North Circular Road

Diagram of Ringway 2 North Circular Road within the overall plan

The North Circular is rather different to the rest of the Ringways proposals because, like the East Cross Route, it already existed by the time the Greater London Council were planning motorways. A ring road around the north and west of London, six to eight miles from the centre, had been established in the 1920s. It just needed improving.

Today the A406 and the North Circular are synonymous, and the route runs from Chiswick in the west to Silvertown in the east. In the 1920s, though, the North Circular Road ran from Ealing to Gants Hill, part A406 and part A1400; in the 1950s, it was extended via the existing A117, mostly on suburban streets, to reach the Thames in East London; in the 1980s, a new section was built through Ilford and Barking. To be clear, this article specifically discusses the parts of the original 1920s road that would be upgraded and incorporated into Ringway 2, which means the road between the Chiswick Roundabout (M4 junction 1) and Woodford Interchange (the terminus of the M11).

By the 1960s, when officials at County Hall were drawing new motorways all over their wall plan of London, this route was already markedly better than most other roads in the city, and was easily the most significant orbital route. In its forty-year history it had undergone an almost continuous programme of widening, junction remodelling and dualling schemes. It was leagues ahead of its partner the South Circular, even in its inconsistent and congested state. What's more, in 1961 the Ministry of Transport developed a comprehensive scheme to upgrade the whole route, creating a continuous dual carriageway with motorway-style junctions, and planned to achieve that through a rolling programme of roadworks by the end of the 1970s.

A 1965 GLC planning map shows - barely legibly - the North Circular to be improved on its existing line, with diamond symbols at each junction. Click to enlarge

A 1965 GLC planning map shows - barely legibly - the North Circular to be improved on its existing line, with diamond symbols at each junction. Click to enlarge

In an era of incredible urban motorway plans, it's interesting that this part of Ringway 2 wouldn't be a motorway. In 1970, as part of its evidence to the Greater London Development Plan inquiry, the GLC mentioned the possibility that it would be upgraded to "motorway standard", but the Ministry of Transport's policy for the road in 1969 was simply for a dual carriageway with three lanes each way.

That was a step beyond anything that might have been drawn up in the innocent days of 1961, but it would still be a far cry from the dual four-lane motorway forming the south side of Ringway 2. Then again, the simple fact that the northern half of Ringway 2 would be upgraded from existing roads by one organisation while the southern half would be a motorway built from scratch by another could only ever have produced a ring road with an identity crisis.

end-cont-n.svg Continues from Ringway 2 Western Section
jct-1.svg M4 and A4 (Chiswick Roundabout)
jct-2.svg A4020 Uxbridge Road 
jct-1.svg A40 (Hanger Lane Interchange)
jct-2.svg A404 Harrow Road (Stonebridge Park Interchange)
jct-2.svg A4088 Neasden Lane
jct-1.svg M1 and A5 (Staples Corner)
jct-2.svg A41 Hendon Way (Hendon Interchange)
jct-2.svg A1 and A598 (Henlys Corner)
jct-2.svg A1000 Finchley High Road
jct-2.svg B550 Colney Hatch Lane
jct-1.svg Possible North London Radial
jct-2.svg A1110 Bowes Road
jct-2.svg A105 Green Lanes
jct-1.svg A10 Great Cambridge Road (Great Cambridge Interchange)
jct-2.svg A1010 Fore Street
jct-2.svg North-south route through Lea Valley
jct-2.svg A112 Chingford Road
jct-2.svg A104 and A503 Woodford New Road (Waterworks Corner)
jct-1.svg M11 and M12 (Woodford Interchange)
end-cont-s.svg Continues to Ringway 2 Eastern Section

Property acquisition (1970) £18,500,000
Construction (1970) £71,275,000
Total cost at 1970 prices £89,775,000
Estimated equivalent at 2014 prices
Based on RPI and property price inflation
£788,444,695

Costs based on a dual three-lane formation. No costs were calculated for rehousing or environmental works.

See the full costs of all Ringways schemes on the Cost Estimates page.

Route map

Scroll this map horizontally to see the whole route

Map showing the route of Ringway 2 North Circular Road

Route description

This description begins at the western end of the road and travels east.

Chiswick to Finchley

The North Circular Road would begin at M4 junction 1, the Chiswick Roundabout, continuing directly on from the Ringway 2 Western Section lying to the south. The junction here would have been vastly upgraded to provide free-flowing connections. Multiple layouts were proposed at various stages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but no one design is known to have been selected.The road would travel north through Ealing Common, with just one interchange at the A4020 Uxbridge Road before arriving at Hanger Lane, the junction with the A40. Another complex interchange would connect the two roads. No layout for this junction has come to light, but the present signalised gyratory dating from the early 1990s is unlikely to closely resemble a plan from the late 1960s. What is certain is that the A40 runs beneath the junction in a long artificial tunnel, opened in about 1961, which left considerable scope for a more elaborate junction to be built above it later on.

