Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
Have you ever wondered, perhaps while sitting in a ten-mile traffic-jam on the M1 or some other English motorway, how your ancestors would have travelled from one location to another before our road system developed into what it is today?
It was only between 1750 and 1770, with the increase in the amount of wheeled traffic during the first steps towards the economic and social change of the Industrial Revolution, that perceptible improvement was made to the roads. The old English road was not a solid surface of definite limits and maintained by an army of architects, engineers, planners and workmen paid from the public purse.
It was an open track through the fields and over the common. Its borders were open because, by law, a right of way from one village to another, and if, as usually happened after bad weather, the customary track was impassable, passengers had the right to take their beasts over the neighbouring field, even if crops were under cultivation.
Only in the lands of enclosed agriculture like the fruit trees of Kent and Devon, were the roads confined by bank and hedge. These were more often winding lanes, a few feet wide and many feet deep, across which, according to tradition, hounds and horsemen had been known to jump over the hood of a passing wagon.
The roads had no paved surface, though some of the larger highways would have a narrow causeway of stones through the middle of the mud to give footing for the saddle and pack-horses. In nine cases out of ten where we now use a bridge, our ancestors waded through a ford.
Keeping the road open; that is the removal of obstacles and occasionally filling up the worst holes with sticks or large stones, was the duty of each parish the highway passed through. It fell to the appointed Parish Surveyor to direct the obligatory six days per year of unpaid service. This was a very unpopular and largely evaded obligation for the villagers, who resented their highway being destroyed by the traffic of distant towns.
As late as 1788, it was recorded that in North Hertfordshire such was the state of the roads that from autumn to the end of April, all interaction between the females of neighbouring families was suspended unless they would consent to ride behind the saddle on a horse. In the spring they levelled the roads by using ploughs, drawn by eight or ten horses; and in this state, they remained until the following autumn.
The roads converging on London were the prototype for the activities of the country. At that time the capitol, of some seven hundred thousand inhabitants, had daily to be fed from outside sources. Day and night hundreds of horses in relays would come from the south coast and even from the Berwick and Solway salmon fisheries, bringing fresh fish to the Billingsgate market.
Each year a hundred thousand head of cattle and three-quarters of a million sheep walked to Smithfield market for slaughter, many of them from Scotland or from the Welsh borders. It was said that on one road alone, from Ipswich to London, one hundred and fifty thousand turkeys crossed the bridge over the river Stour every year.
Should you still in that traffic-jam and in your comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, just bear a thought of how it would have been for your forefather. He may have sat for hours on a hard, wooden bench of an un-sprung carriage, tail- ending one of the droves of two or three thousand garrulous turkeys or geese, waddling their way to London.
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