Monday, 14 August 2017

Strategic numbering

I'm no mathematician, but I do notice numbers, especially when driving around. I once had a car with a registration F807 FGT. Even though in holiday mode, something about my brain allowed me to glimpse and recognise the number plate F808 FGT when driving along the seafront at Woolacombe in Devon. I screeched to a halt and took some photos. Here they are:

That was on 10th May 1995. It seemed a remarkable feat, to have spotted the next number in the registration sequence. But I could probably do the same now, twenty-two years later. One's powers of recognition can be truly amazing.

You could of course say that it was more a case of spotting a pattern, rather than any particular sensitivity to number-symbols. But in my travels I do often encounter roads with numbers that get me wondering why did they give this road that number? What was the thinking, or scheme, behind it?

There are roads in this country that carry the same number for an extraordinary distance, without any obvious reason for it. They link places with no obvious connection. I don't mean the long radial roads that start in London, like the A1. I mean cross-country roads like the A34, which for some reason links Winchester in Hampshire with Manchester in the North. Yet these towns have nothing in common. Or the A38, which links Bodmin in Cornwall with Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. Again, chalk and cheese, nothing in common.

Whatever the original reason for giving the same number to such a length of road, it has been completely superseded by building the motorway system, and introducing the alternative modern notion of Primary Routes. But many of these old long-distance numberings persist. It's strange to be in the Midlands, and come across a road one normally associates with the West of England.

I won't make too much of all this, but it is striking how a clutch of East Coast seaside resorts are all on the end of very long numbered roads that begin far away. Here are three of the longest:

A46 Bath to Cleethorpes
A47 Nuneaton to Great Yarmouth
A52 Stoke-on-Trent to Skegness and Mablethorpe

Not quite so long are:

A64 Leeds to Scarborough
A614 Blyth to Bridlington

Curiously, the West Coast seaside resorts don't get this treatment. The A49 does not go all the way from Ross-on-Wye to Blackpool, for instance - although the A49 does actually get into Lancashire, petering out just south of Preston. Nor does a long-distance route reach the South Coast. You can't get on the A61 and go all the way from Thirsk to Bournemouth: it stops short at Derby.

Why is it just those particular East Coast resorts?

Perhaps there was once a Secret Government Committee that decided to create a network of long-distance road routes that would channel Northern holidaymakers towards an East Coast destination - and not elsewhere. In other words, divert all those rough Northerners away from the genteel resorts of the South. 'What, Wakes Week workers at Eastbourne! Or Torquay? Good Lord, no! Let them all go to Mablethorpe!' True or not, it would have been an example of Strategic Planning. You can imagine the posters. 'Sunny Skegness for fun and frolics! The best sands on the East Coast! Just pick up the A52 and follow it! That's all you have to do. No maps required.' That sort of thinking. I wonder if it ever worked.

Decades later, these long-distance Holiday Routes are still there, their original convenience (if they ever were convenient, that is) long forgotten, because other roads - motorways especially - will get you there much faster. To follow the bucolic serpent-windings of these old routes is to savour a motoring experience from another age. Some do have sections upgraded to near motorway-standard, but mostly they are two-lane, and quiet, and only for those who have plenty of leisure time. Such as older men with pipes, who drive cherished old roadsters, and wear cravats.

It doesn't have to be one of the roads already mentioned above. Why not try the A361 instead? It starts at Ilfracombe in North Devon and finishes in the Midlands south-east of Rugby, traversing some very nice countryside. Allow for an overnight stop, though.

If you want to be really, really nerdy about road numbers, and the fascinating history of road numbering, the website of SABRE is just what you need. See I urge you to check out their Wiki section.

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