UK Road Building History

Road Building in the UK

As with the history of most of Northern Europe, the concept of roads in pre-Christian years was a pretty hazy one.

Travelling was something undertaken probably more to herd cattle than interchange socially, and at certain times of the year, not undertaken at all.

Paths worn by animals and humans alike would have been dusty, stony tracks in the summer months, and in winter and early spring, impassable quagmires of mud or stone.

A few long distance routes were established, such as the Icknield Way, and Pedars Way, but again, they were simply tracks which probably not fully navigable under certain conditions.

In the year 46AD, the Romans arrived in Britain. They brought with them changes and innovations in engineering and construction that were as awesome and unstoppable as their military might had proved in building the Roman Empire.

On invasion of Britain, from the south, they began to establish forts and towns which required good connections for the rapid movement of both troops and, the basis of the empire, trade.

They ignored the native tracks, as most Roman towns were built newly, where the Romans wanted them to be.

The first phase of conquest and settlement started in the south and pushed upwards, establishing a south-west to northeast frontier with a great road that ran from Exeter to Bath, to Leicester via Gloucester, and on to the town of Lincoln.

This road was known as the Fosse Way, the first in a network of highways which were to link up across Britain, by the time the conquest was completed, around a hundred years later, the major linking roads of Stane street and Dere street, Ermine street and Akeman street, Port Way and Watling street allowed the Legions speedy access to all four corners of the country.

It is estimated that there were some 2,000 miles of these highways, with a further 10,000 miles of smaller inter joining roads built.

The highway got its name because of the way the Romans built these roads, that is, they were literally “high” roads.

They were constructed in a series of layers, with a base of rocks, topped with increasingly smaller stones, then gravel, then sand, each layer being rammed down into place.

The roads took the form of an embankment with drainage ditches either side and the surface, which in areas of heavy traffic would be finished with cobbles or stone slabs, were cambered to allow drainage. The construction of these paved roads was an engineering masterpiece considering their lack of construction equipment to do the heavy lifting which we benefit from today.

These monuments to engineering can still be seen in places some 2,000 years later. In Britain, engineered roads, constructed in layers of rock and aggregate, with cambered design and drainage, were not seen again until the days of Thomas Telford and John McAdam, the latter name becoming synonymous with TarMacadam.