The longest three-digit A-road in the United Kingdom.
IS YOUR RELIEF ROAD REALLY A RELIEF?
A361 history part 2: from the second world war to beginning of the new millennium
The A361 has been so named since 1922, when from Taunton to Banbury it was one of the first classified A-roads. Once, in an earlier age, a fine lady was famously seen riding this way through Banbury upon an impressive white horse. Later, with travel by horse-power superseded first by the railways and then by motor cars and lorries, the A361 was extended at each end – to Ilfracombe in Devon and to Daventry in Northamptonshire. It has been called “a long but essentially local road … You would have very little reason to use it except for short trips between two local towns”. (1)
Today this section of the A361 forms part of the longest three-digit A-road anywhere in the United Kingdom. Brad Jackson, founder of the road enthusiasts’ website Sabre Roads, describes it as a local road where the scenery changes at every corner – with stunning views, historical landmarks and quaint little villages. “This is without doubt a blessed road. How could it not be, taking in both Avebury and Glastonbury? It is the road to the promised land. I love it, ’cos I’m going somewhere nice when I’m on it.” (2) This, at least, is how it still is at present.
* * *
A few months ago I had cleared boxes full of old paperwork out from my attic and I was using it to light the fire. Everyone knows how lighting the fire with old newspapers can take ages because odd items catch the eye and you end up sitting there reading them, getting colder and colder. This wasn’t old newspapers, it was mostly twenty years’ supply of redundant accounts and invoices, but in with all that were a few old letters. The one that caught my eye was written to me when I was editing a community magazine around the turn of the millennium.
It was from Alan Levett, who I never met but who used to live in Chilkwell Street. He had been interested in a short piece I had written about the possibility of a Glastonbury relief road – at the time (2001) a scheme that had been dropped in line with new government thinking that said no money for new roads unless they could be shown to reduce the overall volume of traffic. Mr Levett was not in favour of what was then called the ‘eastern relief road’, which would have gone along the old railway line behind the Tor; but he gave me some interesting historical information.
In 1967, he told me, the then County Surveyor had recorded that the road through Coursing Batch and Chilkwell Street was “a substantially sub-standard section of the A361” (his emphasis). A decision had been taken at that time to build a ‘southern relief road’, to come from Edgarley to the Butleigh Road and then to rejoin the existing A361 via Fishers Hill and Street Road. It was to be constructed by ‘developer contribution’ (i.e. paid for, at least in part, by housing developers in return for permission to build houses). Hence the building in 1970 of 319 houses to form the Actis (or Redlands) estate, at the bottom of which is the incongruously straight and little used Bretenoux Road, a 600 metre long and nine metre wide contribution towards the southern relief road. (3)
The rest of the road has never been built. Mr Levett blamed the Town, District and County Councils equally, arguing that “the councillors, or their advisers, latch onto any and every excuse possible not to do so”. My article had quoted a ‘rumour’ (never officially confirmed but still current today) that the new road “has been blocked to the point where no-one can take it seriously by Millfield School, because it would mean taking land away from their prep school”. (4) Millfield’s pupils, of course, include many with highly influential parents.
A more official-looking reason appears in John Brunsdon’s reminiscences, posted on Glastonbury Town Council’s website: that Mendip District Council would not sanction the building of more houses on the lower slopes of Glastonbury Tor, whilst Somerset County Council would not (or could not) fund the completion of the road themselves. (5)
In 2018 the Town Council, in a preamble to a survey of local attitudes to these two unbuilt road schemes, rather unhelpfully said only that the plan had been dropped “due to changes in local government priorities”. (6) It may be relevant that in 1973 Glastonbury ceased to be a Borough (which it had been since the time of Queen Anne), and the new Town Council had the status only of a parish.
Whatever the reason, the relief road was not built. The year 2017, when I found Mr Levett’s letter in a box of old papers, marked the fiftieth anniversary of discussions and arguments over the need to reduce traffic on the A361 through the town.
Approaching Glastonbury railway station by steam train, 1963.
Railways and motorways
By the outbreak of the second world war the route of the A361 from Frome through Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury was more or less as it is today, even though it would have looked a lot different and the volume of traffic was far less. Taking the route as a whole, traffic from Bath and Warminster directions joined the A361 and came through the middle of Frome, and again through the middle of Shepton Mallet, before skirting Glastonbury and then going through the middle of Street.
