Following the of the Preston Bypass eleven months earlier, November 1959 saw the second major milestone in the development of the motorways. The opening of the M1 between Berrygrove and Crick was the first section of long-distance intercity motorway to open.
Relieving the trunk roads
The most important route that was considered in the development of the road network was a dedicated motor route linking London with Birmingham; this was given the greatest priority due to "immediate and very substantial relief which it could give to the two heavily overloaded trunk roads", these being the A5 and A6.
A 74 mile course for the new route was proposed, being referred to as the "first full scale motorway to be constructed" in Britain. It was also planned that this would become part of a bigger project, namely the London to Yorkshire Motorway.
There was just one problem... how would the new motorways be numbered? There were two options: to use the existing A-Road system, or create a new series of numbers. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing within the Ministry of Transport, meaning that motorways were given names relating to where they went, rather than having a number.
Yet an A-number was given to the London to Yorkshire Motorway, A50, in case the new road would have been opened as an all-purpose route. Yet, just in time before the first motorways opened, the government elected to create a new numbering system, and the M1 was born.
Sir Owen Williams and Partners was appointed in 1951 to carry out studies and plan a route for a new north-south motor road to run from St Albans up to Doncaster. In 1955, they were called upon to design the layout of the route from Pepperstock up to Crick, with a short spur to Dunchurch (which would later be the M45). The proposals for a two-lane dual carriageway route - later widened to three lanes - were presented to the Ministry of Transport in September 1955, with the government approving the scheme during the following year.
The remainder of the motorway, south of Pepperstock down to Slip End, was allocated to Hertfordshire County Council, whose proposals included the use of reinforced concrete instead of asphalt for a large part of the section.
The Ministry of Transport set a target of 19 months for the project, with tenders being sought with this timeframe in mind, alongside prices for the same work over a longer period of 31 months.
Due to the size of the project, the route was split into four sections of roughly equal length, designed to take into consideration the changes in soil types, and thus reducing the distances that loads of earth could have ended up travelling:
- Contract A: Slip End to Ridgmont, 12.3 miles, 28 bridges
- Contract B: Ridgmont to Gayhurst, 11.9 miles, 31 bridges
- Contract C; Gayhurst to Kingsbury, 12.3 miles, 31 bridges
- Contract D: Kingsbury to Watford Gap (plus the M45), 15.9 miles, 38 bridges
John Laing and Son Limited was successful in picking up all four tenders and agreed to the challenge of the 19 month target. The total price for the entire scheme was £15 million, with an agreed start date for the works being 1 April 1958. During the course of the project, Contract D was extended up to Crick, in order to better tie in with the existing road network.
As the project was so enormous, Laing were unable to gather sufficient internal resources to carry out the project by themselves, so a number of other companies were subcontracted to assist with the scheme, particularly the earthworks and surfacing of the road.
South of Slip End, the M1 constituted part of a separate project which would include the M10 spur. This was because the route formed part of the St Albans Bypass. Tarmac Construction Limited were successful in gaining this tender, with Hertfordshire CC initially designing the layout and course of the road.
74 miles of asphalt
Work on the scheme officially started on the 24 March 1958, with the on-site earthworks moving at a steady rate. The main problem was that some of the clays were very viscous following rainfall, causing problems with transportation as tipper trucks struggled when they were being unloaded - upending was a very common occurrence as the wet earth just refused to move.
In other areas, the contractors saw a variety of problems, from springs to pockets of quicksand. However, the main problem would be in the summer of 1958; just like with the M6 project some 150 miles north, the work was severely hampered due to the relentless rain - the summer was a complete washout. By contrast, the summer of 1959 was one of the hottest and driest on record, meaning the ground was baked hard and very brittle, making conditions very dusty.
The road itself was built to certain specifications as set out in the tender, however when the tendering process was underway, a number of options were made available, including surfacing types and layer thickness. In the end, the specification chosen was for dry-lean concrete with a layer of blacktop surfacing:
- the sub-base used consisted of a naturally occurring gravel called hoggin
- the dry lean concrete would be 14 inches thick, laid in two layers
- above that was a 2.5 inch thick hot rolled asphalt base course
- the top layer was made up of a 1.5 inch hot rolled asphalt wearing course
Concrete haunches were laid to act as an edging border, and were manufactured to a thickness that matched the carriageway itself. The concrete was topped with an additional layer of white concrete, that was four inches thick and 12 inches wide. However, this needed to be changed as when combined with the hoggin layer, drained rainwater water simply collected in between. To solve this, drainage holes were added to drain off the trapped water.
The hard shoulders were constructed to a different specification, being eight feet wide an constructed using a 4.5 inches thick gravel sand loam mixture, and was sprayed with bitumen to ensure germination was sped up at the request of the Ministry of Transport. However, the shoulders were found to be too narrow and weak to cater for the large vehicles that may stop on them.
