|Via:||Cheltenham, Coventry, Leicester|
|Distance:||223 miles (358.9 km)|
|Meets:||A4, A420, M4, B4465, B4040, A432, A433, A4135, B4058, B4014, A419, B4070, A4171, A4173, B4073, A417, A40, A4015, B4075, A435, M5, A438, B4079, B4077, B4078, A4184, A44, B4035, B439, A422, A3400, A439, B4463, M40, A429, A425, A4177, B4115, A452, A45, A444, B4110, A428, B4082, M69, M6, A4600, B4065, B5380, M1, A50, A5630, A6, A607, B676, A6006, A606, A52, A6097, B6166, A616, A617, B6326, A1, A17, A1133, A1434, B1190, B1241, A57, A15, B1226, A158, B1182, A631, A1103, B1434, B1205, A1173, B1225, A18, B1444, A1243, A16, B1213, A1031, A180, A1098|
|Former Number(s):||A438, A435, A422, A18|
|Old route now:||B4632, A439|
|Route outline (key)|
The A46 is an important cross-country route, running from the West Country to the North Sea. It is the only road in the UK to cross four numbering zones completely.
Section 1: Bath – M4 J18
Historically, it started at a set of traffic lights on the A4 in Larkhall, on the eastern side of Bath, before climbing uphill through Swainswick. This has now been bypassed, and instead it starts as a TOTSO with the A4 further east in Lambridge, as a continuation of the Batheaston bypass. There's a steep climb uphill as a dual carriageway road, past Solsbury Hill, where it rejoins the old route at the top and narrows back down to single carriageway. Coming the other way offers impressive views of Bath and the surrounding valley on a clear day.
After a few miles, there's a roundabout with the A420 near Cold Ashton (this was previously a set of traffic lights), then the road continues as single carriageway around Pennsylvania and Dyrham Park, famous for its deer. The road briefly widens to dual carriageway and diverts from its original alignment in order to meet the M4 at junction 18.
Section 2: M4 J18 – Cheltenham
Our first junction on the modern road — a few yards north of where we have been lingering — is with the B4465 (which takes the more meandering modern route to Pucklechurch) at Dodington Ash. Here, on the left, you may glimpse an impressive gatehouse marking the entrance to the park of Dodington House ("c. 1764" say the guidebooks — a century after Ogilby's surveyor passed this way). The ancient pile itself is too far away for us to see, but soon, if we look to our right, we will see a modern pile: the spectacularly messy scrapyard which marks the approach to the light-controlled crossing with the A432 (Yate) / B4040 (Malmesbury) at the Cross Hands hotel, Old Sodbury.
Two thoughts occur: (1) what a favourite name "Cross Hands" is for appropriately situated hostelries in these parts (it crops up all along the southern A46); and (2) how comparatively frequent are rural traffic lights in the Cotswolds (even in situations lacking the presence of pronounced gradients which might argue against the construction of roundabouts).
Another 4 miles or so (the London - South Wales railway having tunnelled beneath us) brings us to the conjoined Petty France / Dunkirk. Two unusual names—how very odd: I remembered another Dunkirk in Kent, and hadn't I been through a Petty France down that way too? On looking them up I find that the two Kentish communities are almost equally close one to another..!
The Dunkirk junction marks the point where the A46 ceases to be a primary road and passes the baton of that status over to the diverging Cirencester-bound A433. It is noticeable that the southern A46, while corresponding in general to the itinerary of the Roman Fosse Way and its British precursors (just look at a geological map of Britain to see why SW - NE is a natural direction) lies well to the west of the Roman route and does not join the Fosse itself until nearly in Leicester. (All later variations since the route was first numbered have pushed it even further west!). The modern route is perhaps more closely tied to regional economics than to the national strategics of the "frontier-road" Fosse Way.
I suddenly realize, during my "re-familiarization" run along the A46, that I have in fact never before not turned right at this point: Cirencester and the Fosse being the obvious "through route" onwards to the Midlands. (Even when behind the wheel I can't shake off the value of not losing height...!) Dunkirk to Cheltenham is, then, virgin territory for me.
