On Roads [extract]

  1. In road country

My idea of a piece of sculpture is a road. That is, a road doesn’t reveal itself at any particular point or from any particular point. Roads appear and disappear. We either have to travel on them or beside them. But we don’t have a single point of view for a road at all, except a moving one, moving along it. – Carl Andre[i]

If you walk down to the bottom of the street on which I grew up, you turn into one of the most famous roads in Britain: the Snake Pass, the winding route over the Pennines in Derbyshire’s Peak District. Built by Thomas Telford, the Snake looks as though it has been there forever, as much a part of the landscape as the millstone grit. But like most roads it is a palimpsest, laid on top of earlier versions like overwritten text. It used to start in Ashopton, a small village now buried at the bottom of the Ladybower reservoir. So the new road begins on the reservoir viaduct, then climbs slowly up to the barren plateaux of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow, before beginning its snaking, vertiginous descent into my hometown of Glossop. As you pass the final few hairpins, the Longdendale Valley spreads out beautifully along your windscreen – almost as though the road came first and the view has been supplied for the benefit of motorists by its benevolent engineers.

When I was young, I overhead a grown-up saying that the Snake was a great ‘driving road,’ and I was puzzled by the adjective. Weren’t all roads for driving on? Eventually I came to realise that the Snake, like all great driving roads, existed as much in the mind as on the earth. It was a fantasy road – the lovely, desolate, winding one in the motoring programmes and car commercials. The Snake also had an exciting air of mystery and danger, because it was always being blocked by snow and landslips, cutting Glossop off from civilisation – or, at least, from Yorkshire. It had, and still has, only one phone box along its entire length (and it’s now one of the last frontiers of the mobile phone signal) so if you broke down or crashed you might have to walk for hours to get help. Hairy bikers came from miles around to race along its open straights and careen around its sinuous curves in search of the perfect cornering line, before rewarding themselves with an all-day breakfast in the greasy spoon at the bottom of our road. Nowadays they film the ride from their handlebars and post the results on YouTube, for the envy and delectation of other members of the biker fraternity. The Snake remains a collective work of fiction, driven mainly in anticipation and remembrance.

An ordinary road is nothing like that: it is just part of the invisible landscape of the everyday. You will probably see those white lines stretching into the distance, and hear the sound of tyres on tarmac, every day of your life. Everyone eats, sleeps, talks, works and loves within about a hundred feet of a road. But a road is not there to be dreamt about, feared or remembered; it is there to be driven along forgetfully on the way to somewhere else. A road is overlooked and taken for granted because its shared routines seem to offer little opening for individual creativity or invention. We see most of our journeys on roads as dead time, just a rude interruption into the proper business of living. These everyday roads have penetrated our imaginations obliquely, not through the myth and folklore of the great driving roads but through the compulsive habits and accidental poetry of the commonplace – or a reflex moan about the M4 bus lane.

All roads lead to other roads. The Snake is part of the A57, which runs across the width of the north of England, all the way from Lincoln’s railway station to Liverpool’s dock road. These long A-roads are like the road system’s unconscious, often stretching for miles without being signposted or acknowledged, disappearing into street names and getting caught up in one-way systems but still always there, connecting up different areas of our lives serendipitously. If you follow the A57 into Manchester, for instance, it becomes the first edifice I remember actually noticing as a road. During school holidays, my dad often had to take me into his office at work, and the walk from Piccadilly station involved us going under an urban flyover. I must have said something about how odd it was to have a road suspended in midair, because I remember him telling me that this was a special kind of road, a ‘motorway’.

Some years later, this road – the A57(M), or Mancunian Way – played a key role in the first episode of the BBC’s time-travelling drama series, Life on Mars. DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm) is run over by a car on a slip road of the Mancunian Way and knocked unconscious, before waking up in 1973 on a motorway construction site. Leaving the site in a state of shock, he passes a hoarding that marks his entry into the past: ‘Coming Soon! Manchester’s Highway in the Sky.’ It is clear straightaway what this exercise in historical surrealism means: we’re being primed to enter a recent era that now seems quite remote in its blind faith in novelty, its naïve hope that a sunlit future can simply be planned and built. ‘Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?’ asks Tyler. ‘Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ The Mancunian Way is treated as a dead fashion, a piece of embarrassing 1970s kitsch, the concrete equivalent of loon pants and lava lamps.

