To Prezzagrad with love

In the Thirties, planners imagined a magnificent road linking Liverpool to Hull. But the dream soure

"Why don't we cross the city limit/And head on down the end of 62?" The Liverpool group, It's Immaterial, posed this question on "Driving Away From Home", a haunting road song that was a hit in the summer I sat my O-levels. The chorus warmly recommends driving along the M62 for "30 miles or more" (which seems like a long way when you're 16 and your family doesn't own a car).

Twenty years on, driving along England's only coast-to-coast motorway no longer seems like an alluring alternative to exam revision. When the Queen officially opened the M62 in October 1971, the brochure rashly promised: "By the mid-1970s, the 130-mile journey from Liverpool to Hull will be cut from five exhausting hours to an easy cruise of less than two hours." Today it is one of the most congested motorways in the country, without the compensation of being iconically awful like the M25.

Now the M62 is in the vanguard of the movement towards road tolls, made more likely by the Road Transport Bill, which gives local councils more power to introduce them in their areas. A recent M62 route action plan, prepared by the transport consultancy Halcrow, makes dire predictions about future gridlock if such "radical measures" are not implemented. The Northern Way, an alliance of regional development agencies which aims to bridge the £30bn productivity gap between the north and the rest of the country, is lobbying hard among local authorities for M62 tolls as a way of speeding up both traffic and economic renewal.

Over the past few weeks I have finally taken the song's advice and driven along the M62. For the Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage, this motorway is like a modern-day Hadrian's Wall, "a belt drawn tightly across the waistline of Britain, with the buckle somewhere near Leeds". It marks the true north, "where England tucks its shirt in its underpants". For years, the M62 has inspired federalist visions of a growth corridor that would unite the north across the Pennines to form a single entity, like Holland's Randstad or Germany's Rhine-Ruhr region, and finally challenge the economic dominance of the south. The dream has so far been scuppered by, among other things, the tedious reality of the traffic jam. The story of this road, once optimistically named "the south-east bypass", is also one about the changing idea of motorways in British politics and culture.

In the 1930s, when an east-to-west coast road was first conceived, Liverpool was at the cutting edge of modern motoring. The East Lancashire Road open ed and was meant to run all the way to the Humber - but it got no further than the outskirts of Manchester before the war intruded. It was a sign of Liverpool's long-term decline as a city and port that it was left behind in the first great period of motorway building. The growth in traffic in the 1950s turned the East Lancs Road into a regular bloodbath, until someone had the bright idea of adding a central reservation.

As car ownership spread beyond the middle classes, the first motorways were intended to launch a new, democratic age of mobility and opportunity. When the transport minister Ernest Marples inaugurated a 72-mile southern stretch of the M1 in November 1959, he hailed a "magnificent motorway opening up a new era in road travel, in keeping with the new, exciting, scientific age in which we live". Pathé newsreels eulogised this "safe, fast and beautiful" road: "The great highway will never look empty again. It'll be a crowded road of speed . . . This is the motoring we used to dream about." The absence of speed limits on the motorways until 1965, and the fairly light traffic, made them thrilling, glamorous spaces.

Then the dream of the open road slowly soured. The first inkling of this came with the protests against the urban motorways built in the late 1960s. When Michael Heseltine opened the Westway in London in July 1970, protesters came armed with placards saying "You can't fly over human lives" and "Get us out of this hell". And in October 1986, when she cut the ribbon for the final section of the M25, Margaret Thatcher convinced no one when she said that those moaning about heavy traffic on the road reminded her of the saying: "Nobody shops at Sainsbury's because of the queues."

Driving along the M62 today is like reading a primer in this fraught history of British roadbuilding. The road was completed between 1966 and 1976, just as the lustre of the first motorways was wearing off. One consequence, for which Liverpudlians and Hullites should be grateful, is that their towns never became motorway cities like Birmingham or Leeds. The M62 begins a few miles outside Liverpool, in Knotty Ash, and ends several miles from the North Sea, merging anti-climactically into the A63. Around the Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire conurbations it becomes part of a maze-like urban motorway system. But, over the Pennines, the road climbs to 1,442 feet and becomes quite spectacular, more reminiscent of the straight roads and wide vistas of America and the Continent. The engineers who built this section heroically contended with impassable peatbogs, drifting snow and fierce crosswinds - taming nature for the sake of the car in a way that now seems inconceivable.

On my travels, I hear different versions of the legend of Stott Hall Farm, which stands in the middle of the road as the dual carriageway divides on the Pennine moors. A student working at a Caffè Ritazza tells me, with the unshakeable certainty of youth, that the farmer sat on his roof while the motorway was being built around him, trying to drive the workers away by blaring out Led Zeppelin records. The road actually separates for engineering reasons, but people want to believe that the farmer refused to be moved, like a 1970s versions of Swampy - a myth perpetuated in John Shuttleworth's song "The Man Who Lives on the M62", and by the numerous hair-raising videos of the farm uploaded on to YouTube, shot by passing drivers from the wheels of cars.

