Blog : 25 years old – the Road to Hell

Andrew Elphick

M25 under construction (Photo: The AEC Society contributor 'ekawrecker')
M25 under construction (Photo: The AEC Society contributor 'ekawrecker')

Yep. On 29 October 1986, blessed Margaret opened the path to Hades, when she cut the ribbon which declared the M25 London orbital motorway finally open. 117 miles of miserable tarmac that reputedly holds the crown of Europe’s busiest motorway. Whether this is true is debatable, but everyone knows someone who has spent time at her pleasure, even subconsciously. I’m 99% sure at least one thing that’s in your home now has travelled around the M25 in the back of an HGV.

Like the Channel Tunnel, the outer London orbital road was first mooted over a hundred years ago, but it took until the bad old 1970s before construction commenced with the first stretch (now J23 to J24) opening in autumn 1975. Two million tonnes of concrete, over three million tonnes of tarmac and at least two million shrubs, trees and bushes were planted.

Surely countless members of the Leyland umbrella gave the best years of their haulage lives too. Of course prior to the evil speed cameras, the unofficial “midnight society” used the M25 as a race track. Racers and bikers played chance with motorway patrols (often using two way radios and a ‘bandit’ car upfront, combined with knowing the patrols shift change-over times!) to break the mythical 60-minute barrier including the Dartford tunnels (the Dartford river crossing took another five years to appear in 1991).

A bit like the Internet, one wonders just how we would cope without it today?

But my connection? I did some calculations and I reckon I have spent approximately over 4000 hours travelling along it, or to break it down, nearly six months concurrent. And I add two and half hours to that figure every day… still it holds some memories dear – like the time the cause of a huge tailback was revaled to be a Stallion and Mare in a adjacent field… or the terrifying run back from Winchester to Essex 15 years ago when freezing snow left HGVs paralysed with iced heavy oil tanks.

So was gravel voiced Chris Rea right? Is the M25 the Road to hell?



Keith Adams


  1. Let’s hear it for the M25, congestion and all – it was an absolute nightmare to get through London before it was built!

  2. it was an absolute nightmare to get through London before it was built!”

    It’s ‘still’ a nightmare to get through London.Thing is it was badly planned really, one big bottle neck that everything travelling to and from europe has to pass through, there isn’t a southern or eastern route to avoid it.Compare it with say the Paris Peripherique, it’s possible to go to the South, east coast, west or northern France without driving around it.

    Still the idiots who sit in the middle lane of the carriageway and never pull over to the left add to the M25’s problems. You often see lane 1 empty but traffic bumper to bumper in lanes 3 & 4.

  3. I wonder how old those AEC trucks would have been in the Eighties when that photo was taken?  They look like they would have been old trucks then, though still working hard for a living.I reckon that photograph was taken in the Eighties as there is what looks to be a Nissan Patrol on the far right.

    • Pic was taken in 1984. Most of the trucks pictured were once owned by Wimpeys who used to run a massive fleet of them. The ones in the pic are all dated from 1960 to 1965

  4. Love the old AEC’s, They must have been long in the tooth even back then, I wonder how many in the pic are left? They all look well used & abused & do I spy a Scammell poking up behind the Nissan Patrol?

  5. Some great old AEC knackers in the foreground there. And a Scammell Highwayman behind the Nissan Patrol.

    I tend to find there is a time where the M25 is good for making progress, make a note of this time kids…

    Anytime between 03.46 & 03.57 every eighth Wednesday!

  6. Living 300 miles North of London and the M25 I would cope just fine if it wasnt there. Not everyone lives in London and the South East you know!

  7. This takes me back. I’m guessing (open to correction) that those trucks are AEC Mammoth Major 6s. I was an apprentice with Wadham Stringer Commercials in Egham, Surrey in 1977-79. The M25 from Staines to Chertsey was being built at the time and I remember a company called Johnston Earthmoving buying a fleet of new Scammell Routeman 8 leg tippers for work on the section. Far from the rather abused AECs above the Routmans were pristine, with hand painted signwriting.

    I only started to drive in 1977, so had only a little experience of driving without at least a couple of sections of the motorway in existence. Despite having no love for the M25 I’ve often wondered what traffic on roads such as the A25 or A412 would be like without it. It is at the same time a blessing and a curse. A gauge of its success is how quickly its carriageways have had to expand from three to five or even six around Heathrow. The A30 would never have coped with that!


  8. Considering the amount of traffic it deals with.. I think it’s a fantastic bit of road. OK, so it’s a hack of 2 previous schemes and it’s impossible to get the whole way around with out hitting traffic these days…. But that’s not really the roads fault. I’d hate to see London with out it…

    Flippin Ekk! lol!

    On a slightly related subject, I wish they’d never chopped the bottom of the M40 and given it to London to look after,70 down to 50 for no real reason, doesn’t reeeeeeaally ned to drop to 50 until ya hit Hanger Lane (Gawd, there’s a whole other essay in the waiting).. lol!

  9. It took a boy from the North East of England to summarise that ring road in song. Terrible policing renders the near side lane empty.Scrap it and stick to the North Circular, thats my advice.

