The first part, from the M11 at Woodford to the A13 at Beckton, was a new road down the Roding Valley, passing close to Ilford and Barking, and due to be built by the Ministry of Transport. They allocated it the number M15. That length of motorway was not especially controversial, and presented no engineering difficulty at all, other than a length of elevated viaduct where it crossed the Great Eastern Main Line railway at Ilford. While the M15 never saw the light of day, the road was never cancelled, and eventually opened in 1989 as a new section of the A406 North Circular Road.
The second part, a new route from Beckton down to the A2 at Falconwood, was the responsibility of the Greater London Council (GLC) and was fraught with difficulty at every turn. The Thames created the most formidable obstacle: the river is more than a third of a mile wide at that point and navigable by ocean-going ships. That meant a deep tunnel or a very high bridge. South of the river lay waterlogged marshland, on which the GLC was building a new suburb called Thamesmead, and beyond that established suburbia and ancient woodland.
The GLC's section came close to being built but was halted on administrative grounds - otherwise the river crossing at least may have opened as early as 1975. The need for it never went away, though, and the river crossing at Thamesmead was resurrected in the late 1970s as the East London River Crossing, then again in the early 2000s, and again as recently as 2012.
This section of Ringway 2 was inextricably linked to the new development at Thamesmead. In some ways, the failure of Thamesmead to become the success that the GLC predicted might be because the new suburb never got the river crossing that was supposed to be its lifeline.
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This description begins at the northern end of the route and travels south.
Woodford to Beckton
Continuing from the North Circular Road at Woodford Interchange, the motorway would turn south to follow the Roding Valley. This is exactly what the North Circular does today, passing through Woodford Interchange on a curving flyover. Free-flowing connections would be provided to the M11, as now, and the M12. Immediately to the south, Redbridge Roundabout would provide access to the A12 Eastern Avenue, and any traffic travelling between Ringway 2 and the M11 towards London would have had to use the roundabout and A12 to make the connection. That was seemingly a deliberate design choice, made to discourage commuters from the outer suburbs using the M11 to travel towards Central London.
The width of the motorway up to this point is slightly ambiguous, but the flyover at Redbridge would have carried three lanes in each direction, and south from there, documentation exists indicating that the motorway would then have four lanes each way. It would run on almost exactly the alignment of the A406 North Circular between Woodford and Beckton, as built in the 1980s, with junctions in the same locations. That meant a generally easy alignment alongside the River Roding, flat and with very little demolition.
The first local junction, at Ilford, would have been a three-level junction, with an elevated roundabout above the A118 and Ringway 2 passing across the top of that on a long viaduct. The motorway would drop a lane at this junction, with three lanes each way between the exit and entry sliproads. The second local junction at Barking would be a standard two-bridge roundabout interchange, much like the one eventually built.
The easy run down the Roding Valley ends at the A13, where the Ministry were going to design a suitable four-way interchange - though no drawings have ever turned up to indicate what they might have been planning. The closest thing that seems to have survived is a plan showing all the land required by every layout under consideration, which frustratingly has no detail of the layouts themselves.
Beckton to Falconwood
After crossing the A13, the motorway (now the GLC's responsibility) would travel fairly directly southwards to cross the Thames at a point called Gallions Reach. The exact line of the crossing would be between what is now Gemini Business Park on the north bank and a point just west of Margaret Ness on the south bank. On emerging from the tunnel it would be partly roofed over through parkland, running in a straight line to Thamesmead Interchange, a major multi-level junction on the site of the present roundabout between the A2041 Central Way and A2016 Western Way. The gap between the residential areas to the north and west of the roundabout matches exactly the footprint of the planned interchange.
Both a bridge and a tunnel were considered for the river crossing. A suspension or cable stayed bridge would have cost less than two thirds the price of a tunnel, but a tunnel was selected because it could be completed sooner, allowing the surrounding land on the south bank to be developed more quickly. The GLC considered the extra price worth paying if it meant Thamesmead could proceed unhindered. A toll was considered too, and a toll plaza designed just south of the A13, but this was ruled out late in the planning process
The tunnel itself would have been an immersed tube, with pre-fabricated tunnel sections manufactured in two huge docks on the south bank, towed into place and sunk to the river bed. It would carry eight lanes of traffic, divided into four two-lane carriageways. This would allow the tunnel to operate flexibly with a tidal flow arrangement to cater for peak hours, and variable message signs would allocate traffic to different tunnel bores on approach. The volume of traffic hopping on and off to cross the river was expected to be considerable.
