Roads, Railways and 007 National Express

Between 1900 and 1962 all traffic on the A2 from London to Dover passed through the High Street. At the mid-point of the pedestrianised High Street the 1950s traffic signs, pointing in opposite directions to the destinations of Dover and Chatham, can still be seen. From 1962 when the Rheims Way and ring road around the southern part of the city were completed, A2 traffic could go around the city walls. It was not until 1981 with the completion of the Canterbury by-pass that east-west traffic was taken out of Canterbury

No plans for a north-south bypass to relieve flows on the A28 Ashford to Thanet radial were realised. Despite the provision of three Park and Ride sites at Wincheap, the Old Dover Road and Sturry Road, Canterbury’s road network in the late-20th century came under constant pressure, with up to 160,000 vehicles per day travelling to and from the city. In addition to peak hour commuter congestion the expansion of secondary and higher education generated additional traffic. The problem of unlocking the gridlock, particularly around the Wincheap roundabout, has so far defied the planners.

One lesson of the 20th century was that the more provision was made for cars the more congestion followed. A million passengers use Canterbury’s Park and Ride facilities each year, but this has not reduced congestion around the centre; the multi-storey car parks built at Castle Street and Whitefriars were, of course, designed to bring traffic in. A third multi-storey car park at Canterbury West opened in 2020 will bring in even more. If the solution (imposed by the 2020/21 coronavirus pandemic) will come from more people working and studying from home, and with the replacement of petrol by electric engines to reduce air pollution, new strategies for dealing with the legacy of this very 20th-century problem may hopefully prevail.

Main-line train services in the 20th century showed little improvement in journey times on switching from steam to electric power in the 1950s; nor did nationalising the railways in 1948 or denationalising in 1994 make the trains run faster. Journey times between Canterbury and London were constrained by the circuitous routes of Victorian built railways in Kent and by the suburban services in the London area. For a straightline distance of 55 miles, journey times were typically 1 hour 50 minutes from Canterbury West to Charing Cross and 1 hour 37 minutes from Canterbury East to Victoria. Rail travel did however become cleaner and safer with electrification, the safest form of transport. Following the construction of the Channel Tunnel high speed route, the start of fast train services in 2007 brought the journey time between Canterbury and London down to 55 minutes. The conventional services are still available for shorter journeys or for passengers happy to take the extra time traveling to or from London.

Canterbury’s branch lines were phased out some years before the importance of railway preservation was acknowledged. The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (opened 1830) was closed in 1951, though briefly reprieved in 1953 when flooding cut off Whitstable’s main line. At Whitstable the original Stephenson bridge, though perfectly sound, made way for road widening in 1964 and at the Canterbury end the tunnel, the world’s first tunnel, collapsed when the University of Kent built on it (1974). Parts of the disused line are now the ‘Crab and Winkle’ cycle route. The Elham Valley line (1889 – 1947) was used for military purposes in the Second World War. A massive ‘Boche Buster’ rail transported howitzer gun was housed in a tunnel. It was used only for test firing half-way across the channel. The blasts smashed windows in the villages of Kingston and Barham.

The 007 coach route from London to Canterbury and Dover was taken over by National Express in 1973. The nine services each day proved popular especially with Canterbury’s fast increasing number of students. There is good reason to believe that the author Ian Fleming took the 007 prefix for James Bond from the service. When living at St Margaret’s Bay, near Dover, it is said that Fleming was inspired by the panel on a London bound coach. As Fleming’s London home, 22b Ebury Street, lay directly behind the newly opened Victoria coach station, he was also familiar with the 007 service from the other end of the route. Fleming’s familiarity with the route helps to explain the car dash in Moonraker from Canterbury to Dover in 15 minutes. But this did not involve a coach. James Bond drove a 4.5 litre Bentley convertible, ‘the fastest genuine four-seater in the world that could top 120 mph with ease’.

Return to the homepage for 20th-century Canterbury, or explore Canterbury’s economic growth through the essays on Canterbury’s commerce and industrial heritage, its retail industry and trading estates, or Canterbury as a boom city. You can also learn more about how Canterbury has been shaped by other facets of its transport infrastructure like the railway, planning decisions, as well as the significant impact of the Second World War.