The motorway to Stansted Airport, Cambridge and East Anglia is there to be driven today. But its route kept shifting course, and its brutal extension to Central London never saw the light of day.
The M11 is London's second main road north after the M1. A description of a motorway travelling north-east from the metropolis towards rural East Anglia would fail to convey just how busy and important the road is today.
Aside from bustling Cambridge and, via the A11, Norwich, the M11 is also a gateway to the northern reaches of the A1, bypassing the Great North Road's slower and more easily distracted parts in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. It's the road to London's third airport, Stansted, and the main access for Harlow, a New Town on the western border of Essex.
This would always have been the main road in to London from the north east, but despite its importance, the plan for the M11 was uncertain for a long time. Until the mid-1960s it would have followed another course entirely, far to the west of the present motorway. Its move to the Roding Valley re-cast the road network of north and east London.
The M11's move east had another effect too: it would share a route in to London with the M12 and A12 and, combined, the artery that was required would outstrip all of London's other radial routes in its remarkable scale and its destruction.
Today the M11 begins on the North Circular Road at junction 4, a dead giveaway that its journey in to town remains unfinished. But while the devastation planned for Snaresbrook, Leytonstone and Temple Mills couldn't be justified, and the motorway was never built, the demand for travel in to London from the M11's terminus also couldn't be ignored.
Its extension to Hackney Wick as the "M11 Link Road" - a motorway in all but name - opened in 1999, a deeply controversial foray into modern urban roadbuilding that is still, if you can believe such a thing, small fry compared to the road that was once planned along its line.
Scroll this map to see the whole route
Scroll this map vertically to see the whole route
This description begins at the south-western end of the route and travels north.
Hackney to Woodford
The M11 would begin at Hackney Wick Interchange, a major free-flowing junction where it would connect to the Ringway 1 North Cross Route, East Cross Route and the Eastern Avenue Extension. Parts of the interchange were built in the East Cross Route construction works, but it was never finished.
The four lanes of the North Cross Route would split, with a two-lane exit to the East Cross Route, and ahead, three lanes rising up to a higher level forming the M11. Twin viaducts would carry the two halves of the road up and over the railway, and then run as an upper deck above the sliproads from the Eastern Avenue Extension and the East Cross Route. The two would be slightly offset, with the top deck straddling the westbound half of the lower deck.
After crossing the canal, the M11 would pass through a complex braided junction where traffic could swap between the motorway and Eastern Avenue. It would then branch off to the south, crossing the railway sidings at Temple Mills on another long viaduct. Eastern Avenue would run to the north, interchanging with the A106 Ruckholt Road, and then rejoin the M11 as a secondary road for local traffic. A pair of sliproads would link the Ruckholt Road interchange with the M11 to and from the east.
The two roads would run parallel along the northern side of the Central Line, as the modern A12 does today, but the dual three-lane motorway and dual three-lane A-road would occupy a swathe of land more than twice as wide as the present highway.
At Green Man, a major junction north-east of Leytonstone, the parallel Eastern Avenue would stop at the roundabout, resuming afterwards on the present line of the A12 towards Redbridge. Free-flowing sliproads would fly over the junction to link Redbridge with the M11 towards London.
The M11 would then turn north to follow the A1199 Hollybush Hill through Wanstead Flats, turning east to force a new line through established suburban Snaresbrook. The motorway would pass through what is now Wanstead Hospital and then between Rodney Road and Ashbourne Avenue, claiming all the houses lying between them.
The Ministry kept on file a letter from Nightingale Junior School, just off Ashbourne Avenue, whose headteacher wanted to know if the motorway would affect it. A civil servant wrote back to say yes, as a matter of fact, it would. The accompanying plan showed the M11 passing through their buildings, requiring the demolition of the entire school.
Emerging into the Roding Valley, the M11 would turn northwards to reach Woodford Interchange, the junction with Ringway 2 and the M12, and the point at which the modern-day M11 begins. There would be no access between Ringway 2 and the M11 towards London.
Woodford to Harlow
Woodford Interchange, as it exists today, is only about half the planned junction. The M11 would pass through the middle, in what is now Roding Valley Park, with the present-day motorway forming sliproads around the outside. The mainline of the motorway would turn east, becoming the M12, and traffic wishing to remain on the M11 would branch off.
From this point the motorway exists as planned and can be driven today. Turning through a series of curves to follow the Roding Valley out of London, the motorway straightens up as it passes below the Central Line at Chigwell. Land was acquired for an unbuilt rest stop, Chigwell Services. Shortly afterwards a south-facing junction connects to the A1168 Chigwell Lane at Debden.
The M11 would meet the M16 Ringway 3 Northern Section to the south-east of Epping, at what is now M25 junction 27. The junction planned in the late 1960s would have taken a different form, with no way to turn between the south and east - those sliproads being unnecessary had the M12 been built.
