David Butterfield

The Watford Gap

The line between north and south Britain has a long cultural history — and is nothing to do with Watford, North London

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.

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