A complete guide to the greatest stretches of tarmac to run through our green and pleasant land
It’s a strange business, driving on a motorway. In my younger days, it was utterly thrilling: the open road, the sense of freedom, the limitless possibilities of travel. Just me and my blue Clio powered by a diet of Red Bull, grab bag hula hoops and Crunchie Rocks.
But, as you get older, it’s not quite as enjoyable: the traffic jams are less bearable and the slow, dawning realisation, as you drive past another crash site, that banging along at 70mph (and, strictly, no faster) in a tin can is actually quite a serious business, so you should probably concentrate a bit more.
Nonetheless, driving along a motorway, with a great album on the stereo (and Red Bull, grab bag hula hoops and Crunchie Rocks on the passenger seat), letting the mind wander, sorting out all those pressing mental decisions you’d been suppressing during the busy working week: it’s one of life’s pleasures. Alone with nothing but your thoughts - and, if the timing is right, Ken Bruce or Test Match Special - and the gentle hum of the engine, it can be rather wonderful.
However, not all motorways are created equal and, to the connoisseur - that is, me - there are big differences between one set of tarmac and another. Geography matters, goddamit, as does the selection of service stations at your disposal.
Following my service station opus linked above, I was contacted by the good people at Insure The Gap to inform me of the results of a new survey they’d undertaken, where they asked 2000 UK drivers to select their favourite and least-favourite motorways.
These are the results and, readers, take a deep breath before going on because, in true internet fashion, what you about to see WILL shock you:
The top 5 favourites are:
And the nation’s least favourite motorways are:
I wonder if Insure The Gap have been secretly wiretapping me for the past few years because if they’d wanted to create a list to rile me into writing an article, screaming at the sky in anger, whilst also mentioning their website twice to give them some free publicity then they couldn’t have done a better job.
Would I rise to the bait and give them what they wanted? Of course I would.
That list is wrong. This list is right.
The best motorways in the UK
Before we go any further, I assume it did not escape your attention - it certainly didn’t escape mine - that the A66 is not a motorway. The ‘A’ is the giveaway here and, just to avoid confusion, that’s not just my opinion but the opinion of a little website called ‘Wikipedia’ which makes it quite clear that an ‘M’ is necessary for it to be a motorway.
I will accept the ‘M’ appearing in brackets, in an upgraded A-road fashion. The vast majority of these are small sections within A roads so *spoiler* they won’t be appearing in the below sections (with one notable exception), although I will accept that the section of the A1(M) from Alconbury to Peterborough is an absolute banger and welcome respite from the tedious, tedious annoyance of the rest of the A1.
Also, I have never driven in Northern Ireland, so sorry lads, I cannot award any places, good or bad, to your roads. They’re probably good, but I’m sticking with Britain for now (I am, however, still going with UK in the headline for SEO purposes. Those clicks won’t click themselves you know).
Work your way up the gears, slip into something a little more comfortable - 5th, or if you’re lucky and/or a lorry driver, 6th - and let’s get moving.
10. M6 Toll
Oh the decadence. Let’s get this out of the way early - yes, it goes against my egalitarian principles - on the roads we are all equal, following the same rules, with the same speed restrictions in place, and the same noble goal of reaching our destination in a timely manner whilst not hogging the middle lane. That said, the M6 Toll is to experience, albeit merely for 27 brief miles, how the other half live. Traffic volume is low, speeds are high, and the roads are smooth as silk: truly, the Double Caramel Galaxy of motorways. An occasional decadent tread, but you wouldn’t want to have it all the time lest you become spoiled and tiresome.
Located between Stirling and Edinburgh which means that you’re in ‘very nice part of the world territory’, the eight mile-long M876 earns its place on this list almost entirely by virtue of it being the only motorway in Britain with a pedestrian crossing. Yes, you read that correctly. Near Junction 2 you can just hop, skip and jump merrily across a section of motorway. Try doing that on the M1. Actually, don’t: you’ll be flattened in seconds.
