Lancaster nostalgia: ups and downs of building the M6

Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972
Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972

It is 50 years this week since it was announced work would start to finally link Lancaster to the Lake District by motorway. Lewis Downes reports.

When the nation’s first stretch of motorway was opened it was the start of a project which now covers more than 2,100 miles around the United Kingdom.

Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972

Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan cut the ribbon on the eight miles of the Preston Bypass on December 5 1958 and said it was a symbol of what was to follow.

The next project of what we now know as the M6 followed quickly with the creation of the Lancaster Bypass between modern day junctions 33 and 35.

By 1965 the motorway stretched from Stafford to Lancaster but the next stage of the scheme was to prove the most challenging so far as the road builders headed north.

On January 18 1966 it was announced engineers wanted to start work before the end of the year on the length to the end of the county and beyond in a bid to tackle traffic congestion in Westmorland.

Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972

Tebay Services when they first opened in 1972

It was envisgaed the new road would cut delays of an hour often experienced by motorists using the A6.

Delays saw the project actually begin the following year on the extension from Tebay to Killington.

The motorway stretched 34 miles and cost £30m linking Carnforth with Thrimby, six miles south of Penrith.

The route to Scotland via the M6 is very close to the one built by the Romans which can be seen from the motorway as it passes between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.

The area was arguably the most difficult to build because of its rocky surface and at various times tunnels and high viaducts were considered to tackle the various options for carving through the mountainous terrain.

When the Lune Gorge was settled on for a route it was given ten-months lead time over other sections, with it being completed on the October 23 1970.

It was the first time a meteorological survey had been carried out to inform the building of a road with project leaders concerned over poor visibility.

The study established that at the worst point visibility should be twice as good by comparison with the nearby A6.

Similar work was carried out on the problem of snow and ice with the highest point of the new road 350ft lower than the A6.

On some sections the north and south bound carriageways are up 800ft apart and stepped with ‘sheep creeps’ created beneath the roads to enable animnals to graze the land between the carriageways.

The road clims 600ft in seven miles with the gradients designed to be as constant as possible.

Engineers on the project spent several weeks finding the best way to use explosives to help create way for a road and 750,000 tons of rock were removed via this method much of which was then used to help construct the motorway.

James McJnnes, Westmorland’s county surveyor, ensured slopes were shaped to prevent drifting and had the tough task of designing 27 bridges, the most difficult to construct was over the River Lune.

The River Lune sits in the Lune Gorge between Junctions 37 and 38 and is often said to be Britain’s most beautiful stretch of motorway, having a heart shaped forest on its hillside.

At one point during the project there was a fear a grouping of 300-year-old oak trees would be demolished to pave way for the asphalt, but this was blocked after opposition from 150 MPs.

The Lune Gorge has carriageways separated by 30ft of earth, roads that reached a maximum elevation of 1,036ft and a bridge which spans 400ft.

When the ribbon was cut on the new road it marked the culmination of 11 years of planning, design and construction.

During the opening ceremony for this section of the M6 expansion 200 workers staged a protest for an increase of pay to 55 shillings as Transport Industries Minister John Peyton gave his speech. Mr Peyton simply replied to these disgruntled workers that he had forgotten to bring his money with him.

The formal opening cermoney took place at the Burton West service station which was the first in the country to run by an oil company.

The 24 hour facility was situated on the northbound carraiageway and operated by Mobil.

A report at the time of the opening stated, “To say that it is one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the country is not too wild a claim by any means.

“Indeed, parts of it are breathtaking and a motorist making his first journey along the road could well find himself distracted by the hills and mountains and cursing motorwy regulations which prevent him from pulling up and gazing at the view.”

The section of motorway received a Civic Trust Award and the following wording appears on a plaque in a lay-by off the A685 overlooking the Lune Gorge: “This award for an outstanding contribution to the appearance of the Westmorland landscape relates to the 36 miles of M6 Motorway between the Lancaster and Penrith by-passes”.

Within two years the new stretch was to have the distinction of housing the only family run motorway service station on the UK road network. Tebay Services threw open its doors in 1972 when local farmers John and Barbara Dunning joined forces with local bakers to serve passing motorists from their 30 seat café serving home cooked, locally sourced food.