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A modern day road sign for the M1 motorway

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Image Credit: | Above: A modern day road sign for the M1 motorway

[A] magnificent motorway opening up a new era in road travel, in-keeping with the new, exciting, scientific age in which we live.

Ernest Marples, Minister for Transport, on the opening of the M1 in 1959

Despite London's position in a corner of an island off the tip of mainland Europe, it has become a major international transport hub. Its airports offer flights across the globe, led by Heathrow to the west, which is the world's busiest international airport. Meanwhile, road and rail systems fan out from the capital across Britain and even into Europe.

Most of this incredible transport network has been built since the Second World War. In the 1920s and 30s, the capital had an airport in Croydon, south London. But after the War a much bigger site was needed. So Heathrow, formerly home of RAF Heston, was chosen to be London's new airport. Initially, passengers waited in former military marquees, but these were replaced by buildings in the 1950s. Terminal 1 opened in 1969 as the jet age arrived and annual passenger numbers reached 5 million. Now, over 67 million passengers travel from Heathrow to over 180 destinations in over 90 countries.

London's second airport was to be Gatwick Airport, to the south. Opened in 1958, Gatwick was the first airport in the world directly accessible by air, rail and road. It now carries over 30 million passengers a year.

Not satisfied with two airports, London boasts two more at Luton and Stansted to the north, plus London City Airport three miles east of Canary Wharf. Luton, in particular, became associated with package holidays, allowing millions of Londoners to realise their dreams of travelling abroad.

The post-war years also saw the growth of motorways carrying people to and from the capital. Britain's first full-length motorway opened in 1959. The 'M1' connected Watford to Rugby, but was later extended north and further south into London. Later, London was connected to Southampton via the M3, to West Wales via the M4, to Cambridge by the M11, to Dover by the M20 and to Birmingham by the M40.

Possibly the capital's most famous motorway is its ring-road – the M25. As far back as 1905 there had been proposals for an orbital road for London. The 1944 Abercrombie report recommended no less than five ring roads, of which just one and a half (the North Circular and the M25, which was a combination of two) were eventually built. The M25 is the longest city bypass in the world at 117 miles. Its distance from Charing Cross varies from 13 to 22 miles. By the time the last stretch was opened by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, it had cost nearly £1,000 million to build.

The final major boost to international travel came when the Channel Tunnel project reached fruition in 1994. The first design for a tunnel was put forward in 1802 and the first attempt to excavate one was in 1880. Construction on the current tunnel finally started in 1987 and in November 1994 passengers boarded the first commercial Eurostar service to Paris. A month later, a car-carrying service opened, offering a quick and easy alternative to taking your car to the continent by ferry.

Did you know?

Eurostar carries 9.5 million passengers a year, while over 2 million cars, motorcycles and vans use the Eurotunnel service.