<-- Google Analytics START --> <-- Google Analytics END -->

john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, July 08, 2009
    The future underneath Spaghetti Junction
    I'm halfway through Joe's latest book On Roads: A Hidden History and it is all that I hoped it would be. A very readable, deep, engaging and thoroughly entertaining trawl through the minutiae of our relationship with 'the maddening twists and turns of that awkward, absurd institution, the British road system'. Joe has clearly put a tremendous amount of time into researching this great work, including some time which I can thoroughly identify with and recommend - time spend wandering around the lost lands beneath motorways.
    If you walk under the Gravelly Hill Interchange today, you may struggle to find any pleasure in the intricacy. You may indeed struggle to walk under it at all, since much of it is fenced off with signs warning 'No unauthorised people on site' or unpassable pylons crackling with electricity and notices saving 'Danger of Death: Keep Off'. At Salford Junction - the waterway in the bowels of Spaghetti Junction where three canals meet up in the the industrial revolution's version of a motorway Interchange - there is a footpath, an apparent invitation for humans to perambulate. But the pedestrian bridges climb so high over the canals that you are just a few metres from the M6 overhead, and the juggernauts drumming over the expansion joints sound like violent thunder cracks. You can meander under the junction for hours and see some 'strange human remains - a pair of ripped hi-vi trousers, a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, a cuddly toy probably thrown from a car - but no actual human being...

    ... Concrete's reputation is now set in stone: everyone knows it is ugly, unkempt and unEnglish. Opponents of new roads and houses talk of the folly of 'concreting over' the countryside, even though hardly any British roads or houses are made mainly of concrete. As the signature material of the 1960s, it serves as the scapegoat for more complex and intractable social failures. The view from underneath a motorway flyover, with its takeaway cartons and syringes on the ground and its spraycan graffiti defacing the stanchions, is a sharp answer to those excitable images of virgin motorways in the late 1950s, opened by bouncy politicians on bright autumn mornings. Perhaps sometime in the future, as the musician and polymath Brian Eno has speculated, 'stained concrete and dirty steel will look rather quaint and friendly and welcoming, like exposed brick does now'. But underneath Spaghetti Junction, this future seems some way off.

    All this is food and drink to me, of course. And if my car hadn't been terminal (desperately garaged but destined to be scrapped) I'd have been off on a motorway-underbelly meander tomorrow. So much more like this in Joe's book. But in an otherwise very thorough survey of the history of the motorway sign (Google 'Jock Kinneir' for the basics) Joe doesn't answer the only question in life which continues to tax me, a cause of sleepless nights and source of endless speculation. My question is this: all motorway signs are functional - ie, they direct the driver off the road at junctions and inform of junctions / service stations ahead. That's pretty much it. Except - there are also always signs which inform motorists when the road is crossing a river. White signs saying RIVER RIBBLE, etc. So... why? Is it just a nice eccentric quirk of the DoT or do these signs serve a practical purpose? Answers (Joe? others?) in the comments box please....