Driving the "M" motorways in England

My husband and I will be renting a car in England and driving to many different areas. We would like to use the smaller Class A & B roads, but there may be times when we need to take a motorway. For example, we plan to get our car at Gatwick and travel to the Stonehenge/Avebury area (pick up around 11 a.m.). Many suggested routes have us taking the M23 to M25 to M3, etc. I've read a few comments about traffic problems on the motorways, especially around the big cities. Does anyone have a suggestion for a route from Gatwick to Stonehenge that doesn't use the motorway? We have a pretty good A-Z atlas that we borrowed from a friend, but I'm not sure what would be a good route. Also, any advice for driving from the Cotswolds to the Peak District - would like to avoid Birmingham. Is is better to head north on the west side of Birmingham or the east side? We're staying near Winchcombe in the Cotswalds. Thanks in advance for your advice! Cathy

Posted by Norma
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
3409 posts

Be aware that there are myriad speed cameras on the M routes.

Posted by VS
Palo Alto, CA, United States
556 posts

We just returned from an England trip a couple of weeks ago. We were driving Windsor to Heathrow at the end of the day and the traffic got pretty heavy. Nothing like commute traffic in the SF bay area though, and we left Windsor right around 5pm. I doubt whether you will have any problem on a midday arrival. Overall I would recommend the M routes over the A and B roads. Full disclosure: I did not enjoy driving in most areas so my perspective may be skewed. The idea of driving on smaller routes seems appealing, but they pass through every town on the way and you will have to slow down to 30mph, with speed cameras everywhere and impatient locals who seem immune to the speed cameras. When you are way out in the country having a car is really nice, for example Dartmoor and parts of the Cotswolds. The minor routes will take 1.5X what Google maps says, while the M routes take about what Google says. A car is great in England for going places not served by trains or buses, but between the navigation and vigilance required of the driver, it tended to ruin the appeal of seeing the scenery by car. So my advice is to take the M routes whenever you can, for as far as you can.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Pay your money an take your chances. The M1 generally stinks. So does the London Beltway. I've never had trouble on the M3 or M4. Or on the M5 or the southern part of the M6 - - but liked to died up around Carlisle last week. I always go around Birmingham to the west, but who knows. With a relatively long haul, I use the motorways since switching to the A roads would probably take longer, even if you could do it on the four-lane ones.

Posted by Aiken
High Wycombe, Bucks, United Kingdom
37 posts

Bit of hasty editing thanks to missing a bit of what your wrote! Soz... You don't mention what day you'd be on the road - the M25 is OK outside of the rush hour - and isn't that name ironic... 7am-10am, 5pm-7pm are the worst times to be on the SW section and there are reduced speed limits to smooth the traffic somewhat, but it's still 'bring coffee and food' travel when the offices close. Even after 4pm it gets fairly heavy when the schools empty... 11am on a weekday or Sunday will be OK, Saturdays can be heavy but bearable. The simplest route is from Crawley up to the M25, west to the M3, then west to just past Basingstoke where you pick up the A303 that runs right past Stonehenge. Even in truly dire traffic, you're not going to get there any sooner by alternative routes; there aren't many good fast East-West routes between the M25 and the coast. However, if you are not in a massive hurry and want to see something other than 8 lanes of concrete, go Horsham - Billinghurst - Petworth to pick up the A272 west through the South Downs (pretty countryside) to Winchester which is a nice town to visit in it's own right - ancient capital of Wessex etc. From there head to Salisbury and north to Amesbury and Stonehenge, or alternatively go from Winchester up to Andover & pick up the A303 west to Stonehenge from there.

Posted by Kevin
near Ringwood, Hampshire, UK
521 posts

Cathy, the M25 (which goes all the way around London) is very busy in the morning and evening and in certain sections it can be very slow all Friday afternoon. Accidents can cause problems, but it has variable speed limits (watch for the overhead signs) which are designed to keep traffic moving, and they don't make a bad job of it. Gatwick to Stonehenge without touching any motorways means the A25 and A31 as far as Winchester, then the A34 and A303. At the time of day you will be travelling I'd say that unless there is an accident somewhere, you would be better off using the motorways. The M6 has a poor reputation for delays around Birmingham. Winchcombe to, say, Buxton would either take you on the M5 and then the M6, or stay on the M5 and dogleg round to the east of Birmingham. If you are travelling in the middle of the day then you may as well choose by tossing a coin.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

If you go to maps.google.com and do the following, you should see some alternate route suggestions that you could consider. - In the Search field type Gatwick, then choose appropriately from the choices presented - Click Get Directions - Click the little up/down arrows to the right of the fields to make Gatwick your 'A' starting point - In the 'B' field type Stonehenge - Click 'Get Directions' again - I do this on an iPhone so it will be a little different on a regular computer, but there should be a 'Trip Options' link or button. I choose 'Avoid Highways'.
- The outcome should show alternate routes on secondary roads. Play with it. My first results showed a route taking the M3 and A303 would be 93 miles, 1 hr. 29 mins. with light traffic (at the time of the search). With 'Avoid Highways' chosen, it suggested a route via the A303 - 2 hrs. 19 mins. with light traffic. Adding an hour is a lot for a relatively short distance, but if it's what you want and it would make your journey more leisurely, what the hey? It's your trip, do it your way. You can do the same using the AA Route Planner - the British equivalent of the American AAA. Start at: http://www.theaa.com/route-planner/classic/planner_main.jsp Have a great time!