The route climbs to the top of a high ridge of land at North Weald Bassett, and in this area an interchange with the Ringway 4 North Orbital Road would be formed. Descending again, a junction at Hastingwood connects to the A414 towards Harlow. The motorway then continues north towards Stansted Airport and Cambridge.
Most of the Ringways-era road plans were descended from Sir Patrick Abercrombie's vision for London, and the M11 is no exception, a direct descendent of Abercrombie's Radial Route 6. His plan was for a new road up the Lea Valley. By the early 1960s, that had become a motorway starting near Hackney, travelling up the Lea, skirting the west and north of Harlow, and running on to Cambridge.
That settled plan was disrupted by a wide-ranging investigation launched in 1963. A route study for a proposed new road was nothing unusual, but this one aimed to use the M11 as a test bed for new ideas. It would examine new methods of calculating the economic returns of the project, evaluate whether tolls could be made to work on rural motorways, and ask - unusually - whether the route sketched in by Abercrombie was actually the best alignment for a modern road.
In 1964, the study reported its interim results, which were so clear-cut that the rest of the work was effectively abandoned. It found that the Lea Valley route was far from ideal, and recommended a superior alternative in the Roding Valley just to the east. The M11 would enter London by passing east of Harlow and Epping and arrive at Woodford, where it would meet Radial Route 7 and borrow that corridor to reach Hackney.
The Ministry agreed, and on 4 November 1964 announced that the M11 would move to the Roding Valley.
In Harlow, there was discontent: much of the New Town had already been laid out and a great deal of it built, complete with all its industrial areas on the north and west sides where they would be near the future M11. Moving the motorway to the opposite side of the town made a nonsense of the whole design. One of the town's planners described it as being "like building a seaside town and then moving the sea".
The protected line of Radial Route 6 was handed to the GLC, in the hope that they might be able to use it for a Secondary Road. But they soon found it was no use to them either. By 1970, Radial Route 6 was dead.
An environmental disaster
The switch to the Roding Valley meant that the M11 would piggyback on another road proposal to make its journey to Hackney and then Central London: Radial Route 7, another of Abercrombie's plans. This one was intended to relieve the A106 between Hackney and Woodford, and would then curve around the north of Romford to provide relief to the A12 Eastern Avenue.
From 1964, Radial Route 7 was split in two. The inner section, Hackney to Woodford, became part of the M11. The remainder, bypassing Eastern Avenue, formed the new M12.
The Roding Valley might have provided an opportune way for the M11 to reach London, and a smoother route than the Lea Valley, but choosing it committed the Ministry to drastically expand the capacity of Radial Route 7. They had turned an already difficult urban road project into a monster.
From Hackney to Leytonstone, the road would follow the Central Line railway, a dual carriageway secondary road parallel to a full three-lane motorway. The scale of the infrastructure was such that it was to be built in two phases - the first pushing the M11 through, the second creating an even wider motorway alongside and leaving the first phase to carry local traffic.
A swathe of land 60 metres (200 ft) wide would ultimately have to be cleared through densely-packed terraced houses on the north side of the tracks. From Leytonstone to Woodford, an entirely new corridor would be created by cutting through streets of modern houses. The destruction would be enormous.
At Woodford, the M11 would meet the M12 and also interchange with Ringway 2. A sprawling five-way free-flowing interchange was proposed. By its very nature the junction would occupy the whole of the Roding Valley at this point.
Flyovers would stack up three levels high. Roads would run on stilts for anything up to a mile at a time. Four carriageways would run parallel with additional sliproads swooping between them. When the members of the Layfield Panel were shown the interchange plans, as part of their examination of the proposed motorway network and the wider Greater London Development Plan, they described the junction as an "environmental disaster".
Even so, half of the junction was built, full of vacant spaces for the missing roads to slot in. It's still there today, sterilising a huge swathe of land in Woodford - a planning disaster, if not a fully realised environmental one.
Stacking the deck
The routing of the M11 to follow the existing contour of the Central Line between Hackney and Leytonstone wouldn't do much to lessen its impact. Constructed in two stages, an initial motorway built in the late 1970s would be accompanied by a parallel secondary road in the late 80s or early 90s, creating a four-carriageway, twelve-lane superhighway. Several methods were considered to make it less of a problem.
Between Hackney Wick Interchange and Ruckholt Road, the two roads would run at different levels, in a sort of awkward offset double-deck structure. The lower level road, Eastern Avenue, would have a wide central reservation accommodating the support columns for the eastbound viaduct of the upper deck. The westbound viaduct would then run above the south side of Eastern Avenue.
