Sunday, 3 January 2016

M6, my life on the tarmac

That's me leaning on the post as PM Harold MacMillan drives past
PM cortege on the return trip on the opening of Preston By-pass

Driving north on the M6 in the post Christmas traffic congestion prompted me to reflect on the thousand hours and more that I have spent on this seductive but damnable 230 mile long tarmac strip. The first section of motorway in Britain, the Preston By-pass, opened on 5 December 1958 and became the M6 as the tarmac spread north to Gretna and south to Rugby.

The M6 passed within a mile of where I lived and two classes from our primary school were frog marched to the nearby park to witness the opening of the Preston By-pass when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan drove past in what looked like a funeral cortege. Mr Wilson, our head teacher (waving his hat in the photograph) thought it would be something we would always remember. He was right, it was a cold damp day and Brian Nixon had got to stand next to Valerie Lee. It also meant that I could no longer cycle down the unopened motorway to go fishing in the river Ribble at Samlesbury. Freewheeling down the pristine, well graded tarmac slope to the river carrying a fishing rod and tackle on a bike with dodgy brakes was dangerously exciting and we once reached 39mph, according to my friend's odometer.

An alternative activity over the next few months was to watch the traffic on the new motorway in the hope of spotting rare cars. There was no speed limit on the motorway and, as it was then the longest  stretch of dual carriageway in the country, it was used as a test track for new models. The highlight one evening was watching a shortly to be launched E type Jaguar in British Racing Green speeding past at well over 120mph on the near empty road. The following spring the by-pass became a mecca for open top car enthusiasts - Austin Healeys, Triumph TR3s and MG Midgets speeding at full throttle along the motorway with scarves flailing from the passenger seats Isadora Duncan style. There were many breakdowns, usually involving lots of steam and waving of arms, the hard shoulders were yet to be introduced so the broken down sports cars were colourful hazards (all sports cars seemed to red, green or blue) on the carriageway.

My first journeys on the M6 were trips to the Lake District when the family including grandparents and favourite Aunts crowded into a hire car at weekends. I was mesmerised by the bridge at Scorton that had been designed and engineered in sympathy with the rolling landscapes on the edge of the Forest of Bowland. It was in stark contrast to most of the bridges on the M6, which looked as if they had been bought as a job lot from a catalogue. These trips became more frequent when friends acquired cars and we went walking and climbing to the Lake District during school and university holidays.

When I left school the M6 had been opened up between Birmingham and the Lake District and I began to take advantage of the Samlesbury intersection to make hitch hiking trips around the country. It was the quickest and cheapest way to travel and it opened up my knowledge of distant places as well as the cast of characters that inhabited Britain. I was bought meals and drinks by friendly drivers, delivered to my final destinations and even taken home by one lorry driver to meet his daughter. Most of my journeys were south to North Wales, London and South Wales to go climbing, visit friends or university field trips.

Oxford became my next regular destination when I lived there for a year or so. By this time I was the owner of two Morris Minors, don't ask, bought for £40 and £30 respectively. I travelled over 40,000 miles in them and much of it on M6 journeys to the Lake District, Liverpool, the Cotswolds and then Oxford. On my first trip down to Oxford I broke down near Stone and was towed off to a local garage to have a new distributor fitted. Hurtling along behind the breakdown truck at 60mph separated by a 15 foot chain and with brakes that were barely any better than those on my bike was one of those truly life threatening events. Each time the truck slowed down the tow chain slackened and I feared a mighty crash. I pumped the brakes and was relieved to have a proper steel bumper. Surprisingly the car and driver survived although I was berated on arrival at the rented accommodation 4 hours later than promised but I would not have arrived at all had I not used the M6 and a night in Staffordshire has never really appealed to me.

On another occasion  travelling back from Oxford I picked up a hitch hiker at Birmingham only to discover after a few minutes conversation that it was my best friend from when we were 3 and 4 years old. He lived across the street from my grandparents, where we lived at the time. I had not seen him for a dozen years and he was now an accountant at a London Bank. We reminisced about our early years and both remembered that on a rare hot day we had sat in the cobbled street, there was no traffic other than the milk float in the morning, and popped the tar bubbles that miraculously appeared between the cobbles in the heat of the day. It was presumably my first brush with tar and both of us had to be scrubbed clean with substances that would be banned today. We were forbidden to play together or to touch the tar ever again. Thank goodness for bubble wrap, the clean alternative to tar bubbles for today's children and, ehem, adults.

Although my Morris Minors could barely reach 60mph, it was a quicker journey up the M6 from Birmingham in the 1970s than in the Christmas rush of 2015 and there was no M6 toll road to avoid Spaghetti junction in those days.

My relationship with the M6 changed after 1973 since when it has been the journey south from Gretna five or six times a year as I visited my family, the Lake District or occasionally drove south for holidays in Cornwall. Journeys to London and the south stopped in the 1980s when train times and then flights became a quicker and often cheaper way to travel south. Only recently have I taken to travelling down the M6 to London a couple of times a year to visit family and grandchildren in London. The only reasons are that we can deliver spare furniture and other items, visit interesting places and call in on friends en route.

The M6 had made such a difference to journeys when it opened, no queues for the swing bridge at Runcorn when travelling south (although it was a lot more fun and occasionally quicker than crossing the Thelwall viaduct) or mile long traffic jams on the A6 to the Lakes. The changes have been remarkable to the M6 as well: hard shoulders, crash barriers, speed distance chevrons, from 2 lanes to 4 lanes, from empty roads to nose to tail jams. Lane closures are now an everyday feature and accidents cause major blockages that prevent ambulances and rescue vehicles from reaching the incidents.The only thing that has remained the same is the detestable service stations. The quality of food and prices still generate angst and frustration by encapsulating all that's worst about Britain's obsessive overdependence on franchised retail and service operators.

Scorton Bridge
As it is today, forever and ever
The M6 junction at Birmingham
Isadora Duncan style

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