It was on the morning of Monday 22nd November 1959 that the Minister of Transport and Aviation, the Right Honourable Ernest Marples, opened the London to Birmingham Motorway – the M1. (In terms of strict historical accuracy, the M1 doesn’t go to Birmingham, and at the time it opened came to a sudden halt in the middle of nowhere at Crick in Northamptonshire – roughly where the M6 to Birmingham now begins).
Under atrocious weather conditions, the completion was undertaken on time in 19 months. Work commenced on March 24th 1958, with the rainfall during June through to August being the worst in living memory, such that a hole dug in the ground soon became a well filled with water.
Of the 55 miles of roadway, 132 bridges and 32 culverts were required with some 11.5 million cubic yards of soil requiring excavation, 300,000 cubic yards of concrete and 13 tons of steel went into the construction of the bridges. The viaduct erected between Newport Pagnell and Moulsoe was 1,000 feet long. Production needed gravel and the area around Newport Pagnell abounds with lakes as a result of the huge demand. This has fostered a huge variety of bird life, enjoying the scenic arrangements created by the contractors.
Construction was temporarily halted when a disgruntled farmer, fed up with catching his escaped cattle through gates being left open and hedges knocked down, took action and used his own vehicle to block the route used by various construction vehicles. This was resolved with the building of cattle grids which deterred the cattle from checking if the grass was greener on the other side of the fence.
At a cost of £270,000 per mile in the rural areas and £2 million in the urban areas, it required an enormous amount of planning. Some 5,000 men supported by £5,000,000 worth of machinery were deployed in its construction. Local recruitment of labourers was used to augment the regular employees of the company.
Caravan camps were provided for as many as 200 workers: one was located at the former prisoner of war camp at Sherington.
The design was by Sir Owen Williams and Partners, and John Laing and Son Ltd., building and civic engineering contractors, co-ordinating several other firms along the route.
An interesting comment of the day came from Mr. R.H. Gibbons, the North Bucks Divisional Surveyor quoted in the Bletchley Gazette of November 28th 1959 : ” In my view motoring on the motorway takes all the agony out of driving on an ordinary road. It is the most relaxed form of driving there is.”
The introduction of the motorway through five police force boundaries in itself required co-operation and at first presented difficulties. This was emphasised when Bedfordshire Constabulary Police had to travel to junction 14 located on the then Buckinghamshire Constabulary area, in order to deal with a problem on the south-bound carriageway.
The original estimate of movement of traffic was 2,000 vehicles per hour and in the early stages made for a ready made race-track. Until speed restrictions were enforced a number of motorists were clocked for speeding – this included a number of persons of note. It also resulted in some serious accidents by motorists unaccustomed to motorway driving.
The first fatal accident on the Bucks section of the motorway was recorded on the 12th. December 1959, when an airman from R.A.F. Bridgnorth – whilst overtaking a lorry and in the fast lane – was caught by a gust of wind which brought about a collision with a bridge. One Newport Pagnell police sergeant was killed in those early days whilst dealing with an accident. Another fatal accident occurred further along the motorway when a Ford Zephyr was stolen from Bletchley and crashed. Have conditions improved in this day and age? Try telling that to the commuter leaving Newport Pagnell trying to enter the motorway with lengthy queues indicating the vast change in volume using it. Driving conditions now include new terminology – ROAD RAGE.
The introduction of the long distances involved, and the higher rate of fuel consumption involved, plus the added strain on the haulage lorries, required structural and engine modifications to off-set this problem. Added to this was a new problem for the driver, tiredness, which resulted in two service stations being added. The first introduced was the one at Newport Pagnell, followed by the one at the Watford Gap.
The service station at Newport Pagnell, now called the Welcome Lodge – a motel built in the 50’s style – has been used on a number of occasions in the filming industry. In the early days, the site was operated by Trust House Forte. It provides a convenient stopping place for the southbound motorist heading for London, and provides accommodation for the large events held in nearby Milton Keynes. It has also been the focus of attention regarding the current trend of Asylum Seekers. Obviously this has added a further strain on the local police resources, and adds to the problem of lack of foot-patrolling policemen. A police office has been installed in the area.
Members of the AA were able to call for assistance from telephone boxes placed at strategic intervals. Daytime coverage was originally provided by their Rapide spotter plane, which was in communication with a mobile control office located at Broughton.