River of Orchids: the M32 in Bristol

M32 sign.

A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.

Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.

First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.

Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”

In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.

Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.

The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.

Cars on the M32

To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.

Puschchair by the side of the motorway.

Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.

Frome Valley sign.

It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.

Land of Hope and Glory.

This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.

Twisted old trees.

Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.

Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.

Trolley under the motorway.

Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.

The M32 cafe.

And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.

Subway at Eastville

At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.

Caravan and Purdown communications tower.

As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.

The motorway below.

Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.

Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.

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