Yes, I know, it's illegal to go for a walk along a motorway. But, to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the opening of Britain's most famous road, I've been for a stroll as close alongside the M1 as I could get. From Junction 5, which is where the 1959 motorway began, all the way up to junction 6a, which is the M1's more recent mega-connection to the M25. That's a six-mile rural hike up the edge of Watford. Oh yeah, I know how to live it up, me.
Junction 5: Berrygrove Before the M1 came along, the Colne Valley southeast of Watford was a place of relative peace and calm. OK, so there was a major trunk road passing through - the A41 - but nothing visually intrusive. And then Britain's first major motorway arrived, launching off from these fields towards Luton and "The North", and the area was never the same again. A buckle-shaped roundabout was built to link the new M1 to the parallel A41, and traffic filtered off to drive on the pristine no-speed-limit carriageways. It's still possible to see what used to be here, before the concrete crash-landed, by taking a walk up from the Aldenham Road along the very edge of the motorway. The path passes first through a field, then enters thick beechy woodland - this being Berrygrove Woods after which the carved-out junction is named. It's a delightful place, all shady forest and muddy trails, currently with scrunchy brown leaves and sprouting fungi underfoot [photo]. From the central sloping trail the roar of the M1 is never too far away, though well hidden. Only by stepping deep into the undergrowth can the roundabout's embankment be seen, high above, disgorging traffic towards the backstreets of Bushey. Best not to even look, and simply to enjoy the unexpected woody solitude of Junction 5's scarred neighbour.
Munden Drive Despite being a mile from the M1, the landowners of stately Munden House risked being cut off from civilisation when the M1 was constructed. Their (very) long drive would be severed by the new road, and no alternative exit across the scenic River Colne looked practical. So the very first bridge across the M1 was a tiny thing designed to link a single mansion to the outside world. No cyclists are permitted to cross today, but pedestrians are welcome to stand high above the centre of the dual carriageway so long as they step out of the way should any Jag or Roller swan by. One wonders what drivers thundering below think when they spot somebody gawping from the overbridge. "Who is that up there?" "Why the hell are they taking photos, are they police?" "Oh no, he's not going to drop a brick on my windscreen is he?" "Don't jump!" [photo]
Meriden Estate The M1 divides residential Watford from some really very lovely countryside. I stuck to the pretty side, following untrod footpaths across meadows and through brambly copses. Every now and again the path came right up alongside the hard shoulder, sometimes beside a giant roadsign, occasionally past one of those anonymous grey boxes that monitors something. A real ale pub in the middle of nowhere came as a pleasant surprise, although the M1's concrete barrier must restrict the clientèle somewhat. Residents of the Meriden Estate aren't given too much opportunity to cross from their side to this, just a couple of gloomy subways, which tends to keep them away unless they have a dog to walk. The only bunch I encountered were a bunch of lads lurking in silhouette beneath the northbound carriageway. They might have been sweet kids who do errands for their grannies, or they might have been comparing knife sharpness, I didn't pause to find out.
Bucknalls Lane If your flat takes longer than an hour to burn down, or if relatively little heat escapes through your newbuild walls, then you probably have the Building Research Establishment to thank [photo]. They're based in Garston, up the far end of Bucknalls Lane, and in the mid 1950s the M1 came burrowing right past their main entrance. All these government scientists carrying out thrilling state-of-the-art research into pre-stressed concrete, and suddenly a genuine concrete-churning project materialised immediately alongside. BRE's thoughts today are with sustainability, low energy houses and all that tedious quality review stuff, so I doubt if the current generation of administrators are quite so excited by the engineering marvel outside the main gate. [photo]
Junction 6: Waterdale The M1 had an architectural style all of its very own, with every bridge along the 53-mile length essentially built to the same design. Flat slablike tops, bold concrete curves, and a pleasing modernity throughout. In the days before computer-aided design, it helped to have one chunky blueprint to stretch or skew to fit the space available. At Waterdale the A405 ducks beneath what was the second junction on the motorway, but is now number six [photo]. It's a very simple (and fairly cheap) junction with a couple of single-lane slip roads curving round to/from the embankment above. Catenary lighting hangs messily along the centre of the dual carriageway, ensuring that this key stretch of the UK network is illuminated at all times. I guess there can't be too many amateur astronomers living in neighbouring Bricket Wood.
Junction 6a: (M25 Junction 21) You've probably driven through here. It's where the M1 meets the M25, a triple-level free-flowing junction where the country's two most iconic motorways intersect. But I bet you haven't been here on foot. I was amazed that it was even possible. First I had to follow a non-footpath along the edge of the A405 dual carriageway to a half-hidden signpost, then cross a ploughed field up a shallow incline into a wood. No clues thus far as to what was hidden on the other side. A sudden fence corralled me alongside the southbound M1, a mere stone's throw away, then down to an unexpected viewpoint beneath a stack of three intersecting overpasses [photo]. As the traffic sped by, both above and below, I felt like an insignificant infidel encroaching into the heart of an automotive temple. But don't knock the power of the pedestrian "right of way". The Department of Transport has had to construct a traversable route through and across this multi-lane canyon, resulting in a pair of narrow footbridges suspended higher than the tops of the lampposts below. These bridges can't be used by more than a couple of pairs of walking boots each day, but they provided an excellent grandstand view as well as a route of passage. First to cross was the M25 proper, a few hundred yards down from the centre of this complex half-cloverleafjunction[photo]. A trio of mighty painted arrows reminded me just how huge road markings have to be so that they're legible through a speeding windscreen [photo]. And then to bridge number two, invisible from the first, across a gentle twin-lane chicane used by southbound M1 traffic attempting to join the M25 eastbound. Less busy, although still strangely picturesque in its own way [photo]. Fifty years on, even a pedestrian can sometimes appreciate the brutal beauty of our motorway network.