Recently I stopped off at Watford Gap services. Just to stretch my legs after a non stop drive from the Channel Tunnel. The place seemed quite civilised, and a far cry from the days when it was operated by Blue Boar and food was served on cardboard plates, the nadir of motorway catering. I didn’t realise that a moment in history was fast approaching.
Because today is the fiftieth anniversary of the day when Ernest Marples, a man whose business dealings may not have stood scrutiny in today’s political climate, opened the first substantial stretch of motorway in the UK (the very first motorway, the M6 Preston by pass, opened in 1958), the M1 from Watford to Crick. The latter was very much in the middle of nowhere, except for the connection to the A5, a return to the old road system, but that was to miss the point. Soon, the M1 drove north once more, not stopping until it had opened all the way to Leeds in 1968.
Photos of the road at the time of opening – the Guardian has a compilation available – show almost empty carriageways. There were in those early years no speed limits, though many cars could not cruise at better than 50 to 60 mph. The speed differential with those that could take advantage of the open road, like the 150 mph capable Jaguar E-Type and Aston Martin DB5, must have made for some hairy moments, even with the light traffic volumes. The 70 mph limit was inevitable.
Also inevitable were barriers between carriageways, warning signals (increasingly sophisticated over the years) and the all pervasive cameras. And all the time, the desire for mobility has risen as the cost of motoring has fallen, so now we can look back fondly at those newly swept, empty carriageways, but we cannot return there.
Thus the march of progress.