This Motorway in Britain Wasn’t the First – But It Certainly Got the Most Attention

November 2, 1959

In southern England, the first segment of the freeway designated the M1 motorway made its formal debut. This segment spanned 72 miles (115.9 kilometers), linking the borough of Watford in the outskirts of London with both the market town of Rugby and village of Cricket near Birmingham.

The M1 now encompasses 193.5 miles (311.4 kilometers) and serves as a major conduit between London and Leeds. There had been plans to create a state-of-the-art highway network throughout the United Kingdom for nearly four decades, but it was not until the 1950s that the British government officially approved the development of the motorways. The M1 was not the first of these routes to be opened; that distinction belongs to the Preston Bypass, which was inaugurated the previous year in Lancashire County in northwestern England.  The Preston Bypass was just a little over eight miles (12.9 kilometers) in length, however, so the M1 – with its initial section alone covering significantly more territory – earned a greater share of the national spotlight. The M1 was able to gain additional attention and acclaim at the time because the motorway’s close proximity to London enabled a larger number of journalists, politicians, and other shapers of public opinion to more readily check out the new route and spread the word about it.

The M1 and Watford Gap Services in 1961

The Monday on which the initial segment of M1 opened also marked the introduction – along the same route – of the first rest area services for a motorway in England. The Watford Gap services, which were named after a nearby natural landmark, are located about eight miles (12.9 kilometers) southeast of Rugby. The facilities have made a huge cultural impact as a one-time favorite hangout spot for a variety of rock-music giants, including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. ​

For more information on the M1 and other routes within the United Kingdom’s motorways system, please check out Additional information on the Watford Gap services is available at

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