Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Why potholes might just be our own fault

Potholes might just be our own fault

Potholes might just be our own fault - Credit: © ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC

There’s to be a blitz on potholes, we’re told.

Potholes. Savour that word. Ask yourself what they mean to you. Only dimly do I recall the history lessons of late childhood. Yet now a few jumbled fragments return and I begin to string them together: “Industrial revolution. Laissez faire. Jerry-built houses. Tarmacadam and... pot-holed roads.” Was this a few decades before the coming of the railways? I conducted a quick search:

“It is hard to imagine just how wretched the overland transportation system was before the railroads. The Great North Road, the major highway through the north of England in the 18th century, had potholes so large that men and horses are known to have drowned in them.”

I can’t remember seeing many potholes when I was a child. The first time I really noticed them in any quantity was while touring the former East Germany, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. I travelled by road to Potsdam, just outside Berlin, and later to Dresden. Some of the streets there were “interesting” when compared, say, to those of the more-familiar West.

Then I remembered a line from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life mentioning “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.” Almost by chance I found the origin of that line. It came from the Daily Mail of January 17, 1967. The item reported that a Blackburn council survey had discovered 4,000 holes in the road: one 26th of a hole for every citizen then living there.

This beats the Wivenhoe Society’s latest pothole survey, which was passed on to me by our patient editor, Mr Terry Hunt.

“Let me deal with this,” I said. “I know these people. I live among them. They’re educated and informed. They have time on their hands.”

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However many holes we discover, Wivenhoe will never have as many as Blackburn found in 1967. So much for the affluent Sixties and the man whom my mum used to call “That nice Mr Wilson.” Actually, he really was quite nice compared to anything else we’ve had this past four decades – like Santa Claus, in fact. But I digress.

Blackburn’s population, which fell quite steeply during the 20th century, is still roughly 10 times bigger than Wivenhoe’s, so we have some catching up to do.

It’s worth mentioning here that West Mersea, Eight Ash Green and many other places in Colchester’s environs also suffer potholes. It’s just that Wivenhoe, being “empowered” shall we say, will more easily be able to produce pictures and statistics to emphasise the point.

Everyone’s got potholes, though. Some call them “Osborne Holes” after our well-loved Chancellor. On a light-hearted day I’d probably say to my fellow Wivenhovians, “Look. You wanted traffic-calming measures? You’ve got them. Ha haa! I’m here all week. G’night. Go’bless.” (Exits in a hail of gravel.)

Despite my jokes, I must add that if you’re a cyclist, the reality of the potholes will come home to you rather sharply should your attention happen to stray. One of my wrists, for example, has a recurring ache from a pothole jolt I received some years ago.

In cyclists’ lore, if you end up with a puncture rather than a buckled wheel, it’s been a lucky tumble. A fractured collar-bone’s better than a head injury. A cut temple’s better than concussion – I’ve had both. I’ve heard that bruising’s better than bleeding – especially internally.

People favour such big cars nowadays, though, don’t they? Great black cruisers with names like The Hiyuki Deerslayer. “If it wasn’t for having to do the school-run, I’d probably just have bought a Fiat,” they’ll tell you in all seriousness. These classes of vehicle do tend to churn up the road, however. And, where a pothole already exists, their big wheels will enlarge it, sending up a shrapnel of gravel in their wake.

Do we blame the council? We shouldn’t, really. As a result of clear and present global warming, we’ve just enjoyed several old-money, family-size winters. The attendant snow, ice, flooding, gritting and salting have all taken their toll on road surfaces. Add to this the vastly-increased traffic now serving many new estates – places whose chief access roads were originally intended only for horses and carts – and we have a problem.

If, therefore, a highways department risks buzzing its pre-shrunk budget on mid-term repairs, there’s a danger that an extended winter will only re-open the newly-poulticed wounds. So our highways people can hardly be blamed for sitting it out until the good weather finally arrives.

Meanwhile, John or Jane Citizen may have to endure extra weeks of windscreen repairs, damaged suspension and battered axles while cash-cautious councils conduct a war of attrition with old General Winter.

Whose fault is it, then? Our own, possibly. We all want our executive houses, crammed into “village feel” dormer towns which now have hardly any shops. Then, we’ll need our three cars per household, whilst still hoping that the roads will be as deliriously empty as the illustrations on 1930s Shell maps. The Golden Age of Motoring, indeed.

So here’s my solution: personal jet-packs, hovercars and teleportation via phone apps. During the summer, your EADT correspondents, including me, have volunteered to test a few of them for you. We’ll be reporting back. Stay tuned.