As a student of geography, I cannot help but be drawn to the M48. Originally a part of the M4 upon its opening in 1966, it was a victim of its own success, with traffic levels necessitating the building of the second Severn Bridge in 1996, onto which the M4 was diverted. This left the M48 being renamed and left as a kind of ox-bow lake of a motorway - once free-flowing, now rather more serene, there only for those fancying a slight detour over a quaint old bridge.
Take in a little bit of history next time you head to/escape from Wales and give the M48 a go.
Yeah, I can hear all the haters sneering at this, being as it is only a bracketed M road, and a mere 1.1 miles long but honestly, what the A167(M) lacks in length, it more than makes up for in action-packed thrills and spills.
For a start, it’s right in the bloody middle of a bloody city (Newcastle, for the uninitiated), and it ducks and dives around with more tight curves than a problematic 90s lads mag, even boasting a double-decker section. I remember the first time I drove on it, back in the days before SatNav, clutching my Newcastle A-Z having never been there and panicking like crazy when a motorway somehow appeared out of nowhere, as my Clio frantically zig-zagged across the lanes like a Space Invaders cannon. Pure adrenalin, my friends.
I’m telling you: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and if you don’t like intense motorway action, then stay the hell away from the A167(M).
The M6 is, apparently, the second least-liked motorway in the UK, and to that I say, let me take every single one of you who voted against it for a ride up and down its 232 mile route and explain, at length, why you are all wrong.
I know why you’ve all picked it - “the boring bit south of Manchester is really boring and prone to enormous traffic jams” and that is indeed true (in fact a friend of mine once, with the SatNav saying it was 45 minutes until they were at their destination in the heart of Manchester, decided to drop a pill so he could begin the night with a bang, before an almighty traffic jam led to him spending the entire duration of his trip (in the chemical sense of the word) in a stationary Nissan Micra) and “oh the bit around Birmingham doesn’t half get clogged up” and yes, again, also true (although the M6 Toll has certainly alleviated the traffic issues there) but don’t focus on the negatives, think of the positives.
The elevated bit past all the old factories during that aforementioned Birmingham section, the rush of freedom of finally leaving the bloody M1 - and by, association - the gravitational pull of London - when you finally pull off at Junction 19, the feeling of entering the ‘serious north’ as you sail past Manchester and Preston and then, finally, the unadulterated natural sweeping beauty as you head up into the Lakes and up toward Carlisle.
The M6 is more than a motorway, it’s a snapshot of the glories and frustrations of life in the UK, and it deserves some bloody respect.
I’ve only been on this one - Scotland’s busiest motorway and the link between its two biggest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh - a few times, but oh what a thrill it is to ride a motorway directly through the middle of Glasgow. Not only that, but check out the eye candy on the bit where it runs next to the River Clyde:
More utter bollocks from the misinformed voting public here as the M62 claimed third place on the ‘least-liked’ list.
Now, the bit between Manchester and Liverpool I can take or leave (although anything that means you end up in either of those great cities is alright by me) but the section between Manchester and Leeds: oh my days, utterly glorious it is as you traverse the Pennines, the backbone of Britain no less, rising up, passing the famous Stott Hall Farm where the motorway splits (disappointingly, rather than the cause of this being a gloriously miserable old farmer refusing to sell up it’s due to a geological fault) and reaching its summit at Junction 22 - the highest motorway point in England no less. So steep is the hill that I remember driving my old van with a band and equipment in, foot to the floor, reaching a maximum speed of about 35mph and becoming ever more convinced that we’d need to jettison the bass amp in order to make it over.
No, sorry: glorious natural beauty and a feat of engineering - the M62 is magnificent.
The M18 is bloody brilliant for the following reasons:
1. It takes you to York, one of the great UK cities
2. It takes you off the M1
3. There’s rarely anyone else on it
Therefore, a thoroughly deserved third place.
