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Look back at the history of one of Kent's motorways - the M2

Most of us in Kent have travelled along the 26-mile M2 motorway at some point or another but have you ever thought about its history?

Construction started in the mid 1960s and it was built as a bypass of the A2 to run past the Medway Towns, Sittingbourne and Faversham, and it changed the county's landscape forever.

A photograph of the M2 motorway bridge late one evening. Picture: David Mathias
A photograph of the M2 motorway bridge late one evening. Picture: David Mathias

The idea was that it would be an alternative route to the Port of Dover, supplementing the M20, another motorway in the county which has a long and interesting history.

The M2 route

It feeds into the A2, forming a 62-mile route from London to (almost) Dover and the motorway starts just west of Strood at the Three Crutches, and then diverges southeastwards from the A2.

From junction 1, there are four lanes which slope into the Medway Valley, just south of Rochester.

On the west bank of the River Medway, junction 2 intersects the A228 between Strood and West Malling.

By this point the road is mounted on the Medway Viaduct, passing over the Medway Valley railway line and the river.

The M2 motorway bridge Cuxton. Picture: Bob Kitchin
The M2 motorway bridge Cuxton. Picture: Bob Kitchin

This runs parallel to the HS1 rail line (Channel Tunnel rail link) which stretches from St Pancras International in London to the Channel Tunnel and connects the international high-speed routes between London and Europe as well as the domestic route from London to Kent.

On the east bank is Borstal and Wouldham and the M2 then ascends to a steep stream valley to Blue Bell Hill.

At this point the HS1 runs into a tunnel using split-levels to reach junction 3 for the Medway Towns and Maidstone by Walderslade.

It takes the north of the escarpment of the North Downs becoming a conventional three lanes, and runs northeast across Cossington Fields, Westfield Sole, Lidsing and Bredhurst towards junction 4 for Gillingham where it becomes two lanes to junction 7 for Canterbury and Dover.

Continuing east, passing the Medway Services, it crosses the A249 over the Stockbury Viaduct at junction 5 for Sittingbourne, Sheerness and Maidstone.

Looking north to the M2 Stockbury Viaduct over the A249 in 2017. Picture: Andy Payton
Looking north to the M2 Stockbury Viaduct over the A249 in 2017. Picture: Andy Payton

Its route then takes the gentle coastal lower slopes of the North Downs, below which, two miles before its end, is Faversham, north of junction 6 for the market town and Ashford.

It ends at junction 7, for Canterbury and Dover, allowing traffic to continue on either of two dual carriageways, the A299 towards Thanet or the upgraded A2 towards Canterbury and Dover as far as Lydden, which is just two miles from the edge of Dover.

History of construction

The initial section of the motorway, junctions 2 to 5, were opened by the then Transport Minister Ernest Marples in late May 1963, with the remainder being built in 1965.

It was opened in three stages, junction 1 to 2 were opened in 1965, junctions 2 to 5, before that in 1963, and junctions 5 to 7 also in 1965.

Ernest Marples, second from the left, the Minister of Transport, visited the site of the M2 bridge at Rochester as it neared completion in 1962. Picture: Images of Medway book
Ernest Marples, second from the left, the Minister of Transport, visited the site of the M2 bridge at Rochester as it neared completion in 1962. Picture: Images of Medway book

The plan at the time was to extend the M2 to London and Dover, making it the main route between London and the channel ports, but this extension never materialised because of a lack of traffic demand.

Instead, the A2 was dualled and improved from Brenley Corner to Dover.

Mr Marples visited the £2.5 million bridge over the river as it was nearing completion in March 1962.

The tender invitations went out in 1959 to build the bridge, which has three spans - one of 500ft and two of 313ft each - and 17 viaduct spans of 100 to 135ft.

The motorway was originally to be designated as the A2(M) but as a result of the Daily Telegraph reporting it as the M2, the Ministry of Transport adopted it and later decided upon the M20 designation for the main London-Channel Ports link.

Apart from the retrofitting of central crash barriers, like all early motorways, the alignment of the M2 did not significantly change until the late 1990s.

Traffic using it decreased when the M20 was completed from London to Folkestone in May 1991, while the M2 continued to Canterbury and the North Kent ports of Sheerness and Ramsgate.

Junction 1 was altered when the A289 Wainscott Northern bypass was built in the late 1990s.

The M2 was still busy between Junctions 1 and 4, and suffered from HGVs blocking the outside lane.

In 2000 work began on widening the M2 from two lanes to four.

This was a joint venture between Costain, Skanska and Mowlem (CSM) which created the company that would undertake the project.

It required the redesign of junction 2 and junction 3, and a second Medway Bridge.

The existing bridge was converted to a four-lane coast-bound carriageway (including a hard shoulder).

The new bridge formed the London-bound carriageway and the entire stretch was lit with streetlights (the old section was not lit).

The old Medway Bridge was physically narrowed by removing part of a footpath.

How the motorway bridge in Medway looks now from Sundridge Hill in Cuxton. Picture: Bob Kitchin
How the motorway bridge in Medway looks now from Sundridge Hill in Cuxton. Picture: Bob Kitchin

High-pressure water-cutting equipment was used to cut the concrete into manageable sections for disposal.

There is one path open to the public now which runs alongside the old Medway Bridge.

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link also runs on its own bridge right next to it. This work was finished in 2003.

Spoil from the North Downs Tunnel was used to form the new embankment for the London-bound traffic between junction 2 and the Nashenden Valley and the widening was completed in July 2003.

The M2 opened with a single service area between junctions 4 and 5 which was named Farthing Corner Services and operated by Top Rank.

Today the services are known as the Medway Services and are operated under the Moto brand with a Travelodge hotel.

