A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

BRITAIN'S EARLIEST ROADS


It has been assumed in some quarters that, because the main routes of travel in this country did not have to pass over lofty mountains, as in Austria and Switzerland, therefore the construction of roads here was, or should have been, a comparatively easy matter. But this is far from having been the case, the earliest opening of regular lines of communication by road having been materially influenced by certain physical conditions of the land itself.

The original site of London was a vast marsh, extending from where Fulham stands to-day to Greenwich, a distance of nine or ten miles, with a breadth in places of two or two and a half miles. The uplands beyond the Thames marshes were covered with dense forests in which the bear, the wild boar, and the wild ox roamed at will. Essex was almost entirely forest down to the date of the conquest. Nearly the whole expanse of what to-day is Sussex, and, also, considerable portions of Kent and Hampshire, were covered by a wood—the Andred-Weald, or Andreswald—which in King Alfred's time is said by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been 120 miles long and 30 miles broad. Here it was that, until even these great supplies were approaching exhaustion, the iron industry established in Sussex in the thirteenth century obtained the wood and the charcoal which were exclusively used as fuel in iron-making until the second half of the eighteenth century, when coal and coke began to be generally substituted. Wilts, Dorset and other southern counties had extensive woodlands which were more or less depleted under like conditions. Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire all had extensive woods. Sherwood Forest extended over almost the whole of Nottinghamshire. In Derbyshire, as shown by the Domesday Survey, five hundreds [ 5 ]out of six were heavily wooded, and nineteen manors out of twenty-three had wood on them. "In Lancashire," says Charles Pearson, in the notes to his "Historical Maps of England During the First Thirteen Centuries," "if we distinguish forest from wood, and assume that the former was only wilderness, we still have official evidence for believing that a quarter of a million acres of the land between Mersey and Ribble was covered with a network of separate dense woods."

Altogether, it is calculated by various authorities that in the earliest days of our history about one third of the surface of the soil in the British Isles was covered with wood, thicket, or scrub. Of the remainder a very large proportion was fen-land, marsh-land or heath-land. "From the sea-board of Suffolk and Norfolk," says the Rev. W. Denton, in "England in the Fifteenth Century," "and on the north coast almost to the limits of the great level, stretched a series of swamps, quagmires, small lakes and 'broads.'" A great fen, 60 miles in length and 40 miles in breadth, covered a large proportion of the counties of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. A great part of Lancashire, Mr Denton further states, was a region of marshes and quaking mosses, while "from Norwich to Liverpool, and from the mouth of the Ouse at Lynn to the Mersey, where it falls into the Irish sea, a line of fen, uncultivated moors and morasses stretched across England and separated the northern counties from the midland districts, the old territory of Mercia."

Much of the surface, again, was occupied by hills or mountains separated by valleys or plains through which some 200 rivers—many of them far more powerful streams than they are to-day—flowed towards the sea. As for the nature of much of the soil of England, the early conditions are further recalled by Daniel Defoe who, in describing the "Tour through the Whole Isle of Great Britain" which he made in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, speaks of "the soil of all the midland part of England, from sea to sea," as "a stiff clay or marly earth" for a breadth of 50 miles, at least, so that it was not possible to go north from London to any part of Britain without having to pass through "these terrible clays," which were, he says, "perfectly frightful to travellers."

[ 6 ]It was under conditions such as these that Britain obtained her first roads; and it was, also, conditions such as these that were to affect more or less the future history of inland communication in England, adding largely to the practical difficulties experienced in making provision for adequate transport facilities.

Inasmuch as a great number of chariots were used by the Britons in their attempt to resist the invasion of Cæsar, it may be assumed that there were even then in this country roads sufficiently broad and solid on which such chariots could run; and though evidence both of the use of wattles in the making of roads over clayey soil and of a knowledge on the part of the early Britons of the art of paving has been found, the British chariot-roads were so inefficiently constructed that few traces of them have remained.

The earliest British roads were, however, probably of the nature of tracks rather than of durable highways; and they may have been designed less for the purposes of defence against invasion than in the interests of that British trade which, even then, was an established institution in the land.

Writing in "Archæologia," vol. xlviii (1885), Mr Alfred Tylor expresses the view that the civilisation of the Britons was of a much higher character in some respects than has till recently been supposed. From the fact that Pytheas of Marseilles, a Greek traveller who lived B.C. 330, and visited Britain, described the British-made chariots, he thinks we may assume that the Britons had discovered the art of smelting and working tin, lead and iron, and that they used these materials in the making both of chariots and of weapons. But they produced for export, as well as for domestic use. Tin, more especially, was an absolute necessity in Europe in the bronze age for use in the making of weapons both for the chase and for war, and the metallurgical wealth of Britain afforded great opportunities for trading, just as it subsequently gave the country the special importance it possessed in the eyes of the Roman conquerors.

To the pursuit of such trading the Britons, according to Mr Tylor, were the more inspired by a desire to obtain, in return for their metals the amber which, as the favourite ornament of prehistoric times, then constituted a most important article of commerce, but was obtainable only in the north of Europe. [ 7 ]The early importance of amber in Europe is proved, Mr Tylor says, by its presence in many parts of Europe throughout the long neolithic age, and, therefore, long prior to the bronze age; and it was mainly to facilitate the exchange of metals for this much-desired amber that the Britons made roads or tracks from the high grounds which they generally chose for their habitations (thus avoiding alike the forests, the fens and the marshes), down to the ports from which the metals were to be shipped to their destination. Mr Tylor says on this point:—

"The first British tin-commerce with the Continent in prehistoric times moved, either on packhorses or by chariots, in hilly districts, towards Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, that is, in the direction from west to east; then by sea from the eastern British shipping ports, of which Camulodunum on the Stour, close to the Thames (Colchester) is a type, to the Baltic. Thus at first the 'tin' used to find its way partly by land and partly by sea from Cornwall to the mouths of the Elbe and Vistula, there to meet the land caravans of the Baltic amber commerce from the north of Europe to the south.... When the land route throughout Gaul was established the tin had to go across the English Channel, not to Brittany, across the rougher and wider part, but to Normandy. The Isle of Wight was nearer Normandy, and a suitable entrepôt for the coasters meeting the fleets of ocean trading ships.[1]...

