The South West’s biggest motorway has one of the richest histories in the country
If you live in the South West then you will more than likely at some point have travelled along the M5.
The motorway was opened in 1962 and completed 15 years later in 1977, and a lot has happened between then and now.
Bodies have been found, bridges have collapsed and the Willow Man was built, giving the South West’s biggest motorway one of the richest histories in the country.
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Whether you’re 20 or 80, you’ll remember iconic parts of the motorway, from your favourite service station to the Willow Man.
But even though we may regularly travel up or down it, whether for work or leisure – how much do we really know about it?
Despite its plentiful history, if it came up in a pub quiz, not a lot would know much about it.
So we’ve put together an article that tells the story of the M5, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Through unearthed photos from the archives, you can take a trip down memory lane or take a deep look through history at the iconic stretch of road.
Where is the M5?
The M5 quite closely follows the route of the A38 road. The two deviate slightly around Bristol and the area south of Bristol from junctions 16 to the Sedgemoor services north of junction 22.
The A38 goes straight through the centre of Bristol and passes by Bristol Airport, while the M5 skirts both, with access to the airport from junctions 18, 19 or 22.
The A38 continues south into Devon from junction 31, near Exminster. Between junction 21 at Weston-super-Mare and junction 22 at Burnham-on-Sea, the M5 passes by an isolated landmark hill called Brent Knoll.
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The Willow Man sculpture is visible from both carriageways, and acts as a landmark just to the south of junction 23.
Junction 15 of the M5 is a large four-level stack interchange, named the Almondsbury Interchange, where the M5 meets the busy M4.
The Avonmouth Bridge, between junctions 18 and 19, is often a bottleneck during heavy traffic periods, due mainly to lane drops at either ends of the bridge for the respective junctions, and the sharp angle in the centre of the bridge, which causes larger vehicles to slow considerably.
There are split-level carriageways where the M5 ascends the hillsides above the Gordano Valley, between Portishead at junction 19 and Clevedon at junction 20.
Major history of the M5
The first 26 miles (42 km) of the M5 motorway was constructed as a dual two-lane motorway with Worcestershire County Council acting as engineer.
This section, from junction 4 at Lydiate Ash in the north to a trumpet junction with the M50 in the south opened in July 1962.
This original section of the M5, from junctions 4 to 8, was widened to provide six lanes in the early 1990s. During this work, the northbound Strensham services were rebuilt further away from a new junction.
Worcestershire County Council, the police and particularly the county surveyor of Worcestershire made repeated representations that a dual three-lane standard motorway was appropriate. The Ministry of Transport insisted that a dual two-lane motorway would be built at a cost of around £8 million.
The Motorways Archive also records that the carriageways were also built to a lower overall width of 88 feet (27 m) rather than 100 feet (30 m) to reduce the loss of agricultural land. When the decision became necessary to widen the Worcestershire section of M5, it cost £123 million.
The two miles (3.2 km) dual two-lane section between Junctions 16 and 17 built at Filton, near Bristol, was also opened in 1962, and was intended to replace the pre-war Filton bypass.
Gloucestershire County Council acted as engineer for this section, which was widened to a dual three-lane motorway in 1969.
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North of Junction 4 the M5 was constructed in sections, from 1967 to 1970, together with the Frankley services. Much of the northern section beyond Junction 3, from about Oldbury to the junction with the M6 motorway, was constructed as an elevated dual three-lane motorway over Birmingham Canal (Old Main Line), Birmingham Canal (New Main Line), and Titford Pool using concrete pillars.
The M5 was also extended southwards, in sections, from 1967 to 1977, through Gloucestershire and Somerset, to Exeter in Devon as a dual three-lane motorway, together with the Strensham services.
The short section between Junctions 27 and 29 was built between 1967 and 1969, by Devon County Council, as the A38 Cullompton Bypass, with the intention that it should become part of the M5. The termini for this section have since been removed, although part of the southern terminal roundabout is now used as an emergency access. The section was developed to motorway standards, and incorporated into the M5 in 1975.
Junction 1 surrounds a surviving gatehouse from the former Sandwell Hall.
The section from Junctions 16 and 18 was illuminated in about 1973 as part or a wider policy announced by UK Minister for Transport Industries in 1972 to illuminate the 86 miles (138 km) of UK motorway particularly prone to fog.
In the late 1980s Junction 4a was built as part of the M42 motorway construction project. The route of the M42 was decided as early as 1972 but, owing to planning delays, the short section of the M42 north of Bromsgrove did not open until December 1989.
As the M5 traffic increased in the 1980s Junction 11, the main Gloucester and Cheltenham access (via the A40 Golden Valley by-pass) became increasingly congested. At the same time there were plans for large scale business and housing developments at Brockworth, near Gloucester.
To relieve Junction 11 of some of the new traffic generated, and avoid more congestion around both Cheltenham and Gloucester, a new junction, Junction 11A, some 3.5 miles south of Junction 11, was constructed and opened in the mid-1990s.
The Avonmouth Bridge, Bristol
The Avonmouth Bridge was converted to eight lanes (four lanes in each direction) in the early 2000s.
Later, in 2005–2006, parts of the M5 between Junctions 17 and 20 were widened to 7 lanes (four lanes climbing the hills and three lanes descending the hills); variable message signs were added and parts of the central reservation was converted to a concrete step barrier.
