Life Beyond the Motorway

Essays Published January 17, 1998 in Unpublished, 1998

Norfolk is another country.

From the famous belt of broadlands that smothers the coastal flats between Norwich and Great Yarmouth, to the patchily-visited red cliffs of the north coast, where seals laze undisturbed and seabirds flock in their hundreds, it is a remarkable county. What is remarkable about it is that, unlike so many other parts of Britain today, it still has its own unique character. Everywhere you go in Norfolk, you see indications of this. It seems, for example, to have more ‘festivals’ than almost anywhere else, and each of them is tied to the character of the place: the Norfolk beer festival; the Norfolk agricultural show; the Norfolk boat festival; the Norfolk food festival. Many of the villages have their own local gatherings on an apparently regular basis, most of which are genuinely local, rather than tourist-related.

In Norfolk you can still find pubs which are hubs of village life, and you regularly see boxes of farm-grown fruit and veg balancing on walls, with hand-drawn signs trusting you to drop your money in the box and take what you want. Many people there feel a genuine attachment to the places they live in, and life moves more slowly than it does even a few dozen miles west, in relatively metropolitan Cambridgeshire, with its easy links to London. In other words, Norfolk, despite the fact that it is home to some of the most intensively-farmed flatlands in the country, and despite the fact that its capital, Norwich, is crammed with as many chain stores and burger bars as any of our other cities, remains, somehow, apart.

Move west, now, across England and into Wales. To Aberystwyth, a small town on the central Welsh coast, accessible by ‘A’ Road and railway and not much else. Aberystwyth is like a town in a time warp, with flourishing local shops and businesses that are rarely seen in other parts of the country. It still has ironmongers, bakers, genuinely local butchers, idiosyncratic clothes shops, odd local cafes with 1970s décor, pubs that look like pubs rather than ersatz Irish bars. It has few chain stores and supermarkets, presumably because a small town this size can’t provide the sort of mega-profits they demand. If you head in almost any direction from Aberystwyth, you roll through lonely hills and small farming communities. Head in the right direction and you could end up amongst the lakes and hamlets of the Elan Valley, where Shelley found his inspiration, on the incomparable windswept Pembrokeshire coast, or in the stark, undiscovered beauty of the Preseli Mountains, where the Stonehenge bluestones were quarried, and where wild horses still run.

On the face of it, the west coast of Ceredigion and the east coast of Norfolk have little in common other than their proximity to the sea. In fact, though, there is something else, too. Something that they share with Cornwall – financially the poorest county in England but in many other ways one of the richest – and with the Scottish highlands. Something that, though it doesn’t make their characters, undoubtedly helps to maintain them in the face of the rolling commercial monoculture that is sweeping over so much of the rest of the UK. What they have in common is very simple: they are all beyond the reach of the motorways.

If you want to bring this point home, to test this hypothesis, swerve back southeast, and head for Surrey. Surrey is the richest county in Britain, crammed with wealthy overspillers from London: top businessmen, consultants, advertising executives, doctors, lawyers, computer whizzes; the most ‘successful’ people in the land. Their vast, million-pound houses shut away behind high steel fences with burglar alarms attached, are reminiscent of a white Johannesburg suburb. Surrey is a seriously rich place; the epitome of all that our current model of development demands we should aspire to. It is also a dead county.
For Surrey could be anywhere. True, it still has its picturesque villages, but these are communities in nothing but name: few, if any, of their inhabitants work in them, and most drive to London each day to earn their living. The farms, what there are of them, are vast and empty, and even the remaining open spaces, like the evocative Chobham Common, a last remnant of the county’s ancient heathlands, are bissected by motorways and encroached on by new estates of homogenous redbrick homes. The town centres are virtually identical, their local economies long-since extinguished by vast prefabricated superstores squatting on the edges of the melding suburbs. Ring roads, roundabouts, garages and huge glass and plastic industrial estates continue to fill up what is left of Surrey’s green fields. This most successful, most desirable, most expensive of counties is being killed by its own success. This is what the motorways have done to us, and continue to do.

