Anyone who motors as the enthusiast motors must surely give some thought to the roads his car traverses and derive pleasure therefrom. It may be a case of appreciating long, well-surfaced straight stretches of main highway, on which the full speed of your car can be realised in safety, or you may be one of those mortals who “avoid the red” whenever possible in getting from one place to another. Either way, the roads are complementary to your car, and of unfailing interest.
Whenever I have enough petrol to motor up A.30 — the road from the West — as far as the first convenient Underground station, Osterley Park, I am thankful, going home again in the evening, once I have passed over Staines Bridge, for surely the route thereafter is one of the nicest exits from the metropolis? The road is mostly straight and well-surfaced and stately houses lie behind the hedges, beyond the neat footpaths. Ribbon building hasn’t so far overtaken this main artery, although a bit of a rash has broken out recently opposite the T-junction where the road from Ascot joins. Yes, A.30 is enjoyable, although it is a reflection on how severely petrol is rationed that the run as far as Hartley Whitney now seems quite a journey, whereas pre-war this was where you caught the traffic when returning from the West country and all thoughts of fast driving went by the board from there onwards. The straightness of A.30 is relieved by appreciable hills after the Egham and Bagshot by-passes, both of which reduce buses and commercial vehicles to a crawl, while there is another appreciable rise from Blackwater on to the level, dead-straight Hartford Bridge flats, flanked to-day not by highwaymen but by the aerodrome which relieves London Airport if the weather turns tricky. Thinking of this road I never fail to wonder what it was like twenty or thirty years ago — after all, if you enthuse over a vintage car, surely you should know what kind of roads it traversed in its youth? Sometimes, instead of turning off at Chiswick roundabout along the traffic-lamped arterial section I carry straight on through Isleworth and Hounslow. I then begin to wonder where the old aerodrome on Hounslow Heath was situated.
Re-reading that entertaining book “Airman Friday,” by William Courtenay, I recall that it was from here, in November, 1919, that the Smith brothers took off in a Vickers “Vimy” and flew to Darwin in 29 days, winning a £10,000 prize offered by the Australian Government. It was here also that Handley-Page had their aerodrome, which constituted the first London airport, from which the first cross-Channel London-Amsterdam air service left in that same year. Yet where exactly was this historic aerodrome? To-day the road that I imagine must have taken you past it is flanked by suburban villas for miles after one has shaken-off the shopping centre of Hounslow itself? There is one bleak open area, conspicuous by a glimpse of fairground vehicles parked on the left-hand side of the road. Was it here that these fascinating early aeroplanes had their being, and what was the scene like In those far-away days? If it seems curious that I should enquire, may I hasten to explain that I’m not all that old!
Continuing along A.315 over a former Roman road, we rejoin A.30 where the sheds, or at night the lights, of London’s present airport can just be glimpsed away behind you to the right. Staines itself is busy, congested, and sometimes pervaded by a sickly smell of linoleum. Over the bridge you might hope to catch the atmosphere of those M.C.C. trials of the early nineteen-twenties, which used to start from here. Alas, the spot is disfigured by a vast traffic roundabout which seems to cause more confusion than existed before it came into being, while the name “Lagonda” has vanished from the factory beyond. If you are driving a vintage car it seems a point of honour, as you press westwards, to go through Egham and Bagshot and not round them. Yet I suspect this Great West Road looks very different now from what it did to competitors in, for instance, the “Exeter” of 1921. There is enthusiasm and interest in some quarters in study of early maps, so why not a move to discover actual photographs of our roads as they were before they changed almost out of recognition? Quite recently, in conjunction with an article on early Sunbeam cars, the author sent me a photograph of a 1921 “Light Sports” tourer at Munslow Aston, near Wenlock. On the back my correspondent had pencilled a note to say that the narrow, muddy road depicted is now B.4368, quite a busy secondary route with an excellent surface. “Our roads have improved” is his comment. Yes, improved, and also changed. Getting back to A.30, I suppose that the level crossing at Sunningdale where the Ascot-Reading loop cuts the road, caused as irritating hold-ups in the early days as it does to-day, but that steam instead of electric trains claimed their “right of way.” Until very recently, however, no traffic, signals obstructed you at the bridge over the Ascot-Aldershot loop line where A.322 from Bracknell forms the leg of the T-junction, and at which bridge, I believe, Earl Howe had a considerable accident in his Mercédès-Benz some years ago. Who, by the way, decides when traffic lights are essential? They must cost the taxpayer money and they absorb labour to erect, and they can go wrong, as these very lamps did at the junction in question soon after they were installed. So I hope accident statistics decide the issue and not a mere official whim. Not that in my frequent journeyings along A.30 I have ever seen any unpleasantry at this point, so that I resent this intrusion of the man-made into rurality, particularly as it denies me the one-time pleasure to be had from turning out of A.322 on to A.30 with the minimum of delay compatible with checking that the road was clear in both directions, or of remonstrating with anyone who carried out this manoeuvre right in my path when I was hurrying homeward over the bridge on A.30. Traffic lights, like those rather prominent if neat name-plates with which the Southampton County Council seems determined to proclaim every one of its towns and villages, disfigure the countryside and add another alteration to our roads, useful as both these innovations may be to the A-to-B-and-lets-get-on-with-it traveller. Previously you could drive from Staines down A.30 for miles — certainly as far as Basingstoke — and encounter only three sets of automatic traffic signs, two of which were in the town of Camberley. Now the score is four sets, and if ribbon building engulfs the highway, shopping centres will develop, congestion will increase, and, lo, more and more signals will be deemed necessary to control drivers whose only desire is to get clear of such areas with a minimum of delay. The advance guard of such developments is seen in those clean white kerb-stones and generous pavements which the aforementioned County Council, for one, is feverishly erecting along quiet side roads and village streets, where for hundreds of years grass-grown verges have sufficed — why, oh why, is such work permitted in an age when economy of materials and manpower should be rigidly observed?
Yes, our roads have changed and our towns, too. Now it seems, our villages and rural areas must be changed as well. Even routes seem to alter appreciably with the passage of time, as witness that taken by Evelyn Ellis when he drove his Panhard-Daimler four-seater dog-cart from Micheldever near Winchester to Datchet in July, 1895, sixteen months before it was legal to drive a motor car on English roads — Micheldever, along the “well-made old London coaching road” to Basingstoke, Maplederwellhatch (food, and water for the engine), Blackwater, “up some very steep hills” to Bagshot, to Sunningdale, Virginia Water (lunch and oil), Englefield Green, “down steep hills” to Windsor and Datchet. Look that up on your present-day map and you will see what I mean. Incidentally, writing of this journey in the Saturday Review dated July 20th, 1895, Frederick R. Simms remarked that 133 horses were passed on the road and that the 56 miles were covered at a running time average of 9.84 m.p.h. The cost in petrol was about 2s. 6d. Roads, and times, have indeed altered! — W. B.