If you live in Chester and Ellesmere Port, you’ll find it hard to imagine life without the M53 – and this is the story of how the motorway came to be built.
The 18-mile transport spine of Wirral that exists today starts at the Wallasey tunnel and passes through Moreton, Woodchurch, Eastham and Ellesmere Port.
Upon reaching Chester, it becomes the A55 North Wales Expressway at junction 12.
According to the The Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT), which holds an archive on UK motorway history, engineers G Maunsell and Partners were appointed by the Ministry of Transport in 1965 to carry out a location study for a new route serving the peninsula.
The idea was that the road would start from the second Wallasey tunnel and end at Hooton, our sister publication the Liverpool ECHO reports.
The consultants recommended the route should be a dual three-lane motorway to connect with a stretch of road known as the M531.
Originally known as the Hooton Industrial Road, this dual two-lane carriageway road had been constructed to improve road links by the new Vauxhall Motors factory in Ellesmere Port.
The proposed road was then designated the M53, in a project which cost £12m to complete. It’s also referred to as the mid-Wirral motorway.
When did work start?
Work on the M53 project started in July 1969 and included four interchanges at Moreton, Woodchurch, Clatterbridge and Hooton. A total of 41 bridges were required during the construction.
At Moreton a spur road was designed to provide a link serving the Moreton and Upton area.
Bidston Golf Club lost 20 acres to the construction, forcing the course to be altered, while houses in Stanley Road, Ellesmere Port were levelled to make way for the M53.
The road was completed in February 1972, following the opening of the second Mersey Tunnel.
But the tunnel approach road was closed on the first day of the new motorway’s existence while box bridges were strengthened – something that would become familiar to motorists in later years.
What happened on opening day?
Wirral entered the motorway age on Tuesday, February 1, 1972, when the ECHO reported that Lord Leverhulme cut the tape with a “specially inscribed pair of scissors”.
The report added: “The brief ceremony took place at the Hooton interchange in driving snow and a cold wind.”
The opening ceremony was delayed when the motorcade set off from the Clatterbridge roundabout at 10.15am but took a wrong turning on a slip road, forcing the convoy to carry on towards Ellesmere Port and return along the northbound carriageway.
The ECHO reported the motorway was constructed by civil engineering consortium Alfred McAlpine & Son and Leonard Fairclough Limited.
Lord Leverhulme was given a souvenir of a silver pheasant to reflect his sporting and countryside interests.
On the M53’s first day, police reported that traffic was “fairly light all day” and no accidents were reported.
Residents threatened to protest – but motorists were impressed
People living on the Durley estate in Prenton had threatened to protest against the opening of the motorway, but the protest was postponed after police pledged increased safety measures for pedestrians in the area.
Parents were urged to tell children to use a pedestrian footbridge over the Woodchurch interchange rather than crossing access roads to the motorway.
ECHO reporter Derek Whale, who was the first member of the public to drive along the M53 from Hooton, pronounced the new motorway an “excellent road through pleasant surroundings”.
He wrote: “The motorway, cutting mainly through snow-clad countryside, had been salted and gritted. The surface was wet, slightly slushy in parts.
“I had a good grip anf I maintained a steady 50mph into a near-freezing wind.
“I clocked approximately 11 and a half miles from A41 to the end of the sliproad at Wallasey Village, where I drove through to the Kingsway Tunnel.”
Motorway’s first crash
The first crash on the M53 was on Friday, February 4, 1972.
A car mounted the central reservation near to the Clatterbridge roundabout and hit crash barriers, but no one was injured.
A spokesman for Cheshire Police told the ECHO: “This is the first traffic accident on the motorway that we have heard of. Traffic was light at the time and has been all day.”
Children were warned not to cross the M53 as a shortcut
It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to cross the M53 now but a week after it first opened, the ECHO reported that children were crossing the carriageways.
Birkenhead road safety officer Ray Cave told reporters children were crossing the motorway to get from their homes in Noctorum to schools on the Woodchurch estate.
A hole in fencing was also feared to be a “short cut to death or serious injury”.
A police spokesman said the hole in fencing protecting the motorway had been blocked with barbed wire by contractors.
The report concluded: “He added the police could not emphasise too much the danger of people crossing the motorway on foot as a short cut. It was also illegal.”
Motorway was later extended
In March 1981, the M531 was further extended with a viaduct over the A5117 roundabout by what is now Cheshire Oaks. A one mile length of motorway linked in with the M56.
Upon completion, it became part of the M53 and the rest of the M531 was renumbered.
Work on the final, three-mile long extension started in June 1980.
This stretch connected with the A56 at Hoole, near to Chester, and opened to traffic in July 1982.
Bidston Viaduct had to be strengthened
Repairs to the Bidston viaduct – which takes traffic from the M53 to the Kingsway Tunnel – caused traffic chaos for years.
The structure carries around 63,000 vehicles a day, including approximately 5,000 HGVs.
In 1998-99, the viaduct was strengthened to meet new legislation around 40-tonne vehicles but further investigations later revealed more work was needed.
Wagons over three tonnes were ordered to go down the slip roads at junction one of the M53 and up the other side to reach the Wallasey tunnel.
One solution was to knock down and replace the viaduct – but it was eventually agreed to embark on a £70m strengthening project.
Design and preparatory site work started at the beginning of 2009 and the work was completed in 2012.
It included 100km of new welding, 105,000 new bolts, 400,000 scaffolding boards and 565 tonnes of plate.
Engineers said it would guarantee the structural integrity of the bridge for the next 80 years.