Motorways have increased transport connectivity between UK cities and counties since the opening of the M6 in 1958. These multi-lane motorways have proliferated over the past six decades, with dozens now crisscrossing almost every part of the UK – but not Dorset.
Although the county has major roads linking Dorchester, Weymouth, Poole, Bournemouth, Blandford Forum and Bridport, all are A-roads only – none shown in blue on the map. Read on to find out why Dorset missed out on the freeway trend and what impact it might have had on its economic growth…
Dorset was once Britain’s breadbasket, with extensive agricultural and pastoral systems established by the Saxons and persisting until the mid-19th century. Although mechanization reduced the number of people employed in agriculture after this time, the county was largely unaffected by the Industrial Revolution.
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The rise of the seaside resort saw Bournemouth grow from 17,000 residents in 1881 to 37,000 a decade later. This meant that its economy shifted from agriculture to tourism without much industrial activity.
Government data classifies Dorset as still ‘predominantly rural’, with just over 60% of the county’s population living in areas described as ‘rural, including hub towns’. This classification, “Rural Urban Classification (2011) of Counties in England”, published by the Office of National Statistics, places Dorset as the eighth most rural of the 27 English counties.
Dorset’s position on the Channel coast made it an ideal hub for trade with Europe and the New World. Poole Harbor has been inhabited for almost three millennia, with the Iron Age Durotriges (i.e. water dwellers) engaging in cross-Channel trade using log boats.
The Saxons used a network of ports along the southern coast for trade and transport to Britain, which they conquered in the 7th century. The Norman Conquest saw the importance of ports like Poole grow even further.
In 1433, King Henry VI granted it the status of Port of the Staple, which allowed it to export wool all over the world. The port towns of Dorset played an important role in trade with New World colonies, including the Newfoundland fisheries which exported fish to Europe in exchange for wines, oils and spices.
In the 18th century, Dorset conducted more trade with North America than any other English port. This enriched its merchant classes.
The movement of goods between Dorset and the rest of Britain was by road and then by rail, as the county quickly adopted this new technology. Dorset was quickly connected to London by two main railway lines: the West of England Main Line and the South Western Main Line.
The first of these was built from 1838 to 1848, during the busiest period for railway builders in British transport history. It had been proposed as a reliable route for heavy goods between the capital and the port cities of the southern coast, allowing the efficient transport of goods for export.
It was also considered that in the event of an invasion by sea, such a rail link would allow the rapid movement of men and munitions to where they were most needed. The second route was added between 1854 and 1860, at the end of the height of British railway development – only slightly behind major cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Birmingham.
This increased freight capacity between the capital and the south coast, but the Beeching Reports of the 1960s declared it surplus to requirements and it was downgraded. Nevertheless, Dorset’s relative lack of industrial infrastructure meant that planners saw no need to include it in the motorway boom that was underway during the same decade.
No waterways or highways
Dorset was one of the few English counties not well served by canals, which once stretched over 5,000 miles and carried 30 million tonnes of goods and materials each year. When the freeway boom arrived, the county once again misfired – highway planners saw no reason to connect the county, which had yet to experience its service industry boom, to the growing national road network.
There have been several calls to correct this oversight, especially as sun-seeking tourists have made Dorset the most popular county in England, according to a YouGov poll and one of the most visited, according to VisitEngland. The county now employs 10.2% of its population in tourism-related activities, 2% more than the UK national average, while Bournemouth’s figure is even higher, at 12%.
But approaching motorways like the M3, M5 and M27 end abruptly near county borders. Traffic has to use roads like the A31, A35 and A388 which are often single lane, causing major bottlenecks around Dorchester.
As early as 2007, the RAC Foundation highlighted the need for new motorways, including in Dorset. This call was picked up by carriers in 2018, but so far has gone unanswered.
Ongoing reviews of the Government’s Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) consider an upgrade to the A35, A37, A350 and/or A354, all recognized by Dorset Council as major roads across the county – but such upgrades would not begin until at least 2030. Until then, Dorset will be stuck with the traffic nightmares that come every time the sun rises and worshiping tourists sunshine pouring in on the south coast of England.
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