A fast route through Hertfordshire and Essex, linking provincial towns far from the fringes of London, the North Orbital would have brought new opportunities to Hatfield, Hertford and Harlow and offered relief to Ringway 3.
A start was made on this part of the North Orbital before the war. Running from Watford to St Albans and Hatfield, the first link in the route envisioned by Sir Charles Bressey was built between 1930 and 1932. Bressey's vision was for the road to continue past Hertford and Epping, branching into two forks as it passed through Essex: one to the Dartford Tunnel, the other to the docks at Tilbury.
During the war, Sir Patrick Abercrombie arrived with his Greater London Plan, and incorporated the North Orbital into his "E" Ring Road. Abercrombie's route abandoned the two Essex branches and instead sent the road east from Harlow to Chelmsford.
By the late 1960s, the Ringways were in planning, and the Ministry of Transport was starting to look seriously at building the missing parts of the North Orbital. They retained most of it, but changed the eastern end again, sending it south-east through Essex to reach Ringway 3 at Navestock. Plans were drawn up in parallel to widen and improve the section built in the 1930s.
Uncertainty over the demand for this route, and evidence that the Ringway 3 Northern Section would cope with east-west traffic in this area for the foreseeable future, meant the North Orbital plans were kicked into the long grass and eventually faded away to nothing. What's left today are some fragments of a road that would always, in the end, have been a bit of a jumble anyway.
Scroll this map horizontally to see the whole route
This description begins at the western end of the route and travels east.
Hunton Bridge to Hatfield
On the A41 North Western Avenue on the outskirts of Watford, a stone's throw east of Hunton Bridge Roundabout where the Ringway 4 Western Section terminates, Courtlands Drive Interchange is a small grade-separated roundabout junction built in the early 1970s as part of the North Orbital Road project. The same scheme of works provided a dual carriageway along the A405 Kingsway, striking out north-east from here. The A405, as it stands today, is the North Orbital as envisaged in the Ringways era.
The road curves through the suburbs on a smooth alignment first built in the 1930s when this was open country. No interchanges would have been provided between the A41 and M1, with no access between the North Orbital and A412. Shortly afterwards is Bricket Wood, M1 junction 6, and the dual carriageway then continues around Chiswell Green to Park Street Roundabout.
Park Street was the terminus of the M10, and would have been grade-separated to provide free-flowing travel between the M10 to the west and the A414 North Orbital to the east. The next section of road, east from Park Street to London Colney, would have been most heavily used by traffic hopping from the M10 to the A6 and then on to Ringway 3 at South Mimms.
Branching off at London Colney Roundabout, the route then follows the A414 North Orbital as it exists today eastward to Hatfield.
The North Orbital would follow the A1 through Hatfield, joining it at what is now A1(M) junction 3 and branching off again at Stanborough to the north of the town. Today, the A1(M) passes through the Hatfield Tunnel, but that was a product of the 1980s. In the late 1960s the Ministry of Transport proposed a dual four-lane motorway at surface level through Hatfield, with two-lane outer carriageways alongside it to cater for local traffic. Such a road would have been about 60m (190ft) in width.
Hatfield to Navestock
Branching off the A1 just to the south of present-day A1(M) junction 4, the North Orbital Road would follow the existing A414 eastwards, with an interchange at Mill Green for the A1000 Hertford Road. At the site of the existing roundabout with the B1455 Holwell Lane, the North Orbital would leave the A414 behind and strike out eastwards, following the B158 Lower Hatfield Road through Howe Green.
Where the B158 turns north-east towards Hertford, the route would continue east, crossing the railway line north of Bayford and turning north-east to pass through Box Wood.
The North Orbital would interchange with the A10 at High Leigh, just outside Hoddesdon, where a three-level stacked roundabout interchange is partially laid out. East from this point, in to Hoddesdon town centre, a short length of the North Orbital Road was actually built, and is known as the A1170 Dinant Link Road. It was provided as part of the A10's bypass of Hoddesdon, connecting the new road to the town, but was laid out to allow for its eventual incorporation into the North Orbital.
