Daily Express, March 17, 2012

A TASTE OF LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

A new coach tour of the M25 is proving bewilderingly popular. DUNCAN CRAIG belts up for the inaugural ‘road to nowhere’ trip

I WAS concerned that they might struggle to top “the longest slip-road in the world”. I needn’t have worried.

Within a few miles this marvel was all but forgotten as we were invited to feast our eyes on the vast, water-logged building site that will soon be Cobham Services and “through the left window, a couple of miles away” the spot where King John signed the Magna Carta.

By the time we passed the alluring curves of the Colnbrook Waste Management Site, a rapt silence had descended across the coach. Either that or catatonia.

Some call it the world’s largest car park. Others, the seventh circle of hell. Either way, the M25 is not obvious fodder for the daytripper. Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company sees it differently.

The South Coast firm’s newest tour invites passengers to sit back and enjoy Britain’s best-known, least-loved road in unflinching detail. No non-essential stops. No detours that might dilute the fun. Just 117 miles of despised ring road.

For this we had the company’s coach coordinator Simon Ashcroft to thank. He confessed that he initially included the M25 “flight of fancy” in this year’s brochure “to amuse people”. With four fully booked tours and pressure for more, the joke is showing no sign of wearing thin.

“We allow four hours – traffic depending,” he told me as we set off. Pretty weighty caveat that. This is a road that, on its day, could give the term “trip of a lifetime” a literal meaning.

We allow four hours – traffic permitting. Pretty weighty caveat, that

I intercepted the tour at 11am on the M23. Most of the other 48 passengers, a mix of middle-aged couples and silver-haired singletons, had embarked an hour earlier in Brighton.

It was all apprehensive smiles until our “destination” was announced and one lady started attacking her giggling partner with a rolled-up newspaper. It turned out that James Smith, 40, a civil engineer from Bromley, in Kent, decided to treat 45-year-old Julie Hayes to the tour as a surprise for their (presumably last) anniversary.

We joined the M25 at Junction 6 and the driver eased the coach to its maximum permitted speed of 62mph. I settled back in my leather seat, flipped down the footrest and chewed on my complimentary (powdered) tea. It was disconcerting being on a road synonymous with frustration yet cruising along care-free.

Pointing out the “sights” was Nigel Pullen, 47, a veteran of the company’s European battlefield tours. This seemed strangely appropriate. His commentary didn’t start well. Reaching the M25’s highest point at Reigate Hill he flagged up the stretch where motorists were trapped in their cars for 15 hours after a collision last year. Nervous looks were exchanged.

He was soon into his stride though, delivering an inexhaustible supply of pub quiz-style titbits: the M25 is the only road in Britain to have some signs in kilometres; the road is 18 miles from London at its furthest point; the orbital passes through six counties and one metropolitan borough etc.

There’s humour, too. Departing South Mimms Services after our lunch stop, Nigel announced dryly: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming back.” Telling us that the fastest speed recorded on the road was 147mph, he added: “They did catch the guy. Eventually.”

He was treating his wife to the tour as a treat for their (presumably last) anniversary

We passed the M4 junction where Chris Rea famously penned the lyrics for Road To Hell. There’s some dispute whether the song is about the M25 itself or a riposte to Eighties excess. Regardless, the neatness of the pencil-written lyrics which were auctioned for charity in 2010 speaks volumes about traffic flow on the day.

As the shadows lengthened, we crossed Dartford Bridge, derided as the ‘Golden Gate of Essex’ but genuinely impressive on this hazy, early-spring day with the Thames sparkling far below and Canary Wharf’s lonely cluster of towers visible in the distance.

Twenty minutes later, bang on time, we slid into Clacket Lane Services where we were presented with certificates. Strangely, during our three-and-a-half-hour circumnavigation there was barely a traffic jam to be found. It felt a bit like patting a heavily sedated lion.

So who is signing up to this tour? “This day is designed for lovers of modern coach travel,” says the brochure, with a bold use of the plural. Those on board were a blend of rubberneckers (so improbable is the route, the tour has attracted plenty of publicity), lovers of ironic tourism and the genuinely interested.

James and Julie are firmly in the second camp. “James knows me well,” said Julie. “He knows I will just laugh about it. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”

When Margaret Thatcher opened the M25 in 1986 she bemoaned the fact that “people will carp and criticise”. The same is true of these tours though Simon remained upbeat to the last saying: “A lot of people are going home with smiles on their faces.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this could be interpreted in two ways.

* INFORMATION: Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company (01273 886200/www.buses.co.uk) offers M25 Orbital Coach Tours from £15pp. Newly added dates: April 24 and October 11.