomalin, 2008).
9. Walsall to Halesowen, M5
At the opposite end of the scale view wise to the fells is the Black Country setting that awaits most of us travelling to the West Country. Just before the start of the M5, our industrial setting begins at Walsall near the Bescot Stadium.
Within minutes of joining the M5 motorway, most of the Black Country’s section is on a viaduct. Therefore, passengers are afforded spectacular views of industrial units, The Hawthorns football ground – West Bromwich Albion’s home, and Dudley Castle. In the distance, it seems to be the only green oasis in a desert of brick and concrete.
In one sense, you can see the banality of today’s modern carchitecture vying for space with Victorian era buildings. On one side, a former factory is an ASDA superstore. On another, a mixture of reclad tower blocks, suspended advertising hoardings, and as we approach Kingstanding, an abundance of dark red brick on the motorway instead of concrete. From then on, a clear sign of us leaving what is perceived to be the industrial part of England and onwards to the West Country resorts.
10. Avonmouth Bridge, M5
It would churlish to say ‘no industry existed south of Birmingham’. Well, the rural section of the M5 from Junction 4 up to Patchway was a mere interlude. With Bristol in sight, we see the picture change again. Firstly with retail parks, some housing and, on our right as we go southbound, the Severn estuary.
Party to the sighting of the Bristol Channel is the port of Avonmouth. After ships outgrew Bristol, they moved further up the Avon estuary. In the Victorian and Edwardian era, it became a popular location for tobacco ships with Wills’ base in the nearby city centre.
The best view of the port is afforded to motorist from the Avon bridge. The best views of all being westbound, not only for its docks. On a clear day, Cardiff and Newport is within view, as is the M4 toll bridge across the Severn estuary.
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More Motorway Marvels?
Feel free to add to this month’s Not So Perfect Ten. Or, elaborate on our existing selection. Are the joys of Scammonden Bridge overrated? Should Spaghetti Junction feature instead of the A666/M61/M60 interchange? Comment freely.
S.V., 12 August 2015.