When the Romans began their conquest of Celtic Britain in 43AD, they found a haphazard collection of roads and paths, most connecting local fields and hamlets, but also some longer distance trade routes (e.g.. along the North Downs in Kent, and the Icknield Way along the Chilterns into Norfolk).
The Roman administration, however, needed a better network of roads to connect its new towns and army posts and to speed the flow of both trade goods and troops. In building their network of roads the Romans mostly ignored the Celtic paths, partly because the Roman towns and forts were built on new sites away from the Celtic settlements. Click here to view the Roman Road network
The most vital priority was the movement of troops and supplies from the channel ports of Richborough, Dover, and Lympne to the military centres at London, Colchester, and the front-line legionary forts. The first frontier was set up along a road extending from Exeter to Lincoln, running through Bath, Gloucester, and Leicester. This was known as the Fosse Way, the first great Roman road in Britain. The Fosse Way has been largely adapted by modern highways.
The next military push established a new frontier between Lincoln and York, Wroxeter and Chester, and Gloucester and Caerleon. After these “front-line” roads had been established. The Romans turned their attention to expanding the network of minor roads within their new possessions, to better aid the flow of trade.
By 82AD the Romans had pushed north as far as a line between the Clyde and the Firth of Forth. During this campaign alone the army built over 60 forts and over 1200 miles of roads. The imperial posting service, used by Roman officials, maintained inns and relays of horses at intervals of 30 to 50 kilometres along the roads.
The minor roads (sometimes called “economic roads”) were also built by the Roman army to link economic centres, such as the Mendip lead mines and the Nene potteries, with administrative capitals like Silchester, and the coastal ports. At a best guess there were between 8000-10,000 miles of roads constructed during the first hundred years of Roman occupation. There was a third level of roads at the local level, connecting villas, temples, farms, and villages to larger roads and market towns. The full extent of this road building is apparent when you consider that according estimates by historians, no village or farm was more than 7 miles from a purpose-built road!
It is a fallacy to think that Roman roads are always straight. The Roman engineers were no fools – if there was a natural obstacle in the way, the road naturally deviated to go around it. The Romans had yet to invent front axle steering, so sharp corners where avoided.
That said, for the most part Roman roads were laid out in straight lines between sighting landmarks. Small hills were cut through, and wet ground covered by causeways, or timber embankments.
So, how did the Romans build these famous roads of theirs? The roads were literally highways, raised up on a cambered bank of material dug from roadside ditches. In general there were 3 layers. The first layer of large stones was covered by a second layer of smaller stones, then a top layer of gravel or small stones. Each layer varied in depth from 2-12 inches.
The choice of material depended upon what was locally available; in the chalk areas like the Wessex Downs a mix of chalk, flint, and gravel was used. The paved area was edged with upright stones to provide stability, and the major roads had ditches to each side, about 84 feet apart.
Tracing the course of Roman roads can be a fun activity. Large scale maps help, as does the excellent Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain. Almost any straight stretch of road is a candidate, and often the roads follow parish boundaries or hedges.
The best unaltered examples of Roman roads in Britain today exist at Wheeldale Moor (North Yorkshire), Holtye (Sussex), and Blackstone Edge (South Yorkshire). A clue to the existence of former Roman roads is the prefix “street”, as in Streatley, or Streatham.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the road system fell into a state of disrepair and by the end of the Middle Ages, there was in effect no road system in the country. The only routes available were unpaved tracks, muddy and impassable in winter and dusty and impassable in summer. Diversions around particularly poor stretches resulted in sinuous alignments. The state of the roads combined with the general lawlessness at the time meant only the determined or insane travelled them. Much the same as today .
Onward to Modern Road Building
The first change in this attitude came in 1555 when an Act of Parliament was passed imposing a duty on all parishes to maintain it’s roads. Also included in the Act was the creation of the position of a Surveyor of Highways. This was unpaid and under resourced though and when combined with the lack of technical skills it is no surprise that the post became distinctly unpopular and ineffective. Local peasants where given a bursary to “mend the ways”.
This lack of resources meant that the first major road was not established until the latter part of the seventeenth century. These roads were known as turnpike roads where the road user paid a toll. The first sections were known as the Great North Road and has since become the A1 trunk road. In the following century Turnpike Trusts were established to provide turnpike roads along major routes in the United kingdom. In this improved financial climate road building techniques evolved thanks to the work of pioneers such as Telford and Macadam. By about 1830 a system of well paved built roads existed such that the only constraints on road traffic and travel times were imposed by the nature of road vehicles.
The next improvement came about with the advent of the railways. With rapid transport between towns now possible, the turnpikes became uneconomical and whilst road building in towns continued apace the turnpike trusts collapsed. Legislation in the late 19th century set the scene for the current administrative arrangements for highway construction and maintenance but the technology remained primitive and empirical. Only in recent years has that situation improved to any extent and even now most road design is based on empirical relationships and experimental work.
The present situation is almost a complete reversal, with funding for new roads coming from the private sector. In exchange for building and maintaining the road the owners are paid a toll by the government for each vehicle using the road, a sort of modern turnpike system.
Road – derived from Ride or Rode
Street – Romans called roads Via Straeta which means a route or way
Pavement – From the Roman Pavimentum, the paving of the roads
Way – From the dark ages, i.e, Ridgeway tracks across escarpments
Holloway – A way eroded to form a hollow
Highway – Roads built on an elevated pavement for drainage
Byway – A way that is only accessible during the dry months across swamps and marshes
Carriageway – A way for carriages
Footway – A way by foot on either
Waterway – The first canals where known as waterways
Parkway – A landscaped way, usually associated with America who where the first to landscape the ways
Clearway – A way where no carriage may be left or may stop to obstruct the road