London's missing northern motorways

Published: 13 March 2020

For years, we've been documenting a colossal network of unbuilt urban motorways planned for London in the 1960s. Today the next set of pages are published, exploring the Northern Radials.

The whole network is referred to as "the Ringways", a reference to the three concentric ring roads at its heart, called Ringway 1, Ringway 2 and Ringway 3. All the rings are now online, and today's new pages are the first of three groups that will explore the radial routes - the motorways that would strike out from the heart of London in all directions.

The Northern Radials cover everything from the M1 in the north west of the city to the A13 in the east. In here, you'll find roads that are familiar, but whose history probably isn't; you'll also find what was planned for roads that are unfinished today, and whole new motorways that never got off the drawing board. It's a real mix.

This research project has been ongoing for well over 15 years now, and since 2017 the old pages describing these unbuilt roads have been offline while I research them in more detail, rewrite them and return them to the site packed with new information. This is the largest group of pages I'll be publishing in one hit - there are eight pages here, covering seven individual routes, all of them stuffed with new information. Collectively they run to 13,500 words, plus illustrations, archive photographs, engineering plans and maps. You might want to cancel your weekend plans.

The M1 Hendon Urban Motorway nearing completion in 1967. Click to enlarge

The M1 Hendon Urban Motorway nearing completion in 1967. Click to enlarge

What's new?

Lots of new information has come to light since our original Northern Radials pages were published in 2008. There are, for a start, two whole new roads here that we've never covered before - the A1 and A10. On the others, you'll find that we've unearthed previously-unknown alignments for the A13, unpicked the mysteries of a road so obscure it never even had an official name, and - finally, after literally 15 years of searching - found the planned layout of the monstrous junction complex at Hackney Wick, something we could only previously guess at.

It's fair to say that some of the material in these pages has been the subject of excitement and speculation among road enthusiasts for more than a decade, and I'm thrilled to be able to publish the facts in detail.

And, of course, you'll find all the other things that are common to our updated Ringways pages:

  • New information, new illustrations, and entirely new text.
  • Detailed maps of each road, showing junction layouts where they're known, overlaid on modern Ordnance Survey mapping.
  • Costings and rough equivalent amounts at 2014 prices.
  • Full lists of references and picture sources.

Always in the last place you look

It's funny what you find when you stop looking. Back in summer 2019, the new pages on Ringway 3 were published, with a question mark on the page for the Ringway 3 Southern Section. A scandal in Sutton had been caused in 1970 when a local newspaper published what it claimed were plans of the motorway. They couldn't have, because no route had been chosen at that time, but what exactly they came up with was a mystery because the newspaper didn't exist in Sutton's local newspaper archives. (Believe me, I've been looking for it for years.)

Months later, digging out information about another road entirely at an archive far from Sutton, I stumbled on a misfiled memo about the exact same event - the rogue newspaper article that caused a storm in Sutton. This time it was followed by a photocopy of the cutting itself, and a report compiled by some poor civil servant who had to work out how they'd come up with their false "motorway route".

A dotted line across Sutton that caused a lot of trouble. Click to enlarge

A dotted line across Sutton that caused a lot of trouble. Click to enlarge

So, happily, today - along with all the Northern Radials - I've published an update to the Ringway 3 Southern Section page, showing that notorious newspaper front page and explaining what exactly happened.

This is the sort of research project that might never be finished, so you can rest assured that when new information comes to light, it'll find its way online here.

What's next?

We're going to continue our journey around the radial routes. The next group, online this summer if everything goes to plan, will be the Western Radials - meaning the M3, M4, A40 and a strange little motorway called the A41(M). They'll be followed by the Southern Radials, which will hopefully be published before the end of 2020.

The end date for finishing the project has just taken a step back, too. A whole extra group of pages are now pencilled in for 2021. We've now got plans to cover the GLC Secondary Road Network in some more detail, and look at four or five of the bigger projects that were planned to complement London's urban motorway network.

That's all a long way away. Right now, please enjoy the Northern Radials - seven strange tales that each show, in their own peculiar ways, just how difficult it is to build a road into a city.

Comments

Bob 14 March 2020

Thanks for your work on the new update with the Northern Radials, looking forward to the future updates on the London Ringways.

Quite stunned a double-deck Y-shaped flyover was actually considered at Gants Hill, yet morbidly fascinated by the notion. What was the earliest year/decade where the A12 could have been realistically improved even at Gants Hill without necessitating a double-deck Y-shaped flyover? Would the station have to have been butterfly away completely or rethought out to avoid being a casualty for the A12 to have improved?

Somewhat related to the above and plausibility aside. It is a shame there was apparently no consideration to ease congestion from Gants Hill to Barking via Ilford (as is currently the case along Cranbrook Road and Ilford Lane for many decades) by way of some sort of relief road from Cranbrook Road onto an expanded Northbrook Road and Mill Road towards the A124 London Road / Northern Relief Road either over/parallel to the River Roding via a flyover (akin to what was considered for the Eastern Avenue Extension over Regent’s Canal) or another route linking an expanded Mill Road to Riverdene Road and Uphall Road (with Riverdene Road also called Uphall Road via 1938 NLS maps) before somehow connecting to Hart Lane / North Street onto the A124 Northern Relief Road via an flyover/underpass.

Russell Blandamer 31 March 2020

Those unusual lamp columns on the Hendon section of the M1 are interesting to see. They're long gone now but I remember them vividly from childhood trips into London. When I think of the Chris Rea lyric "I'm underneath the streetlights / But the light of joy I know / Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows", in my mind I see those lamps. Not because it's a particularly sinsister stretch of road: I think that song was just on the radio all the time.

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