The Department of Transport is currently putting arrangements in place to transform a 13.5 mile stretch of the M20, passing through Kent on the way to Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel, into a ‘giant lorry park’ in time for 29 March next year. When I learned of this frantic exercise in ‘resilience planning’, my mind drifted back to a time still unblessed by the wisdom of Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, who shortly before the end of his tenure admitted how little he had appreciated the country’s reliance on transportation by the Dover-Calais route. A simpler time, perhaps, when British people still habitually referred to Europe as ‘the Continent’, and when an obscure junction on another Kentish road – this one running between London and Dover – gained a notoriety that people feared would be everlasting.
Brenley Corner sits where the M2, heading east, becomes the A2 just south-east of Faversham. Today, it is commonly known as Junction 7. Prone to congestion and one of the worst accident blackspots in the country, it first became notorious half a century ago. Even before Britain joined the EEC on New Year’s Day, 1973, there was much alarm about the heavy intercontinental lorries shaking ancient villages to their (largely absent) foundations as they thundered back and forth along the road from London to Dover. For the first part of that journey drivers had the use of the M2, but thanks to a decision made in 1963, the new motorway came to an abrupt end at Brenley Corner. Politicians and planners would give various excuses for the situation, including the priority of road-building elsewhere in the country, and the fact that they had yet to divine exactly where the Channel Tunnel might one day emerge from the English Channel.
The consequence of this indecision was that Dover-bound traffic – which already included a rapidly growing number of the heavy goods vehicles known as TIRs (after the UN-mandated Transports Internationaux Routiers system of customs control) – would arrive at Brenley Corner, then crawl off the motorway to complete the last 26 miles of their journey to Dover on the A2, which was still the old Roman road known as Watling Street. Although straighter than the ‘rolling English road’ that G.K. Chesterton imagined being made by the ‘rolling English drunkard’ before the Romans arrived, it remained, as the Kent county surveyor of the time would later admit, ‘little more than a country lane’. As these belching monsters – which were, of course, small by the standards of the EU’s present European Modular System – ground their way along this scarcely improved turnpike road, they crawled through a string of startled villages before reaching Canterbury, where the blockages became so preposterous that desperate planning consultants recommended bulldozing a ring road straight through an ancient quarter to the north of the cathedral. The situation was sufficiently arresting, as I remember from my time as a student living along the proposed route, to introduce a new kind of rural excursion to the county that still liked to think of itself as the ‘Garden of England’. Enthusiasts would drive to the village of Boughton after nightfall just to park at the top of the hill and watch in amazement as the lorries hauled themselves up and out of the village, shattering the night with blazing lights and roaring engines – and, as was surely registered by the Tolkien-addled hippies among the nocturnal onlookers, with all the traumatic force of Mordor.
Such detached pleasures were not for the residents of the affected villages, who feared for their lives as TIRs mounted pavements in order to squeeze past one another, accidentally scraping the fronts off shops, destabilising church towers and obliging householders to glue their ornaments to the mantelpiece if they wanted them to survive the vibrations. It was soon plain that the situation demanded more fundamental measures than the 40 mph speed limit called for by two garage owners at Barham who protested in April 1972 that the huge vehicles travelling to and from Dover were using the A2 ‘like a race track’.
The campaigners of the ‘A2 Group’ had started agitating about the traffic passing along the high street in the village of Bridge after a fatal accident in 1962. The campaign was relaunched in June 1972 after a TIR driver from Dagenham, Reginald Christopher, died at the wheel of a lorry full of frozen meat. He had collided with a house, demolishing the bed of a sleeping 15-year-old girl who somehow survived with nothing more than an arm injury (she later described being pushed by what she thought was a cat and opening her eyes to find ‘this lorry was in my bedroom’). A few hotheads at the public meetings recommended taking ‘commando action’ against the Department of the Environment and its ministers, but by and large the Kentish protesters were respectable people who might, under normal circumstances, be expected to confine their protest to taking censuses of the traffic and communicating their findings to their local MP. Such were the circumstances, though, that they now felt it necessary to take more forceful steps against the menacing vehicles that were no longer just TIRs but ‘motorway monsters’, ‘blocks of flats on wheels’, and – the sobriquet that really caught on – ‘juggernauts’. They painted slogans on the walls of TIR-damaged buildings and organised sit-down demonstrations that closed the A2, causing huge traffic jams as they reclaimed the road.
