This is the motorway running directly north from Manchester towards urban East Lancashire and the towns of Rawtenstall and Burnley. The M66 begins on the M60 Outer Ring Road and heads out past Bury and Rochdale towards Ramsbottom. But then, just as it gets into its stride, it stops, the route becoming part of the A56 right up to the Colne Valley and the M65. The intrepid motorway explorer should prepare themselves for feelings of emotional emptiness and abandonment as a result of this premature end.
The M66's brief journey north is nothing if not interesting. It serves mainly as a bypass for Bury, a town that seems to be lacking a prefix, and is also a reliable distributor road for the tired-looking suburbia that is pebbledashed across the hills around Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. Its first junction northwards, number three, is often referred to as the Asda junction - serving primarily the back end of a housing estate and a large supermarket. Hot on its heels is number two, the A58 between Bury and Rochdale, and then the motorway begins a long uphill slog towards Edenfield.
An eastern bypass for Bury had been proposed in the 1949 Roads Plan for Lancashire, a vision set out by James Drake, the father of the motorway. Back then, of course, it was only envisaged as an austere, post-war affair; two modest carriageways at ground level of the sort that wouldn't leave too big a dent in your ration book. By the sixties, Lancashire was living the Buck Rogers dream of the motorway, and the Bury Eastern Bypass was suddenly a blue line.
This probably came as something of a surprise to the residents of Ferngrove, a street in the east of Bury, which was built in the post-war years with a wide grassy space in the middle designed to accommodate a by-pass (note the hyphen in "by-pass": this indicates its down-to-earth austerity). The grassy space got its road, but the finished product is not what was described to the people who lived in the houses overlooking it. Instead the M66 screams through the middle of the estate on high concrete walls, with sound barriers at first floor level, and with no opportunity to see the houses on one side of Ferngrove from the other. There are several urban motorways in the UK, and the ones in city centre locations draw all sorts of criticism, but this forgotten bit of urban roadbuilding is far and away the worst of them, and it's all the more shocking for being in what was obviously once a quiet and green suburb.
The gap through the housing estate is only just wide enough for the motorway and, despite this being the steepest part of the long ascent, there's no space for a climbing lane until the road has cleared the houses and is nearly at the top of the hill, where it clearly isn't much use. All things considered, this whole situation is a compromise on a magnificent scale, and it really does prove that tired old maxim that a compromise just means that everyone loses.
Thinking about it, I'm starting to feel sorry for the M66. All this criticism is unfair when you consider that it had its most impressive and important section amputated a few years ago. The M60 was an attempt to create an orbital motorway for Manchester, but it was cobbled together entirely from bits of other roads, and as part of the process it swallowed the southern bit of the M66 whole. Otherwise this article could talk excitedly about the swoops and curves of the section east of Manchester or the peculiar unfinished stubs where it should have continued towards Hazel Grove. But unfortunately, it can't.