Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Motorway sightseeing

After reading On Roads, Noel Whittall has kindly sent me his co-authored book What’s That Over There?, a motorway sightseeing book published in 1993, detailing the landmarks that can be seen while driving along the M1 and A1. Here you will find some intriguing information about the ‘particularly ugly loft conversions’ in the houses on the first stretch of the M1 before Scratchwood Services (now renamed London Gateway by some soulless Roundhead with no sense of history), the British Shoe Corporation Distribution Centre and the rhubarb sheds near Wakefield where ‘on quiet nights you can hear it creaking as it grows’ – although presumably not from the motorway.

I hadn’t come across Noel’s book before but it forms part of a long if sporadic tradition of motorway sightseeing. Margaret Baker’s 1968 handbook Discovering M1 was the first ever ‘glove-compartment guide to the motorway and the places of interest that can be seen from it,’ written for car passengers and ‘arranged for easy assimilation at around 60mph’. It valiantly listed visual highlights like the radio aerials at Daventry, the granite rocks of Charnwood Forest and the medieval ridge-and-furrow fields near Crick. The vogue for motorway sightseeing enjoyed a brief revival more recently with the motorway sights guides written by Mike Jackson, a director of location shots for Antiques Roadshow, who got the idea for them while driving round the country with its then presenter, Michael Aspel. Jackson spent months travelling up and down the motorways, writing about landmarks like the Penrith factory where they make the dough balls for Domino’s pizzas and the globular salt barn on the M5 in Worcestershire known locally as the ‘Christmas pudding’.

According to Jackson’s M5 sights guide, it costs £1m a year to maintain a Moto service station, which means that each square metre of toilet area costs £2350 a year – and that’s at 2005 prices. Since the service stations are obliged by law to supply free toilets 24/7, you might think about this figure the next time you pause over the price of a Ginsters pasty in the service station shop. I am also indebted to Jackson for the information that traffic police on the M5 are rumoured to play a game called ‘motorway snooker’, which involves stopping a red car for speeding, then looking for another colour equivalent to the colours of snooker balls (ideally a black car, worth seven points) then another red, and so on until the highest break wins.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The town seethed like Laocoon within its concentric ring roads. I followed the signs for the centre, but, after I’d spent fifteen minutes obediently going where the signs told me, they had brought me back to where I’d begun. The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. I didn’t know that TS Eliot had been on the Basingstoke Urban District Council Highways (Ring Roads and Street Furniture) Committee.’ – Sebastian Faulks, Engleby


  1. I had lots of those 'I-spy' books as a child but I must confess that I always cheated because I never had the patience to wait and see everything.

  2. Thank you for a great post. I am going onto Abebooks right now - brilliant to have books that tell you about radio aerials, pizza dough factories, medieval ridge-and-furrow fields and the British Shoe Corporation Distribution Centre - all ‘arranged for easy assimilation at around 60mph’. Perhaps it's the latent anorak in me but, despite the sheer desperate dullness of most of the items you mention, I suspect motorway journeys would go more quickly if I could look out the window and think, 'There's the place they make the dough balls - and if I'm ever asked that in a pub quiz, I will know the answer,', rather than, 'What is that dreary building?'

  3. Thank you both for these kind comments, although Big Chief I-Spy would be very disappointed in you, worm.