When I was a kid back in the early 70s a motorway journey held a promise, not of frustration and wasted hours staring at the back end of a Norbert Dentressangle lorry, but of futuristic freedom, speed and adventure.
The Golden Age of Motoring is a moveable feast, much like the Golden Age of Television, Football and Fashion. It tends to correspond to whenever you first became aware of the glories of the fast lane (or else The Dukes of Hazzard, George Best or dressing up as a New Romantic) – in other words, when you were at your most impressionistic, soaking up new ideas and experiences, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 15.
It may seem incredible now, even a touch cruel, but when I was a kid, my annual birthday treat used to involve Dad driving out on the M1 for a few junctions. Only then could I experience the addictive sensation of a saluki-bronze Cortina MkIII travelling at or above the National Speed Limit, with the bonus attraction of stopping off at the Leicester Forest East services for a knickerbocker glory. I was even allowed up on to the bridge over the carriageways, rubbing shoulders with fellow cosmopolitan types enjoying their own adventures in modern travel.
Make no mistake, in the early 70s, the motorway was a sexy place to be.
At the time, it seemed only one step down from the unimaginable pleasures of the jet-set, the vanguard of working-class Brits flying off to the continent. Make no mistake, in the early 70s, the motorway was a sexy place to be. I may not have been thinking in quite these terms, but I was tuned in to the grown-up dream of speed and convenience: the architecture of the service stations was straight out of science-fiction, like that of the optimistic new housing estates that had sprung up in place of Victorian slums, and other proud, jawdropping feats of British engineering such as the Post Office Tower and the Concorde. To sit behind a wall of glass and sky-blue panelling gazing out at the cars speeding by – whilst eating chicken in a basket or a banana trifle in a special dish – offered a taste of the good life. An escape from our quiet suburban cul-de-sac into a world of new possibilities. With plastic bucket seats, and frothy coffee machines.
Wish You Were Here
At the time, believe it or not, there was a booming trade in postcards of motorway service stations, which could be written and posted in boxes in the bright, exciting entrance foyers. Why wait until you arrive in Blackpool or Weston-super-Mare to start boasting of your week’s escape from the rat race? The exotic otherness of the motorway and the service station carried rich associations with progress, dynamism and slipping the bounds of work or school. And, as ever, the endless promise of the journey was a major part of any holiday, just as memorable as a week crouched behind a windbreak or in a caravan park on the coast.
I have in my possession a small collection of postcards snapped up for 10p each from car-boot sales across the years, each recalling the time when motorways represented a flight into fantasy. The long, slick curve of the M1 snaking low through the air over Sheffield. A couple pictured in the throes of romantic bliss – no, not that kind of postcard, but an advert for modern living, eating out overlooking the Severn Bridge from Top Rank Motorport Restaurant.
See, I wasn’t alone.
I yearn for a prawn cocktail at the smart, psychedelic-carpeted Fortes Corley Service Area.
The photographer Martin Parr has published a wonderful set of books called Boring Postcards, featuring examples from his extensive collection which together open a window back into lost time. The British edition opens up with a mindblowing timewarp selection from the Golden Age of the Motorway. The first entry is a simple celebration of the M1 – ‘Fifty-five miles in length, it is spanned by 134 bridges’ – featuring a splendid views of the open carriageway, a pedestrian bridge, a Forte’s restaurant and a service area approach. I love that woman sitting at the breakfast bar on the bridge over the motorway at Charnock Richard, the Fortes services on the M6. I yearn for a prawn cocktail at the smart, psychedelic-carpeted Fortes Corley Service Area, M6 Motorway (Midlands Link). And the ‘Bridge and Restaurant on the A1 north of Doncaster’ are real corkers.
You had to be there, right? Remember, at this time, even Spaghetti Junction was a tourist attraction, the subject of documentaries and modern art landscapes, picture postcards and school trips.
The Finest Roads Known To Humanity
Back in the day, going for a spin on the motorway always made me feel as though I was in an episode of Captain Scarlet – all those long, empty, four-lane roads with a single futuristic car (or Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle) careering along at 100mph. They were really only miniature models, of course – visions of an idyllic future from a time when traffic jams must have seemed an exotic, distant possibility. But here’s the thing… It’s still possible to derive innocent pleasures from a motorway trip, especially when it’s possible to drop in on one of the vibey old service stations and view them in their original light.
Get up early enough in the morning and it’s still possible to meander down any motorway with all the carefree joi-de-vivre of Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I. Of course, that joyfully empty motorway scene was shot on an as-yet-unopened stretch of the M25; but because the film is set at the dawn of the 70s, I always find myself looking out for a glimpse of my infant self in the back seat of the period cars driving along to the soundtrack of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. Look closely, and it’s the same little convoy of vehicles both on the way to Monty’s cottage, and on the return journey.
It’s always possible to head off into the relatively deserted autoroute/autobahn networks of Europe to hit nostalgic paydirt; though this seems cheaty, to me, and isn’t strictly necessary.