I am not going to lie to you reader, the M40’s elevated position in this list is in no small part down to the presence of the GOAT service station that sits just after Junction 2. You can’t just ignore it can you? It’s like analysing Barcelona and not mentioning Messi. It’s there, it’s literally a reason on its own to go on the M40, so it’s going to contribute to its overall score. In fact, even if the rest of the M40 was made of quicksand, I’d probably risk it to pop to Beaconsfield services, just for a day out.
Fortunately, though, the M40 more than justifies its second place on the list - it is an approximately 1000% more enjoyable way to get to Birmingham than via the M1, there’s that lovely dip ‘n’ bridge bit just before Oxford services where a beautiful vista opens up before you and the traffic is rarely that bad. It is, quite simply, a bloody good road.
I once drove along the entirety of the 7.9 miles of motorway that makes up the M45, from junction 17 of the M1, all the way through to its end where it meets the A45 and did not see a single other car. Not one. Not. A. Single. Car. Just me and the motorway, together in perfect harmony. I could appreciate the feel of rubber on tarmac, the sensation of relatively high-speed and exceptionally high-safety motoring, of unsullied kinetik progress in complete peace, letting the road soothe me, cradling me in its asphalty arms. In many ways, on that day, I became motorway. M45, you see that mark on my chest? It’s where you stole my heart and you still have it.
As economically viable transport decisions go though, an absolute shocker. Still, it’s built now.
The worst motorways in the UK
Sure, it’s nice to end up in Cambridge but, equally, you also end up at the A14, aka the most boring, tedious, awful road that has ever existed. It’s got the sneakiest speed camera in the UK when it goes down to 50mph near London and there are only lights in the Stansted bit, with the rest of your drive taking place in eye-straining darkness. Sometimes I think, “Would it be so bad if a plane were to crash and kill me so I don’t have to go any further along the M11?” and then I think, “No, don’t be so melodramatic Dave, it could be worse, you could be on one of the six motorways below instead.”
It’s an easy target to kick but the M25 is terrible. Constant traffic jams, particularly around the M3 and M4 junctions, the boring south bit, the boring north bit, and the fact that the only exciting bit - the QEII bridge - is next to Lakeside and Bluewater, aka the most godforsaken places on earth (and it’s not even technically part of the M25, being the A282). Sometimes I think, “Would it be so bad if I were to drive off the QEII bridge so I don’t have to go any further along the M25?” and then I think, “No, don’t be so melodramatic Dave, it could be worse, as you could be on one of the five motorways below instead.”
Like the M25 but worse.
Bloody hell, the M1 is epically awful. Shocking traffic, goes past Luton, and contains the most mindnumbingly dull stretch of motorway in the UK between Junctions 13 and 14 which goooess ooonnn fooorrrreevvveeer. The only good bit - the towers of doom near Sheffield - got knocked down a few years ago. There is nothing to recommend it. In the sage words of my mate Phil: “I wish less people knew about that motorway.”
I don’t think I have ever been on this motorway and not been in a traffic jam. And it’s only four miles long.
I will lie on my death bed (or perhaps as I am hit by a plane near Stansted/cascading off the QEII bridge into the Thames estuary) and think: “I never did get round to working out how the hell the M42 works”. Not once have I ever been confident that I am going the right way on it, many times have I accidentally taken the M42 instead of the M6/M6 Toll because of the poor signposting and then still been on it the following day. It makes no sense. South becomes North. Up becomes down. Day becomes night. It is a total mystery and I hate it. I wish it was dead, which is ironic, really, seeing as 42 is the meaning of life.
Ah, you know I said that the A14 was the most boring, tedious, boring, awful road that has ever existed? Yeah, well actually it’s this one. Good god, it is appalling. I mean, the bit in Wales is fine, but to get there you have to drive more than a hundred of the most monotonous, dull motorway miles ever created.
Flat as a pancake and nothing to look at as you sail past Slough and Reading. The bus lane was also a great idea wasn’t it. Who voted for this to earn 5th place in the study earlier? You are all psychopaths and should have your licences revoked immediately.
Tell you what, if you like it so much, why don’t you drive up and down it for the rest of your lives? Yes, that will learn you.
(Images: Getty, unless credited otherwise)