About this image
Looking east towards Sawley. The motorway was one of the first to be built in the United Kingdom. In 1948 an act was passed parliament, which allowed the government to build 'special roads' - roads that didn't have public rights of way like others and were restricted just to motorised traffic. The idea for motorways had existed before this: plans had existed in the 1920's for 'motor roads', most notably London to Brighton or to Birmingham and Manchester. These were mostly along the lines of Italian Autostrade, and were private projects exploiting odd laws (like one governing light railways) to exclude pedestrians. The 1948 law made the business much simpler and indicated the government's interest in building motorways in the near future. The M1 was officially opened on 2nd November 1959 by the Minister for Transport Ernest Marples. This first section of M1 opened from St Albans to Rugby - almost 60 miles of six-lane motorway plus various spurs. Its first service area, Watford Gap, became a tourist attraction. The M1's design capacity was 14,000 vehicles per day, which was reached on opening day. Originally it had a soft grass verge instead of a hard shoulder and an open reservation with no barriers. The M1 was first designed and constructed to be a London to Birmingham route broadly following the route of the A5, starting south of St Albans and ending at Coventry. Changes in transport demands later meant that construction would continued through the early-mid 1960's, leading the motorway to eventually terminate at Leeds. The southern section of the M1 was completed in 19 months at a cost of £16.5 million. 20 million tonnes of earth, gravel, rock and chalk were excavated to make way for the M1. Some of the 5,000 labour force who worked on the M1 were brought to work on double-decker buses, other site workers lived in mobile homes, moving on as construction progressed northwards. Canteens were needed every 2.5 miles along the motorway. The cost of the whole M1 was £50 million (the cost today would approximately be £1.5 billion). The M1 is monitored 24 hours a day by eight different police control offices. The heaviest traffic flow is between junction 7-10. The M1 was expected to attract lots of traffic - so much that there were fears the road network at each end wouldn't be able to cope. A spur was built at each end, the M10 and M45, to throw as much traffic off as possible before the road terminated. Today, unmodified except for the addition of hard shoulders and crash barriers, the southern bit of the M1 carries ten times the amount of traffic it was designed for. This capacity was reached the day it opened! Today it carries 130,000 to 140,000 per day on a virtually unmodified road (though the section south of the M10 was once two lanes and was upgraded to three in the 1980's). In 1999 about 8 miles was added to the top to make it swing east of Leeds and connect to the A1. It is now 187 miles long.