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Press release: Talking the high road as Cumbria’s scenic M6 reaches 50

Highways England

October 23
12:34 2020

Its one of the highest and most beautiful stretches of motorway in the country - part of a post-war motorway construction jigsaw that, piece-by-concrete-piece, revolutionised road travel in Britain. And retired engineers across the country are remembering their role in its birth 50 years ago today (Friday 23 October 2020).

When the newest addition to the M6 the 36 miles between Lancaster and Penrith was opened in October 1970 it incorporated the spectacular Lune Gorge and, just a few miles further north at Shap, the highest section of motorway in the country at 316 metres above sea level.

Civil engineering specialists Laing was appointed to build the 14-mile Killington to Tebay section running alongside the River Lune, hugging the contours of the Cumbrian hills and following in the footsteps of Roman road builders and Victorian railway engineers some 1900 years and 125 years before them.

The work through the beautiful but at times beastly Lune Gorge the weather and ground conditions were some of the most challenging ever faced by UK engineers - was the biggie-in-the-middle of five separate construction contracts making up the new Lancaster to Penrith M6. The new motorway literally paved the way for faster, safer and more reliable journeys to the far north and Scotland - and boosted the industrial and tourism economies of Cumbria.

Laing engineers Mike Gellatley, Harry Macdonald Steels, Selwyn Charles-Jones and almost a thousand other roadworkers faced a unique battle of engineering wits against ground conditions and the elements to build a stretch of motorway frequently voted the most beautiful in the country and even highlighted today by Visit Cumbria.

Mike Gellatley discussing the project with a colleague

Details guy: A young Mike Gellatley (on the right) discussing the project with a colleague (Images Historic England John Laing Photographic Collection)

Roadworkers enjoy Cumbrian scenery

Roadworkers take a 'time out' to enjoy the stunning Cumbrian scenery (Images Historic England John Laing Photographic Collection)

Mike, a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and former London Underground chief engineer, arrived at Tebay in October 1967 having cut his teeth on the Stoke to Stafford section of the motorway.

It was an amazing project to work on, he says 50 years on. An isolated greenfield site with difficult terrain and pretty hostile weather a lot of the time. They had to strengthen the roads from Kendal and build a special supply-line road just to get plant and material to different parts of the construction site - and it was a constant battle against the elements.

Residents in the area were initially sceptical about the motorway but it totally transformed journeys. In the days before the M6 a journey up to the to the far north and Scotland was a torturous adventure with vehicles often having to queue in winter to get past snow along the A6 at Shap.

A memoir penned by Harry recalls being encouraged to leave the comforts of the company office to head somewhere in the wilds north of Tebay to get some civils experience. He says:

The tops of the Westmorland fells in late October are a harsh contrast to warm offices in London! At one stage I had on every piece of clothing I had taken up from London with me - including my pyjamas - under the protective clothing supplied by Laing.

Project manager Selwyn was Laings main man in overall charge of day-to-day construction at the location. Alongside the stresses and strains of delivering such a complex engineering project he recalls an amusing and almost uniquely Cumbrian - occupational hazard

It was the sheep!

On one occasion some had worked out how to jump the fence and lead the rest of the flock onto the construction site and it was our job to clear them off before we could start work. We solved the problem by putting them on a lorry and taking them to next section above and let them outand that was the last of we ever saw of them!

Councillor Keith Little, Cumbria County Councils cabinet member for Highways and Transport, also remembers the arrival of the road. He says:

It was a vital part of the development of Cumbrias transport network, connecting communities and providing one of the most scenic sections of highway anywhere in the country to drive through.

It made the county more accessible to the rest of the country and has enabled local businesses and residents to trade, travel and connect with the wider region. I am pleased to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this beautiful stretch of road not many counties can boast about their motorway, but we certainly can in Cumbria!

The 50th anniversary of the Lancaster to Penrith section prompted Alex Finkenrath, publications and communications manager of the John Laing Charitable Trust, to trawl the companys archives and unearth everything from old photographs, newspaper clippings and even a fascinating 30-minute 1971 documentary preserved by the British Film Institute and focusing on the social aspects of the Lune Gorge challenge as much as the myriad feats of engineering. Many of the photographs from Laings involvement in motorway building across the era are preserved in a special Historic England archive.

Carriageway starts to take shape

After two years of day and night ground works the carriageway starts to take shape (Image from Laings 30 minute documentary courtesy British Film Institute).

Work underway in the spectacular landscape

Man and machine v Mother Nature...a dramatic image shows work underway in the spectacular landscape (Image from Laings 30 minute documentary courtesy British Film Institute).

The newly-opened motorway running alongside the main Lancaster to Carlisle railway line

The newly-opened motorway running alongside the main Lancaster to Carlisle railway line - now part of the West Coast mainline (Image from Laings 30 minute documentary courtesy British Film Institute).

Nowadays, the M6 is operated by Highways England, a government company launched in 2015 in place of the Highways Agency to deliver a programme of transformational, fit-for-the-future improvements to the countrys motorway and major A road network.

Government investment - unrivalled since the golden age of the motorways in the 1960s and 1970s - is now delivering extra lanes, improved surfaces and innovation for safer, smoother and more reliable journeys up and down the countrys network of motorways and major A roads. The Government invested more than 15.2 billion between 2015 and 2020 with a further 27.4 billion available during the current five-year investment period to 2025.

The money is funding everything from economy-boosting new bypasses and major motorway upgrades to environment-enriching cleaner air and bio-diversity projects as well as improvements for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders.

Alan Shepherd, Highways Englands regional director for the North West said:

Our motorways and major A roads are the arteries of the economy keeping businesses, commuters, tourists and goods and services on the move. While were expanding capacity around our major towns and cities where our motorways are most congested were also working hard to make journeys, safer, smoother and more reliable everywhere including in Lancashire and Cumbria.

Our 1 billion plan to complete the dualling of the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner is the most eye-catching example of our commitments in the area. But were also busy planning or delivering important improvements and maintenance elsewhere like the 150 million new bypass near Fleetwood, a new roundabout to help support new homes and jobs along the A590 near Barrow and work to renew road surfaces and safety barriers.

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