The road would then run through an industrial area north of Dobb's Weir, crossing the River Lea and then turning east again across Stoneshot Common. At Broadley Common, a junction would connect to the B181 Epping Road and a link road to Harlow. At the time the North Orbital Road was proposed, Harlow New Town was still under construction and expected to be much larger than it is now; several additional neighbourhoods would have extended the town south-west towards the North Orbital and the town's road system would have been substantially bigger.
Turning south-east, the road would pass south of the village of Thornwood Common, crossing the M11 near Coopersale and North Weald Bassett. A junction would be formed here, though its layout is not known; it's unlikely that designs were ever produced.
From this point the route runs in almost a straight line directly south-east, passing through Mount Wood and Woodhatch, crossing the A113 London Road near its junction with Shonks Mill Road and passing west of Navestock Heath.
It's not entirely clear, from this point, how the North Orbital would have ended on Ringway 3. Some plans show it continuing on this line to reach Ringway 3 just north of its junction with the A12 at Brentwood, but that would mean both roads running parallel, about half a mile apart, for more than four miles. It's conceivable that the line of the North Orbital would have been amended to join Ringway 3 further north, avoiding the unnecessary duplication of routes - but that is simply speculation.
The problem with starting early
You can divide this route, traversing Hertfordshire and Essex, into two lengths. The first half runs from Watford to Hatfield, and was built. The second runs from Hatfield to Navestock, and wasn't.
From North Western Avenue near Watford, a broad single-carriageway road with big grassy verges, cycle tracks and footpaths was opened in 1932. It runs north-east almost to St Albans, and then veers eastward to find the then-new Barnet Bypass. Progressively upgraded, it's still there now, variously numbered A405 and A414. Most of it even bears the street name "North Orbital Road".
By the late 1960s, the Ministry of Transport were looking to build the rest of the North Orbital between Watford and Navestock. Based on traffic forecasts, they planned a high-speed route with two or three lanes in each direction and flyovers at major junctions. But the existing length - then nearing its thirtieth birthday, and already a dinosaur in terms of highway design - had become a problem.
Given that it was already there, it was hard to justify replacing it with a new road, and the Treasury would undoubtedly refuse to fund such an extravagance. It would have to form part of the route. The problem was that upgrading it would be difficult. It had already become built-up, particularly at the Watford end, so an upgrade to motorway was impossible. For consistency, the decision was taken that none of the North Orbital between Watford and Navestock would open as motorway.
If you travel this section today, you'll find a partially-completed wish list of late 1960s improvements. The road was widened to dual carriageway in stages through the 1970s, and a grade-separated interchange exists at Courtlands Drive (where it meets the A41 North Western Avenue). But there's no sign of planned improvements that would have seen similar interchanges built at the A412 St Albans Road, Park Street Roundabout or London Colney. Those upgrades were cancelled, in something of a hurry, around 1976 when the decision to create the modern M25 killed off all other orbital plans.
The problem with not starting at all
East of the A1, the Ministry was faced with precisely the opposite problem: a start had yet to be made on the North Orbital between Hatfield and Navestock, and civil servants were unsure whether they could justify building it at all.
The Ministry of Transport was not as all-powerful as it sometimes seemed, even in an era of motorway mania. Like all government departments, it was entirely dependent on persuading the Treasury to part with cash when it wanted to do something. All road proposals, therefore, had to be described in detail and justified in the strongest economic terms so that the Chancellor would be convinced to start counting out fivers.
When it came to making the case for this road, the MOT was at a loss. It turned out that London was not a perfectly circular city, so drawing circles around it would result in the outer circles being close to London in some places and far from it in others. The North Orbital Road in Essex was a very long way from London indeed, and therefore not expected to be very busy.
