Finally there’s light at the end of the tunnel

OPEN Transport secretary Philip Hammond
OPEN Transport secretary Philip Hammond
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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The tailbacks stretched as far as the eye could see.

That was not the sentence I had anticipated writing within a couple of hours of the opening of the Hindhead Tunnel.But there I sat, crawling, nose-to-tail, heading south towards the Devil’s Punch Bowl on the fresh-as-a-daisy, new A3.

TUNNERLLERS First cars appear from the south bound tunnel

TUNNERLLERS First cars appear from the south bound tunnel

The £371m, four-mile stretch of dual carriageway and the twin-bore tunnel sitting roughly in the middle of it, were open and I was heading for Portsmouth.

So, er, why yet another jam? Wasn’t this all meant to have evaporated in the time it takes a transport secretary wielding a pair of scissors with gold-plated handles to snip a ribbon?

The answer was man’s insatiable love affair with the car.

Looking back from Thursley towards Guildford yesterday afternoon, all you could see were cars. Hundreds and hundreds of them. I suspect many of the occupants were there simply for the ride. Thermos packed in a wicker hamper in the boot along with the tomato and egg sandwiches and a tartan rug close at hand.

They were the curious in search of a novel day out on the A3. The highlight? They would be among the first to sample a spanking new mile-and-a-half subterranean experience beneath the rolling hills of the Hampshire/Surrey border. Now, there’s something to tell the grandchildren.

This was compounded by what had happened about 120 minutes earlier when transport secretary Philip Hammond (he of the gold-handled scissors) had cut that tape to open the road which, given a fair wind, should knock at least 30 minutes off the time it takes to get from the Portsmouth area to the M25.

This is the Hindhead bypass, which in a trice kissed goodbye to hours of fume-filled fun sitting in jams through the village.

The snip came at 10.39am yesterday. The old southbound A3 was closed immediately and the historic first vehicles emerged from the gloom of the tunnel mouth 11 minutes later.

All you could hear before they broke into daylight was a bass rumble from deep inside the earth.

The rumble became a roar and as it reached a crescendo out they popped like a symbolic cork from a bottle of fizz.

They were led by two police cars doing a sedate 40mph but immediately behind them came several motorbikes, some of them vintage, and a couple of classic MGs.

Then came the families in their saloons waving at the 200-strong crowd of journalists, builders from Balfour Beatty and staff members from the Highways Agency. Everybody seemed to be sounding their horns in jubilation.

This was no organised cavalcade, they were simply all out to enjoy the day and say they were in the vanguard of motorists to used this long-awaited new stretch of road.

So what is the road like to use? Earlier in the day it had taken me 38 minutes to inch north from Liphook to those notorious lights at the Hindhead crossroads.

Returning yesterday on the new stretch from Thursley to Liphook took about six minutes and that was observing the 40mph limit in the tunnel. It will gradually be increased to 70mph.

The long, long queues of vehicles crawling north on the old road were a reminder of what was.

Pulling into the services at Liphook, it was clear there were several people who were out to celebrate the beginning of the end of the Hindhead misery.

A beaming David McNeil, 58, from Guildford, was one of them.

He said: ‘I’ve been going to Horndean a couple of times a week on business for at least the last 20 years and, like so many thousands of others, Hindhead has driven me completely loopy.

‘I’ve got no business in Horndean today. I just wanted to sample the new road and especially the tunnel so I knew it was really true.

‘I have to say that, although in the great scheme of things it’s just a road, it’s fantastic and has just made my life a whole lot better – even if I do now have to crawl back through Hindhead on the old road.’

Sales rep Deirdre Muncaster, 39, from Farnham, has battled against the Hindhead hell three times a week for six years on her way to Chichester.

She said: ‘I’m on holiday this week but I had to sample the tunnel and the rest of the new road as soon as I could.

‘I’ve watched the project gradually unfold for years and thought it would never open. I can’t tell you what a difference it’s going to make to my temper to never have to wind my way around the Devil’s Punch Bowl again.’

Robin Tomkins, 64, from Hedge End, was another. ‘I was determined I was going to use the tunnel on day one and I’ve done it.

‘Of course, I had to sit in all the queues on the way up, but coming back was utterly marvellous. A motorist’s heaven.

‘It’s going to make a huge difference to the people who live in Hindhead – they’ll get their village back. But best of all, it will save drivers like me hours of mind-numbing boredom just to get a few miles up the road.’

To complete their joy, the northbound section of the scheme is expected to open after the morning rush tomorrow. There will be much A3 merriment this weekend.