One of the most obvious opportunities for roadbuilding in London had tempted planners since the 1930s, but in the end Radial Route 6 was a solution looking for a problem.
The Lea Valley (or Lee, if you prefer - neither the valley nor the river seem to mind how you spell it) occupies a broad swathe of land through north east London. The various branches of the river, together with the canal, reservoirs, railways and marshland, conspire against the encroaching suburbs, leaving open an inviting corridor from the countryside to Stratford. For years planners hoped to use it for a new major road to East Anglia.
Successive plans refined the idea, with a “Docks Relief Road” and the M11 taking advantage of it - but a sudden change in the mid-1960s abandoned the Lea Valley, moving the M11 east to the Roding Valley instead. Development and design work had already happened for the original route, though, so the project was handed to the Greater London Council for inclusion in their Secondary Network.
The M11’s move sent ripples throughout north east London and Essex, changing long-established plans for transport, housing, employment, parkland - and indeed for the whole New Town of Harlow. The GLC, meanwhile, were never happy with the change of plan. They didn’t particularly want Radial Route 6, and when they took over, soon discovered they had no real use for it anyway.
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This description begins at the northern end of the route and travels south.
Waltham Abbey - Hackney
Entering Greater London near Chingford, on a narrow strip of land between the A112 Sewardstone Road and the utilitarian River Lee Flood Relief Channel, Radial Route 6 would shadow the waterway, reaching an interchange with the A110 Lea Valley Road. Here free-flowing sliproads would allow only turns between the west and south.
The carriageways would divide, running around each side of a series of locks that mark the start of the River Lee Diversion, before coming back together at the interchange for the Ringway 2 North Circular Road. This offset three-level stacked roundabout junction was designed before later plans to bypass this part of the North Circular, so would probably have been redrawn if Radial Route 6 had ever been built as a Secondary Road.
Curving south west, now on the west side of the waterway, the road would enter Tottenham Marshes. At this point it departs the line intended for the M11, a new route having been selected by the GLC’s planners. At Stonebridge Lock West, it would cross Lockwood Reservoir to arrive at an interchange with the A503 Forest Road.
Continuing south through three more reservoirs, the road would turn east as it crossed Coppermills Water Treatment Works, rejoining the M11’s intended route and meeting the A104 Lea Bridge Road. Almost the whole of Blyth Road, a street of terraced houses, would be cleared to make a path for it.
Travelling south east through Leyton Jubilee Park and Oliver Road Allotments, Radial Route 6 would arrive at the M11’s Ruckholt Road interchange. Ahead would lie a Secondary Road link to Stratford Town Centre.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other
The potential for the Lea Valley to host a major new road was first raised in Bressey’s 1937 Highway Development Plan. His concept, “Route 34”, began on the North Orbital near Hoddesden, running down the east side of the valley near Waltham Cross and Chingford. He then directed it through Stratford to find its way to Silvertown, passing between the Victoria and Royal Albert Docks.
The following decade, Patrick Abercrombie began crafting his masterplan for post-war reconstruction, and evidently thought Route 34 would be useful. He attached it to a new road north towards Cambridge and East Anglia, and renamed it “Radial Route 6” to fit in with his lettered ring roads and numbered radials.
In the years after the war, great importance was attached to the concept of a road that used the Lea Valley to get heavy traffic between the docks and the rest of the country. Much of that traffic travelled through Central London, since the docks were close to the central area and there were no ring roads or bypasses that properly served it. References to it litter planning documents and official correspondence in the 1950s and early 60s. The London County Council’s earliest drafts for an urban motorway network called it the “Norwich Radial”.
By 1963, the prevailing idea was that the national motorway programme would provide the M11, approaching London from the direction of Cambridge. It would pass west of Harlow, then join the long-planned line of Radial Route 6, heading down the east side of the Lea Valley to reach Stratford. It would end on the A11 Stratford High Street, from where the Docks Relief Road would continue to Silvertown.
This plan was devised by the Ministry of Transport, but it was actively and enthusiastically supported by planners in London, whose concept of an overall road network for London drew heavily on Abercrombie’s vision. In particular they liked that it placed the M11 neatly and evenly between the A10 and A12, giving north east London an efficient and evenly distributed major road network.
In this guise the M11 reached an advanced stage. Its route in rural Essex had been baked in to the masterplan for Harlow, which placed all the industrial units on the north and west sides of the town where they would be close to the motorway. In Waltham Cross, where the motorway would push through the fringes of the town, the Ministry bought up houses on Honey Lane: the conveyancing paperwork referred to the “Ruckholt Bridge, Leyton to Harlow Section” of the London-Bishop’s Stortford Motorway.
Things changed when the Ministry asked a firm of engineers to carry out a wide-ranging study on the M11 plans. Their findings caused a major change: in November 1964 it was announced that the M11 would follow the Roding Valley instead. From its inception the GLC protested, complaining bitterly that this concentrated too many main roads in Woodford and spoiled the balance of the plan - but they were too late to stop it.
Not to worry. There was a consolation prize. If you’re that keen on Radial Route 6, said the Ministry, you can have it. From 1965 the GLC took over responsibility for the project, inheriting a set of plans for a motorway.
Knocked for six
The motorway plans that arrived at County Hall were nothing much to be proud of. Drawn up in the very early 1960s, at a time when the Ministry had limited experience of motorway design and almost no experience integrating roads into urban areas, they contained a number of highly questionable features.
The road’s alignment was one issue: attempting to avoid disturbing the various waterworks and reservoirs, it stuck doggedly to the edge of the built-up area, resulting in a route that was full of awkward bends. Junctions were squashed in to the limited space, and it would frequently run close to residential areas when a huge empty valley lay just beyond.
