The first motorway to be opened in the UK was the 8¼ mile-long M6 Preston By-pass. It was opened on the 5th December 1958 by the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. A granite plinth marking the occasion was erected at the Samlesbury interchange.

Preston bypass at open

As can be seen from the picture, it was a dual two-lane motorway (it is now dual four-lane) and had "soft" shoulders and no central barrier. The most startling thing about the picture is the almost negligible volume of traffic. Today it carries up to 140,000 vehicles per day

It may be argued that the next section of motorway to be opened was the half-mile length of the M4 Chiswick flyover in September 1959. It was never, however, referred to as the M4 at the time it was opened, nor was it built to accepted motorway standards. The overall width, on the structures, was only 59 feet and the "hard shoulders" were never more than 4 feet wide. Nevertheless, it is now junction 1 of the M4, and its place in UK motorway history is assured. 

The third, and first major inter-urban, motorway to be opened was the 67 miles (107km) length of the M1, between Crick and Berrygrove. It was opened in November 1959 by the then Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. This was the first section of the M1 London to Yorkshire motorway and was designed to speed up travel between Birmingham and London. It was the first dual three-lane motorway, but In spite of the lessons learned from the Preston By-pass, suffered from weak "hard shoulders". The M45 (Dunchurch to M1) and the M10 (St Albans By-pass) motorways were constructed at the same time. It was built in only 19 months and included a service station at Watford Gap - the first in the UK.

The next 7 schemes (opened before the end of 1961) were:

Scheme Date opened
4.    M6 Lancaster By-pass April 1960
5.    M62 Stretford Eccles By-pass (later M63 and now part of M60) October 1960
6.    M50 Ross Spur Motorway November 1960
7.    A20(M) Maidstone By-pass West (later part of M20) December 1960
8.    M4 Maidenhead By-pass May 1961
9.    A1(M) Doncaster By-pass July 1961
10. A20(M) Maidstone By-pass East (later part of M20) September 1961

A full chronological listing of the opening dates of all the motorway sections can be found by clicking here.

It is worthy of note that work on the M63 Stretford Eccles By-pass started before even the Preston By-pass. This took the form of advanced earthworks on the southern approach to the Barton High-Level Bridge, utilising slag from a nearby steelworks, which was provided free of charge.

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