Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[18] ‘Go West, Young Man’


The trouble with doing a random blog is that I have to decide, randomly, what to do next, without being too logical. So – I am going to look next at roads. Before we start, you can make things easy by forgetting everything you know about Motorways.


I suppose the actual roads were much the same then but not so grand. Almost all roads were just two carriageways, one each way. There were some three-lane roads (with the middle one just for overtaking). These must have been dangerous and I have not seen one for many years. There were some dual carriageways with two lanes each way, but these were quite rare, generally quite short. Trunk roads between major cities could be just two lanes for most of their length.

At important junctions, we had simple traffic lights or roundabouts. (Nothing fancy like mini-roundabouts.) There were no light-controlled pedestrian crossings (only a few simple zebra crossings with Belisha beacons, not lights.) There was nothing like Motorways and none of the slip roads and exit roads that make Motorway access easy.

[It was easy for pedestrians to cross at traffic lights because there were virtually no filter lights, and lights were put at both sides of the crossing. Now the lights for vehicles are specifically designed so that pedestrians find them hard to see and use. With pedestrian crossings at many traffic lights, this encourages us to wait for the green man. Of course, we did not have the green man then!]

The universal 30 miles per hour speed limit in built-up areas had been introduced in 1935. A built-up area was defined in law by the presence of street lights every 200 yards. Elsewhere there was no speed limit until 1965. Because of this definition, there was no need for speed limit signs, although there were some for the 30 mph limit. You knew that on a long journey the limit came into effect whenever you came to a town. (Outside towns, you probably didn’t go much faster. There was either too much traffic or narrow, windy roads. The opportunity for excessive speeding did not often arise.)

Road signs were peculiarly British.


It was not until 1964 that we adopted signs, more or less as used today, similar to the rest of Europe.


There were no automated ticket systems, certainly no automatic barriers or pay-and display ticket systems. There had been some parking meters in the USA but they had not yet appeared in England. I can’t be certain but I believe that car parks in general were very rare in towns – they were not needed. Those few people well off enough to be able to drive to the shops just parked outside the shops on both sides of the roads. Main/High Streets in town and cities would have had cars parked along both sides of the road. In general, these roads were also the only way to drive through the town.

[For many towns and villages everything happens along one road – shops, pubs, cafes, sometimes even residential houses. In the US, they are Main Streets. In the UK, they are High Streets, often called the High Road.]

Traffic Police

There were no traffic wardens. The only people involved in parking and road traffic enforcement were the Police. They could deal with traffic accidents and speeding, which was not a large part of their work. There were no specific traffic Police.

The Road System

Although many roads have changed now, the system of numbering roads remains the same as in the 50s, as it was originally set up around 1920 (with the addition of Motorways!) Going clockwise, the A1 (to Edinburgh), A2 (to Dover), A3 (to Portsmouth), A4 (to Bristol), A5 (to Holyhead) and A6 (to Carlisle) radiated from London. Similarly, the A7, A8 and A9 radiated from Edinburgh. Two digit numbers were used for the next most important roads like A10, A11, A12, A40 etc., with three and four digit numbers for less significant roads. Generally, the first number denotes the sector, so the A40 is in the western sector that includes the A4. B roads are less important routes.

There has never been any connection between these road numbers and road quality. Back in the 1950s, the main A roads were at best dual carriageways, two lanes each way, but many important roads for most of their length were just two lanes. In the countryside, outside town limits, they were generally far from straight and unlit.

I am going to take you on a journey on the A40, from London out to the Welsh coast, to see how it compares today with the 50s. Cars were nothing like what we have now but they will come in a later blog, so for now you can imagine the journey in your modern car. It’s more about traffic than cars.

North Circular

Before we take the A40, let’s look at the North Circular Road.


The modern map, above, shows the M25. Look closely at where the three radial motorways end. (You may have to click on the map to enlarge it.) You should see a roughly circular road, much deeper within London than the M25 (which is mostly outside Greater London). This is formed by the North Circular Road and The South Circular Road, which in the fifties were the only ring roads around London.

Let’s start our journey at Gant’s Hill, Ilford (now near the start of the M11 in the northeast section), and first travel anti-clockwise to where the North Circular meets the A40. (On the map above, the A40 continues inwards where the M40 now ends, a little North of the M4, which extends much further inwards.)

This is a journey of about ten miles, maybe twelve. It was the preferred route for all London traffic. Only the brave ventured into central London, with its maze of tiny streets and numerous on-way systems. Back in the fifties and early sixties, we did have the rush hour as people went to their offices to work. Rush hour traffic in the North Circular Road was pretty solid. Our journey, with traffic lights and roundabouts every few hundred yards, went through the thickest parts of the many little towns and villages that had merged to become Greater London. As it was the major route, houses and shops had developed along its length to add to the congestion.

As we drive, we are unlikely ever to get up to the 30 mph speed limit and we could take an hour to an hour and a half, maybe more, for these few miles. That was just getting to the start of our journey out towards Wales.

I have done a bit of rambling and only just reached the A40. We will be going down the A40 to the West, but not just yet …


Here’s a better map of the North and South Circulars:


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

2 thoughts on “[18] ‘Go West, Young Man’

  1. Pingback: [104] You can Drive My Car | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. Pingback: [113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well | Remembrance of Things Past

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