Driving the city forward; Exeter’s roads

The rise of the motor-car saw the condition of Britain’s roads change significantly. Roads were widened and new roads had to be cut to cope with the new flow of traffic. Many towns and cities started to build bypass roads to take traffic around them rather than straight through the centre of town. By the 1920’s the streets of Exeter were becoming spectacularly congested as ever increasing numbers of tourists drove through the city on their way to resorts in Torbay, North Devon and Cornwall. The narrow streets were not designed to cope with motor-traffic and traffic jams were all too common. By 1929 traffic lights had been installed in the city centre and Paris Street had been widened to try and ease the problem, but it was obvious that a different solution was needed. 

The result was the Exeter bypass, a new road which ran from Pinhoe to Marsh Barton, joining up with the existing roads from Bath and London along the way. It was designed to carry holiday traffic around the city rather than straight through it and also tackled some danger spots around Countess Wear and on the Sidmouth road. The scheme wasn’t popular with city traders who felt that they would lose custom if tourists were, in their opinion, forced to drive around the city. At the same time the opinion was also voiced by some city residents that the road would be a waste of money as tourists would still drive through the city. This opinion was partly based on the low usage of Prince of Wales Road, which had been built as the first part of a northern bypass for the city, and was considered a bit pointless as most drivers still took the direct route through the city. This was partly because the route wasn’t well marked, and partly because the rest of the proposed bypass was never built. 

The new bypass was completed in 1938 and was the main route for tourist traffic around the city for almost 40 years until the M5 opened in 1975. The congestion on the Exeter bypass in the 1950’s and 1960’s became as legendary as the congestion in the city had been in the inter-war years, with tailbacks lasting for miles along both the A30 and the A38. Some enterprising children from the nearby housing estates of Whipton Barton and Countess Wear would make a holiday job out of selling drinks and ice-creams to those stuck in the jams. 

The A30 and A38 have remained vital to the city since the days of carrying traffic through the city centre. The A38 provided the main route to Bristol and the North of England until the M5 was built and is still the main route to Plymouth today, while the A30 has always been the City’s link to the South East and Cornwall.

The building of the M5 saw the northern branch of the A38 made redundant but the southbound road was improved and widened to make it into a duel carriageway to provide a motorway-standard road south of Exeter. The M5 from Bristol to Exeter was first proposed in 1968  and was built in sections from Bristol down to Devon. The two roads were joined in 1975 when the final section of the M5 was completed between Sowton and Exminster.  Originally this section had been planned to pass through the middle of Exminster village, cutting it in half. It took years of campaigning and the eventual intervention by the minister for Transport to get the route moved a few hundred meters to the east to bypass the village altogether. 

The A30 was known as ‘the longest lane in Britain’ before it was made a duel carriageway. It provided the major link between the south east and south west, and yet was still a single lane road in each direction into the 1990’s. The proposals to duel the road between Okehampton and Honiton were hugely controversial and caused decades of protests. 

The proposal the duel the section between Exeter and Honiton was put forward in 1972 and took 16 years to bring to completion. The route for the new duel carriageway was approved in 1973 but faced opposition at every step from local residents who felt that the widening of the road was unnecessary and that the bypassing of towns and villages along the road was all that was necessary. The duelling of the road was pressed through, with numerous changes to the route and was finally completed in 1988. 

The section of the A30 between Exeter and Honiton was even more controversial and faced fierce opposition and anti-road campaigns right from the start. It was proposed in 1977 to build a new A30 between Honiton and Exeter in order to make the road duel carriageway and to bypass all the towns and villages along its length. Again local residents felt that it was unnecessary and 10 alternative routes which bypassed, widened or straightened various parts of the existing road were put forward. A route was eventually decided on in 1981 which mostly followed the line of the existing road, and was promptly shelved by the Government which didn’t have the money available to carry out the work. The plan was revived in 1987 and a fresh round of route proposals and counter-proposals entered into. The opposition mounted to include the Green Party as well as local people and it took until l993 to get the route for the new road approved. Even then environmental campaigners continued to protest at the building of the new road and stepped up their campaign as the first bulldozers began to clear trees from some of the route in 1994. The protesters created three camps along the route and vowed to chain themselves to the trees to stop the work from continuing. At the same time the work ran into financial trouble as the Government was forced to cut road projects around the country under severe budget pressures. Private finance to build the road was sought, and all work on the road was halted until 1995 when a private company was found to build the road. As the work on the road began again, the campaign from the environmental protesters intensified. They dug tunnels under the site at Fairmile and took to the trees in other locations, delaying the work on the road further. Their campaigns made national headlines and made a household name of one protester, Swampy. Local residents felt that the campaigners were wasting their time, and many wanted the road to be built as quickly as possible to alleviate congestion in their villages and removed dangerous stretches of road. It took until 1997 to remove the protesters from the road route and allow the road building to go ahead. The first sections of the new A30 were completed quickly and were opened in 1999. After it was completed it faced a second wave of protests as residents in nearby villages discovered that the surface used on the road created large amounts of noise. A campaign was started to get the road resurfaced immediately, but it was eventually ruled that the surface broke no rules and did not need to be relaid.  In recent years the A30 has become pivotal to the new developments of Cranbrook and the Skypark and Science Park. The road provides links to the city, the M5 as well as the South East and Cornwall.