A pair of houses ahead, lonely but together — one on each side our route, their gable ends close to the road—seem to mark out a narrow gateway through which our road must pass: incongruous, given the openness of the countryside around us, which is nearly all arable with, here and there, a detached stand of trees, low stone walls flanking most of our way. We pass a sign announcing entry into Gloucestershire. Strange: I thought we were already there! A leftover from Avon days, no doubt.
Although we are "in the Cotswolds" there is little impression of being at any height until, not long after crossing the A4135 (at another light- controlled junction) we suddenly find ourselves above Nailsworth. We descend steeply down into the valley on our left, houses clinging to every slope in sight, before passing, once we reach the valley floor, what one guide calls "a string of early industrial pearls": stone-built former woollen mills, now largely converted to other trading uses, to offices, or reborn as expensive housing.
For almost all of the rest of the way to Cheltenham the A46 is twisty, not very wide, and climbs in and out of steep valleys cut by the streams descending the Cotswold escarpment (fast water below and sheep higher up being, of course, the reason all these mills were here in the first place). It is easy to see why a main road should originally have been routed this way, to serve the industry; equally easy to see why long-distance heavy traffic is nowadays encouraged to go another way.
Stroud proclaims itself the "Heart of the Five Valleys", though barely have we seen this on the sign than we turn left at a roundabout junction with the A419, pass under the Swindon - Cheltenham railway line which is threading its way through the valley, and are climbing up out of the town again. The houses thin out and the hills become tree-clad. Around Pitchcombe, where the A4173 Gloucester Road diverges, the A46 has a fondness for wanting to slide down the slope into the Painswick Valley on our right. Large-scale "stabilization" works were in progress here in early 2002.
Painswick itself is a stone-built town of the kind that must get hordes of visitors in the summer and is very reminiscent of Winchcombe, further north on the original route of the A46 (now B4632). The main road through the town is narrow enough to require light-controlled alternating one-way traffic.
All of the district we are now passing through is, to judge by the number of brown signs, very much a tourist area, one of the chief attractions being Prinknash Abbey Park which is to our left as we now begin the switchback descent towards Cheltenham. There are excellent views to be had here, out over Gloucester and the Severn valley... by passengers, that is—this is one of those roads where the driver does well to keep his eyes focussed on the next bend! There are a few laybys, though, where everyone can get out and take a look. Particularly memorable is looking down onto Churchdown Hill (between Gloucester and Cheltenham), as if from an aeroplane, and seeing the ribbon of the M5 slicing through the side of it (if you will allow a ribbon the ability to slice...).
Once down on the flat the last six miles into Cheltenham are a straight run, although first we must cross the A417 on its long tangential journey towards Hope (Hope under Dinmore, Herefordshire, that is) from Streatley on the River Thames. The signing is a little bid odd here: having been directed thus far by indications of "Evesham A46" (even though there is a large gap in the A46 before we reach Evesham), at the crossroads in Brockington with the old A417 the onward sign points only to the new dual-carriageway A417, with the A46 not mentioned at all. Another odd feature is an advance "stacked arrows" sign all white-on-green (although we are not on a primary route) with no patches, no road numbers, and showing local destinations. I've seen another example of this north of Cheltenham, again on a non-primary route. With no yellow route numbers, they look strangely American. Is this a mid-Gloucestershire speciality?
The modern A46 takes one of its breaks at Cheltenham. If our aim were simply to get to Evesham and points beyond as quickly as possible then we should take the A417 west from here, then the M5 north between junctions 11a and 9, to rejoin the A46 from where its present-day, much shifted, course picks up again, at Tewkesbury.
But we will stay faithful to the A46 (as far as it goes) on this section — and so we enter Cheltenham, "Centre for the Cotswolds". That "for" always seems a little strained to me: a bit like saying "Portsmouth: centre for the Isle of Wight". Low-rise, low-lying, level-grounded Cheltenham (despite the origin of the name: it means "cliff settlement") always seems a pleasant place after the swooping run down from the Cotswold heights. Mistletoe is abundant in almost every tree, of which there are very many. It must be an ideal place for druids. Both the A46 and the A40, which we cross here, are very "braided" routes as they thread their way through the one-way system: sometimes there are three parallel streets, all of which might be, all of which perhaps are the A46. Today the northernmost end of this section of our road (if we are on foot: for we are now proceeding wrong direction in the one-way system!) is at the point where Winchcombe Street (A46) becomes Prestbury Road (B4632), apart from a few yards connecting to the A435 along Clarence Road.