History, as usual, is more complicated. The local press did indeed once call the Mancunian Way a ‘highway in the sky,’ even though it rises less than 30 feet from the ground. But not even in the salad days of flyover building did they announce new roads like forthcoming cinema attractions. And anyway, the Mancunian Way was built in 1967. If they had waited until 1973, it would probably not have been built at all.

When it comes to roads, it’s hard to separate the facts from the folk memory. Every modern road carries a freight of ideas and meanings about postwar British history – none more so than these urban flyovers, lumbering overhead sculptures that seem to symbolise the mistakes of 1960s planning and the car-clogged world it bequeathed us. Our addiction to roads comes with some of the self-disgust and self-delusion more associated with chemical dependencies. Like many addicts we like to weave stories that blame our habit on something outside ourselves: in this case, we rely on a plausible but partial narrative about the errors of our immediate ancestors. 

The real story of the Mancunian Way begins with the City of Manchester Plan, published a month after VE Day in June 1945. This aimed to rebuild Manchester over the next 50 years, sweeping away its obsolete Victorian infrastructure and allowing the city to enter ‘a nobler, braver age in which the human race will be master of its fate’. The most ambitious part of the plan was a massive new road system that would set the traffic free and defer for ever ‘the evil day of complete strangulation’.[ii] The city would be threaded with a vast network of orbital and radial roads – mostly elegant parkways, lined with trees and flowers – including an inner ring road reaching right into the centre. The River Irwell would be covered over with a giant roundabout, and whole streets flattened to make a processional route to the town hall, as grandly elegant as one of Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards.

But the council was broke, and carried on being broke, and none of these roads was ever built. The first major road to be constructed in the city after the war was the A57(M), and it was meant as a stopgap, relieving the city centre until the inner ring road was built. In an inter-school competition to name it, five children came up separately with ‘Mancunian Way,’ and on 5 May 1967, they all met the prime minister, Harold Wilson, at the official opening. The road was made of state-of-the-art prefab sections that could be hoisted into place with cranes and snapped together like Scalextric, the popular slot-car racing game of the time. In 1968 the newly formed Concrete Society (motto: Concreti Corrobaramur, or ‘having come together we are strengthened’) chose the Mancunian Way as the recipient of its first annual award for ‘outstanding merit in the use of concrete’.[iii]

The inner ring road remained on the drawing board well into the 1970s, by which time it was nicknamed the ‘eternity ring’ and urban motorways were terminally passé anyway. Unborn roads weigh invisibly on the landscape like stories without endings. Manchester’s unbuilt inner ring road created a city centre scarred with derelict sites, as the land remained in limbo until the plans were officially cancelled in the 1980s. Some buildings in the city centre are still set back from the road line, awaiting the ring road’s arrival, like a planning-blight version of waiting for Godot.[iv]

You can learn to read roads like any other part of the landscape, but often what is most revealing is what isn’t there. The British road system is an unfinished symphony, made up of the modest remnants of never-realised utopian schemes. At the eastern end of the Mancunian Way, for instance, one of the ramps comes to a sudden stop in thin air. This bit of the road was meant to lead all the way into the city centre, sweeping away much of Chinatown in the process. Now the stump is half-hidden by an advertising hoarding and its thick iron bars cut short any motorist who has been cruelly misinformed that it leads somewhere.

The space beneath the A57(M) used to be common ground open to everyone. The road’s undercarriage had a vast network of pedestrian subways and the grassy bits inbetween were meant to be mini-parks, little oases where Hulme residents and students from the nearby Polytechnic could bask together in the road’s bountiful shade. But the subways soon declined into dank, piss-stained, graffiti-sprayed theatres for casual muggings that symbolised the failures of urban planning from that era. Now the undercarriage is mostly cordoned off by railings and chain-link fencing, and has been recycled as a giant private car park, protected by CCTV cameras and anti-intruder paint, with room for a few tiny football pitches and skateboard runs.

