'Splendid Achievement' becomes the 'Road To Hell'

Margaret Thatcher poses on the M25 before cutting a ribbon to open it
Margaret Thatcher poses on the M25 before cutting a ribbon to open it

by Ray Setterfield

October 29, 1986 — At 11.15am on this day, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, cut a ribbon to open the final stretch of the London Orbital Motorway – the M25.

It was then the world’s longest ring road at 117 miles, had taken 11 years to complete at a cost of £1 billion and was, according to Mrs Thatcher, “a splendid achievement for Britain”.

Thousands of frustrated drivers would come to take a different view over the years. Its first traffic jam developed by 5.15pm on that opening day and delays have since become an almost daily occurrence.

A report in 2011 revealed that roadworks had caused the equivalent of 118 years in hold-ups over 18 months between junctions 16 and 23 alone. The longest traffic jam recorded was 37 miles on December 6, 1995.

Often labelled "the world's first circular car park", or ”the London Orbital car park”, in 1989 pop star Chris Rea put the frustrations of thousands to music when he recorded “The Road To Hell”.

Not everyone thought so, though. Many people in the rural East of England had never seen a motorway and were fascinated. So much so that hundreds signed up for a guided coach tour of its lanes.

Today, the Automobile Association, which has offered help to drivers since 1905, says the question most frequently asked by motorists on its online route planner is: "How can I avoid the M25?"

But in those early days it was a tourist attraction – for the rural population, at least.

"It's mad when you think about it," an AA spokesman said recently. "Tourists would spend an afternoon looking at the delights of the road – and no doubt getting caught up in traffic.”

It didn't take long for the "mad" coach tours to be discontinued.

The idea of an orbital road around London was first mooted in 1905 – the same year that the AA was born.

It was intended not for cars, but horses and wagons. The route was to be lined with water troughs, and patrolled by emergency wheelwrights and farriers. Perhaps journey times would not have been much slower than today!

In the 1990 novel Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman spoke for thousands of drivers when they wrote: "Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of man.

”But whenever students of demonology get together, the M25 London Orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.”

Published: September 2, 2016

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