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
780 posts

Personal view is that if you are concerned about driving on motorways, you would want to avoid roads as much as possible such as the A34, A3 and the A31 which are busy to overloaded dual carriageways for the main part. The A303 falls into this description too but is hard to avoid. Maps are deceptive. There appears to be a decent road to the West of Wolverhampton avoiding the M5/M6 for example - but this route is tedious in the extreme.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

P.S. to my post above: Follow the advice of the Brits who know the roads. The original question was "Does anyone have a suggestion for a route from Gatwick to Stonehenge that doesn't use the motorway?" I only tried to answer that question by showing a way to discover motorway-free routes. It doesn't mean they would necessarily be good routes - unless you wanted to, say, stop in Winchester for lunch or whatever and see the Cathedral. Some people don't mind inconvenience if they get a reward out of it. But, the Brits do know best.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8756 posts

To elaborate on the comment above about speed cameras - there are plenty of them on A-roads too, and on B- and unclassified roads in towns and villages. Look for the yellow tape on the boxes, but many red-light or bus-lane remain in subtle grey boxes. On the M25 and other motorways there are variable speed limit zones designated by signs at the start and end of the zone and frequent gantries across the whole carriageway. The gantries have signs above each lane, often with the speed camera icon, with illuminating speed limit signs with bright red rings and white speed limits. If they are not illuminated the National Speed Limit applies. When they are illuminated (60, 50, or 40) that is the speed limit in force. Many of the gantries have speed cameras on the back of the gantry over each lane which are activated when the variable speed limits are illuminated. Those speed cameras are not required to have the yellow tape on, and they don't. It is difficult to see while driving which gantries have cameras and which don't. The theory - which actually works - is that when there is very heavy traffic if the extremes of faster speed and stop-and-go can be smoothed out to a lower top speed that is strictly enforced the whole body of traffic moves significantly faster. Unfortunately in areas of heavy speed camera presence, on any type of road, a behaviour known as camera surfing sometimes develops where speeders who know the locations brake hard just before cameras and accelerate hard after them. Watch out for that. In construction areas and some other areas there are well signed speed averaging cameras which are set very tight and will give a ticket for speeding past any one of them or averaging speeding, to stop surfers.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Interesting. One idiot who's possibly driven most of the roads as much as the four natives, and one tourist. All say essentialy the same thing. Enter Google Maps. The 'duck the freeway route', from the post, apparently uses the 303 which is about the only sensible way to get to Stonehenge from the east anyway and, as far as I know, only starts a bit west of Basingstoke and would be used to the Stonehenge fork, making it only about thirty miles of the hundred mile run from Horley. Google only computes time based on posted speed limits and has zip for brains. I wouldn't even hazard a guess on skipping the M25/M3 3 completely - - okay I will, four hours? Here's what else Google probably doesn't know: try to get real scenic out on the plain and see how long you stew at a tank crossing sign when an artillery train comes chugging across.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Oh, golly-gosh... Methinks we must be scaring the heck out of Cathy, who it seems has not visited England before, has probably never driven on the left, and may have never even seen a roundabout in South Carolina! Cathy, here is a link to a video that purports to be driving on the M4 and M25 motorways. About 4 mins in it shows clearly the traffic coming into a roundabout at speed on the right. Yikes! Further in there's a transition onto the motorway. http://youtu.be/t9mvy-a-eus Obviously, these aren't your routes, but they may give a sense of what to expect. I don't like listening to a navigation system in the car, but this video convinced me greatly of its value in unfamiliar circumstances. Oh, and you get to enjoy a bit of British radio as well. Since Ed is such an expert, maybe he'll go out and film part of your route and post it on YouTube for you.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Roundabouts on motorways? Not that I've ever seen. Roundabouts on other roads? By the zillions, all very civil and simple. Freeway merge? Exactly like the rest of the world only from the other side, but with longer merge lanes. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Ed's last reply surprised me. I expected him to say he recognized exactly where those roads were in the video and that he has driven them a bezillion times. I guess I have to be satisfied with having put him to sleep. ;)

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Actually, I hopped through it and spotted the Eton and A4 exit sign at about the nine o'clock position on the M25. Which I've probably driven....... The chance of me ever posting about what I don't know cold is exactly zero.

