30. What is it like underneath Spaghetti Junction?





15th May, 2010. We sallied forth for some fresh air. It was largely a dull day; but we were undaunted in our Quest. This was simply to take some photos. underneath Spaghetti Junction. This unlovely name was bestowed on a relatively complicated motorway junction on the M6, which connects it to the centre of Birmingham. It goes without saying, that it (along with other nearby junctions in the West Midlands) is a notorious traffic bottleneck. Indeed, a by-pass – the ‘M6 Toll’ – was constructed some years ago to enable people, on payment of a fee, to get round this whole area. But I digress. The purpose of this web page is simply to furnish you with a few images of what is underneath this junction. On the aerial view above, the M6 runs from the upper left to the lower right, and the A38(M) runs off to the lower left into the centre of Birmingham. It just looks like some roads. But it is much more complicated (& interesting) than that!




Here, we are approaching the junction from Birmingham; from the south west. The M6 – which is elevated on concrete piles – is seen in the distance. On the left is a canal. This is the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, completed in 1789. Its origin is in central Birmingham. On the right, at a lower level, is the River Rea. This rises in the Waseley Hills, some miles to the south west of Birmingham. It was brick-culverted many years ago, as it was prone to flood after prolonged heavy rain. Why are these two ‘watercourses’ headed in the same direction?




Here is the canal, now quite near to the motorway. The River Rea is alongside, to the right, and lower down, as in the previous shot. The names of rivers are absolutely fascinating, as I’m sure you know? They are almost always very ancient – unless they have been ‘back-named’ from villages or towns through which they flow, e.g. the Cherwell, the Penk, and many others. If they are unchanged (as most of them are), river names can instantly whisk us back into the very distant past – for example the Celtic period; or perhaps even further, into the remote, misty period before the Celts came to these islands? The name ‘Rea’ however, may only go back to Old English, and simply means ‘river’, just as afon is the Welsh (Celtic) non-specific name for a ‘river’, of whatever sort.




There’s the main elevated M6, dominating… what? Simply the confluence of the small River Rae (coming from bottom right) with the small Hockley Brook coming in from the left. A few hundred yards further on, the Rea flows into the River Tame. ‘Tame’ of course, is a fascinating river name. Tame, Team, Teme, Tamar, Thames: there are many of these sort of name, to be found all over Britain. The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names describes it as ‘Ancient Celtic’, first recorded ~50 BC. It has also been suggested that the few river names whose origin has never been positively defined, just might be hold-overs from the language of the people who lived in the British Isles before even the Celts arrived. Apparently, nobody knows what that language might have been, or any other words from it. How marvelous if this were true!        




The old ‘Salford Bridge’ is seen here. I drove over it hundreds of times in the early 1960s, well before the austere concrete and steel motorway bestrode it. The Salford Bridge carried the main road (A38) out of Birmingham to the north east: to places like Sutton Coldfield, Lichfield, Tamworth. It is still in use of course, but only as a ‘feeder’ for the motorway, plus local traffic. More on ‘Salford’ later.




Here we are looking back into Birmingham. The canal on the right, the Rea coming in parallel with it, the Hockley Brook coming in from the right, under the canal.





There is more than one ‘confluence’ under Spaghetti Junction. Here, dwarfed and oppressed by the megalithic pillars supporting the M6, is the junction of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal (coming in at the left and turning sharp right), with the Tame Valley Canal coming in straight towards us, from the west. This is a relatively recent canal, as attested by its direct line, its many embankments and bold earthworks. If you have even been queuing in the interminable traffic where the northbound M5 meets the M6, you will have passed under the Tame Valley canal; which, in its light and unassuming aqueduct, casually steps over the M5, some miles to the west of the above shot.




We are looking back along the Tame Valley Canal, which has come from the north west. The M6 is, as ever, above us.




Here is a view looking back towards the junction of the Tame Valley with the Birmingham & Fazeley. A graffiti artist’s paradise! Still, there were graffiti 2000 years ago in ancient Rome, weren’t there? So who are we to argue?




Rather more to the left of the previous shot, the Birmingham & Fazeley heads off resolutely east, turning north east, the progressively north, en route to Fazeley, on the old Roman Watling Street, where it joins the Coventry Canal. Which, at that point, is nowhere near Coventry at all!




Though it had been a very dull day, the sun did happen to come out for a short time, and make luminous the Ragwort (I would imagine that’s what it is) growing along the canalized Hockley Brook on the south west side of the M6. I suppose they dug it a channel so that it wouldn’t occasionally overflow and lap away at the concrete pillars supporting the M6. An excellent idea.




A view underneath old Salford Bridge, with the Birmingham & Fazeley canal aqueduct in the distance, and a single mighty pillar of the M6.




Of course, no plant life actually grows underneath the M6 on this elevated section. It’s too dry under there, and little sunshine can ever penetrate. We’re looking north west here. The Hockley Brook is on the left. I presume this metalled roadway underneath the M6, strangely deserted, serves some important purpose. I don’t know how far it goes, and did not explore it on foot, as I had been pottering about for a couple of hours and was getting rather tired, sorry.




It is of course impossible to ‘photograph’ Spaghetti Junction – it’s far too big. But you can see a couple of link roads (to the north east) on this shot.




There is a commemorative plaque on Salford Bridge. You see it above. I have exaggerated the contrast to make it easier to read – if, indeed, anyone has read so far down this very boring web page! Still, whoever put up the first bridge in 1290, might possibly be surprised that the surroundings of their bridge was still an important focus of transportation over 800 years later? Not a bit of it. It is no coincidence that the M6 was built through here. It is no coincidence that canals were built coming to here, and having a junction here. Still less is it a coincidence that the little Hockley Brook had its confluence with the small River Rea here. It was all dictated by the landscape; by the topography. And the landscape was laid out probably 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. Rivers, generally speaking, follow the easiest path. So did the canals, when people got round to building them in the 18th & early 19th Centuries. Even the motorways had to do so, when they were made in the 1960s, to avoid deep cuttings, high embankments, tunnels &c., and the associated expense. So you see, it’s all inevitable really. You and I therefore, next time we’re stuck in a bloody traffic jam on the M6 in the West Midlands, may console ourselves with the thought(s): (a) [a local like me] “Sod the Last Ice Age!”; (b) [those just passing through] “Wish we’d gone on the M6 Toll!”




Page written 22nd October 2010.

Modified 29th April 2017.