Hanger Lane Gyratory in 1993 - a big junction that makes the most of the A40 tunnel, but probably not the one originally planned. Click to enlarge

Hanger Lane Gyratory in 1993 - a big junction that makes the most of the A40 tunnel, but probably not the one originally planned. Click to enlarge

From here to the M1, a distance of 7 km (4 miles), just two intermediate interchanges were planned - one at the A404 Harrow Road and another at the A4088 Neasden Lane. The present-day North Circular has five in that space, plus a large number of minor side turnings, bus stops and private driveways, so a significant and destructive upgrade scheme would have been necessary. Part of this length has been significantly upgraded, with dual three-lane carriageways and major grade separated junctions between Hanger Lane and the A404, but this work was carried out in the 1990s and is not part of the Ringway plans.

The A404 interchange would serve the Harrow Road Diversion, a short expressway to bypass Harlesden town centre that would link directly to (and flow straight into) Ringway 1's West Cross Route. It would mainly serve local traffic heading for Ringway 1 and Central London from Wembley and Harrow and would have been part of the GLC's Secondary Road Network.

Staples Corner, the interchange with the M1 and A5, was built almost exactly to the Ringways-era plan, and the three-level interchange with the A41 predates the Ringways, so this short section is a brief glimpse of the type and scale of improvement envisaged in the sixties.

The A406 passes below the A41 at Brent Cross. The junction pre-dates the Ringways but would almost certainly have been retained. Click to enlarge

The A406 passes below the A41 at Brent Cross. The junction pre-dates the Ringways but would almost certainly have been retained. Click to enlarge

Maps of the Primary Road Network from the 1960s suggest that local junctions would be stopped up and removed between Hendon and the A1000 at Finchley, and as there are numerous apartment blocks and other properties directly fronting on to the North Circular on this stretch, extensive demolition work would seem to have been inevitable. A major interchange with the A1 and A598 at Henlys Corner was planned, with the North Circular passing non-stop through the junction complex.

Finchley to Woodford

The present-day junction with the A1000 Finchley High Road is a very close match for the one planned in the late 1960s, and from there the road would be upgraded roughly on its present line. If the Possible North London Radial (PNLR) were built, an interchange would be formed adjacent to the tunnel below the East Coast Main Line railway. Local junctions would be provided at the B550 Colney Hatch Lane, the A1110 Bowes Road and the A105 Green Lanes, where demolition of suburban houses would have been needed to clear a smoother alignment for the road.

The North Circular at Green Lanes, Palmer's Green, 1970. Upgrading this to something like an eight-lane motorway would be a huge problem. Click to enlarge

The North Circular at Green Lanes, Palmer's Green, 1970. Upgrading this to something like an eight-lane motorway would be a huge problem. Click to enlarge

At the A10 Great Cambridge Road, the North Circular would have passed over the top of the roundabout on a flyover, with the junction forming the southern terminus of the A10 as a major London radial. Traffic travelling in towards Central London would have used Ringway 2 to hop across to the M1, M11 or PNLR to avoid a slow journey through the suburbs.

Today's North Circular passes through a long tunnel at the A1010 Fore Street, but in the 1960s a length of elevated road was planned. The road would have been hugely more disruptive and intrusive than the one eventually built in the 1990s. Beyond there, the Lea Valley Viaduct would have been substantially rebuilt to carry a wider road, similar to the improved viaduct built there in the 1980s. Several local junctions would be replaced with a single interchange near the crossing of the Lea, where Ringway 2 would meet a planned new north-south Secondary Road following the river. A further junction would be provided at the A112 Chingford Road.

The next junction, Waterworks Corner, was designed and built in the late 1960s, but its present form was supposed to be only a first phase of development. An overpass would have carried the A104 across the top of the roundabout, and a flyover would have allowed the A503 to flow directly into the North Circular to the east. The retaining walls on either side of the North Circular east of this junction follow wandering courses because they are designed to accommodate the sliproads curving to and from the A503.

The "canyon" at South Woodford, one of the few parts of the North Circular built in the Ringway era. Click to enlarge

The "canyon" at South Woodford, one of the few parts of the North Circular built in the Ringway era. Click to enlarge

That massive junction would have contributed two extra lanes to the road and, as now, five lanes then thunder through South Woodford in a walled cutting known locally as the "canyon". Woodford Interchange would provide access to local roads, the M11, M12 and Ringway 2's Eastern Section.

Humble origins

When the rest of Ringway 2 was unveiled in July 1969, the North Circular was already a work in progress. Plans to improve the road had existed for years.

