The story behind Herts’ magic roundabout and the chaos of its first day

We can already hear the sigh as soon as we mention Hemel Hempstead’s Magic Roundabout.

It’s either because you think we’re, once again, criticising an efficient and ingenious piece of planning to get into or out of Hemel.

Or, it’s because you can’t stand to look at it, as a confusing mess of mini-roundabouts and cars coming in every direction.

Whatever your opinion, there is always the big question – why does it even exist?

Even if you think it’s the best idea ever, surely questions have to be asked about what’s going through the head of someone who wants to take the risk of building six mini-roundabouts in the same place.

Why was the Magic Roundabout built?

In 2005, the magic rounabout was voted as the UK’s second worst roundabout in a 2005 poll

The Plough Roundabout – as its actually called – opened in 1973, following the lead of Swindon’s terrifying five-roundabout junction.

That roundabout was built in 1972 and looks a lot more intimidating than Hemel’s, even if it has one fewer turn.

The use of an anticlockwise inner circle makes it even more confusing to look at than the Plough, but it does offer more direct paths to each exit.

And the Plough needed something to make it a little more efficient.

Before its current design, it was a simple junction before being converted into a simple roundabout when Hemel became a new town in 1947.

However, soon the Plough was plagued with congestion, and this was hoped to keep traffic moving much more easily.

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The day it opened

The Magic Roundabout shortly after opening – with a handful of cars on the wrong side of the road
(Image: Cathcam/CC 4.0)

On the Hertfordshire County Council’s archive website there is a page dedicated to the roundabout, and there are a couple of mentions of the ‘who dares wins’ experience of the first day.

It adds that: “It caused so much confusion when it opened in 1973 that policemen had to be stationed at each of the mini-roundabouts to direct clueless motorists, who were no doubt shouting, crying and looking utterly confused.”

Someone in the comments, who claims to have been there on the day of its opening, noted that there were a number of police cars blocking the roundabout until it was officially opened with the dropping of a flag and a whistle.

As the roundabout prepared to open, cars backed up on the surrounding road. Then, at 8am on the dot one official blew his whistle, dropped his flag and the police left as chaos ruled.

In the image above you can see a couple of cars still going down the wrong lane and on the wrong side of the road, so drivers definitely had to go through a bit of a learning experience.

Thankfully, after a couple of days those early teething problems were ironed out and locals can speed their way around it with ease now.

48 years on

The design of the roundabout now is pretty much identical to how it is 48 years on, so something has clearly gone right.

Hemel can also boast a much nicer looking Magic Roundabout than Swindon, which has a tiny centre and is almost entirely tarmac.

Instead we’ve got a bit of green space, including ducks and a river, so in a battle of these controversial  junctions Hemel is a clear winner.

According to a 2005 poll, however, the Plough was voted the second worst roundabout in the country, just behind Swindon’s version – which is a win itself, really.

That being said, it probably isn’t too surprising that the rest of the country has decided not to bother replicating the idea.

When our reporter Alice went for a visit she was fazed by the approach but found it wasn’t as bad

That being said, some colleagues may have admitted to having a few close calls since.

In a county that’s full of ambitious post-war projects, there’s plenty of unique quirks and this is one of our favourites.

And, at the very least, it’s a way of spotting which drivers are born and bred Hemel, and who is just pretending.

HertsLive – Hemel Hempstead