Section 3: Cheltenham – M1 J21A
Today's A46 resumes at junction 9 of the M5, near Tewkesbury. Of the 53 miles from here to the M6, just two follow the original routing: all the rest is either new construction or instances of the A46 "cuckooing" on roads which formerly had other numbers.
As a first instance of the latter, our road from the M5 follows what were originally, in this direction, the final three miles of the A438 from Wales, heading towards the A435 at Teddington Hands. Our starting-point is Ashchurch: once a four-way railway junction but now the only tracks diverging from the main Birmingham to Bristol line lead into the large army transport depot which lies to the left of our road. It is interesting here to inspect the parked vehicles for evidence of what parts of the world our army has recently been operating in: will we soon see lines of sand-coloured trucks here again?
The A435 is still there, at Teddington Hands, but these days only southbound (back into the centre of Cheltenham) since there is now a 20-mile gap in that route's itinerary between here and Alcester. Our A46 is the usurper as far as the Evesham bypass. The Hands themselves remain in situ, by the way—an ornamental stone "fingerpost" with wrought-iron pointers—but to see them you will have to divert a few yards south along the A435 as the original crossroads lies south of the modern roundabout.
Our northward route towards Evesham is now dominated by the great, brooding whaleback of Bredon Hill to our left. Poetry lovers will know the verses In summertime on Bredon from Housman's A Shropshire Lad — though we are some way from Shropshire: in fact we have just entered Worcestershire! Much smaller Cotswold outliers can be seen to our right. Make the most of the landscape, because from Evesham to north of Coventry the modern A46 is a fast and busy route, what isn't dual carriageway being that abomination: three-lane-width road marked out as two-lane (encouraging kamikaze drivers from both directions to make simultaneous overtaking bids). Gets you there a whole lot quicker no doubt, but not my kind of road! (I forgot to mention that this section of the A46, from Ashchurch to the M6 is now, of course, all primary.)
We bypass Evesham around its eastern flank, briefly "multiplexing" with the A44 (the A46, though, is top dog according to the signs). Housing developments and trading estates have spread out as far as the bypass in the usual way, "to fill the gap", at least south of the Avon. To our right there still remained "typically Vale of Evesham" fruit farms and market gardens. A recent visit showed, however, that - horrors! - Shedsville has now jumped the cordon sanitaire and warehouses not strawberries are springing up in the fields to the east. We pass beneath, in turn, the B4510 and the Oxford - Worcester railway, then over the River Avon by the Simon de Montfort Bridge — apparently he fought a battle at Evesham before going on to set up a university in Leicester (or have I got that wrong?).
We now set off on a new dual-carriageway alignment constructed between the old Evesham - Stratford road via Bidford (was A439, now B439) and the River Avon until, upon reaching the eastern end of Salford Priors (where we cut across the old road at a roundabout), we strike off northwards towards Alcester, following a route along the valley of the Arrow previously occupied only by a long-gone railway. We are now in "Shakespeare's county" although the sign welcoming us to Warwickshire has recently been replaced, for some reason, by one announcing our entry into the domains of Stratford on Avon District Council.
Just south of Alcester, we allow the road ahead to regain its A435 number and, just as at Teddington, we pinch that of another road for the next leg of our journey, for which we turn right. The former A422 (that number not appearing again until Stratford) is both a Roman road and an ancient "saltway" (from Droitwich). Halfway to Stratford, at Redhill, it charges straight up a ridge in typical Roman fashion, and at the top we pass The Stag – an ancient inn where no doubt horses were once changed – before beginning a gentle two-mile descent towards Stratford upon Avon.
