5 December 1958 - Preston Bypass opens

The UK's first motorway was this stretch of dual carriageway bypassing the A6, which often saw long delays through Preston, particularly for traffic going to see the Blackpool illuminations.

The road, built by Tarmac Group with John Cox as the lead engineer, was given a very wide central reservation so that it could be expanded to three lanes later. A hedge was planted along the reservation to reduce headlight dazzle from oncoming vehicles, and the hard shoulders were surfaced with gravel. 

The bypass cost just under £3 million to build in the currency of the time. Around 2,300 vehicles a day were using it within a month of opening. The road had no speed limit but was designed for vehicles travelling at up to 70 miles per hour. Average speeds in 1959 were 38 mph.

The Preston Bypass
The Preston Bypass

2 November 1959 - The M1 opens

The first section of Britain’s first full-length motorway ran from Watford (junction 5) to Crick/Rugby (junction 18). It had no speed limits, crash barriers or lighting, and it had soft shoulders.

The road was built in two parts, with the northern part being built by John Laing and the southern part by Tarmac Construction.

Known as the London to Yorkshire Motorway, the M1 was originally scheduled to finish at Doncaster. However, it was later decided to take the route past Sheffield and on into Leeds, with further sections taking it into the city by 1972. Doncaster was then linked to the M1 by the M18.

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at the opening of the M1
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (left) at the opening of the M1


Junction 14 of the M6 at Stafford under construction
Junction 14 of the M6 at Stafford under construction

M6 - The 'Backbone of Britain'

The M6, which began life as the Preston Bypass in 1958, was expanded throughout the 60s, reaching south to meet the M1 at junction 19, and north to Carlisle. The aim was to connect the industrial powerhouses of the West Midlands and North West England, as well as being the major route for Glasgow and the west of Scotland.  

Many options were looked at to take the M6 through the centre of Birmingham and the Black Country, with road building in these areas likely to cost four times as much as in rural locations. 

The solution was to build the new motorways on stilts; over 26 miles of elevated carriageway passes through Birmingham on the M6 and M5, with the canals and railways running beneath. This led to the design for Spaghetti Junction, with work beginning in 1968. 

Petrol station at Newport Pagnell services on the M1
Petrol station at Newport Pagnell services on the M1

Motorway service areas as a destination

As motorways captured the public imagination in the 1960s, people began taking day trips along them, visiting service areas and dining out there.

Watford Gap are the UK's oldest services, opening on 2 November 1959. The famous Blue Boar cafeteria was opened there in 1964, and became a hub for musicians on tour in the swinging sixties - a UK version of Route 66! It was a stopover for many musicians on the road, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Dusty Springfield. 

But Britain's most glamorous services were at Newport Pagnell on the M1. The Grill and Griddle restaurant, which opened in 1960, initially focused on fine dining and was a favourite of businessmen dining on expenses. But it quickly changed to more straightforward catering.


24 May 1972 - Spaghetti Junction opens

Spaghetti Junction was designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day, but takes more than three times that these days. Its aim was to link the M6, M5 and M1 motorways, and it covers a 30-acre site to the north of Birmingham city centre, including the A38(M) Aston Expressway. 

Officially named Gravelly Hill Interchange, when plans for the junction were shared in 1965, Birmingham Evening Mail journalist Roy Smith coined the term “Spaghetti Junction”, describing the design as looking like “a cross between a plate of spaghetti and an unsuccessful attempt at a Staffordshire knot”. 

The junction incorporates eight roads, two rivers, canals and railways. It was built on stilts to accommodate the canals and railways already in place. Costing £10 million to build, it has over 600 concrete columns and carries the M6 using a 3.5-mile-long viaduct.

Arial view of Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction
Arial view of Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction

1976 - The M62 crosses the Pennines

The M62, which connects Liverpool and Hull via Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, was opened in stages between 1971 and 1976.

It was a vital connection across the Pennines and was designed to be the route that would never close, whatever the weather. It's a famous piece of engineering, built in a hugely challenging and hostile environment. The Scammonden section, which crosses the top of an earth dam, was the longest single span non-suspension bridge in the world at the time of completion.

Stott Hall farm is famously situated in the middle of the carriageways at Calderdale. Contrary to urban myth, it was never acquired for the motorway because the land is not stable enough, and the farm owners chose not to sell for discretionary purchase, but to keep their land. 

Stott Hall Farm on the M62
Stott Hall Farm on the M62


British holidaymakers keeping fit on a Spanish beach
British holidaymakers keeping fit on a Spanish beach

International travel (ports and airports)

The 1980s saw the continued rise of the package holiday, with Malta and Spain being the most popular destinations. With the rise of high street travel agencies, more and more people took advantage of a trip abroad. Heathrow alone saw a 10 million increase in passenger numbers between 1985 and 1989. 

