Learning to love the M6

It is almost 60 years to the day since work began on the Preston Bypass, which was an 8 mile stretch of shiny new road running from Bamber Bridge to Broughton. It was two lanes, had no speed limit and no central crash barrier and cost just £3m – and that’s when £3m was worth something – but it was unique, as it was the very first stretch of motorway built in this country and what was later to become the M6.

Lancashire County Council had been pushing for a bypass for years, due to the traffic jams building in Preston (mmm sounds horribly familiar) and in 1937 had recommended to the Government that this was the only way forward.

The Italians had been cruising down their autostrade since 1921 and the Germans were burning up their autobahns three years later, but here in Britain we like to take our time and consider things a little more carefully and thoughtfully unlike our impetuous European cousins.

The pesky war got in the way but in 1949 the Special Roads Act was passed paving the way for the much needed bypass ……. but still nothing happened. Cometh the hour, cometh the man friends and step forward the hero of the piece, the dogmatic and some say over zealous, County Surveyor Sir James Drake, who bullied Whitehall officials, intimidated policy advisers and tormented Ministers. It is generally accepted by those in the know that the bypass would never have happened without his energy and refusal to take no for an answer. Finally the bypass was opened on a bright but chilly day in early December 1958 complete with the new road signs of zinc white on aqua marine blue that we know so well today.

More and more was added until we now have the 236 miles of M6 that we know and love today, from Gretna to Rugby, the longest motorway in the country, complete with the only toll motorway at the bottom.

In a previous life I was once asked by a group of students, “what is the worst thing about your job”? “the M6”, I replied wearily, “what do you think we should be done about it”? “easy – lay it to lawn and let the sheep graze on it”.

Having spent hours and hours sitting on the dam thing, cursing everyone else and everything about it, I fell out of love with the M6, but these days I look at it a bit more fondly, although I admit it, I do not spend as much time driving these days as I used too, but is more than that, it is the fact that the M6 is one of the few things that unite all of us here in the NW.

We all have a M6 story, we all have a tale to tell about this regional artery, we all have an account, a yarn (usually bad, but then you don’t really remember the days when you’ve breezed through without incident) in these days of devolved regions, unitary authorities, little England, NIMBY, and “we’re all different and we’re all unique” – it is really rare to find something that binds us altogether and is common to all of us. Something we all have an emotional and financial stake in, something that we all need and we all use.

My story is I spent 7 hours one Friday night on the M6 Northbound near J37 in a jam after a serious road accident. The motorway was shut in both directions and it was clear fairly quickly that we were in for the long haul. It went dark quickly and there we were a little community – not going anywhere all huddled in our cars in the middle of nowhere going nowhere any time soon. Dad’s got out their cars and walked forward to find out what was going on until almost out of sight, then came back shaking heads and muttering (that’s what Dad’s do) Kids soon started to get hungry and thirsty and cries started to be heard all around as the frustrations of the little ones came pouring out. Then Mums and kids started to nip over the fence by the hard shoulder and down the embankment as the bladders started to ache – the Dads were a little less bashful. None of us knew how long we would be there for and so fuel had to be saved and eventually and reluctantly engines had to be switched off and then batteries in phones and games died and eventually we were all sitting in complete darkness and silence on the M6, cut off from the outside world and with nothing but our fellow travellers for company and reassurance.

The British are marvellous in times of adversity and our new little community shared what we had; sweets, water, cigarettes and someone had a bit of battery left on their phone and we all called loved ones, one of the Dads would come back from the front of the jam from time to time with updates, “they’ve just called the air ambulance” – it was really touching. Eventually we were all required to reverse down the motorway in convoy to J36 (something quite surreal as well to see three lanes of cars reversing down the M6) and then go on our separate ways.

Unforgettable as that night was, my number one memory of the M6 was the numerous visits to Forton Services at Lancaster owned by Top Rank then, when I’d just passed my test and driving up there for a late night cup of tea with some of my mates after a night out and going upto the Pennine Tower in the transport caff bit and staying there till the early hours, chatting, smoking, drinking pots of tea and watching the traffic from our lofty view.

The tower is now listed, but sadly you can’t go up there anymore – health and safety reasons wouldn’t you know it. It was owned by Top Rank back then and I believe there are just some offices up there these days, but in those unsophisticated days of old, it was just great fun and of course we thought we were uber cool. You will have your favourite service station and least favourite (I won’t say which one I avoid at all cost other than to say it is one of the West Midlands based ones, I had a very bad experience in their once with a faulty loo door and we’ll leave it at that) and there are 14 to choose from, one for every 16 miles. We even have the best and most award winning service station situated on the M6 – the wonderful Tebay Services up at Junction 38, privately owned and under the excellent stewardship of the Dunning family, who employ over 600 people to run the hotel, caravan park, east and West side services and the brilliant farms shops and kitchens – it is just a joy and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

By the way, bit of M6 trivia for you, the first service station opened on the M6 was Keele services in 1965, followed by Knutsford and Charnock Richard in the same year.
However, that is just the point, we all know the M6, this wonderful ribbon that runs through the heart of the Northwest and hooks us up with our West Midlands chums at one end and our independence striving brothers and sisters from Scotland at the other. We all have an empathy, we all have been in a jam, we’ve all seen an accident, lives are lost on this road, babies have been born on the side of the M6, we hook up with loved ones via this mighty thoroughfare, we rush to catch planes via this super highway, we’ve all cursed it, we’ve all missed a junction, it is an ever constant in all our lives and most of us have grown up with it always being around.

It is one of the most haunted motorways as well and there is something about that stretch between J16 and J18 that is genuinely unsettling. It is a real accident blackspot for no obvious reason and there are lots of spooky tales about strange cars suddenly appearing and disappearing, strange figures standing by the side of the road, Roman legions crossing the road – all sorts of things and the lonely ghostly piper at Sandbach.

Songs have been sung about it; Leo Sayer, Wings and New Model Army to name a few, television documentaries have been filmed and books have been written all in homage to this long piece of tarmac carving through our region.

We should be proud of it – for all its faults – it was the first, it is the longest and it’s ours and it has been compared to the Great wall of China in terms of its cultural contribution, “You can see it for miles. Like, it goes over the hills and stuff ….but so does the M6″ ………. Oh wait that was by Karl Pilkington.

Follow Lindsay on Twitter @bigceebee

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