I recently had the considerable displeasure of making an extended journey down the M6. For the uninitiated, the M6 is a motorway that runs 232 miles from near Rugby in the English midlands all the way north to the Scottish Border at Gretna Green. Completed in stages between 1958 and 1971, it carries vast numbers of people every day who are all desperate to be somewhere else, and so it regularly grinds to a halt for hours on end giving plenty of time for drivers to contemplate the meaning of life. This wasn’t what its designers intended.
Back in the early 1960s the motorway network offered a welcome release from the choked-up trunk routes. For the first time, motorists were able to cover long distances without having to squeeze through town centres or crawl along winding roads behind freight traffic. Post war decentralisation and reconstruction relied upon easy movement of goods and people, and step change in the quality of the road network was long overdue. With no upper speed limit in force on the new motorways it must have been a revelation to be able to whip across country and rapidly access places previously out of reach. Forget the tiny fraction of drivers winding their E-Types up to an optimistically indicated 150mph, just being able to guide your Morris 1000 at a steady 60mph for miles on end must have been liberating enough. With the state of the motorways today, I’d settle for being able to average a steady 60mph now.
The first stretch of motorway was opened on 5th December 1958 but contrary to what you might expect, it wasn’t anywhere near London. The honour fell to what was initially billed as the Preston By-Pass but later became the M6, an 8.26 mile stretch of highway designed to free up congestion in the eponymous north western town. The route had been planned as early as 1937 following a visit to survey the German Autobahns, but it wasn’t until the Special Roads Act was passed in 1949 that the law allowed construction of roads that could be restricted to certain classes of vehicles. The concept of the motorway did not allow for bicycles, tractors or horses.
The contract to build the new road was awarded to Tarmac Group and it was planned for two lanes in each direction whilst retaining a wide central reservation to allow for expansion to three lanes if required. Work began in 1956 but the project was blighted by heavy rainfall leading to the schedule slipping by five months. The techniques for building a high speed route had to be refined over those of standard construction and the rain highlighted the particular challenges around drainage. Accumulation of large puddles could be disastrous for cars travelling at speed. The road was laid on a sub-base of burnt red shale with the thickness dependent upon the ground conditions. A wet mix of around 9 inches was then laid over the base, before being topped with 2-3 inches of tarmac lined with an inch of asphalt. Note the proper imperial measurements of the time. When the road was opened by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on that December day (in an Austin Sheerline Limousine in case you were wondering), a new era dawned. It promptly closed again 46 days later when it was discovered that water had seeped in to the hard shoulder base layer and frost had begun to fracture it. Emergency resurfacing works are therefore nothing new.
By 1965 the entire northern section of the M6 had been completed in three lane form, and provision needed to be made for traveller comfort and refreshment. Dedicated service stations were required for refuelling, rest and recuperation as it wasn’t practical for travellers to divert to the old trunk road halts. The new stops would be operational 24 hours per day and be designed with the capacity to serve the thousands of visitors that would be passing through. The opportunity to be involved in such ventures attracted the top architects of the day and there was a genuine excitement at being able to shape such cutting edge facilities. Notably, the new service stations were founded upon core principles of quality and decorum. They were designed to be attractive locations where travellers would be more than happy to stop and recharge, and maybe even linger a little just for the pleasure of it.
The first service station on the M6 opened at Charnock Richard between junctions 27 and 28. However, the second one is more interesting. Forton Services near Lancaster occupies a site between junctions 32 and 33 and is notable due to the landmark structure that dominates the scene; the modernist Pennine Tower. Commissioned by the Rank Organisation, the tower was the result of a tender process that saw the appointment of well-regarded London architectural practice, TP Bennett & Sons. With a background in apartment blocks, cinemas and theatres, TP Bennett first became involved in motorway architecture in 1962 with Strensham Services on the M5, but at Forton they were requested to come up with something really special.
The service area was set out in the same manner as a railway station with facilities placed on either side of the traffic and linked by a footbridge, thus serving northbounders and southbounders equally. Wishing to take advantage of the far reaching views across the Lancashire countryside to Morecambe Bay and the Trough of Bowland, TP Bennett & Sons proposed low rise buildings on each side, dominated on the north bound carriageway by a 100ft high structure inspired by an aircraft control tower. To be constructed from reinforced concrete and asbestos cement sheeting, the shaft was topped by a hexagonal cantilevered floor housing a restaurant, and capped by a dramatic sun deck. Grandly entitled the Pennine Tower, travellers could ride the elevator skywards to enjoy a waitress-served meal whilst literally looking down on the self-service cafeterias, intended for hauliers and those of lesser means. It was innovative, striking and ambitious and except for having to reduce the overall height to 65ft to satisfy the planning authority, the proposal was accepted and became a reality. The bold statement of future motorway dining opened in November 1965.
As so often happens, best laid plans don’t always translate to the real world and the era of fancy dining on the motorway was already in decline by the mid-1960s. The travelling public came to prefer a cheaper grab and go approach and the tower restaurant rapidly drifted away from its design aspirations. Quality slipped and by 1977 noted gourmet Egon Ronay had declared the food to be “appalling” with the steak and kidney pie “an insult to one’s taste buds” and the apple pie “an absolute disgrace”. The restaurant was no longer a place to linger and footfall fell, but it was a change in fire regulations that led to its closure in 1989. Rank sold out to Pavilion, who subsequently sold to Granada. The site is now owned by Moto and continues to ply its trade today under the name of Lancaster Services, but with its feet firmly and solely on the ground.
The world is full of disused visions of the future and you would expect the Pennine Tower to be nothing more than a pile of rubble today, or forming a base layer on a motorway carriageway itself. However, remarkably it gained a permanent stay of execution in 2012 when it was granted Grade II listed protected status, joining socially valuable buildings such as Abbey Road Studios, Southend Pier and any number of historic churches and houses. Recognised as a rare and early example of both motorway architecture and the world it represented, the tower may be currently off limits to ordinary visitors but its visual impact remains. With the M6 at a standstill, we recently took the opportunity to stop and imagine the world that remains above the carriageways. Crossing the decidedly non-listed footbridge over the standing traffic, the tower becomes invisible from inside the northbound building but the portal to another world is easily found behind an advertising banner. Behind the elevator doors lurks the body of the shaft containing two adjacent lifts and a helical staircase rising to the sun deck. Standing silently above, the large servery still exists but the original restaurant seating, fixtures and fittings are apparently gone, partitioned into offices which are themselves no longer in use. However the original timber soffits, geometric blue and white wall tiles, and fish-scale tiles forming an open screen are still apparently in place. I can report this only from the Historic England listing details as during our visit the old restaurant remained tantalisingly out of reach.
The Pennine Tower stands today as a monument to a time when motorways represented the new optimism of a country on the move. Its bold design still stands sentry next to the carriageway, seen yet barely noticed by tens of thousands of drivers every day. Even if the lift doors magically opened and we could be ascended to a world of waitresses serving prawn cocktails and rib eye steak, we would have to eventually return to the reality below. And so with that, we stepped away from the past and trudged back into the gridlock.