In typical English logic, England’s first motorway was called the M6. M to denote “Motorway”, and “6” to account for the five motorways that didn’t exist. Construction took two years, plus the unheard of phenomena of a project overshoot of five months. Naturally, this was not attributed to incompetence but primarily blamed on the predictably unpredictable English weather, notably of the type typically found in the rain-infused Pennine region.
The first photograph of a motorway took place not on a bedazzling summers’ day as had been hoped for exceedingly optimistically, but rather on a grim and grey drizzly December day in 1958 near Preston. Given almost all photography was of the fuzzy black and white variety, it’s safe to say nobody noticed.
The original M6 was a glorious eight and a half miles long, and within minutes of its opening, it became the ignominious host to the first motorway bottleneck as a log-jam of journalists, town planners and celebrants tailed the motorway’s first journeyman: the then Labour British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan.
Within six weeks, it was closed down because of weather-induced road damage.
Given that initial success of British engineering, it is a wonder another nearly fifty motorways have since been built. Nowadays, the M6 takes a person, should one wish, from the West Midlands up to the Scottish border. On arrival at Scotland, the M6 morphs into the M74 despite it not being disrupted by so much as a roundabout. I should also point out, in the interests of equality, that the M6 can also send one to Coventry from just north of Carlisle too. Alternatively, one can opt to take the M1 whose route is just east of the middle. It starts at the outskirts of North London and terminates at Leeds. Then it simply becomes the unfathomable A1(M).
There is no M7 simply because the A7 has never been replaced by a motorway but that is a clue as to how the confounding motorway numbering system came to be so peculiar. For example, London, which would normally claim all and every prestige, isn’t circumnavigated by the M1, but by the M25.
So where does all this omnishambles come from? History, obvs!
Once upon a time, back in the days before colour television, a task force was set up in 1923 to classify Britain’s roads. They divided them into an unimaginative: Class I and Class II. Class I were major trunk roads connecting major towns and cities. Class II did not. To add some spice to the classification system, they named Class I roads “A” and Class II roads “B”, following which they allocated between one and four digits. The fewer the numbers, the more significant the road. Thus, the A1, connecting London to Edinburgh, was deemed the road of greatest importance. I presume this to be the chagrin of the Welsh who were given the A4.
The major roads also demarcated a zoning system, carving England into six zones (1 - 6), Scotland into three (7, 8 and 9), and yet, somehow, they omitted to zone Wales whatsoever, allocating a fraction of North Wales to Zone 5, and the remainder to Zone 4.
All the same, the cartographers of British roadmaps realised this was quite a useful concept and added in these references. Alas, it was this event that spawned that most boring of conversation starters:
“Which route did you come by?”
This is usually the cue that the question-asker is about to launch into how you came the wrong way and you should have saved minutes or pence going an alternative route. They will then bedazzle you with their knowledge of British routes and road numbers.
Generally, I find talking about the weather more inspiring.
This, I hope, explains why, in a particular region, one might find clusters of roads each starting with the same digit.
Taking Lancashire as an example, a place where you could, if one so wished, drive along the A666 from Whalley all the way to the M6. Alternatively one might prefer the slightly faster A59, which is entirely within Zone 6. Elsewhere, there are even more anomalies like how the A303 in the South West is a far more populated route than the A30. It certainly does not assist whatsoever in fathoming why there are two A594s - one in Cumbria (Zone 5), the other in Leicestershire (Zone 6). Then there’s A66, which starts in Middlesbrough on the East Coast (Zone 1) and terminates at the A1, of course, there’s that other A66 which joins the A1 further south, and terminates at Penrith (Zone 5). And yet, it implies it is one continuous road and no driver will notice that there’s a sodding great motorway, with its distinctive blue signage, in the middle.
That said, on occasion, such route numbers can be helpful. Take the A585: one can reasonably presume it to be a fairly minor road, but still fairly fast-flowing. If it weren’t, it would be a B road. Furthermore, one can then assume all those little piddly B roads are the teeny tiny country lanes, often narrow enough to require passing places gauged out of the hedgerow. The sort of country tracks which typically get your otherwise serene white van driver swearing like a…
…when they meet something unexpected on-coming. Something just like a very large passenger bus full of eyes glaring at you as you reverse backwards for several miles along with everything else that had previously been trundling behind. It may well explain how I inflicted the damage to my right rear lighting panel. Who knows? All I know is that it ended up with a sodding great big hole in it.
The system was once considered flawless. And so it was, right up until Britain’s actual drivers came along and pissed on the road-planners chips.
According to the UK road planning classification system, there are no C roads, just M, A and B, and it took a road traffic Act to add the M. So discovering there are the planned works on the C270 between Wesham and Weeton is very confusing. Very confusing indeed.
And what has any of this got to do with Lancashire? Not much, except Lancashire was home to Britain’s first female Transport Minister, Barbara Castle (nee Betts). In 1966, she declared war on reckless driving. During that time, there were approximately 1.1 million cars registered on British roads responsible for 7,500 fatalities per year.
By introducing the breathalyser, she was largely rounded on by politicians and journalists alike for being a killjoy. On the news, once publicly criticised by a BBC journalist who described her policy as rotten and misguided. It was a common observation that because she was a woman who did not drive, like many of her time, she shouldn’t have an opinion on such matters.
The number of deaths dropped 16% within twelve months. She also permanently ratified the 70mph speed limit on motorways, cutting deaths by 20%, then made it mandatory for cars to be fitted with seatbelts. Wearing them, however, remained optional until 1983.
She had her seat in The Cabinet swifty removed by the new leader of the Labour Party, James Callahan, on the pretext that she was too old. She was eighteen months older than her boss. Within three years, James Callahan led Britain into the Winter of Discontent and the headline “Crisis? What crisis?” His denial of Britain’s malcontent promptly resulted in himself and his party being ousted from government. Labour remained in opposition from 1979 - 1994. Barbara Castle resigned her position to become an MEP with the intention of getting Britain out of Europe. She was later briefly portrayed in the film Made in Dagenham: a biopic telling the story of women’s fight for equal pay and recognition of their skills at Ford Motors.
Barbara Castle’s legacy as Transport Minister remains significant, and far-reaching. Currently, there are 1,500 fatalities per annum caused by the nearly 33 millions registered cars on the road. That is all down to reduced speed limits, strong-drink driving deterrents and seatbelts. Oh, and motorways really are the safest form of travel across the country.
Although, on the day I was hoping to wind up my tour of Lancashire on-budget and in-time, the Shitron’s dramatic oil pump failure thwarted that ambition. It took three tow-trucks to get the van towed all the way back to Oxfordshire. Still I was in good company: one of the tow trucks broke down on route in sympathy.