Preston Bypass:
Two years and five months

Outline plan of the Bypass from 1956
Outline plan of the Bypass from 1956

When money finally started to become available for road construction in the mid-1950s, the Ministry of Transport announced a ten-year investment programme in the road network. It was still only minor progress when compared to the boom in motorway construction that took place the following decade, but it was still the largest improvement that Britain's roads had seen in years. Among the small bypasses and widening schemes was the Preston Bypass, which Lancashire County Council had prepared under the direction of James Drake, and which could therefore be started without any fuss.

Lancashire's readiness to start work meant that in 1955 the Minister made two Special Road Schemes, the first two ever placed under the six-year-old Special Roads Act. One was for the Lancaster Bypass, which was delayed by a couple of years. The other was the Bamber Bridge to Broughton Special Road Scheme 1955 - the Preston Bypass.

On 12 June 1956, the bulldozers arrived at a new work compound beside the A59 at Samlesbury and the Right Honourable Hugh Molson, MP, from the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, performed the inauguration ceremony. Molson pressed a button that turned some temporary traffic lights green, signalling a bulldozer to clear away a section of hedge. Fred Hackett, the driver, had to be woken up for this part after nodding off during the lengthy speeches.

Work was finally under way on a road that was highly experimental - not just in its appearance and layout, but also in its methods of construction.

Earthmovers stuck in the mud: business as usual on the Preston Bypass works. Click to enlarge
Earthmovers stuck in the mud: business as usual on the Preston Bypass works. Click to enlarge

Two years were considered adequate for the construction period, this being the length of time it usually takes to build a new road even today. Unfortunately the whole period was one of the wettest in living memory, and just a few months in to the project, the earthworks were abandoned for the winter of 1956-7 because the torrential rain made the ground unworkable. The rains continued through the summer of 1957 and into 1958, by which point the contractor, Tarmac, had given up trying to re-use excavated material for embankments and was instead sending it to tip and importing dry earth from elsewhere.

Those working on the scheme had plenty to scratch their heads about even when it was dry enough to work. The new motorway was designed to incorporate all manner of trials in new surfacing techniques, bridge designs and road layouts. Today few people would raise their eyebrows at the idea of a steel box girder bridge with curved soffits, and not just because most would have no idea what it meant. But this design, chosen for the crossing of the Ribble at Samlesbury (shown under construction, left; click to enlarge), was quite daring for its day. This was still a time when iron plates and rivets were a realistic option for the construction of major bridges. The basic technique, of steel beams supporting a concrete deck, is still used today and many more recent bridges have Lancashire County Council's design work in their ancestry.

Samlesbury Bridge under construction in 1957. Click to enlarge
Samlesbury Bridge under construction in 1957. Click to enlarge

James Drake, as County Surveyor, took a keen interest in the project and exploited the Ministry for everything he could get. The Minister held the purse strings for the project, so between them they came to compromises, trading off Drake's ambition against the Ministry's lack of funding. One key example was that the bypass didn't get three traffic lanes in each direction, to save money, but it was designed for future widening work, with a broad central reservation that would later allow another two lanes to be added.

Lighting at Samlesbury Interchange, never to be used
Lighting at Samlesbury Interchange, never to be used

As the works neared completion, Drake again pushed the Ministry's normal practice aside and, instead of ordering a consignment of battleship-grey paint for the steelwork on his bridges, he had each one painted a different bright colour. He reasoned that it would make the driving experience more varied, thus keeping motorists alert, and also that it improved the appearance of the new road. The largest bridge on the project, over the Ribble at Samlesbury, was painted duck-egg blue at the request of his wife.

The question of street lighting was a tricky one - and with no previous experience of motorway usage it was difficult to tell whether it would be required or not. The Ministry of Transport settled on the idea of lighting the junctions only, and had lighting columns erected at all three interchanges (shown at Samlesbury, right).

However, on a site visit very shortly before the road's opening, Harold Watkinson decided the thick forest of steel columns made the Ribble Valley look incredibly ugly and ordered that they all be removed. The brand new lights were all taken down, though not before they had been photographed and published in the brochure that accompanied the opening ceremony.

Construction was finally completed five months late, but many more lessons were yet to be learned when the road was open to traffic.

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Harry Yeadon

A civil engineer, working principally in the North West of England, responsible for many of the area's motorways.

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