As I was saying, before I was interrupted, let’s take a trip on the A40 out westwards. We will pick up our journey where the North Circular Road meets the A40. This may include a bit of a Geography lesson.
The A40 dates from 1923 and it goes from the City of London to Fishguard (Abergwaun) on the Welsh coast. I will try to describe it as it was in the early fifties, noting all the subsequent changes as we go. I drove both ways along much of the A40 and around the North Circular in the late sixties – and it has changed since then! The roads would have been the same but traffic may have been a bit lighter in the fifties.
We can leave out the start of the A40, as we have used the North Circular. We move on through Greenford, Northolt and Uxbridge to Denham (marking what is now the M25). These towns were already within Greater London. (Then London was a county, much smaller, with the London County Council. The Council of Greater London was not created until 1965.) This first part was already dual carriageway. Even then, it was very busy and we have to stop at several points at traffic light controlled crossroads and roundabouts for significant junctions with other main roads.
Beaconsfield and Beyond
We continue outwards, now mostly on two lane roads. The Romans built their main roads in straight lines. Ours just grew up naturally, linking towns and villages, winding round hills and valleys. The A40 just goes roughly West all the time, sometimes Southwest, sometimes Northwest.
Beaconsfield is a pretty, little town, with a long straight High Road, full of shops and shoppers. The A40 takes this route, slowly, dodging the parked cars and pedestrians, stopping at traffic lights for crossroads.
We come soon to High Wycombe, much larger that Beaconsfield, another town full of shops, which we have to drive straight through. There are roundabouts and traffic lights.
The village of West Wycombe comes just after High Wycombe and then we come to a long stretch of fairly quiet, narrow, country road, with the villages of Stokenchurch, Tetsworth and Wheatley. (When we did this route by coach in the seventies, the coach would stop for refreshments at a little restaurant at Stokenchurch.)
[Now we have the M40, taking us from the M25 almost to Oxford at about 70 miles per hour. It started in 1967 as the High Wycombe bypass. By 1974, the section to Oxford was complete, making the journey much quicker.]
Oxford to Cheltenham
Back in the fifties, we were lucky with Oxford. Part of the northern Oxford Ring Road had already been built in the 30s, so we go North of the city at Headington through Wolvercote and rejoin the older A40 route at Eynsham. Our journey to Wolvercote round Oxford would be on dual carriageways with a few roundabouts. This made the journey easier than going through the city but it was still slowed down by the volume of traffic. Even then, Oxford was a busy city.
From Wolvercote to Eynsham we come to a few miles of three-lane road. The third lane does not contribute much to the volume of traffic. Certainly, for the 70s and 80s, you could guarantee a hold up of up to an hour if you approached Oxford on this road from the West.
From there to Cheltenham is a stretch of forty to fifty miles of low class road. Even today, most of this part of the A40 is still just two lanes, unlit at night. We go through the small towns of Witney, Burford and Northleach. Two of these have narrow streets like the towns we have met already. Burford is a little better as the main street of the town goes from North to South – our route skirts its southern edge.
At Andoversford we take two sharp turns to go under a railway bridge, then along the long central street of the village, continuing to Cheltenham.
[Now West of Oxford, this road has not changed all that much since then, because it is no longer a major trunk road to the West. If you want to get to Wales, the M4 takes you there much more quickly. If you want Cheltenham or Gloucester, the A419 and A417 act as an almost motorway grade link from Swindon on the M4. The A40 remains for more local traffic only. Nevertheless, Witney and Northleach now each have dual carriageway bypasses, but the rest is still mostly single carriageway, only two lanes. The road bypasses Andoversford and the old railway bridge has gone.]
Cheltenham and Beyond
Now it gets worse. Cheltenham is a big town. Going through it is not easy. It uses one-way routes to split the A40 traffic in both directions. The way from Cheltenham to Gloucester is through the large village of Churchdown, narrow and winding.
[Cheltenham is no better now. It still has no bypass or Ring Road. At the wrong time of day, allow half an hour to get through it. The day I started work, back in 1969, marked two other memorable events. It was the date of the first man on the Moon and the opening of the Golden Valley Bypass. We now at least have a fast, straight, dual carriageway road from Cheltenham to Gloucester. That was just a few miles of the A40.]
Gloucester is similar to Cheltenham, about the same size, with the A40 negotiating its way through main streets in and out of the centre. (I can’t say it’s a similar town. For historical reasons Gloucester is a city. Cheltenham is not. I don’t mind. I have lived most of my life in Cheltenham. Most of it is better than Gloucester.)
After Gloucester, you can no longer think of the A40 as a major road. It was and still is a narrow, and in parts hilly, road to the next big town of Ross-on-Wye, winding its way through Huntley, Lea and Weston-under-Penyard. (Remember that even without traffic, all these towns and villages are built-up areas with the implied 30 mph speed limit.) Ross has a difficult centre to get through, with its mediaeval market building and narrow streets. At Ross, the road turns by 90 degrees from just North of West to just West of South.
[Gloucester and Ross both now have Ring Roads. Cheltenham is the only significant town to have been forgotten!]
The road meanders through Monmouth (Trefynwy), Raglan (Rhaglan), Abergavenny (Y Fenni) and Crickhowell (Crug Hywel, Crughywel, or Crucywel) to Brecon (Aberhonddu) in the Welsh Mountains, through several minor towns and villages. I can’t say much about the road beyond Ross but it does have to go through some mountains. In the fifties, traffic going that way would have been very low so it hardly justified calling itself an A road.
I have shown the Welsh names for places in Wales. Road signs now are bilingual but in the fifties road signs (and maps) would have stuck to English.
After Brecon we have Llandovery (It may look Welsh but the Welsh call it: Llanymddyfri), Llandeilo and Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin), and onwards to Haverfordwest (Hwylffordd) in what was then Pembrokeshire. Roads have never been logical and at Haverfordwest the road makes a right turn and heads northwards to Fishguard, ending at Goodwick (Wdig), the port of Fishguard. The end was presumably chosen because of ferry links to Ireland which are still available from Fishguard.
(Scholars of Welsh will note that even when the English try to make Welsh sounding names, they use letters not in the Welsh language and non-Welsh spellings.)
The A40 was a sample, in many ways typical of fairly major roads in the fifties. As a very young child, I remember being driven the short distance to Margate for summer holidays. Heading towards the coast on a summer Saturday, traffic ground to a halt as we went through every town on the way, driving down High Roads with busy shoppers.
My title for this blog is, of course, taken from the song by Paul McCartney, as sung on the LP, ‘Let it Be,’ possibly inspired by the B842 in Scotland, even more long and windy than the A40!
I need to set my randomizer in motion to pick the next topic …