On the Motorway

2022   Back


Long before you reach the motorway you feel its presence. You approach through silent slip road towns, down long feeder roads that slowly gain lanes and impatient motorists. The roadsides lose their pedestrians, their bus stops, their houses, and their sense of human scale.

Just before it becomes completely unbearable, the feeder road ends in an enormous roundabout. From there you choose which slip road to ascend, which thundering direction of traffic to join. There are smaller options, too: roads that flee the noise and burrow through overpasses to nicer, quieter places. But these aren't for you. You're leaving the normal world behind, with its pavements and parking and 30-miles-an-hour speed limits. You've chosen the motorway.

Now you’re there, on the widest ribbon of tarmac dancing through the countryside, but there’s nothing to see. There’s no people waiting at bus stops and no lit-up shopfronts, and the cars around you are of little interest except for a horsebox or foreign numberplate. Your entertainment must come from within. The radio is a good way to pass the time: in the sea of static you find stations with music, talk shows, and news. And if you’re driving on a weekday, there’s the Archers at two and seven. But you’re never allowed to escape too far into the golden oldies and rural radioplays: each station stalls every hour on the half-hour for a traffic update. Traffic is the enemy: the clots and constrictions of the great veins of this country. It’s a disease that affects us all and is caused by us all. Sometimes there’s a reason: an overturned car, an accident or incident, but most of the time there is no reason. Traffic just happens. Cars move together and away from each other as naturally as air pressure in the weather systems above your head. Occasionally, it rains. With the traffic update your radio becomes a barometer, calibrated to tell you the one thing everyone wants to know: whether you will get where you’re going on time.

The strange thing is, when you're there in the middle of it all, it doesn’t feel like you’re going very fast. This is because there’s nothing around to measure distance by. The roadsigns are so massive and concrete bridges so broad overhead that they take an age to pass. The cars around you, travelling at about your pace, hardly seem to move at all. It’s only when you see something small and stationary that you realise your speed - a man stood by his car on the hard shoulder, on the phone, annoyed; the mangled remains of a fox unlucky enough to want to get to the other side; the white spot of a sheep in a distant field. If you dare to open your window, even just a crack, you will be met with wild buffeting winds, the roar of the road and a sudden realisation: you are in a little metal capsule travelling at incredible speed. There is only one way to go, and that is forwards, because here, in the middle of it all, stopping would be fatal.

If the motorway is boring it is because it is designed to be boring. And despite its traffic, it's the best way to get anywhere. The motorway eliminates the wasted time spent crawling through inbetween places; it understands that you’re only interested in where you've come from and where you're going. It doesn’t bother you with towns to pass through or buildings to look at. It doesn’t inconvenience you with too many junctions, and doesn’t slow you with stifling roundabouts or traffic lights always on red. Instead, at the price of homogenisation, the motorway creates the most efficient driving experience. There’s nothing to see, yes, but you get to where you’re going faster. You can only exit at the junctions, miles apart, yes, but you get to where you’re going faster. There are no chances for detours, diversions or quick stops, yes, but if it means you get to where you’re going faster, why would you need anything but the road?

Now your junction’s coming up. There’s nothing to worry about, though, as you have plenty of time to prepare. First, miles away, the motorway warns you in orange bulbs on its gantries: J5 - 25 minutes. The first part is your number, the second an arbitrary amount of time - after all, fifteen minutes on the motorway is much the same as twenty-five minutes on the motorway. As you get closer, the tall blue roadsigns hold the familiar name of your destination. The sight of the letters stands the hair up on the back of your neck, dilates your pupils, and pushes your foot a little further into the accelerator. You're nearly there. The signs grow in frequency and their vocabulary becomes more specific. 

Soon you’re in the fragile transitional zone of impending junction, of impending destination, of impending action. On the brambled roadside cowering behind crashbarriers there’s a countdown: 3, 2, 1. Now. Quickly, panicking, you pull your tiny body from the gravity of the motorway’s, and you're out. Relaxing, you repeat your steps in reverse: slip road, roundabout, A-road. You're almost there. The roar of the motorway fades behind you.


Will Dalton is an artist and writer based in London. He uses the materials of everyday life to explore how our personal experiences are shaped by the objects, places and spaces around us.