The way along Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane in Glastonbury was still part of a farming community on the very edge of the town. Chilkwell Farm was on the left of the road (later replaced by Draper’s sheepskin factory) and many of the older houses in the street were once farm workers’ cottages. Some even have parts of old barns incorporated into their structure. Abbey Farm was still in operation and utilising the Abbey Barn; its paddocks and farm buildings lined the left-hand side of Bere Lane, with houses only on the right. As a mark of how much our highways have changed during recent history, it is interesting (and sad) to see that in those days children could safely play in the middle of the road. (7)
Nationally, road building did not become a priority for a number of years after the end of the second world war. There was a grudging acknowledgement that the German autobahns had provided a modern road system that British roads could not match, but there were other more urgent things to deal with in the aftermath of the war.
From 1950 labour costs and the need to reduce delays to traffic during roadworks resulted in mechanisation of removal of old surfacing, spreading of fresh material, and eventually electronic guidance systems to control final levels; specifications for materials and mixing also became more sophisticated. (8) In spite of the Special Roads Act of 1949, which made possible motorway construction, the country’s first full-length motorway – the M1 from London to Leeds – was not opened until November 1959. (9)
Eventually the M5 would make a big difference to traffic congestion in Glastonbury. However that did not come until the 1970s although during the 1960s the railways were already being deliberately run down. A charming film made by John Betjeman for the BBC in 1963 is available now on YouTube. It features the poet travelling the 24 miles from Evercreech Juntion to Highbridge, and it includes footage taken through the window of the carriage as the train steams past Glastonbury Tor, along the very route that would be proposed in the 1980s for a new relief road.
As he approaches Highbridge, Betjeman issues a gentle diatribe in support of railways rather than roads. Naïve perhaps it was, yet heartfelt: “Railways are bound to be used again, they are not a thing of the past, and it’s heart-breaking to see them left to rot … All of us know that road traffic is becoming increasingly hellish on this overcrowded island and in ten years from now there will be three times as much traffic on English roads as today … I think it’s more than likely that we’ll deeply regret the branch lines that we’ve torn up”. (10)
Within a few years, and in spite of widespread protests, some 6,000 miles of railway and 2,000 local railway stations had been closed. (11) This included all the branch lines in Somerset apart from a few disconnected miles that were rescued by private enthusiasts and run as heritage railways. The branch line through Glastonbury was closed in 1966.
This dismantling of the railway network is still known as ‘the Beeching cuts’, although Dr Beeching was merely the ‘hired gun’ who was employed to do the job as Chairman of British Railways. The instigator of the policy was the Transport Secretary Ernest Marples, who happened to have a large financial interest in civil engineering. He was the actual architect of the destruction and the huge boost for motorway construction. (12)
The Glastonbury road protest movement
With post-war prosperity and the running down of the railways, road traffic was increasing by 10% year on year. In Glastonbury it was building up, particularly, on the High Street. The County Council proposed an ‘inner relief road’ that would run from the Wells Road direct to the Street Road, carving a swathe of destruction through the north-eastern part of the town with some of the new road intended to be constructed as a fly-over.
This plan had reached an advanced stage by 1973, just as Glastonbury Borough Council was being replaced by the new – downgraded – Town Council. The scheme did not affect directly the route of the A361, but it forms an important part of the background to what would transpire later.
In 1973, as John Brunsdon put it, “the opposition started”. He described the large aerial view of Glastonbury that is displayed on the wall in the Town Hall: “Councillor Alan Tucker, sitting in the council chamber looking at the aerial photograph of Glastonbury, saw the now unused line of the old railway – ‘must be a better route’. Many others agreed. The Inner Relief Road Pressure Group was born.”
Many established local politicians lost their council seats as a result. “Electoral turmoil followed. All four [Glastonbury] seats to the new Mendip District Council were won by road protest candidates, as were most of the seats on the Town Council … The road protest movement had such a grip on local opinion that party politics were ‘suspended’ and there was little chance of election unless supported by the movement. Longstanding councillors resigned in disenchantment. Non-protest candidates were loath to stand.” (13)
The inner relief road scheme was dropped as a result, but it was not replaced by the town’s choice of route along the old railway line. The County Council simply moved their resources elsewhere, leaving Glastonbury suffering from quite serious planning blight.