There is another symbol of changing social attitudes to roads at the western end of the Mancunian Way: a horseshoe-shaped pedestrian bridge, a piece of post-millennial signature architecture meant to heal the rift made by the motorway between the rejuvenated city centre and the stranded ghetto of Hulme. In another sign of the times, it has been built not from concrete but Cumaru, a sustainable Brazilian hardwood. Underneath the bridge are the remains of a subway, now walled in with concrete blocks and clumsily plastered over. 

The Mancunian Way may not be a great driving road, but ten yards of it will tell you more about recent British history than all 14 miles of the Snake Pass. Its tapered stanchions and flowing cantilevers are part of our cultural mythology, a cautionary tale in concrete and steel. Even people who have never heard of this road know the story, because every British city has a similar one to tell. When, a few years ago, the Birkenhead MP Frank Field championed a scheme for anti-social families to be moved into vandal-proof steel containers, he volunteered his own constituency for the pilot scheme. ‘They can put them up underneath the motorway flyover,’ he suggested.[v] Everyone knew what he meant: ‘underneath the motorway flyover’ was universal shorthand for the abandoned and godforsaken. There used to be a National Lottery television gameshow, Winning Lines, in which the booby prize for answering just one question correctly was a holiday to Spaghetti Junction. I don’t know if anyone ever won the prize, or claimed it, but the conceit was clear enough: this convoluted maze of airborne concrete was the last place anyone would choose to linger. 

You will look in vain on an A-Z for help in guiding you through the terrain vague underneath and around our urban motorways. Exploring this liminal land on foot may mark you out as a dangerous eccentric, an unauthorised person – although it is more likely you will simply be ignored because everyone else is inside a vehicle, looking only ahead. The land surrounding rural motorways is even more vast and unknown. If you’re ever on the run from the law, I would strongly recommend that you hide in the wooded motorway verges of our oldest motorways, like the M1 or M6. There is just enough room for a tent in the half-century of undergrowth and you could surely live like Stig of the Dump, undisturbed for months or years, in this uninhabited wilderness just a cone’s throw from the road.

[i] Andrew Cross, An English Journey (London: Film and Video Umbrella, 2004), frontispiece.

[ii] Roland Nicholas, City of Manchester Plan: Prepared for the City Council (Norwich: Jarrold and Sons, 1945), pp. 205, 43.

[iii] John Baxter, ‘Eye-pleasing highways,’ The Times, 9 June 1970.

[iv] Matthew Hyde, Peter Porter and Aidan O’Rourke, Around the M60: Manchester’s Orbital Motorway (Altrincham: AMCD Publishers, 2004), p. 142.

[v] Bob Roberts, ‘Banish yob families to steel container homes,’ Daily Mirror, 21 June 2005.

3 thoughts on “On Roads [extract]

  1. I just started reading ‘On Roads’. I’m also a transplanted Glossopian, though I came to Vancouver BC (a bit like Liverpool, but with mountains) 10 years ago. I was made aware of ‘On Roads’ by Robert MacFarlane in ‘Landmarks’ – I love the idea that there can be poetry and social value in the banal (or what we think of as banal, at first glance anyway). Enjoying the book so far – I’ve already asked our Vancouver Public Library system to place a hold on your book on queueing.


  2. The Concrete Society award is displayed in at least one place along the Mancunian Way. ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_the_monkey/220050265/ ) – this particular example is on the side of the former UMIST campus, as the flyover crosses (I think) the A34. It’s visible on the side facing towards the city centre, on the right of the road on the shared use cycle/footpath that goes from the former UMIST campus towards Grosvenor Street.

    That area has an underpass too, which was, when I was at UMIST, christened “muggers’ alley”. When I last passed that way (in early 2020), it was blocked, and seemed to be being filled in to bring it to the same level as the A34 carriageway.


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