  10. @Paul   Me too! I’m a Northerner – we have horrid busy motorways up here too!  The M1 and M62 spring to mind, with all traffic entering Leeds from the East having to join a traffic light controlled roundabout (the Lofthouse Interchange) going down to one lane, causing up to 10 mile slow moving traffic every morning.   

    There’s also the formidable and confusing Gildersome interchange – even locals get this wrong.  If you’re new to the area, you haven’t a chance! 

    Finally, so our cousins the other side of the Pennines don’t feel left out, I’ve chosen to highlight the mighty Lower Bredbury Interchange which has to be experienced to be believed. &nbsp


     CBRD is an excellent website, part of the SABRE webring of excellent websites covering everything UK road-related.  

    Hours of reading – after you’ve been to AROnline, of course!

  11. I’ve spent more time than I care to remember on that lovely ring road.  I fetched a car from the South coast a few years back, on a Friday evening.  The reason why escapes me but I shunned the M40 route north and decided the M25/M1 was a better bet.  Anyway one huge tailback later and the car had boiled and cooked the head gasket…  Oh happy happy days.

  12. It should have had more than 3 lanes each way from the start, yes it’s a nightmare at times, and bloody impossible should someone stuff it, BUT it’s better than trying to go round the North/South Circular, and now, thanks to the congestion charge through London itself.Like the author I have spent an awful lot of time on the Northern section going East/West and vice versa having had a regular run to Thurrock till last year.

    Having tried every single way going, the top section usually worked out best, unless there was that accident, if there was, that would also bring every other main alternative to a halt as everyone tries to avoid it. South was shorter for me, but if there was a queue for the tolls then you’d soon loose the advantage, plus it’d cost you the toll too, and no receipt issued always made getting the money back from the boss a ballache.

    I’m glad it’s there, I dread to think how bad it would be on the roads without it!

  13. Well reading the site linked above it makes sense why it’s a mess now. Apparently there were supposed to be two more ring roads with-in London. So the majority of traffic that needed to get around London would use those and the radial motorways coming into and out of London would link up with the inner ring roads. All this would leave the orbital as a Bypass for London.Trouble is as it is now, without inner london rings, if local traffic wants to cross from one side of London to the other it has to come out to the M25, round then back in again.

    Thatcher claimed it to be a marvel of engineering, not really. Telford and Macadam had been building roads for a couple of hundred years, and the Romans before them. The Germans built motorways in the 1930’s. That was Thatcher for you though!Of course if you took it away then the surrounding local roads couldn’t cope, because there isn’t a viable alternative route, but there in lies the problem! One idiot bumps the car in front, because he was on his mobile, driving too close etc etc and the whole of southeast England grinds to a halt.

    • At times, when coming from Dover and heading towards Cambridge or the midlands, I choose to cross London when I spotted the cars standing on the M25. Took about 45-60mins all in to get out on the other side again, getting through the traffic jams on the M25 would probably not have been any faster.

  14. Became a semi-official boundary. People talk about ‘Inside/Outside the M25’ to mean greater London / rest of the UK.

    The original ringways plan would have had several ‘M25s’.

    Only been round as far as Leatherhead to M40. Picked a car up, but it turned out to be just out of tax, so not an ideal journey. Took me until Heathrow before I realised I hadn’t switched the insurance over either! (Luckily there is an ‘any car’ clause!).

    TBH I thought it would have been grander. M8 through Glasgow, and the M2 foreshore seemed more epic.

  15. “Blessed Margaret”?

    You gotta be kidding. Tell that to all those miners families. Or maybe the communities she ripped the heart out of.

    Yes she got some things done but trampled over the dreams of a lost generation in the process.

    Good news is she will be gone soon

  16. I’ve not ever had the chance to drive around it, but I have been driven on it a few times.

    The section near Weybridge & Heathrow was still in almost every lane when me & my Dad were going to Brooklands.

  17. On Radio 2 tonight a very interesting story emerged. It seems that some people took the meaning of the word ‘Orbital Motorway’ a bit too seriously, and if they missed their junction would simply go all the way around until they got back to it again!

  18. Never mind about the M25, just how prophetic was that song looking at what the bankers have done to the world!

  19. I do recall crossing London before the M25 was built to get to Dover. It was one slow drag through the suburbs and the city centre;the old Rochester Way was a nightmare, you had long distance traffic trying to fight its way through a housing estate with parked cars.( At least this has been replaced now, but you would still have to endure Finchley Rd and the A2 out of the city centre if the M25 wasn’t built).

  20. If I remember rightly the M25 was actually a representation of the Hell rune “Odegra” (facilitated by a few subtle movements of routing pegs in a soggy field at midnight) – the intent being that all the low grade bad feeling would be amplified. Sir pTerry & Neil G had it right all along!
    7 hours to get from the A1m junction to Colchester on one memorable day – my clutch leg gave up around hour 3. Once I got to the A12 it was clear, and easy 40 minutes.

  21. Speaking of the road to hell, try driving on the A595 from Sellafield to Workington when the shifts end at Sellafield. Quite often, cars are bumper to bumper for miles on end, and roadworks and accidents can make the road seize up for hours. Even driving through Newcastle and the tricky Blaydon Bridge roundabout was better last week.

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