In a shallow dip between two unremarkable Northamptonshire hills you will find a road, a motorway, a railway and a canal jostling for position. It is neither a place of natural beauty nor a spectacle of human ingenuity. Yet it has been the subject of books, art exhibitions, pop songs and even a (mini) musical.
This is Watford Gap, a three-mile break in the limestone ridge that runs from the Cotswolds to Lincolnshire. Perched between Daventry and Rugby, it subtly marks the watershed of the Nene and Avon to the east and west. However understated the depression geographically, it’s of high status culturally. For this is the gateway between the South and All Things North: the Midlands, northern England and Scotland.
The Romans first steered Watling Street through these parts, trudging from Canterbury to Wroxeter via London and St Albans. This is the street that saw Boudicca fall; the street that separated the Danelaw from English Mercia. Watford Gap also sits on the linguistic fault line running (roughly) from Shropshire to the Wash — the frontier of the ‘foot-strut’ and ‘bath-trap’ splits. South of here, these words (and their kind) have different vowel sounds; to the north, they sound identical. Such differences matter: to northerners, the authentic clipped ‘a’ of grass and fast is a proudly worn badge of collective identity.
But the modern marker of this national dividing line is a motorway service station: Watford Gap services were the first of their kind, opened with the M1 in 1959. To the fresh, footloose generation of music lovers, the station’s Blue Boar café offered the eye-popping novelty of a 24-hour clubroom; of sausage rolls and seven-inches through the night. In its heyday it hosted everyone who was anyone in beat-boom Britain: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who. Even Jimi Hendrix arrived in Britain fizzing with excitement about the Blue Boar, which he presumed to be an oh-so-swinging nightclub.
There was no live music, of course. But its jukebox was the stuff of legend: infiltrating its carousels was like smashing the charts. Mods and rockers met to trade records — and blows — with each other. Gradually, the electric vibe started to flicker, before cutting out. The waitresses disappeared in 1965, and by the early 1970s reports condemned the station as ‘lacking any quality’. The folk-rocker Roy Harper sang in 1977 of ‘Watford Gap, Watford Gap, a plate of grease and a load of crap’. The Blue Boar of legend is now a Roadchef.
So why the ‘Watford’ Gap? Simple enough: a village of that name lies nearby. But its namesake in Hertfordshire has seriously muddied the waters. Most friends I’ve asked assume Watford Gap to be a cultural fosse dug with sniggers above north London. Yet the two Watfords are more than 60 miles apart. Look at the Tube map, though, and Watford Junction is the apex of the north: for the austrocentric Londoner, ‘North of Watford’ was destined to subsume ‘North of the Watford Gap’. This injustice needs rectifying — so please spread the word about this iconic button on Britain’s fabric. After all, it boasts quite a CV for a minor declivity.