At Hackney Marshes, the difference in level would be reduced a little and the carriageways would be interleaved, splitting and reforming to allow traffic from one to reach the other, though Eastern Avenue would remain at ground level heading east to Ruckholt Road, while the motorway would remain at higher level to soar over the railway sidings at Temple Mills. Not just enormously wide and noisy with the rush of up to sixteen parallel traffic lanes, this section of the motorway would also be stacked two levels high above the canal and railway lines.
East of the railway sidings, where the two routes came back together to follow the Central Line, further double-deck running was considered. Three possible designs were devised for the route between Leyton and the Green Man Roundabout. One is shown in the map on this page and described above, and simply runs the two roads side-by side, though Eastern Avenue would be closer to ground level. It would meet other roads at signalised junctions, which would then pass over the top of the M11.
The other two schemes would see the M11 pushed further below ground level and roofed over, effectively making a long cut-and-cover road tunnel with Eastern Avenue on its roof. These ideas demanded slightly less demolition of property on the north side of the railway, but would have been significantly more expensive and disruptive to build, and would have had much higher ongoing maintenance and operating costs.
The North East London Study - the project that came up with designs for the M11 between Hackney and rural Essex - was wound up when the Ringways fell from favour, and at that time it was on the brink of selecting a final route but hadn't yet done so. As a result we cannot be completely certain what route would have been chosen, but the route and cross-sections detailed above were clearly preferred at the time that work was halted.
In all but name
The sheer scale of the plans for the M11 between Hackney and Woodford must have given pause for thought, because doubts already circulated in the Ministry's corridors. In 1971, formal meetings were held to discuss how the scheme could be scaled back if the GLC's plans for Ringway 1 fell apart - perhaps because it was foreseen that they might.
Following the publication of the Layfield Report, the Greater London Development Plan was finally published in 1976. In line with its recommendations, the Department of the Environment, successor to the MOT, cancelled plans for the M11 between Hackney and Woodford. The scheme for a motorway through Leytonstone was dead.
In September 1976, the DoE was dissolved and the Department of Transport (DTp) was formed, and in its first year performed a quiet u-turn. It resurrected the idea of a major road between Hackney and Woodford, now to be built as an A-road dual carriageway. The project had the title "M11 Link Road", just to make sure there was no doubt about which project was being brought back from the dead. Detailed plans were produced in 1977.
The scaled-back proposal would see a dual two-lane road built alongside the Central Line, linking the A106 Eastway near Temple Mills to the Green Man Roundabout. The existing A12 would then be upgraded from there to Redbridge Roundabout, completing the link to the M11.
The project bobbed up down the DTp's list of priorities over the years, and met with significant opposition, not least from the scores of people who would be displaced to build it, and whose security had only been restored in 1976 following a decade of planning blight.
As with the 1980s and 90s upgrades to the A406 North Circular, it was the abolition of the GLC that cleared the way for the M11 Link Road. Keen to show that London's roads were in better hands with central Government than they had been under the GLC, the new road was approved. Following years of protest, and a great deal of difficult engineering, the A12 between Hackney and Redbridge opened to traffic in 1999 - an extension to the M11 in disguise.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Plans of M11 at Temple Mills and Leyton are extracted from GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07.
- Aerial photograph of M11/M25 interchange is taken from an original by N Chadwick and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of modern A12 at Leyton is taken from an original by Stacey Harris and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- London-Norwich Radial in Essex County Development Plan is extracted from HLG 119/392.
- Photograph of Harlow Town Centre is taken from an original by Diamond Geezer and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of railway bridge on Grove Green Road is taken from an original by Marathon and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of architectural model of Hackney Wick interchange is used under licence from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (Collage record number 247286).
- Plan showing NELS route options is extracted from MT 106/459.
- Plan of M11 to Hackney Link Road is extracted from D/Z 346/3200/155.
- Photograph of A12 at Green Man is taken from an original by David Anstiss and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Route, R1-R2, including Eastern Ave: MT 106/459; GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07.
- Correspondence with Nightingale Junior School; R1-R2 to be built in two phases; North East London Study, route selection close in 1973 but not complete; 1971 discussion on scaling back M11: MT 106/459.
- RR6 Lea Valley route; GLC unable to find use for RR6 as Secondary Road: MT 106/282.
- 1963 study recommends move to Roding Valley; MOT adopt Roding Valley route: MT 106/283.
- Effect on Harlow; quote from planner: Grindrod, J., (2014). Concretopia. London: Old Street Publishing.
- RR7 R1-R2 became part of M11 project in 1964: MT 106/286.
- Layfield panel describe Woodford Interchange as "environmental disaster": HLG 159/626.
- M11 Link Road proposed 1976: MT 198/50; detailed plans 1977: D/Z 346/3200/144.
- A12 open to traffic in 1999: Highways Agency (1999). "Completing the link between the A12 and the M11".