Street’s relief road (always officially referred to as a ‘relief road’ rather than a bypass) had been built between late 1967 and early 1969. Frome’s bypass (this was certainly a ‘bypass’) was built in the mid-1980s, whilst improvements and realignment of the road at Nunney Catch was also carried out at that time – to help cater for the increasing number and size of the quarry lorries. Also the creation of a new industrial estate on the outskirts of Shepton Mallet provided the opportunity to upgrade a lane that followed a short section of the Fosse Way, taking through traffic away from the town centre and direct to Cannards Grave and then onto a new section of road towards Pilton. (14)
It was twenty years before the County Council finally agreed to build a Glastonbury relief road where local people wanted it. The Tucker family played a particularly prominent part in the efforts to achieve this outcome, with Alan Tucker’s nephew Ian picking up the baton for the next generation; no doubt his tenaciousness had a lot to do with the road being built at all. Another 25 years later he is still a Town Councillor and still an Independent, steering clear of political parties.
Glastonbury’s ‘Western Relief Road’, built along the route of the old railway line in the 1990s.
The western relief road
Glastonbury’s ‘western relief road’ was finally built, along the old railway line route as far as Tin Bridge, in 1994/95. As John Brunsdon remarked, “we shall never know if the very damaging delay was really worth it”.
According to Construction News, the approximate value of the relief road contract was £3 million (15) – though it is remembered as being extremely expensive, more like £12 million. Construction projects always cost more than the original contract price, but four times as much would be extraordinary. If this is true then it suggests a specific reason, and the greater part of the increase might well have been caused by engineering problems at the Tin Bridge end of the scheme due to the soft soil.
Alan Levett, when he had written to me in 2001, had added this at the end of his letter: “I mentioned the Eastern road as an environmental disaster. Here is why. You remember all that stone piled on the rail trackbed just west of Tin Bridge? Well this was to reinforce the bed so that it could take the weight of the road to be built there – the railway was built floating on the peat bog, and is only about 10 ft wide. Rails and sleepers are so very much lighter than a foot thick roading. Now imagine, if you dare, 15 to 20 times that much stone spread along the old trackbed to West Pennard station. Horrific, isn’t it?” (16)
By the time the western relief road was built the High Street had become so congested that it could be dangerous getting from one side to the other. Diesel fumes resulted in a build-up of soot on High Street windowsills that would need cleaning at least once a week. Buses and lorries would frequently meet each other head-on, with cars parked either side, creating gridlock. The town was cut in half.
The new road did succeed in improving the situation, and most people in Glastonbury were pleased; but now the Town Council was dominated by a new pressure group: the Glastonbury Residents Association, with their message that ‘enough is enough’ when it came to planners attempting to alter the town. High Street pedestrianisation, for instance, could have been paid for by the County Council once the relief road was completed, but it was loudly rejected.
By this time Dr Susan Openshaw – now Glastonbury’s Liberal Democrat County Councillor – had got agreement for the scheme to be later extended further along the old railway line. This would have avoided Chilkwell Street and the ‘substantially sub-standard section of the A361’ that by then had waited 30 years to be addressed. The atmosphere in Glastonbury had changed, however, and now there was not such universal support for the extended scheme.
The reaction to officialdom represented by the Residents Association was only one reason. The town’s demographics had shifted: between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, Glastonbury’s ‘alternative community’ had grown from a few dozen, mostly transient, perhaps a couple of hundred in the summer, to an established population that was estimated by 1996 to be 15-20% of the whole town. (17) Many of these, moreover, had close contacts with people involved in the growing national road protest movement – for whom Glastonbury was seen as a ‘home base’.
Many of them came to live locally after the final trauma of the Newbury bypass was over. At enormous expense due to the huge security operation that was required, that road scheme had been completed, but the government’s road building programme was dead in the water. Then came the 1997 General Election and the first Labour government for nearly twenty years. In the wake of the road protests and their widespread public support, there was an almost complete moratorium on road building. A Glastonbury Transport Study was completed by the turn of the millennium and was headlined in the local press as a “Bitter blow for by-pass hopes”. The report in the alternative Free State magazine could almost have been written today, nearly 20 years later:
“The ‘eastern route’ [these days referred to as the ‘northern route’] would be all along the old railway line, behind the Tor and as far as the old railway station at Steanbow, the other side of Pennard and nearly in Pilton. This would be an enormous mileage compared to the ‘southern’ option, and would encircle the Tor with potentially developable land … Any attempt to build this eastern relief road, and so create the danger of cutting off the Tor from the countryside, would be seen by many as an environmental disaster. It would attract an enormous number of road protesters, who would see themselves as protecting one of the country’s key sacred sites.” (18)
There was also an acknowledgement that nevertheless “Chilkwell Street and the Chalice Well do desperately need to be free from the heavy through traffic”. Somerset County Council, however, had soon designated the A361 through Glastonbury as part of a County Freight Route.
