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A history of Hertfordshire’s roads

PUBLISHED: 14:15 18 November 2015

Early motoring was a dusty experience

Early motoring was a dusty experience

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From the Neolithic to the present day roads have been a key component of life in Hertfordshire. Liz Hamilton of the Herts branch of Campaign to Protect Rural England takes a journey from track to motorway

Automobile drivers circa 1900 being offered gasoline from the streetAutomobile drivers circa 1900 being offered gasoline from the street

Hertfordshire’s modern road network has its origins deep in prehistory. Neolithic people traded salt and stone goods four millennia before the Romans invaded Britain in the early 1st Century AD. In southern England the Romans encountered settled farmers, and traders exporting the products of agriculture and mining and importing wine and luxury goods. Established routes were as essential for pack horses and wheeled carts as they are for modern traffic, avoiding obstacles and creating a certain route over rivers and difficult terrain.

The Romans built military roads to control much of Britain and confront hostile tribes. Four of these roads crossed Hertfordshire: Watling and Akeman Streets in the west and Ermine and Stane Streets in the east. Roman technology created road surfaces fit for purpose, a feat not repeated in England until recent times. The Romans also maintained and improved the much greater pre-existing network of local roads, probably to lower standards.

Archaeology is slowly revealing the nature of society in what used to be called ‘The Dark Ages’, after Roman rule ended in the early fifth century. It is likely that much more infrastructure survived than was once thought, including structures like bridges.

Romans created roads that would not be surpassed until recent timesRomans created roads that would not be surpassed until recent times

After the Norman Conquest the concept of ‘the King’s Highway’ emerged, over which travellers had rights of way. Kings and bishops, justices and tax collectors, messengers, pilgrims and traders moved on horseback, by cart or wagon or on foot. Travel was hazardous - road surfaces were generally so poor that they could be dangerous. Fear of robbery or worse was ever-present. Apart from minor private lanes and field paths, all grades of road were commonland, not owned by adjoining landowners. Maintenance was organised locally and, after monasteries were abolished by Henry VIII, became a collective parish duty. The expense of bridge maintenance was often met by tolls.

In Tudor times, a growing and more prosperous population led to increased travel and trade. Despite a law enacted in 1555 reinforcing the requirement for parishes to maintain their roads, often they couldn’t or wouldn’t, and the poor condition of Hertfordshire’s roads continued.

The Old North Road, later the A10 - site of the country's first turnpikeThe Old North Road, later the A10 - site of the country's first turnpike

On the old North Road (the predecessor of the A10) near Ware, a major malting centre, grain and malt wagons frequently made the road impassable. At Wadesmill, in an often-wet valley bottom, the road was particularly bad. Here in 1663 the first turnpike trust in the country was empowered to collect tolls to contribute to maintaining the road.

Other road turnpikes followed which gradually improved conditions, although travellers still complained. Historian Ralph Thoresby, whose diary has survived, used the old North Road between Hoddesdon and Ware in 1680 and commented on its poor condition due to ‘the depth of the cart ruts’. The diarist Samuel Pepys travelled the same road in 1688, noting: ‘the ways are mighty full of water so as hardly to be passed’. Thoresby, again on the old North Road near Ware in 1695, saw people swimming to escape flooding on the road. One person drowned.

In 1724 author Daniel Defoe passed through Wadesmill, where ‘the road there, which was before scarce passable, is now built up in a high firm causeway’. In the following century John McAdam, surveyor for many of the county’s turnpikes, revolutionised road building by inventing ‘macadamisation’, carefully layered rocks and gravel bound together firmly.

As roads improved, coach travel boomed, swelling the number of inns in towns on the coaching routes through the county. Business was further enhanced by the great increase in mail coach traffic from the 1780s. As railways spread through Hertfordshire in the 19th century, tolls from road users declined so much that after 1860 the turnpike trusts disappeared. Responsibility for road maintenance passed to local authorities.

A new era of road use began with the first motor car registration in London in 1895. A year later cars no longer had to follow a man on foot with a red flag and the speed limit was set at 14mph. This was raised to 20mph in 1903, where it remained until 1930, when all speed limits were abolished.

Early motoring could be a dusty experience as tyres caused havoc on 19th and early 20th century surfaces. The mixture of bitumen and roadstone which sealed the surface, called tarmac, was first used just before the First World War. Roads became just wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Where roads had once been wider, to allow traffic to avoid ruts and potholes, redundant edges become grass verges. In the 1920s and ‘30s decisions were taken about which rural roads to tar, and which to leave in their old state. Some unsurfaced roads disappeared but most remain as green lanes or byways, many still officially open to all traffic.

Rising car ownership facilitated ‘ribbon development’; uncontrolled spread of housing along arterial roads leading out from cities, having a significant impact on Hertfordshire. This loss of countryside was the driving force behind the setting up of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in 1926. For the first time too, commuters no longer needed to live close to railway stations, resulting in more rural house building.

Successive road-building programmes have encouraged us to enjoy the flexibility of car travel, but new and improved roads tend to fill up almost as fast as they are built. More roads will inevitably take up more countryside, adding to noise and pollution levels. Do we go on adding to our road network forever in an attempt to relieve congestion, or is there another solution? CPRE’s Transport Toolkit site suggests some answers.

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