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The arrival of the M11 to Little Shelford

This account of the preparations for the M11 coming to Little Shelford was written by John Altham, the then Chairman of the Parish Council, in 1982.

THE M11 STORY by John Altham

It was in 1971 that we first heard a rumour that a Motorway was being thought of to run along the west side of the village when Jack Fordham told the Parish Council that some men had been taking borings on his farmland. Later we were informed officially and the boss of the Eastern Road Construction Unit, an offshoot of the Ministry, came to address an open meeting in the Village Hall. Immediately group of us was formed to fight the proposal and I was elected to lead this group.

Here I should mention what the purpose of this road was to be. First, it was intended to carry traffic from the North of Cambridge to the East side of London which at that time travelled down the old route through Bishops Stortford. Second, it would take the traffic out of Cambridge where it was passing down the Backs of the Colleges, and therefore it would act as a Cambridge Byepass.

In addition to this motorway it was planned to make a huge interchange West of Girton College so that traffic going East towards the East Coast ports would pass north of Cambridge or, if it needed to, could divert South down the M11. This interchange was to be a kind of four cross roads to cater for traffic wanting to go anywhere. It was to cater for local traffic as well as through traffic - all to be kept out of Cambridge.

As all these proposals would affect many villages in the “Cam Valley” and grab much farm land and cause much noise and disturbance near to it, opposition arose from literally ‘all along the line’ affected.

The Cambridge Preservation Society, who was interested in the surrounds as well as in the City itself, took charge of this opposition and called in Sir Colin Buchanan’s firm to oppose the road of their behalf, with each village contributing money towards his fees.

Following the growth of this opposition the Minister ordered a Public Enquiry to be held, as is usual in such cases. We all then set to to prepare our case, which job fell on me for our village.

Realising that the purpose of the new motorway to bypass Cambridge was clearly right the CPS agreed with Sir Colin Buchanan to propose an alternative route. Many were looked at, particularly a route to the East of Cambridge instead of to the West, but eventually it was decided to put forward a plan that the route should be further West and that the Royston to Huntingdon road should be developed (the A14). This was put forward at the Inquiry.

I now come to the Inquiry itself in 1972, a mammoth affair which lasted some six months and was held mostly in the County Council offices on Castle Hill. This was convenient for lunches at the Castle pub where the beer was good and many of us ate the landlady’s home-made shepherd’s pie at 17p a portion-or was it 17d - I forget). What sticks out in my mind firstly was the incredible fairness and patience of the Inspector of who conducted the Inquiry, Major General Edge, a retired Sapper. I think respect for the army and its products must have risen to new heights as a result. The number of witnesses was legion, and included many Q.C.s, quite private folk, an undergraduate appearing on his own to protect Madingley Wood, a young farmer’s wife appearing for her husband who was one of the very best witnesses as she spoke straight from the shoulder plain English. There were lawyers representing the Colleges whose land would be affected, and a very senior Q.C. representing the Radio Telescope’s interests who sat with the Director, Sir Martin Ryale (later to be the Astronomer Royal). Lastly, yours truly representing our little village - small fry compared to Cambridge.

Due to the way local government is organised the City of Cambridge were pro the Ministry’s plan, but the County Council were anti. And the Radio Telescope was anti because of the possible radiated electrical interferences which traffic might cause. Sir Martin Ryall made strong play of the possible use in the far future of the simple radar installations in lorries (particularly for use in fog for spacing out traffic, and that the frequencies which would be [used] were just those likely to interfere with the dishes which seek out signals from the stars. I well remember a highly technical argument in the ‘court’ between his QC and an expert physicist from the National Physical Laboratory brought in by the Ministry. Poor Major General Edge was writing notes (as he did all the time) about this. Sappers are highly trained, but not, I think, in the intricacies of Radar propagation. But he kept calm!

All kinds of details were discussed during those long months; where was the gravel to come from for the concrete, how former X get from one field to another across the motorway (answer -many little bridges had to be included); how much noise would be generated, which led to long discussions about decibels which few people understood; how much could tree planting stop noise (answer; admitted by the Ministry, it could not at all), and so on! At one stage of weeks were spent arguing about expected traffic figures, a key issue. Lawyers went home at night to do their homework trying to sort out their arguments for the next day on this subject, which at the best of times is only forecasting, which, almost by definition, is guesswork, and everyone guessed differently, according to which case they were presenting.

By 4 p.m. each Friday one went home with imaginary lorries buzzing in one’s ears from all directions; the possible threat of a Motorway Service Area at the foot of Maggots Mount (I fought hard against this threat); pictures of great holes in the ground all around the village where gravel had been extracted (we lie on gravel here). The lake of the Whittlesford road resulted from gravel extraction, and is now quite a bird sanctuary instead of a turnip field! And finally, in my case, blame being laid on me for my failure to stop this monster. (This did not happen!)

But at the end of it all, and many months later, the inspector came down in favour of the route proposed by the Ministry. Ah well, I thought, what will be our loss will anyway be Cambridge’s gain, and so it has turned out. We have the noise, but the Backs are now clear of lorries.

For me the Inquiry was a priceless experience of working of our Democracy. There was a raw, young, but earnest, undergraduate fighting Whitehall and being given a hearing; likewise a young farmer’s wife all on her own. There were eminent lawyers doing battle ‘in the ring’, and following their clients’ instructions to the letter, whatever their own doubts of the merits of the case, and some were very weak cases! There was money being paid out in many thousands of pounds per day simply to maintain the great democratic principles we believe it. Sometimes I found myself chuckling inside at some of the absurdity of it all but wholeheartedly approving every minute. Why do I say absurdity? Because I soon came to believe that we could not win because the ministry’s case was too strong. But we HAD to fight them stop

John Altham Ivy Cottage

March 1982