It’s the best known and most notorious of London’s motorways, for one stand-out reason. It actually got built.
The Westway’s history goes back to 1905, and the Royal Commission on London Traffic, who wanted an East-West Avenue from Bayswater to Whitechapel. Over the decades that concept evolved into a plan for an improved road across the top of Central London, extending west to Shepherd’s Bush and east to Hackney, connecting it to new radial roads that continued to the suburbs.
By the time the sixties rolled around, one of the missing pieces in that long-held scheme was a link from Marylebone Road to Western Avenue, so a plan was developed to push a new road through the dense West London terraces of North Kensington. It became an elevated motorway called Westway.
The irony is that this London urban motorway isn’t one of the Ringways.
Westway pre-dates most of the GLC’s motorway plans and did not form part of the motorway network they envisaged; instead it was a relic of an earlier era of highway planning that encouraged car journeys in to Central London. As a result it wasn’t in the Primary Road Network. It wasn’t consistent with their transport policy, nor was its building handled the way they would have wanted. Its impact and reputation were worlds away from how the GLC wanted their roads programme to be seen. And yet, now, it is one of the very few things their motorway programme left behind.
Today, everyone knows the Westway. It has come to divide and define a whole area of West London, and its notoriety has seen it become a cultural icon, referenced in books and songs, and subject to one of the most intense love-hate relationships of any road anywhere.
Scroll this map horizontally to see the whole route
This description begins at the west end of the route and travels east.
Shepherd’s Bush - Marylebone
The M40 and A40 would form a Primary Route in to London from the west, arriving at Wood Lane just north of Shepherd’s Bush. The A40’s status as one of the GLC’s Primary Roads would end here, since no Primary Road was supposed to travel within Ringway 1; as it rose onto an elevated road above the A219 Wood Lane, it would become the A40(M) Westway, a Secondary Road under motorway regulations.
The whole of Westway was built and can still be driven today, so this route will be familiar, though it lost motorway status in 2000 and now has much lower speed limits.
The road would pass over a large elevated roundabout, beneath which would run Ringway 1’s West Cross Route. The speed limit would rise from 50 to 60mph as a third lane joined from the interchange.
The motorway would travel at rooftop level through North Kensington, with Victorian terraces to both sides, closely shadowing the route of the Hammersmith and City line railway, which would run on a brick viaduct immediately to the south. In many places the motorway would be so close to the railway that it would be almost possible to reach over and touch the viaduct walls from the Westway’s hard shoulder.
Passing through Ladbroke Grove and Royal Oak, the Westway would reach an interchange where west-facing sliproads would provide access to a network of one-way residental streets around Paddington, some of which would be arranged to form links parallel to the Westway serving the A5 Edgware Road. Underneath this elevated junction, a complex arrangement of partly subterranean sliproads would link the Paddington one way system to the A404 Harrow Road.
The speed limit would drop to 50mph again, and having lost a lane to Paddington, the remaining two lanes of traffic would descend to ground level, where a sliproad from the A404 would merge in, bringing the motorway to an end.
Traffic would then flow seamlessly on to the Paddington Flyover, opened in 1966 in anticipation of Westway’s arrival, which in turn would lead on to the A501 Marylebone Road.
Beyond our Kensington
One of the earliest attempts to adapt London for the motor age was in 1905, when the Royal Commission on London Traffic produced a report full of ambitious ideas. They were still in the era of horse traffic, but foresaw the need for better roads to replace the inadequate and congested streets that were the city’s inheritance.
Key to their ideas were an East-West Avenue and a North-South Avenue, two monumental new thoroughfares, straight and extremely wide, carrying vehicles and trams on the surface and hiding four-track railways beneath. They would be cut through the buildings of Central London.
They proved too difficult to build, but the DNA of the East-West Avenue can be traced through successive road proposals in the decades that followed.
Abandoning the idea of blasting straight through the city, planners settled for a route comprising Western Avenue (now A40), Eastern Avenue (now A12), and a widened Marylebone/Euston/Pentonville Road (A501). Two links were missing: from Western Avenue to Paddington, and from Angel to Hackney. In 1926 the Ministry of Transport had hopes of building the whole thing all at once.
Western Avenue in its early days was a slight disappointment. Built on vacant land, it ended at Wood Lane in Shepherd’s Bush, with no direct connection to Central London. Planners of the 1930s envisaged a railway bridge to get it to North Kensington, from where a series of unsuspecting residential roads lined with fine Georgian terraces would be press-ganged into service as a one way system. By such means Western Avenue would finally be united with Marylebone Road.