The rise in demand for summer sun, winter skiing and the weekend city break saw an increased demand for access to airports. The modern cruise ship also emerged in the 1980s as well as an increase in people taking their cars abroad on passenger ferries. Brittany Ferries saw its passenger numbers rise above 1 million per year by the middle of the decade. 

Freight levels and exports were also rising and peaked in the mid-1980s.

Queensgate shopping centre in Peterborough
Queensgate shopping centre in Peterborough

Out of town shopping / retail parks

In the 1970s, American-style shopping malls had begun to open in British city centres, and by the 1980s, the high cost of retail land in city centres was seeing a move to out-of-town centres, often built next to motorway junctions. This was further helped by the government policy of creating enterprise zones.

The rise of the out-of-town shopping centre and retail parks with DIY and furniture superstores saw people using the motorway network to go shopping. It began a trend that saw many large shopping centres opening in the 1990s, such as Meadowhall near Sheffield and Bluewater in Kent, combining shopping, dining and entertainment. 


October 1991 - the QE2 Bridge opens

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford was the first bridge to be sited at an entirely new location along the River Thames for more than 50 years. It was built at a cost of £120 million and officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in October 1991.

The bridge has played a crucial role on the M25 motorway by connecting communities in Essex and Kent. 

The QE2 bridge at Dartford
The QE2 bridge at Dartford

5 June 1996 - The second Severn Crossing

The second Severn Crossing is the M4 bridge over the River Severn between England and Wales. It was needed to provide extra traffic capacity to supplement the Severn Bridge, which was built in 1966. 

The bridge is cable-stayed and designed to be less vulnerable to high winds in the Severn Estuary, which meant that it could be built further out towards the sea, and stay open for longer in severe weather. It's more aligned with the route of the M4 so creates a shorter route for traffic; the older bridge is now part of the M48.

The crossing was built using private finance that was recouped through a toll. The payment was cleared in January 2018, and the toll charges on both Severn Bridges were removed in December 2018.

In July 2018, it was officially renamed The Prince of Wales bridge.

The second Severn Crossing under construction
The second Severn Crossing under construction


The first Traffic Officers at Quinton, Birmingham
The first Traffic Officers at Quinton, Birmingham

31 January 2003 - White Friday and the Traffic Officer Service

When heavy snow started to fall at around midday on Thursday 30 January 2003, the gritters went out on to the M11 motorway as usual. They became trapped in the heavy traffic that was leaving London as the snow set in. Many drivers were stranded overnight; some were not well-prepared and had no food, water or warm clothes.

The event, which became known as White Friday, created national news headlines and led to the Highways Agency being given more powers to clear the roads.

Following this the Traffic Officer Service was established in 2004. The Traffic Officers were given the legal powers to stop and divert traffic. Seven regional operations centres and a national traffic operation centre were also created. 

Construction of the M6 Toll
Construction of the M6 Toll

14 December 2003 - M6 Toll opens

The M6 Toll, originally known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, was the first completely new motorway to be completed since the M40 in 1991.

Cars pay a toll to use the route, which is designed to take freight away from Birmingham to reduce congestion around the city’s M6 junctions. It has a highly acclaimed motorway service station at Norton Caines.

2010 - 2022

July 2011 - Hindhead Tunnel

The Hindhead tunnel allows the A3 to bypass the town of Hindhead. Previously, that part of the A3 had been the only single carriageway section of the route between the M25 and A27, connecting London and Portsmouth.

A scheme to create a borehole tunnel was announced in 2003, and work began in 2007. This was a more complex and expensive solution, but it was adopted to take the road out of the landscape and under the Devil’s Punchbowl, a site of special scientific interest. 

The tunnel opened with a vintage car parade on 27 July 2011. A Countryside Stewardship grant from the Highways Agency has allowed the National Trust to carry out extensive heathland restoration, leading to return of endangered species including the nightjar and woodlark. 

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond opens the Hindhead Tunnel
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond opens the Hindhead Tunnel

A14/Catthorpe Interchange

The A14 is the major route linking the Midlands and North to Felixstowe, which is the major shipping port for freight to and from Europe. In 1994, the A14 was connected to the M1/M6 interchange at Catthorpe at the M6 (junction 0) and the M1 (junction 19). The connection was made at that time by installing a roundabout, which became a traffic bottleneck. 

The junction and the A14 underwent a major upgrade, known as the Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme, which was announced in 2005. This mega project and significant investment programme, known as a Complex Infrastructure Programme project, cost £1.5 billion. The Catthorpe interchange improvement cost £191 million. 

The A14 work started in May 2016 and the last section was officially opened to traffic on 5 May 2020. 

The A14 Catthorpe Interchange
The A14 Catthorpe Interchange