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Battle of Bottlenecks – traffic chaos in the 1950s and 1960s on the Bank Holidays

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 26, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • Old fashioned joke on this charabanc postcard

  • Blackpool was one of the most popular destinations. In 1919 the first summer of peacetime so many holidaymakers arrived in Blackpool that many were forced to sleep on the beach

  • Revving up memories of Bank Holiday traffic chaos in the 1950s and 1960s in the city centre of Birmingham

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OUR sizzling summer has seen many of us taking holidays at home. The downside, of course, can mean congested roads and motorway mayhem.

So, as the August Bank Holiday weekend approaches, will we see traffic chaos - as we make a last dash for the coast?

Yet, as you picture being stuck behind endless caravans, here's a thought - are traffic conditions today really as bad as we think they are?

Those of a certain age may beg to differ. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, as more of us travelled by road to our holiday destinations, Bank Holiday traffic jams often reached truly epic proportions.

In the late 1800s, when Bank Holidays were introduced, most people went by train. This remained the norm until well into the 20th century, when bus and coach travel took off.

During the 1920s and 30s, travelling by motor charabanc was all the rage. By the mid 1950s bus and coach travel peaked, with around eight million passengers.

It was during the 1950s that ordinary travellers experienced their first taste of luxury. Coaches were now very stylish with lots of chrome and beautifully trimmed interiors. By the 1960s passengers gained panoramic views as front windscreens grew bigger. Things were changing rapidly during these post war years, including the way we holidayed.

After the First World War whole communities upped sticks to the popular northern seaside resorts during works weeks, Bank Holidays and wakes weeks. Back then everyone travelled by rail, carrying their holiday clothes in ordinary shopping bags or in brown paper parcels tied with string. Many of them were bound for Blackpool.

In 1919, the first summer of peacetime, so many holidaymakers arrived in Blackpool many were forced to sleep on the beach. The accommodation crisis was so bad that local police allowed women and children to sleep in the cells!

After World War Two it was the steady rise in car ownership that brought about the most important change to the nature of our seaside holiday.

In 1957 47 per cent of holidaymakers let the train take the strain while 27 per cent used private motors. By 1960 nearly half of them travelled by car, rising to nearly 70 per cent by the end of the decade. It was to be the kiss of death for the rail network as we knew it, as Dr Beeching axed countless coastal and rural branch lines.

Before the rise in car ownership many holidaymakers booked into hotels and boarding houses that were easily reached from rail and bus stations.

The rise in private motoring gave people more freedom to explore areas outside resort centres.

They could also stay at out-of-town caravan sites and B&Bs, or go self catering in more out-of-the-way cottages. Consequently, seafront hoteliers and landladies suffered, while caravan parks gained.

Strangely, despite more of us arriving by car, holiday resort councils and tourist boards were still trapped in a time warp. Many of them were appalled by the phenomenal growth in private motoring, rightly envisaging terrible traffic jams and pollution.

With the freedom car travel offered it was inevitable. Yet many resorts failed to move with the times when it came to providing adequate parking.

Many tourist guides even failed to give details of how to reach their resort by car! Generally rail and bus links were included, and in some cases even information on how to get there by air! But for the 50 per cent of seasonal visitors who came in their own cars, there was very little information. Which, given everything else motorists had to endure in the late 50s and early 60s, did not exactly guarantee a stress-free journey.

As most of us still holidayed in the UK back then, Bank Holidays saw the world and his wife – usually with a couple of kids, grandma and the dog in tow – on the roads. In those days setting out for the coast was like a military campaign, requiring stamina, endurance, and above all, patience. The trip would involve a series of mind-numbing traffic jams between all the major towns en route, crawling for miles along A and B roads.

Kids today can't possibly imagine what it was like driving from the Black Country down to Devon or Cornwall. If you were heading to Torquay, there were only 16 miles of motorway travel on the M5. And that petered out near Tewkesbury!

To reach the holiday resorts of the south west, you had to endure solid jams along the A38, with the notorious Exeter by-pass to look forward to.

Throughout the summer, and especially at Bank Holiday weekends, roads into major resorts were chaotic. In August 1966 the RAC reported 1,000 vehicles per hour leaving the Exeter by-pass, and it was only 10am! Those returning home, going in the opposite direction, were stuck in a seven-mile tailback. That same weekend, around 1,500 cars per hour were recorded leaving London at 5am, trying to beat the jams on their escape to the coast.

With such mayhem on the roads many hardy souls tried to escape the jams by travelling through the night. I recall a particularly gruelling family trek down to Margate that took over two days! My Mom and Dad must have had the patience of saints, as I was only six and my sister just two – and prone to car sickness!

But we weren't alone by any means. In those pre-motorway days it was common to set out about 10pm on the Friday to try to beat the bottlenecks before the morning rush. Then, drivers would find a convenient place to pull up, to snatch some sleep.

The only trouble was that everyone else seemed to have the same plan. So lay-bys were often full, forcing weary drivers to park anywhere they could. It was common to see cars littering grass verges along the all the major trunk roads into Devon and Cornwall.

Relief came, eventually, on December 5 1958, when Harold MacMillan opened Britain's first stretch of motorway. This was the Preston By-pass, all eight and a quarter miles of it! Back then, it was a dual two-lane motorway with "soft" shoulders and no central barrier.

In November 1959 Ernest Marples opened our first major inter-city motorway, a 67-mile section of the M1 between Crick and Berrygrove. This was the first section of the M1 London to Yorkshire motorway, designed to speed up travel between Birmingham and London.

This time there were proper hard shoulders and it was our first dual three-lane motorway. It was considered so innovative that school kids everywhere were taken on coach trips along it.

Yes, dear reader, I was one of these lucky kids – I don't recall being that impressed but do remember the bags of sweets we were given.

So things were definitely looking up for British motorists. Holidaymakers wishing to make the long trek down to the south west, however, still had a long way to go. It was 1971 before the M5 finally linked the Midlands to Bristol. Happy days!

Wishing you a stress-free and safe journey if you're on the roads this coming weekend!

What were your holiday memories from the 1950s and 1960s, we'd love to hear them? Write to us at The Black Country Bugle, Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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