"Iron and lead were, also, valuable British productions, and could easily reach the Isle of Wight by coasting steamers or by the British or Roman roads via Salisbury or Winchester....

"All ancient roads to British shipping ports were, of course, British.... Without roads it would be impossible to get over the low, often clay, grounds, or to reach the seaports in chariots, as the seaports were constantly in the clay.... It was impossible to reach the shipping-ports, which are all at low levels, without roads, as the clay and sand would be impassable for chariots. Of course packhorses could travel where chariots could not, but if the main roads were made for chariots they would be equally good for packhorses."

Mr Tylor thinks there is the greater reason for assuming that a considerable trade had thus been developed between [ 8 ]Britain and the Continent because Tacitus alludes to a British prince who had amassed great wealth by transporting metals from the Mendips to the Channel coast; but our main consideration is the evidence we get of the fact that Britain's earliest roads appear to have owed their origin to the development of Britain's earliest trade.

Two, at least, of the four great roads to which the designation "Roman" has been applied followed, in Mr Tylor's opinion, the line of route already established by the Britons under the conditions here indicated. Certain it is that, although the Romans always aimed at building their roads in straight lines, and troubled little about ascents and descents, they followed the British plan of keeping the routes to high and dry ground, whenever practicable, in order to have a better chance of avoiding alike the woods, the bogs, the clays, the water-courses and the rivers.

Skilled road-builders though they were, the Romans shrank, in several instances, Pearson tells us, from "the tremendous labour of clearing a road through a forest where the trees must be felled seventy yards on either side to secure them from the arrows of a lurking foe." Thus the great military roads marked in the Itinerary of Antonine always, if possible, avoided passing through a forest. The roads to Chichester went by Southampton in order to avoid the Andred-Weald of Sussex, and the road from London to Bath did not take the direct route to Wallingford because, in that case, it would have required to pass through twenty miles of forest in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Later on, however, as the Roman rule became more firmly established, the making of roads through forests became unavoidable, and much destruction of timber followed, while the fact that the trees thus felled were left to rot on the ground alongside the roads helped to create the quagmires and "mosses" which were to be so great a source of trouble to road-makers in future generations.

As regards the routes taken by the Roman roads, Mr. Tylor says:—

"The Romans made a complete system of permanent inland roads to connect the Continent with the military posts, London, York, Colchester, Chester, Uriconium, Gloucester, Winchester, Silchester, Porchester and Brading, and chief [ 9 ]trading towns with each other. At commanding points along or near these roads the Romans constructed camps, and so placed their legions as to protect the centres of metallurgical industry and the roads leading to them.... The Romans did not originate the sites of many new seaport towns or towns on large, navigable rivers, and, when they did so, as in the case of London, Richborough, Uriconium, Rochester, Canterbury, it was for strategical reasons, or indirectly connected with the traffic in minerals, the great industry of Britain during the Roman occupation as it was before it.... Silchester ... was forty-five miles from London, and was on high ground away from river or forests, and not far from the junction of a number of land-routes. It was on dry ground on which waggons could travel. It was convenient for roads giving access to Cornwall for tin; to the Mendips for lead, copper or brass; Gloucester and South Wales for iron; and from these termini there were routes passable to the east and south coasts of England."

From all this it would seem that the mineral wealth and the trading interests which had inspired the line of route of the earliest British roads were, side by side with military considerations, leading factors in the particular direction given to the Roman roads that followed them.

As for the Roman roads themselves, so admirably were they built that some of those laid down in ancient Rome and in France have been in use for from 1500 to 2000 years, while remains of Roman roads found in Britain, buried deeply under the debris of centuries, have still borne striking evidence of the solid manner in which they were first constructed.

But the point that here arises for consideration is, not only the high quality of the great roads the Romans built in Britain, but the broad-minded policy by which the builders themselves were influenced. The provision of a system of scientifically constructed roads wherever they went was, primarily, part of the Roman plan of campaign in the wars of aggrandisement they carried on; but it was further designed to aid in developing the resources of the country concerned, while it was, also, carried out in Britain by the Roman State itself, on lines embracing the transport conditions of the country as a whole, and in accordance with a unified and well-planned system of internal communication on "national" [ 10 ]lines such as no succeeding administration attempted either to follow or to direct.

Thus the great Roman roads, connecting the rising city on the Thames and the commercial centre of Britain with every part of the island, were remarkable, not only because they represented an art which was to disappear with the conquerors themselves, but, also, because they had been directly created, and were directly controlled, by a central authority as the outcome of a State road policy itself fated in turn to disappear no less effectually. The almost invariable practice in this country since the departure of the Romans has been for the State, instead of following the Roman example, and regarding as an obligation devolving upon itself the provision of adequate means of intercommunication between different parts of the country, to leave the burden and responsibility of making such provision to individual citizens, to philanthropic effort, to private enterprise, or to local authorities. The result has been that not only, for successive generations, were both the material progress and the social advancement of the English people greatly impeded, but the actual development of such intercommunication was to show, far too often (1) a lamentable want of intelligence and skill in meeting requirements; and (2) a deficiency of system, direction and co-ordination as regards the many different agencies or authorities concerned in the results actually secured.




  1. Mr Tylor argues that Brading, in the Isle of Wight, was the favoured point of shipment.