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Anorak: The A406

by Flash Wilson Bristow, 13th December 2005
First published in The Oldie Magazine


DO YOU HAVE a favourite road? For me, that's a very simple question... it has to be the A406 - the North Circular. As the name suggests, it's a ring road around the top half of London, running right through residential and commercial areas - a very convenient and effective route.

While it's fast - three lanes at 50mph most of the way round - it has a charm that you'd never find on the M25, as it passes landmarks and suburbs, and it's not full of jams unlike the appalling collection of high streets known as the "South Circular". If I have a choice, the A406 is the route I always choose.

You'd be forgiven for wondering what a fan of this road can actually do to further their hobby. Well, I run a website, "Sights of the North Circular", which provides information to encourage travellers to appreciate their journey. I do more boring things such as tracking planning applications and roadworks. But the most road-related fun I've had was when a group of friends and I set out to drive the route end to end - and recorded the trip as a time-lapse film.

Passers-by may have thought it weird to see a car bearing a webcam strapped on with string and masking tape... with cables running through the sunroof to a laptop in the back! The real challenge was trying to maintain a constant speed, without inconveniencing other drivers. This meant getting up rather earlier on a Sunday morning than I would like, in order to take advantage of the lack of traffic. But I'm pleased with the result, a five minute film of a forty-five minute trip that I can use for reference and relive any time I want. The white painted "A406" in the lanes flashes up almost like a subliminal message. In fact now I'm hungry to do it all over again, but travelling in the other direction!

Readers of my website are often surprised at the number of things you can see en route. There was once a pillbox in Gunnersbury - this is now gone but there's still a painted Ferodo bridge on part of the old North Circular near Stonebridge Park. Places to stop include the Ace Café, a meeting point for bikers; Walthamstow dog track; and St Pancras Cemetery, the largest cemetery in London, with memorials spanning 150 years. And there is one thing to look out for that changes every week - Shadbolt's factory advertise a different "veneer of the week" to those who drive past. I like to imagine what a Crown Cut Figured Maple might look like, or an Ice Birch.

To a transport fan, the sights are even better. The route passes under many old Underground bridges, over the Neasden railway bridge, and it even meets the Grand Union Canal with an aqueduct. Planes from City Airport are clearly seen at the A406's eastern end.

One name notorious to London drivers is Hanger Lane - in my opinion its poor reputation is quite undeserved. The gyratory does exactly what it should, neatly moving the traffic out a lane as each junction is passed. If you read the road (and take a deep breath) it works very well. Perhaps the only problem is that the tube station in the middle has street access... surely no one is mad enough to run across all seven lanes of the system?

The North Circular is 26.2 miles long - exactly the length of a marathon, and my wish is that one day the London Marathon will be held along its route, to give the road the prominence it deserves.

Maybe you think I'm sad for finding beauty in some tarmac and an assortment of junctions... but just maybe, if you ever need to travel from one side of London to the other, you'll look at the North Circular in a new light.


This page last updated: 05 February 2008



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