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. But things have shifted around over the years. In the 1920s, 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; and in the 1980s, a new section was built through Ilford and Barking. To be clear, this article specifically discusses 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, leaving it 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.
In an era of incredible urban motorway plans, it's notable 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", nothing more, and 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.
Scroll this map horizontally to see the whole route
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.
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 extremely short east-facing sliproads from the A41 junction would have been extended through the railway arches to create longer acceleration and deceleration lanes.
At the A502 Golders Green Road, a flyover would carry the local road over the North Circular without any interchange. Shortly afterwards the road would reach Henly's Corner, the junction with the A1 and A598, which would be reconstructed to enable both the North Circular and A1 to pass through uninterrupted, with a complex of sliproads connecting them to each other and to the A598 Regent's Park Road.
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 and A109 Bounds Green Road, and then at Bounds Green Interchange a bypass would be constructed to carry the North Circular around the north of the existing built-up road, rejoining its existing path east of Green Lanes.
At the A10 Great Cambridge Road, a junction much like the present one would have been formed, but with a far larger roundabout. It would have been 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 bypassed completely with a new elevated road on a more direct line to the south, leading to a three-level free-flowing junction for the A1009 Hall Lane.
Diverting from the existing road again, another bypass would connect to the A112 Chingford Road. The North Circular would then pass through the site of South Chingford School and enter a long length of cut-and-cover tunnel under Highams Park.
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.
That massive junction would contribute 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.
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.
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.
Rather than attempt to proceed with one grand plan for the whole road - one for which the available funding was inadequate and which required, at best, an unrealistic timetable given how long road improvements take to reach construction - the Ministry instead chose to progress each junction as a separate project. Handing out each one to different firms of consulting engineers at various points during the 1960s, it's clear that the intention was to upgrade all of the road, but the plans were now being developed a piece at a time and would be delivered over many years.
Some were very ordinary designs, and some closely resemble the improvements that were later made to the North Circular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Others are notably more ambitious: the replacement of the Lea Valley Viaduct with a new elevated road on a completely different line is particularly striking, as is the decision to abandon the heavily built-up alignment of the North Circular at Bounds Green, replacing it with a lengthy offline bypass built through middle class houses and a park instead.
The cancellation of the Ringways in 1973 had only a limited impact on the North Circular. It was never really a Ringway at all - rather, 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. Without the rest of Ringway 2, it simply retained its status as a busy urban road with lots of improvement plans in the pipeline.
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 concrete progress was made during the 1970s and early 80s, though the GLC's archives show that designs were still being drawn up and revised for several locations throughout that period. Many of them came to nothing, but that wasn't the end of the story, as it would have been for many other roads in London.
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.
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.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- 1965 GLC planning map extracted from GLC/TD/C/P/02.
- Photograph of Hanger Lane Gyratory in 1993 taken from an original by Ben Brooksbank and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Archive photograph of North Circular Road at Green Lanes is used under licence from London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (Collage record number 248773).
- Diagrams of proposed 1961 junction improvements extracted from MT 106/152.
- Plan of Henly's Corner proposal is extracted from GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07.
- Photograph of North Circular at East End Road taken from an original by David Howard and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- 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 Gazette, issue 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.
- Other junction layouts and flyover at Golders Green Road: GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07.
- 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.