Meanwhile the accidents continued to pile up – some fatal and others less so, like the one suffered in August 1972 by the 83-year-old pensioner Albert Banister of the village of Lydden. He declared himself ‘very lucky’ not to have been killed when ‘Frenchman M. Camille Logereau’s’ thirty-ton TIR collided with a council truck and a Swiss beer tanker before ‘scything down’ a telegraph pole, and crashing through the wall of his bungalow garden, scattering twenty tons of onions as it went. The same week as that unwanted encounter with European produce, a near disaster was suffered by 23 French holidaymakers, some of whom suffered facial cuts as their Dover-bound coach collided with a Danish TIR lorry at Harbledown. On another occasion the A2 was blocked when a ‘Turkey-bound’ lorry loaded with machinery parked at the side of the road, then toppled into the ditch as the verge collapsed under its weight.
The prospect of an explosive growth in the number of juggernauts using the road was quite real. The Dover Harbour Board’s figures revealed that 2052 heavy lorries had passed through the harbour in 1962; in 1970, the figure was 83,277, and it was estimated that by 1975 it would rise to 230,000. Even the DoE planners who, in April 1972, had attended a public meeting to discuss the bypassing of the villages of Boughton and Dunkirk admitted that ‘the increase in roll-on/roll-off freight to and from the Continent’, combined with a similarly rising level of holiday traffic, promised ‘ever increasing congestion, accidents, damage to property and difficulties for pedestrians’. Campaigners at the time argued that British policy was based on a short-termist preference for road haulage over, say, investment in the railways, and an abandonment of quantity licensing that might have hindered the increase in the number of larger lorries on British roads. The policy of pouring money into road-building, including the M1 and M2, had made it economical for companies in Sheffield, which would previously have shipped goods to Holland via Hull, to drive them south to Dover. The understanding that this was a homemade British problem was shared by the good citizen who notified the Kentish Gazette, only six months before Britain joined the EEC, that ‘perhaps de Gaulle was right after all, we are not ready for the Common Market, not on the A2 anyway.’
Barbara Castle, Labour’s minister for transport in the late 1960s, had refused to yield to Kentish requests that the M2 be extended all the way to Dover, but the bypasses were on the way by 28 June 1973, when the conservative MP for Canterbury, David Crouch, told the House of Commons that he was merely asking that the A2 be raised to ‘the standard obtaining in Europe’. Crouch quoted a report showing that freight through Dover had increased by 30 per cent less than a month after Britain joined the Common Market. His case was strengthened by another dire accident on the A2: earlier that month at Temple Ewell, near Dover, a Belgian TIR had overturned and crushed a vehicle containing four British soldiers, only one of whom survived. The bypasses, which have since been absorbed into the dual-carriageway A2, came into service one by one. The one that pulled the juggernauts out of Boughton and Dunkirk opened in 1976. The one that relieved Bridge came a little later, and the south-western route around Canterbury – in the end it was decided that the road should skirt the city rather than demolish its way through – was opened to traffic in 1981.
None of the people I spoke to when investigating the story last year, including members of the A2 Group, identified the Common Market as the enemy. Indeed, former demonstrators seemed perplexed by the very suggestion, pointing out that their protests had happened before Britain joined the EEC. (They told me they had been firmly on the side of Remain in 2016.) It was indeed a different time. The asylum seekers exploited by Farage et al were yet to arrive on Kent’s coast, as were the trucks taking veal calves in the other direction (vigorously opposed by animal rights demonstrators and curtailed in the 1990s thanks to BSE, which prompted the EU’s worldwide ban on the export of British beef and live animals).
By the time the authorities upgraded the A2, events there having demonstrated all too plainly that Britain must raise its game if it were to achieve the ‘continental’ standards of its European neighbours, views had already begun to change. An early sign of things to come was provided by the Kentish farmers who at some point in the 1970s started, as some elderly witnesses recall, dumping their unsaleable English apples – Cox’s Orange Pippins – along the A2 in protest against the Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidised the grubbing up of English orchards while also paving the way for an invasion of sun-raised French Golden Delicious apples (forcefully marketed in Britain as ‘Le Crunch’ and boycotted by supermarket patriots as ‘Le Blight’). Long before 1992, when the European Union was formed at Maastricht (despite Margaret Thatcher’s ‘No, No, No’ two years earlier, in response to Jacques Delors’s call for centralisation of power in Europe), the unstoppable juggernaut was, in people’s minds, no longer a mere TIR; instead, it was an image of ‘Europe’ itself. So to today’s ‘resilience planning’, with its promise of further disruptions on the M20; and in Ramsgate, where we are invited to expect hasty dredging to allow bigger ships into port; and even on the high and windswept Sheppey Crossing, where container lorries may struggle to reach the ‘reserve’ system proposed for the port of Sheerness. This is how the moral of Brenley Corner enters our time. It is a lot easier to rail against juggernauts and other inflated bogeys than to run a country properly, or even just a transport system.