When the then Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind cut the ribbon to open the M40 extension through Oxfordshire on January 15, 1991, he and his officials at the Department for Transport must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Although the idea for a London-Birmingham motorway through Oxfordshire had been officially proposed in 1969, it had taken more than 20 years to become a reality.

Civil servants probably suspected that carving a motorway through the county might be met with some resistance.

But nothing could have prepared them for the fight they would have on their hands – and the shrewd tactics of a band of local people who opposed it.

Despite its rocky ride, Oxfordshire’s first motorway was seen by many as a necessity.

The county’s roads were a traffic nightmare, even by today’s standards.

But a 59-mile link between Oxford and Birmingham would not only cut traffic around Oxford but also slash travel times and improve access to Bicester and Banbury.

John Peverel-Cooper, now 80, was the County Surveyor and Engineer for Oxfordshire County Council until his retirement six months before the opening of the M40 extension.

He said: “Before the building of the new stretch of the M40, through-traffic from the east to the north and north west would go along the A40, the Oxford Northern Bypass and up the Banbury and Woodstock roads.

“Marston Ferry Road, the centre of the city and the northern by-pass were also all very busy, as were other parts of the county, such as the A34, (now the A44) and the towns of Woodstock and Chipping Norton. When the M40 extension was opened, it took a short time for people to realise they could change their routes, but when they did, there was a substantial difference in all these previously congested areas.”

It was estimated that the new motorway would carry more than 65,000 vehicles a day and greatly ease the strain on Oxfordshire’s congested roads – but not everyone saw the M40 link as a blessing.

Mr Peverel-Cooper, who lives in Kidlington, said: “The old adage was that it takes 20 years to plan a motorway and two years to build it and that certainly applied with this – even more so.”

Although the idea for the extension was first raised in 1969, the years between the idea’s birth and its execution were taken up by discussions, protests, proposals and a massive public inquiry which sat for 117 days in 1982 – itself setting a record.

Mr Peverel-Cooper said: “It was a fascinating process to be involved in.

“Although the county council didn’t design or build it, we were continually consulted by the Department for Transport. But it was very contentious and for many years the department did not even refer to it as the M40, but the X40 – they didn’t want to call it a motorway because of the concerns of the people who would be affected by it.”

The civil servants had good reason to be cautious, for a field resting in the parish of the Fencott and Murcott was about to become a big headache.

Alice’s Meadow, as it would become known, was the focus of a campaign by local residents and Friends of the Earth, who opposed the government’s plans to route the M40 motorway across the beautiful area of Otmoor.

Joe Weston, now 56 and a director in the department of planning at Oxford Brookes University, led the FoE campaign to reroute the M40 away from Otmoor.

Their objections were partly responsible for the marathon public inquiry. But although this ruled in favour of the objectors, the Department for Transport decided to proceed with its original route.

Refusing to give up, Mr Weston and his fellow protesters formulated a new plan.

He said: “At the time we were pursuing a case against the Government on behalf of a farmer in the European Court of Human Rights, but then the farmer said he was selling up and moving anyway… so we asked to buy a piece of his land so we could pursue the case.”

The protesters called the meadow the name Alice's Field, in reference to Oxford author Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking-Glass, which is said to have been inspired by the ‘chess-board-like’ landscape of Otmoor.

They then sold it off as more than 3,500 plots at £2 a time – the naturalist David Bellamy was among the buyers.

Buyers were then advised to sell the plots again – for just £1 or even 50 pence each, to delay construction of the motorway even further, by allowing protesters to appeal against the compulsory purchase of each of the field’s 3,500 individual plots.

In the end, the Department for Transport had little choice but to reroute the M40 further to the east, avoiding Otmoor.

Mr Weston, who lives in Forest Hill, said: “There was a certain amount of pride in our victory – although we weren’t always the most popular people on the block, as there were a lot of people who supported the motorway.

“Without the protest the RSPB bird reserve at Otmoor might never have happened.

“But the biggest legacy for Alice’s Meadow is that the same principles were used to buy up land to stop logging in the South American rainforest.”


Safety was a big issue long before the M40 link actually opened and Thames Valley Police had good reason to be concerned.

The projected flow of cars was estimated at 65,000 vehicles a day, but not one mile of the new motorway would have street lights and there were no services when it opened.

The force staged six months of training sessions to prepare for incidents on a completed section of the road near junction 10 at Ardley.

All the emergency services were involved in simulated accidents and Inspector John Wheeler was instrumental in carrying out as much planning as possible to ensure the safety of drivers.

Now 68 and a driving and motorcycling instructor, Mr Wheeler, from Kidlington, said: “The M40 opened just a few months before my retirement and followed six months of exhaustive preparation to ensure we could deal with emergencies which would inevitably arrive.

“What we didn’t know at the time was that the county’s biggest crash would happen only a month after the motorway extension opened.”

At 8.30am on February 14, 1991, a lorry broke down on the southbound slip road of the M40 at junction nine at Wendlebury, near Bicester.

Thick fog limited visibility and within minutes a car ploughed into the back of the lorry, starting a pile-up that would involve more than 100 cars and the death of one woman.

Mr Wheeler said: “When the cars eventually stopped crashing, vehicles were strewn everywhere and lorries were resting on the central reservation.

“The crash site spread over a mile and unfortunately one lady had lost her life.

“Our investigation into the crash resulted in 30 drivers being prosecuted for careless driving and one person for causing death by dangerous driving.”

He added: “Although this was a terrible crash, caused by drivers going too fast in the fog, I like to think that the policing of the road in those early days was very effective.

“There were two cars patrolling at all times. Nowadays, I never see a patrol car on the motorway.

“As police officers, most of us hadn’t policed a motorway before, but we felt that we did a good job.”


The potential benefits of the M40 were not just about rerouting traffic Landowners and town planners looked to the new motorway to bring prosperity to the area, particularly in Bicester and Banbury.

Steven Newman, Cherwell District Council’s economic development officer, said: “Along the route of the new link, different communities, including Banbury, maximised development potential.

“Housing and the town’s industrial base were extended up towards the motorway and the M40 became not only an additional attraction to the businesses already here, but also attracted exciting new businesses in.

“The council joined business organisations to form the Cherwell-M40 Investment Partnership – an organisation which is still operating today, and businesses such as the performance motoring specialists Prodrive, Lloyds TSB and iSoft software engineering became some of the many who have set up here.

“In Bicester, people will recognise companies such as Bakels, who make food ingredients, Fresh Direct and most recently Brita water filters, which have undoubtedly seen the M40 as an added attraction to the opportunities the town offers.”