A detailed study was made in the mid-1960s by consulting engineers Freeman Fox and Partners. They attempted to forecast demand for orbital journeys around the whole of north and west London, and their work formed the basis for the planning of Ringway 3 and 4. Between the M40 and M1, they found that demand would outstrip the capacity of two three-lane motorways by the late 1980s, which is why in that area the Ministry proposed Ringway 4 to be built as a full motorway in parallel with Ringway 3.
In north and north-east London, though, demand was simply not forecast to be anywhere near as great. The North Orbital east of the A1 was forecast to carry fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day by the 1980s. Concerned that the road would be a white elephant, they ran another forecast in which the North Orbital extended east from Harlow to Chelmsford, instead of curving south towards the Dartford Crossing, in the hope that it would be better used, but found that this version would carry just 10,000 vehicles per day. Those figures would barely justify construction of a single-carriageway road.
By 1969 the Ministry had resigned itself to only building Ringway 3 in the north. One internal memorandum summarised the decision:
"R3 will be continued as the only motorway orbital to A1 at South Mimms, thence to M11. This will be in preference to NOR which is not shown to have high enough potential… The NOR east of Hatfield may not materialise till the 1980s, but because there is the possibility of bringing it forward if needed as a relief to the A1-M11 section of R3, we are able to restrict the A1-M11 section to dual three, which is what [we] have announced for the A1-A10 part."
In other words, the North Orbital wouldn't happen for another twenty years, and even then only if Ringway 3 was overloaded. But because there was the potential to build it, Ringway 3 could go ahead with only three lanes and not more - which it did.
Despite never being built, parts of the elusive North Orbital Road still casts a shadow over Hertfordshire. At Hoddesdon, a short length was built and opened in 1974, as part of the A10 bypass of the town. The Dinant Link Road is a short dual carriageway connecting the bypass to the town centre, but occupies the line reserved for the North Orbital, and its junction with the A10 is laid out for an eventual three-level stacked roundabout junction where the road could continue west.
The next section, west from the A10 to the A414 near Holwell Manor, has been much discussed and survived as an idea much longer than the North Orbital. It sometimes went by the more conventional title of the Hertford Southern Bypass. But that, too, now seems to be dead. It's highly unlikely that the missing length of the North Orbital will return - and given how little it's missed, it seems almost peculiar that planners ever thought it might be needed.
- Route map contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights (2017) used under the terms of the Open Government Licence.
- Plan of "E" Ring is from the Greater London Plan (1944), Patrick Abercrombie, published by University of London Press and now out of copyright.
- Photograph of A414 near London Colney taken from an original by Robin Webster and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- Plan showing NOR south of Hertford is from the Hertfordshire County Development Plan (1958), now out of copyright.
- Plan of Harlow extracted from MT 120/234.
- Photograph of A405 at Park Street taken from an original by Lewis Clarke and used under this Creative Commons licence.
- 1971 improvements plan extracted from MT 120/251.
- Traffic forecast diagram extracted from MT 120/233.
- Route, Watford-Hatfield; 1960s planned improvements Watford-Hatfield, including Courtlands Drive interchange: MT 120/251.
- Route, Hatfield-Hoddesdon: HLG 119/599; MT 106/220.
- Route, Hoddesdon-Navestock: HLG 119/392; MT 120/249.
- North Orbital 1930s opening dates: MT 39/511.
- Bressey line for NOR: Highway Development Survey: General Report (1937), Sir Charles Bressey and Sir Edwin Lutyens, available at MT 39/360.
- Abercrombie line for NOR: Greater London Plan (1944), Patrick Abercrombie, University of London Press.
- Dual four-lane motorway through Hatfield: traffic forecasts for NOR; alternative to Chelmsford investigated: MT 120/248.
- Harlow planned expansion south-west towards NOR; Draft Engineering Appraisal for NOR and R3; decision to build only as non-motorway: MT 120/234.