The construction of the motorways of Britain, from the 1950s onwards, and the car culture they spawned, changed the landscape of this island as radically as the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosures did before them. After World War II, spurred by the rise and rise of the private motor vehicle, and armed with a vision of a brave new technological world, generations of planners and politicians set about deliberately creating a landscape in which the car, not the person, was in charge: a landscape made for machines, not for humans. In the cities, whole districts of dwellings were demolished and urban motorways built past miles of front doors, while pedestrians were relegated to subways or tunnels, leaving the cars to eat up the streets for themselves. In the countryside, a huge six-lane octopus began spreading its tentacles across Britain, slicing through hillsides, bissecting towns, diving through rivers and forests, pushing both people and nature aside in its quest for … what?

The motorway network in Britain may be a twentieth century phenomenon, but the mindset that created it is timeless. Our grid of motorways and trunk roads follows, with almost eerie precision, the network of roads laid out by the Romans in the first three centuries of this millennium. It connects our major urban centres together, and makes it easy for conquering armies to move, swiftly, from one to the other. But the Romans – always a people with a conquering mindset, whether their victims were the indigenous population or the landscape itself – would have given anything for the power we have at our fingertips today. It would have taken a centurion army over a week to march from Londinium to Yorvik; an army of refrigerator trucks and supermarket delivery vans can sweep from London to York today in a few hours, carrying all before them.

This is not an entirely fatuous comparison, for the power and speed which almost all of us have access to today is, ironically, destroying the places that the motorways have brought within reach of all of us. Developers and Tory roads ministers like to argue that the car – and by implication the motorway – is a democratising force. And certainly people today – or at least the two thirds of us with access to a car – can go almost anywhere, anytime, at almost unnoticeable expense; something our grandparents may well have idly dreamed of. But boundless travel, like so many other aspects of industrial civilisation, comes with a heavy price tag attached. Ironically, the further we travel to look for new places, the fewer new places there are for us to find. Everywhere we go, we must be ‘catered’ for with service stations, garages, Little Chefs, tourist information centres, picnic sites and toilet blocks. Every city or town we visit is keen to provide us with exactly what we could get at home: theme pubs, drive-in McDonalds, Woolworths, Pizza Hut, Asda, multi-screen cinemas, and the rest. As we travel, we take our influences with us. The further we go, the more we destroy, and – the crowning and painful irony – even we get there, we don’t really like it, because it’s just like home. And so we go further, and we keep looking, but our search for difference only ever brings us indifference. We drive and drive, and we drag a numbing trail of sameness in our wake. Our motorways, like logging roads through a primary rainforest, open up new lands at the same time as they begin the process of destroying those lands forever.

Travel never was all it was cracked up to be, and what the motorways have done in Britain, the airlines are doing all over the world. The boundless, shining global market is bulldozing unique cultures and environments on all continents at a rate of knots, and replacing self-sufficient communities with tourist villages, plugged into the global economy. So Maasai warriors cover their faces in shoe polish and perform a bastardised version of their traditional dances for a few US dollars and a barrage of camera flashes. Acres of rainforest make way for ‘eco-tourism’ lodges and golf clubs for rich businessmen. Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken spring up in the capitals of vegetarian nations. Difference disappears. The world becomes one, but not because its people have decided it – because there is money to be made from this wholesale rape of people and place.

And yet. And yet, beyond the motorway, life goes on. In Blakeney and Aberystwyth, in Polperro and Poolewe, people and landscapes remain – not unchanged, and not unwelcoming, but nevertheless, noticeably, and contentedly, different. This is how it should be, and perhaps it will take the scourge of the motorways to teach us not only what obvious, material, short-term benefits they can bring, but also what they can destroy: older, slower, more human ways of life, and the habitats of those millions of other species without which we would not be here at all.

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