The services have an access road to the Medway area for service and delivery vehicles that is not, like some motorway service areas, restricted with a gate or barrier.

This led to people and businesses using the services as an unofficial exit from the motorway.In 2018, one woman was wrongfully fined for doing so and warned others when she got the fine for driving thorough the shortcut.

On the wet morning of November 10, 1993, there was a nasty coach crash on the M2 as the vehicle headed towards Canterbury.

It was carrying 44 tourists. They had set off from London to visit Canterbury Cathedral.

But excitement turned to tragedy when the coach careered off the motorway and down an embankment, killing 10 and injuring 34, at Ospringe, near Faversham.

Nine American tourists and the driver were killed, while 34 others were injured.

Trapped passengers, many of them who had not been wearing seatbelts, screamed as firefighters battled to cut them from the wreckage. Almost all the injured were taken by ambulance or helicopter to nearby hospitals.

Ten people were killed and 34 injured in the crash. Stock picture
Ten people were killed and 34 injured in the crash. Stock picture
An aerial picture of the scene on the day of the accident. Stock picture
An aerial picture of the scene on the day of the accident. Stock picture

In February 2014, a huge 15ft deep hole caused chaos after opening up on the M2.

The incident closed the motorway completely between Faversham and Sittingbourne while it was assessed.

Days later it was revealed the hole was actually a chalk well, highways bosses confirmed.

The Highways Agency revealed the chasm near Faversham was a Dene-hole rather than what was widely believed to have been a sinkhole.

It took another nine days after the hole swallowed up part of the the road surface for it to be stabilised and declared safe so the motorway could fully reopen.

The Dene-hole caused days of traffic misery after it emerged on the M2 near Faversham. Picture: Simon Burchett
The Dene-hole caused days of traffic misery after it emerged on the M2 near Faversham. Picture: Simon Burchett

It had been talked about for years, but in June 2014, a new junction off the M2 between Sittingbourne and Faversham looked finally to be on its way.

It was revealed the government was to announce in July that year whether an application for £12 million from the Single Local Growth Fund towards the scheme had been successful.

At the time, if it was approved, it was expected that work would start in 2017/18.

But in 2017, it had still not been built and new plans emerged for the junction which would be near to the Kent Science Park (KSP), which was also being lined up for an expansion.

The proposals for the new scheme would have seen 100 hectares of commercial space added to the site, a new junction 5a on the M2 to access KSP and a Southern Relief Road constructed to join the M2 to the A2.

Map of where the proposed junction would go in 2014. Graphic: KMG
Map of where the proposed junction would go in 2014. Graphic: KMG

But by August this year, the junction had still not been built and it was revealed a new bid could be discussed in government circles after an MP called for a meeting.

Gordon Henderson asked Transport Minister Grant Shapps to discuss the plans, but just over 10 days later, the idea was snubbed by Mr Shapps, when special advisors to the minister rejected the idea of a meeting.

There is no overall outcome yet to the idea of junction 5a.

In April 2017, a senior Swale council officer warned the M2 should be widened between Sittingbourne and Faversham as a matter of urgency.

At the time, Emma Wiggins, the authority’s interim director of regeneration, called for the upgrade in light of the announcement of the preferred route of a new Thames crossing.

An increase in traffic using the M2 and A249 has been predicted should the tunnel east of Gravesend be built, with lorries heading for Dover’s eastern docks directed along the M2 and A2. To date, the stretch has not been widened.

However, in June 2019, plans for a revamped Stockbury Roundabout were unveiled.

Highways England announced that it has published the necessary orders to allow it to make the multi-million pound changes to the A249's junction with the M2 at junction 5 for Sittingbourne, Sheppey and Maidstone.

The scheme includes a new flyover for A249 traffic, which highways bosses say "will create an uninterrupted link for drivers staying on the dual carriageway and will free up extra space on the roundabout".

The M2 Junction 5 from the M2 coastbound slip road. Picture: Highways England
The M2 Junction 5 from the M2 coastbound slip road. Picture: Highways England
How the new Stockbury Roundabout could look from Oad Street. Picture: Highyways England
How the new Stockbury Roundabout could look from Oad Street. Picture: Highyways England

In July this year, it was announced some of the money for the project has been secured and a new date had been set for a public inquiry.

Kent County Council (KCC) issued papers which reveal it is preparing to pay £900,000 towards the £94 million scheme, as well as agreeing to become an “accountable body” for the project and entering into a legal agreement to promise the funding.

In September this year, transport bosses revealed there would be a £142 million overhaul of two major junctions betweem Maidstone and Medway, one connecting the M2 the other connecting the M20.

A month-long consultation was launched by Kent County Council (KCC) for three designs to revamp junctions on the A229 at the Maidstone end - junction 6 of the M20 - and the northern end on the edge of Medway - junction 3 of the M2.

The Blue Bell Hill junction, option one upgrade includes upgrading the Lord Lees and Taddington roundabouts at the M2 junction and removing the link between the Bridgewood and Lord Lees roundabouts.

A direct slip road between the A229 and the M2 towards London is proposed, a through lane from the coast-bound M2 to the A229 as well as creating a separate left-turn lane from the M2 to the A229 and widening the link road to four lanes.

The second option proposes less work to the Lord Lees and Taddington roundabouts - but keeping the new London-bound slip road from the A229 and left-turn lane from the M2.

The Blue Bell Hill junction at the M2 junction 3 for Medway. Picture: KCC
The Blue Bell Hill junction at the M2 junction 3 for Medway. Picture: KCC

And a proposal to extend the Bridgewood roundabout and Rochester Road junction with a new slip road from the M2 which would continue straight onto the A229.

It would also see the south-bound slip road on the A229 to the Lord Lees roundabout closed with a new merge road creating access to the roundabout.

To read more interesting in depth features, click here.

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