An ‘inner relief road’ had been built around the centre of Wells at the same time as Glastonbury’s ‘western relief road’; these two developments together were seen as a viable route for heavy traffic, avoiding both historic town centres. Whilst work in Wells was underway, through traffic from the Bristol direction was directed from Rush Hill (on the Wells side of Farrington Gurney) towards Shepton Mallet, where it could pick up the A361. This ‘temporary’ measure, however, was never removed.
At a Glastonbury Town Hall public meeting in February 2000, after a long and heated discussion about pedestrianisation of the High Street – and after most people had left – it was Ian Tucker who made sure that the plan for an ‘eastern relief road’ stayed at least on the long-term agenda rather than being scrapped entirely. There were rumours of behind-the-scenes skullduggery and undeclared interests, all without any firm basis in verifiable fact. No doubt Ian Tucker would have seen the railway line scheme as simply finishing the job in hand, and he was prepared to wait. The High Street remained open to traffic and before long the fuss had all calmed down …
County Freight Route designation
… except for residents of Chilkwell Street, where the traffic still got worse.It was gradually dawning on people that the route through Glastonbury had been designated as the official freight route, and that this would make a lasting difference. This had been done in 2002, in line with a government policy that such designations should be put in place. Dark thoughts were expressed about powerful interests in Wells who had succeeded in foisting the traffic onto Glastonbury. The role of Glastonbury’s County Councillor, Liberal Democrat Alan Gloak, was called into question, with talk of deals being stitched up amongst Councillors across the county.
Finding information on the subject has proved to be surprisingly difficult. In the hope of finding out who was actually responsible for the new designation, in June 2018 I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to Somerset County Council. More than two months later I had received no reply, except that “We are still working on locating and retrieving the information, so I am not yet able to send this to you”. (19) The implication was that the designation had been put in place before modern integrated computer systems had been established at County Hall.
County Councillor Liz Leyshon had also taken an interest in the freight route designation, and it was she who found, “in an old file” (presumably a cardboard one), the information that it dated to 2002. She also discovered that it was a nationally agreed freight route and therefore that it was possibly part of a UK-wide agreemnent. Several other freight routes in Somerset were designated at about the same time. (20)
I therefore sent a new FOIA request to the Department for Transport, as well as a reminder to Somerset County Council. I still await any meaningful reply.
Heavy traffic on Chilkwell Street near the Chalice Well Gardens
(Photo: Lighten the Load campaign).
The Rifleman’s group
Early in 2004, a meeting for local residents took place in the Rifleman’s Arms on Chilkwell Street, resulting in a full bar for the evening and the establishment of an action group. Councillor Gloak was present, but did not take part in the meeting. By August 2004 a “self-selected group of residents” had met several times and was getting in touch with their neighbours and others “who may be affected by the width, weight, volume and speed of traffic using this road”.
Their two initial aims were, first, to have the generic 30 mph speed limit properly enforced, with a new 20 mph limit where Chilkwell Street meets Coursing Batch near the Chalice Well Gardens; and second, to support development of a proposed ‘ridge road’ route from Cannards Grave at Shepton Mallet to Wells, and thence via the A39 to the motorway, so avoiding the A361 through Glastonbury. (21)
The ridge road had been proposed, with the backing of the road hauliers, in conjunction with the planned expansion of Whatley quarry near Frome. This development would have greatly increased the number of quarry lorries using the county’s freight routes, especially the road through Glastonbury. Opposition to the quarry expansion was intense, mainly from conservation groups including Friends of the Earth at a national level – and by extension, opposition to the ridge road route, which would indeed have turned a pretty country lane into an unpleasantly busy road.
Friends of the Earth was campaigning to stop the Torr works quarry company destroying the village of Whatley in order to expand this already vast quarry, one of the biggest limestone quarries in Europe. A long and bitter campaign eventually succeeded. With or without the expanded quarry there was some merit in the ridge route proposal, in that only four houses lie along it compared to the extensive residential areas along the A361. It was nevertheless abandoned by Somerset County Council in December 2004.
