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The United Kingdom we know today has a well-developed network of roads. They are varied in capacity and quality, and they cover around 443,000 km. But, in order to understand how the network of roads had reached the complexity it features nowadays, it is important to check its history.

It is not wrong to ask ourselves what is the oldest road from the United Kingdom. The majority of people state that it is Ridgeway. This route is in use for more than 5000 years and it connects Buckinghamshire and Avebury.

The earliest notes about routes date from the British Iron Age. During the Roman occupation, it was expanded. Actually, the Romans were the ones who built the first roads that stand at the base of the present national network. They constructed roads like Watling Street, Fosse Way, and many others that are still considered important routes.

What do we know about medieval roads?

During the medieval period, people considered coastal or river shipping as the cheapest mean of transportation. Waterborne transportation was the fastest way to reach your destination. During the 17th centuries, the network of roads was expanded and it got to a point when during summer the routes were largely passable for coaches and wheeled transport. But, people often complained about the state of the roads.

What do we know about 18th-century roads?

During the 18th century and the early years of the 19th one, the main routes in the United Kingdom experienced a revolution. But the fact is that the local institutions did not put great efforts to maintain the state of the roads. Their state started to see improvements with the arrival of turnpikes. Writings state that the roads in the 18th century were not fit for the purpose they were built for. Sometimes a wheeled vehicle was moving slower than a blind person was.

It is worth to remember an example of a road from the 18th century.  

Rochdale to Halifax

A thousand years earlier the 18th century, the Romans built a network of military roads across England with the purpose to connect their main settlements with London. During Daniel Defoe’s time, these roads were still the best ones in the country; therefore, you can easily understand the importance the local government offered to this aspect. These roads were highly used by the postal service; this means that most of the correspondence was routed via London. However, because the amount of correspondence was higher in the north and west than in the other parts of the country, the Post-Master General has decided to establish a second route, from Plymouth, through Bristol and Gloucester, to Liverpool, then via Manchester and Leeds, to Hull. People would have the impression that this route was well-maintained because it was highly circulated. But when Daniel Defoe had to travel on horseback through Wales and England between 1724 and 1726, he discovered that the road from Rochdale to Halifax was far from well-maintained.

The local authority had the responsibility to use local resources to improve the state of the routes and to maintain them in a good shape, but they did not put great efforts into doing it. Actually, some of them did not even try to do it. And the local people did not see this aspect as a problem, they had no issue to spend two hours instead of one to get to their destination.

Packhorse trails

But we should not remember only the routes that were used by carriages. We should also check how goods were transported. We will take Yorkshire as an example; it applies to the entire country. Across the moors, there were no roads, there were numerous tracks, but vehicles could not be used. The solution was to use packhorses. If you had to carry a ton of goods, you needed ten horses. The majority of goods were moved around the country by packhorses.

When possible, packhorses took the existing roads, but most of the time, they were carrying goods through the mud.

In 1753, the roads near Leeds were quite narrow. When travelers encountered on the road, they needed patience and imagination to find a way not to get in the dirt alongside. There were also cases when the goods were transported with the help of a wagon drawn by eight horses. But this was an event highly dependable on the state of the roads.


With the help of turnpikes, the state of the roads has slowly started to improve. Turnpikes were gated roads the travelers could use only if they paid. The fees were used to pay contractors to build proper roads, and because everyone would benefit from this, people did not have an issue with paying. Once a road was finished, the amount of the fee was reduced to a level that would allow them to pay for occasional repairs. The first recording of concrete was in 1824, since this moment, it became one of the main materials used to construct roads. By 1824, there was more than 30,000 km of turnpikes in England. The funds have started to be focused on building long-lasting roads, made from concrete and stone, especially in the cities.

Were there other ways to pay for the roads?

By the end of the 18th century, there were turnpikes on all the major roads around London, and the quality of the roads has started to see improvements. People could transport their goods at more affordable prices than they had previously done. Between 1751 and 1772 the turnpike phenomenon developed, and it led to the rise of Turnpike Trusts. By the mid-1830s the main roads were all controlled by Turnpike Trusts, and they collected around £500,000 annually.

Because the central government stopped competing for money with the private sector, the interest rates fell and entrepreneurs had access to cheap money. People started to invest in turnpike trusts because it was a safe investment. The road will always be there, the people had to pay to use it, and considering the increasing traffic levels, they were right to choose this investment.