As at Alcester, at Stratford the road turns off just before hitting the town itself. Our northeastward route is new construction again, though the four-mile section between the roundabout junctions with the A3400 and the A439 is largely superimposed on former unclassified roads. That A439 is the old A46 from Stratford towards Warwick, and we have finally met up again with the original route of the A46... but only for two miles, because at Longbridge (M40 junction 15) we leave it again to follow the Warwick and Kenilworth bypass: the oldest new construction on this leg of the A46.
Our road is four-lane dual carriageway until the A429 junction north of Warwick, from which point it is six-lane to Coventry. Neither this or any of the remaining stretch towards the M6 is really a sight-seeing road; noteworthy, though, is that before Coventry we pass turnoffs for the National Agricultural Showground at Stoneleigh (I once met an American who said he was on his way there from Texas to take a look at... straw) and Warwick University (actually much nearer to Coventry).
To remain with the A46 we must take a sliproad off before hitting Coventry proper and turn right to follow the A45 eastwards for a mile or two before our road becomes the curving Coventry eastern bypass (which intersects the A428 but bridges the former A427). Approaching journey's end on this stretch the A46 ahead becomes the M69, but if we take the "non-motorway traffic" option the sliproad takes us down to a for-now needless roundabout (installed in anticipation of future road developments), then up again to the roundabout over the M6 (junction 2).
Section 4: M1 J21a – A1
The first section of the A46 following its reappearance is the new Leicester western bypass (built in 1995) from the M1 at the limited-access Junction 21A at Kirby Muxloe. There is a link here by the B5380 to the A47. The A46 and A47 both used to run roughly parallel south west from here to the A5 - and both have now been downgraded on this section.
We, however, are heading in the other direction, to grade separated junctions with the A50, A5630 (link road to the A563 ring road – Krefeld Way), crossing the Great Central Steam railway and a junction with the A6, before crossing the River Soar and then meeting the A607 Syston bypass. In fact, before the link road from the M1 was built, this part of the A607 was itself previously numbered A46, although even that was not the original route of the A46.
Near the north end of the bypass the A607 turns off east to rejoin its own original route at Queniborough, on its way to Melton Mowbray, Grantham and Lincoln. We shall see it again.
Ratcliffe on the Wreake is significant, as it is here that the A46 finally resumes its original route which, apart from about two miles just south of the M40, it has been parted from since Cheltenham. Its original route from Cheltenham is followed by the B4632, A439, A46, A429, A4600, B4065, B4114, A5460 and A607.
It is also here that it is re-united with a much more ancient route. The Roman Fosse Way runs right across the country from Bath to Lincoln. (In fact the Fosse Way starts back at Exeter). However, from Bath both the original and present A46 took a much more westerly route, for most of its length followed by the present A429 and B4455. The original A46, now the B4114, picked up the Fosse Way near the Watling Street (A5) junction, but the present route does not join it until the end of the Syston bypass.
The A46 now continues, still as dual carriageway, across the B676 (Six Hills junction) and the A6006, to reach the junction with the A606 Melton Mowbray to Nottingham road. Just before this junction, we pass under the Old Dalby railway line, which has been used for experimental work for many years, including testing the experimental tilting Advanced Passenger Train. Much more recently it has been used by Bombardier for testing the first tilting trains to go into regular service in the UK – Virgin's "Pendolinos".
The dual carriageway section, as of 2013, continues beyond the A606 junction. The road follows very close to the pre-dualled road. A modified kink in the road as it breasts the brow of a hill marks a change of course to the north east, instead of the northerly course the Roman road has followed from Leicester. This deviation from the straight line allows the Roman Road to follow the high ground between the Trent and the Vale of Belvoir. The change of direction at the brow of a hill is typical of Roman surveying techniques, which were done largely by line of sight.
The road now runs almost dead straight to Lincoln, deviating only for a couple of bypasses. It crosses the A52 Nottingham – Grantham road at Bingham - grade separated as part of the new dualled route - and the A6097 (the lowest crossing of the Trent before Newark) near East Bridgeford. The dual carriageway continues as far as Newark where the route becomes single carriageway again - ironically one of of the busiest sections.