Reference to this decision remained on the Somerset County Council website for more than ten years. The report suggested a score of 100, meaning ‘of highest priority’ above all other possible Somerset road schemes. At about this time the government raised the load limit for HGVs from 38 tonnes to 44 tonnes, and although this has clearly meant an economic benefit to the road haulage companies “there has been no sharing of this in remedial schemes for roads such as the A361, which was already unsuited to HGVs”. (22)
Meanwhile the Chilkwell Street action group’s efforts to have tighter speed restrictions imposed did not receive active support from the County. Nevertheless after consulting with the police and the Town Council, the group produced home-made signs reading ‘30 please’ and ‘20 please’ to put up along the route. They also found volunteers to operate ‘speedwatch’ cameras, which in due course confirmed that there was habitual vehicle speeding along the route. The group also distributed newsletters letting people know that “no costing or other appraisal of the ridge route is being undertaken”, whilst the County Council had proposed improvements to the A361 between Wirral Park and West Pennard but “these were never completed and were actually abandoned in July 2004”. (23)
By May the following year the group’s speed restriction signs had been removed by the County Council, reportedly after a motorist who had been stopped for exceeding the limit had sued them and the County Council had attempted to pass on their court costs to the action group.
There was also concerted lobbying of their County Councillor concerning several related issues: a weight restriction on vehicles driving through the Glastonbury section of the A361; an extension of the Chilkwell Street railings up to Well House Lane, as a safety measure; the absence of middle-of-the-road white lines along this most dangerous section of the A361; and “When will the sign at Rush Hill, directing HGVs off the A39 onto the A37 to the A361 through Pilton and Glastonbury, be removed?” (24) All was without result.
The absence of white lines outside the Chalice Well Gardens, where two large vehicles cannot pass each other without mounting the pavement, suggested that the road there may actually be too narrow to fit the County Freight Route criteria. (25)
Notes and References
1. Sabre Roads, A361, Introduction: https://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/wiki/index.php?title=A361
3. Letter from Alan M. Levett to the editor of Free State magazine dated 19 June 2001.
4. Glastonbury Relief Road, Free State magazine, Unique Publications, Glastonbury, May 2000, p 8.
5. Councillor John Brunsdon MBE, A personal History of Glastonbury, Glastonbury Town Council, Civic History: http://glastonbury.gov.uk/council/civic-history/a-personal-history-of-glastonbury/
6. Glastonbury Town Council, Road Consultation, February 2018.
7. Douglas Osmond, Kidney Bean Lane, privately published c 2001.
8. J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, p 13.
9. Wikipedia, M1 Motorway: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M1_motorway
10. John Betjeman, Branch Line, BBC TV, 1963: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDrQkg8lOGc
11. See Wikipedia, The Beeching cuts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beeching_cuts
12. See Wikipedia, Ernest Marples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Marples
13. John Brunsdon MBE, A personal History of Glastonbury, Glastonbury Town Council, Civic History: http://glastonbury.gov.uk/council/civic-history/a-personal-history-of-glastonbury/
14. See J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, p 49: In 1965 the A361 had been diverted along the widened and realigned East Compton Lane to join the A37 at Beardley Batch.
15. Construction News, Contracts – Glastonbury, Somerset – Western Relief Road, 21 July 1994.
16. Letter from Alan M. Levett to the editor of Free State magazine dated 19 June 2001.
17. Bruce Garrard, Free State, Unique Publications 2014, p 236 and pp 359-360.
18. Glastonbury Relief Road, Free State magazine, Unique Publications, Glastonbury, May 2000, p 8.
19. Email from Melanie Thompson, SCC Information Request Officer, 25 July 2018.
20. Personal Communications from Cllr Liz Leyshon, County Councillor for Glastonbury and Street, July 2018.
21. Action on Glastonbury A361 Traffic, distributed to households in Coursing Batch, Chilkwell Street, Bere Lane, Fishers Hill and Street Road, August 2004.
22. Information collated by the Lighten the Load campaign group, 2015.
23. Action on Glastonbury A361 Traffic, September 2004.
24. Action on Glastonbury A361 Traffic, May 2005.
25. There are in fact no specific criteria for a County Freight Route, though Somerset County Council guidelines stipulate that “the impact on quality of life, the environment, climate change and safety” should all be taken into account. See Part 3 in this series of articles, referencing the A361 committee minutes, 9 November 2015.