From Thamesmead, the motorway would run along the west side of Church Manor Way, crossing it near Manton Road, and requiring the demolition of rows of houses between Church Manor Way and Camrose Street. It would bridge the A206 Plumstead High Street before joining the west side of the A209 Wickham Lane. The ground rises here, and Ringway 2 would rise less steeply, entering a cutting through the eastern edge of Great Bartlett's Wood. A change to the line of the motorway made in late 1968 moved it slightly east, passing through Rockcliffe Gardens in a short cut-and-cover tunnel rather than tearing up Woolwich Old Cemetery. It then turned south west, through the quiet residential streets of Camdale Road, Highmead and Edison Grove, with houses demolished to make space.
There would be a final local junction at the A207 Shooters Hill, with a roundabout above the motorway just to the west of Oxleas Close, and the motorway would then run through ancient woodland at Oxleas to reach the A2(M) at Falconwood Interchange. Southbound, a parallel carriageway with braided sliproads would link the two closely-spaced junctions.
At Falconwood, southbound traffic could join the A2(M) in either direction, or continue ahead to Ringway 2's Southern Section.
The motorway that wasn't
The first part of this route, from Woodford to Beckton, was a road proposal the Ministry were already contemplating. It became known as the Docks Approach Road. When the GLC began drawing up plans for Ringway 2, they appropriated the North Circular and the Docks Approach into their new ring road, and in doing so, saved themselves the trouble of building a large part of it from scratch.
This is why the Woodford-Beckton section of Ringway 2 was pursued by the Ministry, and why it had a very separate life of its own, complete with a motorway number, M15, that was never formally allocated to any other part of the circuit. It's also why this bit survived the demise of Ringway 2 and came to be built as an extension of the North Circular Road in the 1980s: it was, all things considered, a road that was in planning for half a century quite independently of the GLC's plans, that just happened to find itself briefly drafted in to the Ringways between 1969 and 1973.
It was ultimately built as the A406 - not the motorway that was once envisaged. That means the route number M15 never saw the light of day. But in a way the M15 did, briefly, exist.
In April 1977, a new section of the M11 opened, extending the motorway south from Harlow in Essex to reach Woodford - intended as a temporary southern terminus, but of course that is where it still terminates today. The motorway had connections westwards to the A406 North Circular Road, exactly as it does now, and southward to Redbridge Roundabout. Those southward connections were made up of the south-facing sliproads that still exist today, the north-facing sliproads from Redbridge Roundabout, and the linking section of road between them.
That short linking section was built as a dual three-lane motorway with hard shoulders in readiness for the day it would become part of the future M15. On the ground, of course, all the signs just said M11, because to the motorist the distinction wasn't important - and indeed, it was part of the M11 on the legal orders too.
The M15 never was extended further south, until the late 1980s, when the construction of the Docks Approach Road was carried out as a continuation of the A406. The erstwhile M15 lost motorway status and is now part of the A406. But if you travel on the section between the M11 and Redbridge Roundabout, you'll notice it has four lanes in each direction, and it's only wide enough for four lanes because it was opened as a motorway with three lanes and a hard shoulder: a little bit of M15.
A tunnel for Thamesmead
The ambitious GLC's social housing programme was almost as visionary as its highway schemes. It set its sights on a vast area of undeveloped riverside land in East London, planning what would effectively be a whole new town. Plumstead Marshes were drained and "Thamesmead" was born.
Ringway 2's tunnel at Gallions Reach was located specifically to serve this colossal housing project. In fact, Thamesmead's planners were very clear: the new suburb was utterly dependent on its river crossing. It needed a way to communicate with employment sites north of the river, and without one, it would be difficult to reach and difficult to escape. London’s least privileged citizens would be trapped without work or transport. Without its river crossing, the planners warned, Thamesmead would not be economically viable.
Work began on the first phase in 1967, and the tunnel was due to start as early as 1972, taking advantage of areas not yet developed to pre-cast the tunnel sections. Such was the perceived need for this section of motorway that the GLC even drafted plans for it to be built in two stages, with an initial four-lane tunnel to be provided more cheaply in advance of the rest of Ringway 2. But the start of work was delayed by the Greater London Development Plan inquiry, much to the GLC's irritation, and then cancelled completely in 1973 along with the other motorway plans.