Worse still were the junctions. At the A110 Lea Valley Road, sliproads would allow turns only between the south and west. At the A406, an extremely awkward three-level roundabout junction used lots of expensive bridgework to produce a layout that was still inefficient, and in any case was now in the wrong place to meet a proposed realignment of the North Circular. And at the A503 Forest Road, a fabulously complex junction was proposed that would entangle a range of residential streets in a pair of gyratory systems, with multiple free-flowing sliproads linking the motorway to its surroundings in seemingly illogical ways.
Surrounding the motorway was the Lea Valley itself, which included another gift from Abercrombie: the Lea Valley Regional Park. Intended to help improve the dire shortage of open space and leisure facilities available to Londoners in the smoggy pre-war city, it involved a large-scale transformation of the whole valley into a natural retreat, with parkland, sports facilities and access to the water. Integral to the park’s plan was the space for Radial Route 6; to change the road would be to change the whole park’s layout.
The GLC’s engineers spent the next few years gamely trying to convert this unsuitable motorway into a useful Secondary Road. They refined its alignment, moving it to the middle of the valley away from the houses, a change that now required it to cross or reconfigure several reservoirs.
The strange junction at Forest Road came in for particular criticism. In a 1966 letter to the Ministry, JS Moulder from the GLC’s Special Projects Division complained that it didn’t fit at all with the GLC’s plans and was so overdesigned that it had greater capacity than the interchange with the North Circular. He wanted to replace it with a smaller junction that would serve a “road/rail interface” with the new Victoria Line station at Blackhorse Road, then under construction right next door, complete with multi-storey car park. It was park and ride, several decades ahead of its time.
Beyond the boundaries of the project, other things were changing. The road’s northward continuation had already vanished: now that the M11 was elsewhere, Radial Route 6 stopped at the Greater London boundary and there was no sign that neighbouring Essex wanted to build anything connecting to it.
Meanwhile, to the south, the Docks Relief Road had also vanished. The GLC’s pattern of new main roads provided other ways to reach the river, and in any case, London’s docks were now planned to move further out of the city, so a road from Stratford to Silvertown was unnecessary.
Without connections north or south, and without close or useful links to the communities beyond the empty valley, planners were starting to wonder what Radial Route 6 might be for.
Six feet under
Unsure why they were still spending so much time on this plan, the GLC launched a review, asking the neighbouring boroughs whether its line should be protected for a future Secondary Road. But in 1970, even as the review was being conducted, one of the GLC’s Traffic Commissioners admitted to Waltham Forest’s Chief Planning Officer that it had only been retained this long because the Department of the Environment required a formal review before it was dropped.
Central to the problem was the question of who would use the road, if it didn’t form a motorway leading out of London and it didn’t form a route to the docks. The work required to build it through the rivers and reservoirs of the Lea Valley would make it particularly expensive; set against that were forecasts that said it would attract very few journeys.
In fact, the GLC’s analysis suggested that it wouldn’t remove enough traffic from parallel Secondary Roads to justify building it, because the parallel roads would still need improving to provide two lanes each way whether Radial Route 6 existed or not. The inescapable conclusion was that it wasn’t worth the bother. The only exception was a fragment immediately north of Hackney Wick, where it would form an effective bypass for the A1006.
Before the end of 1970, the GLC’s planning officers had written to the Greater London Development Plan Inquiry, informing them that Radial Route 6 had been dropped from the pattern of Secondary Roads.
Today two lengths of road travel up the Lea Valley and bear a passing resemblance to the cancelled plan. One is Orient Way, an unclassified relief road that runs alongside the railway from Hackney Wick to the A104 Lea Bridge Road - a little watered-down fragment of Radial Route 6 in the one place it was able to make a difference.
The other is further north, and found on the west side of the river. The A1055 Watermead Way was built by the GLC during the early 1980s, opening up land for industry and development along the flanks of the Lea Valley in the boroughs of Enfield and Haringey. It’s not Radial Route 6 - it’s on the wrong side of the river - but it earns a passing mention because, after all the grand motorway plans were abandoned, this easily overlooked route up the Lea Valley was one of the very few new roads the GLC did eventually build.
- Plans of Forest Road interchange and GLC route for RR6 north of Lea Bridge Road are extracted from MT 106/282.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Photograph of Warwick Reservoir East is taken from an original by Neil Theasby and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of Stonebridge Locks is taken from an original by Chris Heaton and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Photograph of docks traffic on residential streets is from "Tomorrow's London: a background to the Greater London Development Plan".
- Plan showing M11 on Lea Valley route is extracted from GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07/327.
- Plan showing "possible RR6" is extracted from MT 106/459.
- Photograph of Orient Way is taken from an original by Richard Dunn and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Bressey's Route 34: Sir Charles Bressey and Sir Edwin Lutyens (1937). Highway Development Survey: General Report. Available at MT 39/360.
- Genesis of RR6: Abercrombie, Patrick (1944). Greater London Plan. London: University of London Press.
- M11 following Lea Valley; Docks Relief Road: MT 106/286.
- LCC refer to Norwich Radial: MT 106/195.
- Houses purchased on Honey Lane, Waltham Cross: example at MT 139/163.
- M11 switch to Roding Valley: MT 106/286.
- GLC objections: GLC/TD/PM/CDO/07/327 indicates GLC's preferred network layout.
- Route, Waltham Abbey-Hackney, including GLC and M11 variants; interchange layouts; GLC take over RR6; objections to design; road/rail interchange; GLC review; comments to Waltham Forest; traffic forecasts; improvements still needed to parallel routes; route dropped from GLDP Secondary Roads map: MT 106/282.