Growing up in the country, I used to find it hard to imagine that anyone could find any beauty in anything urban. With the possible exception of medieval buildings, and perhaps the odd piece of grandiose Victorian architecture, I regarded anything of human making as necessarily inferior in beauty to the beauty of the natural world that lay around our village. (It was only later in life that I reflected on the fact that the rural farming landscapes to which I was so attached were as much made by human hands as the concrete structures I so hated). I remember hearing Stephen Spender’s poem, The Pylons at school and feeling confused by it, could anyone suggest that the metal structures had some redeeming qualities and that they could add something to the landscape?
Perhaps I could never be convinced by pylons, but I have developed a fondness for motorways. More particularly, motorways in the early morning, or on evenings when the traffic is light and the skies are deep hues and when the first lights are being turned on. The lights, the whites and the reds, shine out of a deep and looming background. There is a reassurance about the passing cars, like the night light shining in your bedroom when you were a child.
Driving just twenty-two kilometres of the M5 motorway each day, from Junction 23 to Junction 21, gives an insight into how important the motorways are to the welfare of everyone. The sheer volume of traffic shows how much the economic well-being of the nation depends upon the innumerable trucks that criss-cross the country and sometimes the whole continent of Europe. The massive jams, the tailbacks, sometimes the complete standstills, may be undesirable experiences, but they demonstrate a vibrancy in the economy, whereby cars are considered the everyday norm, whereby travel is an extremely democratic experience.
There are frequently moments, particularly in the early morning, when the question comes to mind as to where all the traffic could possibly be going. Wherever its destination, the next junction or the furthest points in Europe, its presence on the road represents an economic and a political freedom, and a freedom of movement, which we have come to take for granted
The motorway may be much despised, but without it, the European world would be a very different place. Perhaps motorways will never be beautiful, although they are definitely better than pylons, but they have an attraction of an old and familiar friend whose absence would leave life considerably poorer.