During this stage of construction the M5 became Britain’s longest contraflow system, spanning nine miles (14 km) between Junctions 19 and 20.
The M5 contraflow was said to be the most complicated ever built in the UK as the motorway is on a split level around the steep hills of the Gordano Valley; meaning four lanes plus an additional emergency vehicle lane were squeezed into that section.
M5 motorway south of the Avonmouth Bridge
In 2002, extended exits for Junction 12 were constructed. The Highways Agency did not anticipate the traffic flows through the junction and the resultant queues can now extend back onto the motorway.
This is because of an increase in traffic from Stroud intending to use the M5 northbound. The distance from Junctions 12 and 13 is similar and traffic congestion is heavy on the A419 towards Junction 13 whereas it is usually lighter on the B4008 towards Junction 12.
As traffic leaving the M5 northbound towards Gloucester needs to give way to this traffic coming from the B4008, the queue on the motorway can extend beyond the first sign for the junction.
The Cullompton services are signed on the motorway in the northbound direction only. This was implemented to reduce congestion at the low capacity junction, although there is still access available to the services southbound through the junction.
Also, the northbound exit slip to the junction was reduced to one lane instead of two to reduce traffic on the small roundabout at the west side of the junction.
M5 entrance sign at Exeter
In 2009, it was announced that the lighting between junctions 30 and 31 would be turned off between midnight and 5am to save energy.
Proposals were announced in September 2009 for a new Gloucester Services between junctions 11a and 12.
A planning application was submitted in December 2009. Stroud District councillors approved the services in August 2010. The Services opened in May 2014.
In September 2020, Highways England announced that the section between junctions 1 and 2 in the West Midlands will be one of four in England to have its speed limit reduced to sixty miles per hour in a bid to reduce high levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide in the particular area.
In the same year, it was announced that Junction 10 would be undergoing significant roadworks as part of a redevelopment project on the A4019.
The works will involve making the interchange full-access and dualling the A4019 east of the junction into Cheltenham. Works will commence in 2023 (subject to permission being granted) and be completed in 2024, according to the Gloucestershire County Council.
The M5 has seen its fair share of traffic events over the past 60 years, bodies have been found, bridges have collapses, collisions and accidents which are too many to count.
Some of the biggest ones shook the country at the time of them happening.
One such tragedy was the discovery of missing university graduate Melanie Hall’s remains in 2009.
Police forensic officers sifted through and checked soil at the site where murdered Melanie Hall’s remains were found by the side of the Northbound slip road of the M5 motorway, South Gloucestershire.
Police investigated the murder of the university graduate who disappeared in 1996 found DNA evidence from where her remains were found.
Miss Hall, a clerical worker at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, vanished after a night out at Cadillacs nightclub in the city on June 9, 1996.
A workman found her remains in vegetation next to the junction 14 northbound slipway of the M5 in Thornbury on October 5, 2009.
M5 workmen deaths, 1999
A decade before the discovery of Melanie, four construction workers fell 80ft to their deaths when a gantry they were working on gave way on a motorway viaduct.
They were working beneath the M5 at Avonmouth Bridge, near Bristol, when the platform on which they were standing gave way.
The access gantry collapsed and fell 80 feet into a car compound, it happened shortly before midday on the northern side of the River Avon. No one else was hurt.
The bridge repair works was part of a five-year £100m project of which two main contractors, Costain and Kvaerner were carrying out the work for the Highways Agency, the dead men were working for Kvaerner.
In 2003, their families were awarded more than £1.3m in compensation.
The settlement, approved by Bristol County Court brought to an end a legal battle that raged since the accident happened on September 8, 1999.
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Two firms involved in the Avonmouth Bridge project, Kvaerner Cleveland Bridge UK and Costain were fined a total of more than 1.3 million after a prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive in 2001.
It was one of the largest fines ever handed out in the UK after an industrial accident.
The men died when their gantry plunged more than 80ft from the bridge onto a car compound below.
Another huge accident was in 2011, when on the evening of Friday November 4, seven people were killed and a further 51 injured in a major crash involving over 50 vehicles which included cars, vans and large goods vehicles near Junction 25 in West Monkton, near Taunton.
Several vehicles were burnt out in the fire which developed at the scene as the result of a series of explosions, and the road surface was seriously damaged, not just by the fire and explosions, but also by fuel spillage.
The cause of the crash, which took place in wet foggy conditions close to a firework display, was investigated. One person was charged for breach under health and safety laws and found not guilty.
As well as looking into the past of the M5, we’ve included a slight look into the motorway’s future.
There have been suggestions that the Government extend the M5 south, to the city of Plymouth, which currently relies on the A38 road.
The argument for such an extension has intensified in light of the closure of Plymouth City Airport in 2011, and the 2014 breaching of the South Devon Railway sea wall following storms that in turn, cut off Plymouth and Cornwall’s rail access.
Improvements to junction 25 at Taunton were approved with an £18 million programme that will include the enlargement of the junction roundabout, the widening of the eastern junction slip road exit, and an additional roundabout southeast of the junction to provide access to a new business park and to a proposed bypass of the hamlet of Henlade.
What are your favourite memories of the M5? Login and let us know in the comments below
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