The brutality of that idea was only realised after the Second World War, when planners returned to the problem and balked at the idea of routing enormous volumes of traffic down peaceful suburban streets.
By 1959 two plans were circulating at County Hall. One option was to bridge the railway and then widen Silchester Road - by which was meant, demolish all the houses facing it to build a dual carriageway. The other, entirely novel, was an elevated road following the railway line that would leave the streets of North Kensington in peace.
So new and untested was the concept of an elevated road this long, built in an urban area this dense, that planners were learning elementary lessons at every step.
The wild Westway
The earliest drafts of the road that would become Westway put it south of the railway, where it had difficulty crossing the tracks at Latimer Road and an awkward junction with the street network at Bishop’s Bridge.
Moving to the north side of the railway helped, but just when the route had been settled and the London County Council hoped to start progressing it towards construction, a site visit revealed the unexpected appearance of a new office building called Torquay House, blocking the proposed line of the motorway near Royal Oak. Westminster City Council had given it planning permission because they had no idea the same plot of land was wanted for a motorway.
The brand new building was torn down, and the route belatedly safeguarded from further development.
The LCC was replaced with the new Greater London Council in 1965, by which time the “Western Avenue Extension” project was pretty much ready to go. Since it would solve a serious existing traffic problem, the GLC agreed it should go ahead, and the bulldozers moved in to Kensington in 1966. It took four years to complete a true feat of engineering, the longest elevated road in Europe.
But while the GLC built the Westway, they would probably never have invented it. In parallel with its construction they were busy devising the Greater London Development Plan, which outlined the Ringways and other road improvements. However, all these plans were - perhaps counterintuitively - intended to tame the traffic problem and keep cars out of Central London.
No major roads would extend within Ringway 1; instead the central area would see traffic reduction measures. The Ringways would facilitate journeys between the outer suburbs, which were hard to serve by public transport, and they would form bypasses of the centre.
The GLC also pushed against the Ministry’s parsimonious instincts, designing costly additions to its new motorways like tunnels, landscaping and other features designed to hide them from view and minimise their impact. They spent years lobbying the Government for additional powers to compensate and rehouse people who lived close to new roads, since the law at that time only allowed them to help people whose homes were demolished.
The Westway smashed through every one of those aims. It was a new three-lane motorway within Ringway 1, specifically designed to help traffic reach Central London and bound to encourage commuting by car. It was elevated because that was cheaper than sinking it below ground, making it obvious and intrusive to surrounding neighbourhoods. And it ran through residential areas, pushed hard up against houses whose residents received no help.
Its journey through the planning process had been distant and uncooperative, dealing mainly with landowners when most people in this poor part of North Kensington were tenants. The GLC was at pains to state that they would help if they could, but they had never been given the extended powers they wanted.
So far was the Westway from the sort of urban roads that the roads lobby wanted to build in London that even the British Road Federation hated it.
Paved with good intentions
Possibly the worst affected were the residents of Acklam Road. Their terraced houses faced the Westway directly, with traffic rushing by at 60mph just twelve metres from their upstairs windows. At night the line of huge sodium streetlights flooded their windows with a sickly orange glow, while all day the traffic noise was as loud as having a vacuum cleaner constantly switched on. Powerless to do much else, in July 1970 they mounted a protest during its opening ceremony. As the Minister stood to be photographed by the press, with the houses of Acklam Road visible behind him, they unveiled a banner from the rooftops that read “get us out of this hell - rehouse us now”.
Press coverage focussed on the protest, and reports about London’s newest road were overwhelmingly negative, with national newspapers carrying stories of the people now living in appalling conditions just so traffic could get to the Paddington Flyover more quickly. It wasn’t long before attempts were made to belatedly right some wrongs.
The Minister made an exceptional decision to rehouse the people of Acklam Road and others nearby; with tenants gone, the houses were demolished shortly afterwards. The brutal treatment of North Kensington’s residents helped inform the 1972 report of the Urban Motorways Committee, “New Roads in Towns”, which demanded that highway authorities be given powers to acquire property away from the line of a road to help redevelop the road’s surroundings, and to pay for soundproofing and other home improvements, rescuing nearby homeowners from the worst effects of having a motorway just across the street.