Newark is now bypassed to the west, crossing the Trent twice, with a junction with the A617 at the point where the old Great North Road (now the A616) crosses it, close to the castle where James VI of Scotland spent the night on his way to claim the English crown. The bypass then follows the Nottingham to Lincoln railway, providing a grandstand view of the flat crossing of that railway with the East Coast main line. The western (A46) bypass then cuts across to the junction of the original A46 with the A1 Newark eastern bypass. This is a six way junction – as well as the A1 and A46, which rejoins its original route coming out of Newark (now the B6166) the A17 now starts here, to avoid Coddington on its original route. A short stretch of dual carriageway to Winthorpe and the A1133, which follows the Trent to Gainsborough, and now we come to the most dangerous section.
Section 5: A1 – Cleethorpes
On the eastern skyline can be seen the Lincoln Ridge, with the A607 that we last saw at Ratcliffe-on-the-Wreake running along the cliff top towards Lincoln. Sadly, we will never actually meet it. At the Notts/Lincs border, on the brow of a low hill, we leave the Trent's catchment area and enter that of the Witham, which drains into the Wash by way of a gap in the Lincoln Ridge at Lincoln. Not far beyond this, and the Halfway House Hotel, we reach the roundabout which marks the start of the Lincoln bypass.
The section of the A46 between Winthorpe Roundabout at Newark and the Lincoln bypass has now been converted to a dual carriageway. There is now a roundabout at the Halfway House pub near Swinderby. The small Roman village of Brough has now got a new by-pass around the west of it. It is now dual carriageway all the way from Newark to the suburbs of Lincoln. The work was completed four months early.
The A1434 continues on the Fosse Way and former A46 to Bracebridge, from where the Roman Road multiplexed with the Roman Ermine Street (London to York) through the city. The A46 similarly multiplexed with the A15 up the hill and past the cathedral to Northgate, before parting company with it near the Roman east gate and heading out of town as Nettleham Road, part of which is now the B1182. (More details of the road history of Lincoln can be found on my A15 account.)
The bypass crosses junctions with the B1190 and B1378 (the latter upgraded from a C-road on completion of the bypass) before entering its only dual carriageway section to cross.This has spectacular views of the city on its hill, especially the three-towered cathedral – once topped by three spires which doubled its height and made it the tallest building in the world. Even after the central spire blew down in the 16th century, it was another three centuries before anything taller would be built.
The bypass crosses the Foss Dyke canal (also Roman, but not to be confused with the Fosse Way), the roundabout for the A57 (nearing the end of its own cross-country marathon from Liverpool), and up the hill, passing under the B1398 cliff road to Scunthorpe without an interchange, and rising through a deep cutting to meet the A15 (the Roman Ermine Street) on its way to the Humber.
The A46 and A15 now continue as a single carriageway multiplex to the next junction, where the A46 rejoins its original route (although a sharp pair of bends have been eliminated), on its way to Nettleham, Welton, Dunholme, and on past some sharp right angled bends (a TOTSO with a cart track!) which suggest that the route was of no major significance before it acquired a number in 1922. Arriving at a TOTSO with the A631 Gainsborough to Louth road at Middle Rasen, the road then skirts Market Rasen, and turns north at another TOTSO (with the B1202) to skirt the Lincolnshire Wolds -– the second and higher range of hills crossing north Lincolnshire from north to south. These are chalk, unlike the Lincoln Ridge which is limestone.
Crossing a low point in the Wolds at the Roman town of Caistor, the A46 meets the A1084 from Brigg and the A1173 to Stallingborough. A few miles further on and the A18 is reached at a roundabout at Laceby. Although the A46 continued on into Grimsby in 1922, it was truncated here in 1935, with the A18 taking on the route ahead. In the 1970s this change was reversed when the A18 was extended to Ludborough.
The original eastern end of the A46 was on the A16 on the southern edge of Grimsby, with the road ahead into Cleethorpes being the A1030. This road was never the A18 and is now redundant with the A46 extended over its entire length, finally making it to the seaside at Cleethorpes, at a junction with the A180 and A1098 near the railway station.
Thus ends the A46 - the only A road to run clear across four zones, from the A4 at Bath to the North Sea coast at Cleethorpes - from a Roman holiday resort to a 19th and 20th Century one.