The history of Britain’s roads

Julian Humphrys sets off on a journey through the history of our road network

London traffic. (Photo by Popper Ltd./ullstein bild via Getty Images)

What is Britain’s oldest road?

Many argue that it’s the Ridgeway, an 85-mile route from Avebury to Buckinghamshire which may well have been in use for 5,000 years.

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What did the Romans do for us?

The Romans built the first roads to be formed into anything like a national network. The roads they built, like the Fosse Way (from Devon to Lincoln) or Watling Street (from London to Shropshire), remained in use for centuries and the routes are still followed today.

Were medieval roads really bad?

By our standards, yes, with the result that waterborne transportation by river or coastal shipping was widely seen as the cheapest and easiest option for anything but the shortest journeys. By the 17th century, major roads were, in summer months at least, largely passable for wheeled transport, including coaches. However, Celia Fiennes, who famously travelled the country at that time, was often scathing about the state of the roads she encountered.

What led to an improvement in the state of our roads?

The development, mainly in the 18th century, of turnpikes, stretches of roads that were run by trustees and funded and maintained by tolls. By the 1830s over 20,000 miles of road had been turnpiked and many surfaces improved thanks to the work of engineers like John Macadam, whose roads were covered with layers of compacted stone.

Where are we today?

In something of a jam, with around 35 million licensed vehicles. For much of the 20th century, our roads were, by 2015 standards, largely empty but the rise in the use of cars and lorries after the Second World War still led to a concerted attempt to improve our road network.

December 1958 saw the opening of Britain’s first motorway – an 8-mile stretch of the Preston bypass (now part of the M6) – and the first sections of the M1 opened in the following year. But these and future developments have always struggled to cope with an increase in demand that they themselves helped to create.

In 1989, just three years after the completion of the M25 motorway, Middlesbrough-born singer-songwriter Chris Rea released his anthemic song ‘Road to Hell’.

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 This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine