A meeting with Heather Ballantyne from the Orton & Tebay Local History Society yesterday led us to some fascinating first hand records of the building of the M6 through the Lune Gorge in the late 1960s. They really encapsulate what the whole ‘A Way Through’ project is all about – the stories of both the routes themselves but also the effect they have had on the resident population of the area.
H Macdonald Steels’ personal recollections of the construction of the motorway through the Lune Gorge are available on the UK Motorway Archive website. Alongside the at times nail bitingly scary descriptions of the engineering work there are passages about his interactions with locals:
“This involvement with remote hill farmers brought a whole new sense of values to us ‘townies’. Their harsh life brought few material rewards, merely a living, but without exception, they were forthright, honest and very down-to-earth. One farmer used his Vauxhall Velox (quite an upmarket car at the time) to drive helter skelter over the fells to pick up injured sheep (and to get us as near as possible to a beacon despite the overpowering smell, always with an enthusiastic sheepdog or two in the back anxious to make friends!). They were a wily lot, with a quiet sense of humour and I learnt to respect them. In the early days one came into the office in his tattered coat belted with twine to tell us “Git thissens home!” It had just started to snow and ignoring his advice was stupid – we only just got back in packed Land Rovers, pushing snow aside with the front bumper! And the things we did to their sheep! “They’re not eatin’ proper – standin’ staring at thee instead!” and “Tha’s givin’ em heart attacks with all thit banging!”, both claims which I was able to refute, along with others of a similar nature. ”
H Macdonald Steels ‘Personal recollections of the Construction of the M6 from Killington to Tebay through the Lune Gorge, 1967 to 1969’
The effect on the livelihoods of local farmers who lost land to the construction work was profound as illustrated in these contemporary newspaper clippings sent to us by Heather.
Others such as the enterprising Dunning family of High Chapel Farm built on the foundations of the local labour force mobilised to feed the construction workers to found the highly successful Tebay Services as Macdonald Steels recalls:
“The outcomes of the lunch discussion was that Laing provided Land Rovers, the shop [in Tebay] arranged for the supply of food and containers and staffed the vehicles by recruiting local people. The workforce would pay the drivers for their meals. From these small beginnings a very successful enterprise developed. In fact the whole thing was so successful that we had to curb their enthusiasm – adding morning coffee with pastries and afternoon tea with a choice of cream or jam doughnuts was lovely, but just too disruptive to the works programme!
So the shop owner, his local colleagues, farmers and suppliers had become the employers of a lot of staff. What would they all do when the construction workforce dispersed? What was needed was an alternative outlet! A cooperative (Westmorland Ltd) led by Mr & Mrs Dunning of High Chapel Farm eventually bid for and was successful in winning the service area just north of Tebay, which (now with its partner serving south bound traffic, opened in 1997) is still the only private service station on the UK motorway network and continues to regularly win awards for innovation, locally sourced produce and its high standards from everyone from Egon Ronay to Which magazine – and still uses local suppliers and labour. ”
The construction of the motorway through the Lune Gorge was undertaken by John Laing & Sons and it was clearly such a remarkable piece of civil engineering that they commissioned a film maker to record the whole process. Luckily for us, that 1971 film is now available to view for free on the British Film Institute’s website.
Returning from our meeting with Heather, we stopped on the A685 road from Tebay to Kendal which had to be rerouted to accommodate the M6 in the gorge. At our feet was the motorway in late afternoon sunshine. Running alongside was the main railway line to Carlisle and beyond them both, the line of the Roman road from Low Borrowbridge fort to Sedbergh. Thousands of years of history right in front of us.
On our way back into Tebay we stopped to photograph the bridge to nowhere called Lune’s Bridge, which once carried the road from Tebay to Kendal but is now completely redundant.
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