Ghosts of the Motorway

A haunting new video for a modern motorway ballad evokes memories of journeys past

FILM: Kirsty Hockenhull

MUSIC: Pett Level Sounds (Gareth E. Rees and Matt Frost)

WORDS: Gareth E. Rees

The final chapter of my book, Unofficial Britain, is about the haunted aspect of motorways: the way our experiences of past journeys become emotionally layered upon the road; the eerie presence of the landscape which came before; and the sacrifices of those men who died, or were injured, in order to create these strangely influential superstructures.

The motorway has featured in a great deal of music since its formation, from the songs of Ewan McColl in celebration of the M1’s construction to the postpunk of Half Man Half Biscuit and The Fall. In particular, the M25 and M6 were key facilitators of the late 80s and early 90s rave scene, becoming crucial routes to clubs, with service stations as meeting points which sometimes themselves became the sites of impromptu mini-raves.

At the end of the chapter, I took inspiration from a type of 17th Century folksong known as a ‘broadside ballad’, These were sung in the streets to attract people to stalls. They dealt with quotidian topics, often relating to working class professions. One of them, ‘The Three Merry Cobblers’, begins with the lines: “Come follow, follow me / to the alehouse we’ll march all three / leave aule, last, threed and leather / and let’s go together / our trade excels most trades in the land / for we are still on the mending hand”.

I took this as a template for my own ballad of the motorway, the lyrics of which appear in my book. Since then, I have recorded a version of it, with a haunting video by Kirsty Hockenhull. You can watch and listen below….


Gareth E. Rees is author of Unofficial Britain (Elliott & Thompson, 2020) Car Park Life (Influx Press 2019), The Stone Tide (Influx Press, 2018) and Marshland (Influx Press, 2013). He is the vocalist and guitar player in a number of bands: Pett Level Sounds, Black Arches, and The Dirty Contacts.

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