Posted by Cathy
Clemson, SC
17 posts

Thanks for the advice. We'll be picking up our car at Gatwick on a Monday morning around 11 a.m. This will be our first time in England; thus the first time driving on the left. We don't plan to have a sat nav; we hope to be able to get by with a good atlas and stopping to ask for directions if we get lost. We'll also have a phone to contact our B&Bs just in case we get lost. We do not have round abouts / traffic circles in South Carolina, but we could really use them, especially where we have five or six roads coming in at one intersection! But we drove in France and we do have some traffic circles / town squares in Illinois where we're from originally. It will probably come down to the time of day we travel around the big cities and the time we have to get to our destination as to whether or not we use the motorways. More advice is appreciated; I enjoy hearing about the different options. I read Bill Bryson's book "Notes from a Small Island," and in his first chapter he notes that everyone has their opinion on which route to take to get to a certain place! (Though I'm thinking that this characteristic is probably a cultural universal and not just a trait of the British - or am I wrong?) Thanks again! Cathy

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Good luck, Cathy. I hope you enjoy every minute of your trip. I'll be in the same area later this year, so am keenly interested in every thread that mentions anything about it. I learned a few things from this one. And I'm beginning to think that Ed is Dr. Who in disguise. Or that he acquired a Tardis off eBay. Maybe he's The Stig from 'Top Gear'??? :)

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7976 posts

Okay, now that the silliness is over: If it were me, I'd make the run to Stonehenge by what I thought was the chance of being the quickest and save the scenic for the following days where there's more opportunity for it to be enjoyable. The way to do this is to come out of the airport area and hook a north on the M23, circle on the M25 to the M3. It's all plainly marked. The only whopper interchange is the M25/M3 - - if you get in the far left lane as soon as you know it's coming up, you'll pass under the M3 (Southamption, Basingstoke) sign and you've got it made. You pick up the A303 after the Basingstoke exit. The sign will say someething about the Southwest, Andover, and Salisbury. The road, is going to fork away to the right on a map, but you'll be making an exit from the left side - - go under the sign. As you chug on out the A303, you'll see Stonehenge in a "Y" in the road - - (it ain't that big, so look close). Take the right fork, the parking lot's on the right side of the road. For Averbury and such, go back the way you just came. Just past that 'Y' is a road headed north. Take it, I think it's the first one you come to. Follow it past Woodhenge (which you could have walked to from Stonehenge) and on up. You'll pass the West Kennet Long Barrow on your left and, just across the road, Silbury Hill just before you get into Avebury. If Nigel comes back along, he's the dude for the Cotswolds and Birmingham. As far as the Peak District goes, Buxton probably has the most varitety for a place to stay. My only comment concerns a pub called the Wye Bridge House. It looks really good, but is owned by the Wetherspoon corporation - - which means the beer is okay but the food sucks. If I remember the name of a place, it ain't because it's great.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Ah! Mission accomplished! A bit of silly playfulness is what induces Ed to fork over the real detail. LOL!

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Cathy, A few comments to add to the "silliness"..... Be sure to allow LOTS of time for your road trips. I've found that driving in the U.K. usually takes longer (sometimes a LOT longer) than Map Quest or Google indicate. I always use a Sat Nav, and that doesn't seem to make any difference. Also, as I recall the M6 is a toll road (not sure about the others), so be sure to have some cash at hand. The roundabouts are generally quite easy to navigate, although there's one that consists of about five roundabouts in one place (can't remember which part of the country it's located). Happy travels!

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8756 posts

The "Magic Roundabout" mentioned by Ken is in Swindon, where there is a huge roundabout with several normal size roundabouts circling around, and a traffic flow which allows both clockwise and anti-clockwise traffic simultaneously. Definitely one to do before you die... The M6 for its entire length from the M1 Catthorpe Interchange all the way up to the North where the Picts paint their faces blue is not a toll road. There is a "bypass" from west of Coventry to beyond Wolverhampton called the M6Toll which is a toll road with an extortionate huge fee for such a short road. It was widely understood to be the most expensive per mile in Europe; I don't know if it still has that "honour" but it is so expensive that very few people use it. If money is less important than time you can hop over to it as you approach Birmingham and avoid the worst of the Birmingham traffic. It is certain that if you use the M6Toll you will see very few trucks for that short distance - they stay away in droves.

Posted by Kevin
near Ringwood, Hampshire, UK
521 posts

More advice is appreciated; I enjoy hearing about the different options. I read Bill Bryson's book "Notes from a Small Island," and in his first chapter he notes that everyone has their opinion on which route to take to get to a certain place! (Though I'm thinking that this characteristic is probably a cultural universal and not just a trait of the British - or am I wrong?) Cathy, I was thinking of exactly that passage in Notes from a Small Island when I posted in this thread last night. I think it would be fair to say that whenever two or more men of a certain age gather together, the best route there or back is almost certain to come up! One other suggestion, as you won't have a satnav. Use the atlas to plan your route in advance, and make a list of each road number on that route and which town or city it takes you to. The road numbers appear on almost all direction signs (except for very local destinations within towns), so if you know the next road number on your route you can often navigate just from your list and the road signs. Slip roads ('junctions') on motorways are numbered. Note down these junction numbers (which are shown in the road atlas) and watch out for them on the motorway direction signs so you know when your exit is coming up. Finally, use the government's Highway Code website to familiarise yourself with how road signs look, the rules of the road, how you are supposed to use roundabouts, etc: https://www.gov.uk/browse/driving/highway-code https://www.gov.uk/direction-signs-on-roads-and-motorways https://www.gov.uk/using-the-road-159-to-203/roundabouts-184-to-190 They have PDFs with good illustrations.