The need for a connection to the north bank never went away, and Thamesmead continued to struggle when it should have been sharing in London's prosperity. So, since 1973, the river crossing has been repeatedly resurrected. In 1979, it returned as the East London River Crossing (ELRC), a trunk road scheme cheered on by the GLC that would extend the North Circular from Beckton to the A2 at Falconwood by a new high level bridge at Gallions Reach. It would absorb local traffic from the Dartford Tunnels and link Thamesmead with the wider world. It was definitively killed off in the late 1980s by residents of Plumstead and Falconwood who objected to its approach road, which would have cut through ancient woodland at Oxleas.
It was back again 15 years later under Ken Livingstone, the first new Mayor of London and former leader of the GLC. This version was called the Thames Gateway Bridge, a copy of the 1980s trunk road scheme, but with its controversial southern approach road deleted. It would carry dedicated space for a rapid transit network, initially operated by buses but with room for conversion to trams, called Thames Gateway Transit. This version was last seen vanishing into a City Hall shredder in the early days of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor.
In 2012, Transport for London consulted on an idea to relocate the Woolwich Ferry to Gallions Reach, using new boats and providing a more intensive service. It didn't find favour but it was, of course, yet another attempt to give Thamesmead a connection to the opposite bank of the river, this time at the absolute minimum cost.
Most recently, in 2014, TfL proposed a new bridge at Gallions Reach carrying two lanes of traffic and two public transport lanes, with another bridge further east at Belvedere. These proposals were supposed to open up huge new housing developments on the banks of the Thames - just like their ancestor, Ringway 2. They were the fourth generation of plans for a fixed crossing at Gallions Reach, and the fourth attempt in the last half-century to belatedly provide the infrastructure on which the whole Thamesmead development was predicated. The new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, initially supported the bridges, but all mention of them has since vanished from TfL publicity and it appears the proposals are dead once again.
Thamesmead's residents face long and difficult commutes no matter where they work. Even today, with the Elizabeth Line sent east to Abbey Wood to help lift its malaise, rapid transport to Central London won’t reach it, with trains terminating a bus ride away. And now the fourth generation of plans for a crossing at Gallions Reach appear to be dead.
Half a century after Ringway 2 was designated an integral part of the Thamesmead development, there’s still no way across the river.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Photograph of Thames at Gallions Reach taken from an original by Julian Osley and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Plan showing land use for A13 interchange is extracted from MT 106/279.
- Archive photographs of architects' models showing tunnel approach at Thamesmead, Brickfield Cottages, and of Thamesmead under construction, are used under licence from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (Collage record numbers 238114, 247802, 248032 and 327528).
- Photograph of A406 at Barking taken from an original by David Anstiss and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Artist's impression of Gallions Reach crossing is from Transport for London's 2015 consultation exercise: Have your say on new river crossings in east and south east London: TfL, 15 March 2016.
- Allocation of M15 number; engineering standard and junction locations, Woodford-A13: MT 106/454.
- A406 Woodford-Barking opened 1989: recorded in The Gazette, issue 51901, page 11757, 13 October 1989.
- Layout of Woodford Interchange: MT 106/459.
- Line of motorway A13-Falconwood; interchange layout at A207: GLC/TD/TP/13-004.
- Thamesmead Interchange layout; MOT to design Ringway 2/A13 interchange; bridge and tunnel options considered; tidal flow and variable message signs to cater for peak hour flow; volume of traffic crossing river; design option for toll plaza; design option for tunnel to be built in two stages: MT 106/453; GLC/DG/PTI/P/05/084.
- Woodford-A13 originally proposed 1937: MT 39/360.
- Name "Docks Approach Road": Buchanan, C. (1970). London road plans, 1900-1970. London: GLC.
- Legal orders for the M11 all the way to Redbridge Roundabout, including section intended to become M15: recorded in The Gazette, issue 47191, page 4661, 5 April 1977.
- Ringway 2 located to serve Thamesmead; new suburb dependent on river crossing: GLC/DG/PTI/P/05/084.
- Tunnel expected to commence work in 1972: HLG 159/1024.
- East London River Crossing scheme details: MT 152/387/1.
- Thames Gateway Bridge and Thames Gateway Transit: Wikipedia.