Now we can say what we've seen

Observations on motorways

It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. Mike Jackson, the author of the recent M6 Sights Guide (Severnpix, £9.99), spent three months travelling up and down Britain's busiest inter-urban motorway writing thumbnail sketches about the 400-plus landmarks that can be seen from it, such as the Tyseley waste disposal depot and the Penrith factory where the dough balls for Domino's pizzas are made. Jackson, a producer of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, got the idea for a series of motorway guides while driving round the country with Michael Aspel.

Motorway tourism might seem a bizarre pastime, not to say a dangerous one if you happen to be behind the wheel at the same time. (Jackson's book goes heavy on the disclaimers: "Drivers: do not use while travelling.") Britain's motorway network, a maze of link roads, bypasses and upgraded A-roads built incrementally over decades, is hardly designed for sightseeing - not like the longer, straighter Continental freeways. Yet Jackson's first effort, which was about the M5, quickly sold out its print run of 6,000 copies when it was published in 2003, and other authors have produced similar I-spy books for grown-ups, including Scenes From a Motorway: the M25 and Around the M60: Manchester's orbital motorway.

Motorway-gazing is nothing new. When the M1 first opened in 1959, day trippers picnicked on the hard shoulder to watch the speeding traffic, and London Transport organised special bus trips to see it. However, it was the motorway itself people wanted to see, not its hinterland. The whole point was speed, getting from here to there with minimal distractions.

This was the logic behind motorway signs, invented by an unsung genius called Jock Kinneir who also designed the British Rail logo and the black-on-yellow signage for airports. Drawing on the latest scientific research, Kinneir's team worked out the perfect design to be read cursorily at speed: squarely proportioned, mainly lower-case letters with consistent stroke thickness, white on a blue background. It worked: drivers rarely need to give this roadside furniture a second glance.

So why the new interest in motorway landscapes? First, the roads are getting busier. Traffic jams allow you to look around, and make you wonder about the point of all those anonymous warehouses without so much as an identifying logo. Second, there is more to see. Thatcherite deregulation turned Britain's motorways into magnets for trading estates, "value" (never "budget") hotels, shopping malls, theme parks and commuter estates. Farmers have started selling advertising space in their fields, promoting everything from the Countryside Alliance to the nearest 24-hour Tesco.

Motorway scenery is a case study in the uneven development of capitalism. In the driver's line of sight, the post-industrial detritus of landfill sites and scrapyards competes with LSSBs (large single-storey buildings), those swiftly assembled, easily dismantled sheds built near motorway intersections to serve our mobile, just-in-time society. If you want to see what it is really like to live and work in Britain today, skip the usual tourist sights and take a trip along the M6. As Black Box Recorder sang, "The English motorway system is beautiful and strange."

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University