The new motorway was opened on 2 November 1959, with the occasion marked by a ceremony held at the appropriately named Slip End, near to Toddington. The Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, formally declared the road as open, yet he was already concerned about how motorists would test their cars in an inappropriate manner. It would be another six years before a fixed speed limit - 70mph - was introduced, around the same time that the northward extension of the M1 from Crick to Kegworth opened.
And just like the M6 over in Lancashire, the M1 was to suffer from problems with the road surfacing. Rainwater would be unable to drain off the road, causing the asphalt surface layer to crumble away, exposing and weakening the base coursing that was found underneath. There were problems on the concrete sections too, with the material breaking away at the joins. In addition, the hard shoulder was deemed to be too narrow and too thin, so the Ministry of Transport revised the standards to match those of the main carriageway.
New standards, new designs
Being the first long distance motorway, the M1 was the first chance to seriously test a number of the new features that were targeted towards the new high speed motor road network.
Given this would be the first large-scale use of the newly introduced blue signage, there was a need to develop a suitable method of supporting these larger signs. One of the requirements was for the supports to be low maintenance, but the large posts used today had not been developed.
The solution generated was to use concrete posts, with large lighting used where signage needed to be illuminated. However, they were later deemed to be too hazardous, with the freestanding lighting used today introduced in their place.
Facilities where motorists could stop and rest were planned for every 12 miles, with some locations being full service areas with fuel and food facilities. In contrast, others would be mere rest stops, with toilets and picnic facilities.
The first service area to open was at Watford Gap, located towards the northern end of the motorway. Despite originally being intended to be open to lorries only, it was seen as being unfair and inappropriate to impose this restriction (cars were originally to be directed to Newport Pagnell instead). And how can motorists be directed to a service area that isn't even open?
However, at the time of opening, the service area was not ready - temporary huts were installed to provide food in the interim, until the services were completed in 1960. Newport Pagnell was the second service area to open, doing so in 1960.
Crash barriers were introduced to keep vehicles from leaving the road. Two types of barrier were used, the first being a similar to the steel barriers used today - the main difference was that these barriers were mounted on wooden poles rather than metal ones. These barriers were generally used where the motorway was at the top of an embankment.
The second type of barrier was wholly wooden, using timber beams joined together with a diagonal "scarfed" overlap and affixed to wooden poles.
A telecommunication system was established along the motorway, with telephones installed at intervals, providing a direct connection to the local police headquarters. Rather than the bright orange colour used today, they were painted in a discreet green colour to blend in with the surroundings. Each telephone box was numbered (the number representing the distance in chains), and featured the letter A or B to indicate which carriageway the telephone was located.
This was a very basic method of warning motorists of a hazard in the road ahead, just like the Variable Message Signs of today. This was a pair of yellow lanterns mounted on a wooden post, and was powered using a battery installed at the foot of the post. The sign would be activated by passing police officers using a radar gun (a receiver was attached in between the lanterns). Despite being basic, a more updated version of the Motorwarn Signals can still be seen on the motorway network, particularly in Scotland.
The bridges that were to be constructed as part of the motorway scheme were built to a standard format designed by Sir Owen Williams, which allowed construction to be speeded up as the workers would be familiar with the methods and designs utilised.
Reinforced concrete was used generally on all of the bridges, apart from the three steel railway bridges; this was because British Rail had designed these structures. This was chosen over pre-stressed concrete as it was not only cheaper, but was also a method that had been around for longer, so Sir Williams knew the bridges would have a long lifespan. In addition, reinforced concrete was easier to transport into place (as long beams were not needed), and the amount of reinforcing steel was reduced due to the simplified curved design.
Half a century later
The fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the M1 was marked with a number of events taking place at Watford Gap service area, held in conjunction with RoadChef and the BBC. A number of delegates were invited, alongside former member of staff from the service area.
A ceremony was held in which transport minister Chris Mole unveiled a plaque to mark Watford Gap's golden anniversary, surrounded by displays showing enlargements of old photographs and the autographs of some of the celebrities who had stopped at the site (the autographs were collected by a former worker).
The other major event of the day was the "premiere" of a short feature produced by BBC Northampton. Watford Gap: The Musical was filmed over two days in October, and aimed to recreate the heyday of the young service area. The final piece can be viewed at the BBC Northampton website.
A series of videos was produced during the construction of the M1 through Newport Pagnell by a local resident, Bernard Tompkins. Today, the videos form part of a collection known as The Living Archive, providing an online archive of events in the Milton Keynes area. You can view the three videos online at our YouTube page.
Photo by Grey Eagle Ray and used with permission.