The changes were adopted as official policy soon afterwards, and informed the Land Compensation Act 1973. It all came too late for Acklam Road and the rest of North Kensington, but future roads would not be so callously imposed on an existing neighbourhood. While the Westway had accelerated that change and helped ensure later urban roads were more sympathetically designed, it also played a big part in turning public mood and official policy away from building urban roads at all.
The GLC had been right about all of this all along, but struggled to find ways to help now that the road was already open. A surprising opportunity came from the land underneath Westway. It now just had columns planted in it, supporting the motorway, and was otherwise empty; while it had been paid for by the Ministry it was now theirs to do with as they liked.
In early 1971 the GLC leased the space to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for £20,000 a year. The borough, equally desperate to find a positive in this ruinous situation, handed it to the newly formed North Kensington Amenity Trust, along with a grant of £25,000 a year.
The trust set about using the space to provide playgrounds, open spaces, community buildings and social welfare facilities. The experiment must have worked, because it’s still going, now called the Westway Trust. It uses the 23 acres it was given to provide skate parks, markets, workshops and other useful resources in the dead space under the motorway.
The Westway would do more damage to the Ringways plan than any of the Ringways themselves ever did: this urban motorway, unlike the roads the GLC wanted to build, came to represent the horrors London would face if the planners got their way. But that wasn’t its only legacy.
Sited in one of the liveliest districts of London, the Westway is a strange and unmissable presence through Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park, and in a city that decided not to build the rest of its urban motorway network, it’s almost unique. Perhaps that’s why it has had such an incredible cultural impact.
You will find it mentioned again and again in popular music. Some lyrics are quoted on this page, but there are many more. Blur alone mention it in three of their songs, the Clash in two of theirs, while the West Cross Route roundabout is the picture on a Bloc Party album cover. In 1973 writer JG Ballard has the characters of his novel Crash visit it, while in 1974 it serves as the thinly-veiled inspiration for his subsequent novel Concrete Island. Any time an advert shows people playing sport there’s a decent chance they’ll be on one of the football pitches underneath the flyovers. Look closely and you will find it in art, film and on TV. The Westway is everywhere.
Today its presence has softened; the buildings erected under and around it have blended it with the urban area, while housing nearby has been reconstructed to face away from the traffic. Most people don’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Suffering the structural problems of old age, it lost motorway status a couple of decades ago and now has a 30mph limit to reduce the shockwaves that are rattling its joints apart.
Still, the Westway remains devastating, frightening and fascinating: a picture of a future London narrowly avoided, and one that’s now impermeably planted in London’s popular conscience.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Artist's impressions of the Westway, the space under the roundabout and the street underneath; photograph of architectural model; and schematic of elevated road are taken from Greater London Council (1970). "Western Avenue Extension". London: Greater London Council.
- Photograph of Westway at Wood Lane interchange taken from an original by James Emmans and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- 1926 plan to extend Western Avenue using existing streets is extracted from MT 57/147.
- Photograph of Westway under construction is from J. Michael Thomson ed. (1969). "Motorways in London". London: Duckworth.
- Photograph of view underneath Westway at Acklam Road is from "A Plan from the People", The Surveyor, 26/02/71.
- Photograph of protest at Acklam Road taken from The Underground Map and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of Westway Stables riding lesson is taken from an original by David Hawgood and used under this Creative Commons license.
- Royal Commission and East-West Avenue: "Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire Into and Report Upon the Means of Locomotion and Transport in London", HMSO, 1905.
- Road became Secondary within Ringway 1: Greater London Council (1970). "A Secondary Roads Policy". Available at Document Supply WQ3/9904.
- Speed limits 50 and 60: Greater London Council (1970). "Western Avenue Extension".
- 1926 MOT plan to link Western and Eastern Avenues: MT 57/147.
- 1930 plan to use existing streets in one way system; 1959 plans including first elevated road: MT 106/93; MT 106/54.
- Torquay House build on line of motorway: MT 106/296.
- GLDP on Ringways and keeping traffic out of Central London: examples at HLG 159/1024 and Greater London Council (1969). "Greater London Development Plan: Statement".
- Acklam Road protest; GLC appeals for extra powers and environmental measures: Dnes, Michael (2022). "The Rise and Fall of London's Ringways, 1943-1973". Abingdon: Routledge.
- New Roads in Towns report and Land Compensation Act: Starkie, D. (1982). "The Motorway Age: Road and Traffic Policies in Post-war Britain". Oxford: Pergamon.
- Lease of space under Westway and establishment of Trust: MT 47/497.
- Song lyrics: many are available at various websites online.