The 1950s North Circular was one of the most intensively-used and congested trunk roads in the UK, so in June 1961 the Ministry of Transport commissioned a report setting out proposals for "comprehensive improvement" of the road between Chiswick and Woodford. Major works, it said, should take place before 1968 (an incredibly ambitious goal for brand-new road schemes in an urban area), with a second stage after that. The whole road would be overhauled, with junctions taking priority in order to remove bottlenecks and the sections between major junctions being widened or upgraded in the later stages. In some cases an interim improvement was to be made, where the design would allow for a larger grade-separated junction a few years down the line.

The result of the 1961 plan would be a fully widened, dualled and grade-separated North Circular by about 1980. Virtually all of the work was to take place on the existing line of the road. It seems that the Ministry of Transport accepted the proposals, but not the rapid timescale, and set about making improvements as time and finances allowed.

Some interchange plans from the 1961 report. Most are quite different to later plans and some are difficult to interpret. Click to enlarge

Some interchange plans from the 1961 report. Most are quite different to later plans and some are difficult to interpret. Click to enlarge

Outline plans exist indicating the junction improvements planned at every interchange point on the road; in some cases indicating both the 'stage 1' and 'stage 2' layouts. A fairly accurate picture emerges of what was planned for the whole road, but this was not a blueprint for turning the North Circular into part of Ringway 2. Just four years later, in 1965, a GLC planning map marks the North Circular with far fewer interchange points. The picture was changing fast.

It's not actually clear whether designs for this part of Ringway 2 ever settled down at all before the Ringways were cancelled. It wasn't really a Ringway at all - it was an existing trunk road that the Ministry was progressively improving to cope with traffic levels, and which the GLC had decided to borrow for one of its ring roads. For that reason alone, the North Circular would probably always have been the lowest standard part of Ringway 2.

Unsteady progress

By 1971, more junctions were appearing on the future North Circular again. Detailed design work was carried out for a flyover at the A502 Golders Green Road, complete with four sliproads connecting it to the North Circular - a new junction that had been absent from both the 1965 plan and the earlier, more junction-heavy 1961 report.

The Layfield Report dismissed many of the GLC's motorway plans but, the North Circular being a road that already existed, recommended that it should be retained and improved. Even so, little progress was made during the 1970s and early 80s.

Today, it may not be a six or eight lane motorway, but the North Circular comes close sometimes. The reason for that is, surprisingly, not because of the Ringways, but actually thanks to a series of major improvement schemes made in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The North Circular passes under East End Road, Finchley. Despite appearances most sections that look like this date from the early 1990s. Click to enlarge

The North Circular passes under East End Road, Finchley. Despite appearances most sections that look like this date from the early 1990s. Click to enlarge

Some of these improvements have the uncanny look of resurrected motorway schemes with big underpasses and tunnels linked by wide, sweeping alignments. Many, though, are actually off the original line of the North Circular - at Stonebridge Park, near Wembley, where the whole road was realigned; at Fore Street, where a deep tunnel was built; and in the Lea Valley where a long section was fully realigned and the 1920s viaduct replaced wholesale. They are an engineering response to traffic congestion in London and a political response from a 1980s Conservative Government to a hard-left GLC led by Ken Livingstone that did little for the motorist.

Ironically, the last push to complete the urban motorway vision for the North Circular was when Ken Livingstone was Mayor in the early 2000s. Pressure from local residents meant that TfL briefly pursued the A406 Bounds Green improvement scheme as a £266m tunnel, with the aim of completing free-flowing road. The Mayor's office couldn't secure funding and cancelled it in place of a £20m package of minor improvements. The land reserved for the incomplete 1980s and 90s improvements there, and through Ealing, has now been built over.

Picture credits

Sources

  • North Circular initially running to Gants Hill, then rerouted down A117: "A117", Roader's Digest: The SABRE Wiki.
  • A406 Woodford-Barking opened 1989: recorded in The Gazetteissue 51901, page 11757, 13 October 1989.
  • 1961 MOT scheme for comprehensive improvement, conclusion by 1980: MT 106/151.
  • GLC describe upgrade to "motorway standard": HLG 159/1024.
  • MOT policy for dual carriageway with three lanes each way; A1000 Finchley High Road interchange layout matching current: GLC/DG/PTI/P/05/057.
  • Location and spacing of interchanges; 1965 GLC planning map: GLC/TD/C/P/02.
  • Ringway-era plan for M1/A5 interchange, matching as-built: MT 106/437.
  • A10 Great Cambridge Road and Fore Street layout: MT 106/393.
  • Waterworks Corner layout: MT 106/403.
  • Flyover at A502 Golders Green Road: GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07-313.
  • GLDP, as published, recommends retaining and improving North Circular: Greater London Development Plan (1976), Greater London Council.
  • Government policy to upgrade whole of North Circular during 1980s and 90s: HC Deb (14 December 1989) vol. 163, col. 1172. Available at: http://bit.ly/2PCETpv (Accessed: 05/11/18).
  • Bounds Green tunnelled improvement proposal, subsequently dropped: Crown, H. (2009) "A406 timeline: a half century of broken promises"Enfield Independent, London, 8 October.
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