Why does this nondescript farm inspire such folklore? Perhaps because it stands at a symbolic midway point on the M62, shortly after you see a sign saying "Highest motorway in England". These 27 miles over the Pennines between Roch dale and Huddersfield have been a mental as well as physical barrier, the foundation for civil wars, sporting rivalries and general bigotry. Such attitudes survive in the people who still talk about "going over the top" to Yorkshire or Lancashire, or who chant "Yorkshire sheep shaggers" and "wanky-wanky-Lancashire" at Rugby League mat ches. Rugby League, the second-largest spectator sport in Britain, is almost wholly confined to towns along this motorway. A 1994 survey showed that 60 per cent of those regularly attending Rugby League matches lived within four postal districts on the M62 corridor. Seen as the quintessentially northern sport, it engenders fierce local feeling and as much divides the north as unites it.

A Xanadu of the north

The motorway was supposed to break down these barriers, uniting eastern and western regions with similar economic and social problems. In the 1970s, local politicians and industrialists came up with a concept known as "oceanspan". Raw materials would arrive from America at Liverpool (traditionally a bulk port), be turned into goods along the manufac turing belt of the M62, and be exported to Europe via the Humber. In the Thatcher era, the regional campaigner David Fletcher founded Transpennine, a think-tank that promoted a similar idea of a "land bridge" along the M62. The EU then embraced this transpennine ideal as a way of linking the resurgent Celtic tiger with eastern Europe. The motorway straddles what the EU calls the E20, the trade route from Shannon Airport in Ireland to St Petersburg. Its 1999 European Spatial Development Perspective specifically promotes trading corridors that link ports and join a cluster of cities surrounded by protected countryside - just like the M62.

New Labour's vision of regional devolution latched on to this trans-European strategy. So, in 2004, we had John Pres cott's blueprint for a megatropolis along the M62, inevitably nicknamed Prezzagrad. In the same year, the architect Will Alsop unveiled his more ambitious plans for a SuperCity on a 15-mile-wide strip running the length of the motorway. Dismissing the free-standing town as so 20th century, Alsop dreamed of a "beautiful urban sprawl" where people would live in Hull, shop in Manchester and work in Liverpool, using an M62 that would no longer carry cars but bullet trains. He cruised along the road in his 4x4 for a Channel 4 series, visions of the future appearing magically in his side window. Fifteen-storey "city villages" called Stacks, piled high in asymmetrical shapes like chaotic games of Jenga, would "litter the landscape as objects of curiosity and wonder", he suggested. Alsop mentioned in passing that Liverpool would have to be extended a mile out to sea on stilts, and the centre of Bradford flooded to create a northern Venice.

Will this Xanadu-like vision of regional renewal ever come to pass? The good news is that the privatised Hull and Liverpool ports are doing better business than ever, helped by the accession of eastern European states to the EU. And the expansion of John Lennon Airport has led to a growth in traffic between Manchester and Liverpool, including the dinky blue airport bus that I overtake several times on my journeys. But the linear city of "LiverHull" remains elusive. A few years ago, the traffic consultancy MVA analysed M62 drivers' "desire lines" - a strangely poetic name for the routes they take on their mundane journeys. The map of these lines showed the vast majority ending abruptly on either side of the Pennines.

In all my stops on the motorway, I cannot find anyone who is going the whole way along it. Desire lines are short and sweet. A man with his two teenage daughters going to the Xscape leisure complex at Castleford; a middle-aged couple from Oldham visiting their grown-up daughter in Leeds; a young woman stopping at Burtonwood services on her way back from Ikea. Alsop's vision of a strip city has passed them by. Presumably some lorry drivers are going all the way, but they are not refilling at the Moto service-station cafés where "good food is a joy" but a baked potato with beans costs £3.99.

Driving along the M62, you encounter two separate norths, virtual mirror images of each other. At the ends of the motorway are the flatlands of west Lanca shire, bumpy from mining subsidence, and Yorkshire's East Riding, surrounded by recently closed collieries. On either side of the Pennines is the classic northern industrial land scape of old textile mills, redundant chimneys and rows of aged terraced housing. A 2001 study by the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham found that 280,000 homes along the M62 corridor (16.3 per cent of the total) were abandoned, obsolete or affected by low demand. This inspired the creation of the nine Path finder housing renewal areas, six of which straddle the corridor.

The Pennines used to be the "lungs of England", a weekend playground for Lancashire and Yorkshire millworkers. Now the M62 is another sort of playground: of reservoirs given over to powerboating and windsurfing, and indoor leisure hangars with snow slopes, rock climbing and skating rinks. The towns along the motorway compete against each other with what seem like similar attractions, trying to get you to turn off to visit their retail or entertainment experiences. The only towns that don't clamour for attention are Leeds and Manchester, because they don't have to. If you were a foreign tourist travelling on the M62, judging the area solely by its tourist signs, you might think that Pontefract was the booming capital of Yorkshire and Leeds a suburban backwater.

Until now, this is what motorways have been like: semi- autonomous microsocieties in which the outside world is sign posted but rarely encountered. As the novelist J G Ballard once wrote, motorway drivers have become "citizens of a virtual city-state borne on a rush of radial tyres". Finally, however, we are learning to accept that access to roads is an expensive and scarce commodity. Most drivers I encountered along the M62 saw road tolls as inevitable, and were more concerned with the practicalities of running and policing them than with the much-touted "war on the motorist". And tolls may be a way not simply to cut congestion but to link motorways with the towns through which they pass - perhaps at last creating the lost city of LiverHull along the roadside.

Joe Moran's book "Queuing for Beginners" will be published by Profile Books next May