One cold, bright October morning I was sitting on a coach loaded with excited nine year old children. We were on our way to the Royal Greenwich Observatory and, having spent an age stuck in traffic on the edge of Walthamstow, we had just exited the Blackwall Tunnel, re-emerging into the crisp autumn sunshine, the clear blue sky punctuated only by the white slashes of con trails from the airliners of Heathrow and London City airports. I too was excited. This was my first year of teaching. I was an NQT, a ‘newly qualified teacher’ and this was the first trip where I alone would have the responsibility for the 30 children of my class and the three parents that had gamely volunteered to accompany us.
I was also excited because I love science and space and museums. We had a slot booked in the planetarium, which I had never visited, but promised much. As we edged towards our destination I tracked our progress on my phone. Leaving the Blackwall Tunnel approach road we ascended a slip road and there, on the screen in my hand, I saw the words ‘Sun in the Sands’. The famous Sun in the Sands! Quickly, I pressed my face to the window of the coach and scanned the vicinity and there, just off the roundabout to the left, was a pub, also named The Sun in the Sands.
I use the word ‘also’ deliberately. Until that exact moment in time the Sun in the Sands had been a place, an area, a location and, more than that, it had been an abstract concept on the morning traffic reports. I had never even considered that it might be something else. It might be a pub.
Prior to training to become a teacher, I had commuted, by car, the thirty miles from our home in Loughton to my previous workplace just south of Watford. This was a journey fraught with peril. At any point between The Wake Arms Roundabout and Sandy Lane in Northwood there could be a crash, a breakdown, roadworks, temporary traffic lights, a gas leak, a burst water main, horses on the slip road, lane closures, a police investigation, a presidential cavalcade. These are just some of the many reasons that I would have to go off-piste. I developed an expert knowledge of the side roads, back roads, short cuts and cut-throughs, the rat runs and other alternative routes that could avoid the congestion.
Central to my ability to get to work on time was Radio 2’s traffic report. First genial Terry Wogan and then excitable Chris Evans would introduce these reports and, although they covered the whole country, there would often be more traffic around London than anywhere else. It was here that I first heard the names. In the soothing, reassuring yet authoritative tones of Lynne Bowles and Sally Boazman, amongst others, came news of incidents at the Hanger Lane Gyratory, Apex Corner, Clacket Lane Services, Chertsey, the Crooked Billet and many more. These names became part of the rhythm of the report. They prevented it becoming a dirge of road numbers and gloom. They added a little mystery, almost a little fun. Moreover they seemed to me a very British thing. I have no idea if other countries have such names on their traffic reports, but I felt it unlikely. Firstly because these seemed to be names routed in the past, in a road system based around thoroughfares that had been in use since medieval, Roman and often even prehistoric times. I wasn’t sure if names like this would be found on the LA freeway and they seemed a long way from the precision of ‘43rd and Fifth’. Secondly in my experience, as we are with the weather, that as a nation we perhaps have an obsession with traffic.
We certainly have an obsession with directions. Mention in conversation a planned visit to a friend in Dorchester and immediately those present will extol the virtues of their various convoluted routes. Don’t follow the Sat Nav. Turn off at the junction before. You want to go on the M4 and cut down through Salisbury. Of course, none of this chicanery would be necessary were Britain’s roads free flowing and traffic free. The best route would be the most direct route on the fastest roads but this is rarely the case. How was your journey? This is the question asked of friends on arrival. Be it from a tube journey from Hammersmith or a 300 mile drive from Blackpool. Not too bad. A bit sticky around Watford Gap. Someone had gone under a train at Holborn. Just the roadworks on the Thelwall Viaduct.
In 2011 Great Britain was estimated to have around 245,000 miles of road. There are also around 35 million vehicles licensed for use on those roads. Staggeringly, that equates to an average of one vehicle every eleven metres. Clearly all 35 million of these vehicles are not on the road at the same time, but also many thousands of those miles of roads were remote mountain roads and country lanes, residential streets and other unclassified roads. The motorway network made up just 1% of the total length of roads and A-roads made up 12%. Stack all this up and it is small wonder we have a lot of traffic and small wonder we hear a lot about it. The BBC has regular bulletins throughout the day on national and local radio as well as a traffic website. Independent radio stations run their own traffic reports. Information from the Highways Agency is used to create these reports as well as information from local authorities and crowd sourced from listeners calling or texting in to report problems. On top of all these sources Google even source data from people using Google Maps on their phones to relay back how fast they are travelling.
Surrounded by all this traffic, and all these ways of reporting it, it is clear why the names mentioned earlier have become part of our national consciousness. Which brings me back to that October morning in 2014. Realising the Sun in the Sands was an actual place I then began to wonder about its history, its place. I began to wonder how I could explore the Sun in the Sands and those other mysterious locales known to me only from their invocation by Boazman, Bowles, Pepper, Lang, Merchant and the rest. Then, arriving at the observatory and spending the day herding children around the various buildings and exhibits, the thought was forgotten, replaced with the fear that someone would wander off, the panic that we would not get back up the hill from lunch in time for slot in the planetarium and the pride when children from my class surprised the presenter in the planetarium with their knowledge that the fourth man on the Moon was Alan Bean.
It was a new camera, a renewed interest in field recording and a determination that, as a teacher, I needed to do my own thing at the weekends, which lead me to begin this project. I would document the traffic black spots of London in film, sound and words. I would not research these places until the morning of my visit. The films would be short, two or three minutes, edited and published quickly. If this worked I would travel further afield. The Black Cat Roundabout near Bedford. Scotch Corner. Gloucestershire’s Air Balloon. This would be the undertaking and it would begin with shaky hand held film made at Charlie Brown’s Roundabout in Woodford.