The blind roadmaker, Metcalf, made many roads around Knaresborough and in different parts of Yorkshire, but none actually on the Great North Road. He died, aged ninety-three, in 1810, five years before Macadam and Telford began their work upon the roads. Like them, he rather preferred boggy ground for road-making, and forestalled both them and Stephenson in adopting fagots as foundations over mires. At that time the ignorant surveyors of roads repaired them with dirt scraped from ditches and water-courses, in which they embedded the first cartloads of stones which came to hand; stone of all kinds and all sizes. This done, their “repairs” were completed, with the result that the roads were frequently as bad as ever and constantly in the most rugged condition.
Roads—it may be news to the uninstructed—cannot be made with dirt. In fact, a good road through anything but rock is generally excavated, and the native earth being removed, its place is taken by coarse-broken granite or rock; this in its turn receiving a layer of “macadam,” or smaller broken granite or whinstone, which is finally bound together by a sprinkling of red gravel, of the kind known by builders as “hoggin,” whose binding qualities are caused by a slight natural admixture of clay. In his insistence upon broken stones, Macadam proved a power of observation not possessed by the generality of road-makers, whose method was the haphazard one of strewing any kind upon the road and trusting in the traffic to pack them. With rounded pebbles or gravel stones thus chafing against one another, they never packed into a solid mass, but remained for all time as unstable as a shingly beach. Generations of road-making had not taught wisdom, but Macadam perceived the readiness of the angularities in broken stones to unite and form a homogeneous p. 13mass, and in introducing his system proved himself unwittingly a man of science, for science has in these later days discovered that ice is compacted by the action of ice-crystals uniting in exactly this manner.
A great scheme for laying out the whole of the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh on a scientific basis was in progress when the successful trial of the competing locomotives at Rainhill, near Liverpool, cast a warning shadow over the arrangements, and finally led to the project being entirely abandoned. Had the work been done, it is quite possible that the railways to the north would have taken another direction; that, in fact, instead of land having to be surveyed and purchased for them, the new, straight, and level road would have been given up to and largely used by the railways. Telford was the engineer chosen by the Government to execute this work, of which the portion between Morpeth and Edinburgh was actually constructed. The survey of the road between London, York, and Morpeth was begun as early as 1825, and had been not only completed, but the works on the eve of being started, when the Rainhill trials in 1829 stopped them short, and caused the utter waste of the public money spent in the surveying.
Before the Railways
It is the railways that turned London into the centre of fashion, finance and society. Before they came, county towns, and very many smaller towns had vibrant social lives.
Only the very wealthy or those into politics – perhaps even having a seat in the House – ever visited London. Everyone else looked to their local town, in which they had their townhouses and social circles.
It’s a way of life reflected in the pages of Jane Austen and other early novelists, who describe in vivid prose the intrigues and romances that ran their course within the Georgian mansions which are now turned onto shops or divided into flats.
It was a time before suburbs sprang up around every town, and before manufacturing industries spread across the countryside and began to rot the stonework of ancient buildings with smoke and acid-laden air. It was a time when life was less hurried than today. York was two days’ journey from London and had its own very varied society.
Like most towns, this really only consisted of the Church, the Army and the landed gentry. Beyond these there really wasn’t any society – except perhaps the rather dubiously viewed Legal and Medical professions.
In mediaeval times there were no roads as we know them. The Roman roads had largely disappeared and most tracks did little other than link villages to their local market towns.
It wasn’t until the Elizabethan period in the 1500s that road travel began to be used more widely, and for private as well as military purposes. The Queen herself visited most of her realm by coach.
Towards the end of the Elizabethan era, the political situation in Spain & Ireland was acute ports like Bristol and Milford Haven became vital. New routes were established as road traffic increased.
This grew during the 1600s and with it came a need for good quality maps. Finding one’s way in the seventeenth century was not easy and many tales abound of lost travellers on the roads!
In 1635, under Charles I, Thomas Witherings set up the six "Great Roads". The Great West Road and the Great North Road are still familiar names to us today. Ogilby mapped the Great West Road in 1695 and it showed the towns and villages along its route.
But again, we would be well advised not to assume life was anything like it is today. For example, although the road 'ran to Bristol' this is an oversimplification. Different routes were used during the various seasons. In dry weather a low road was suitable but in wet weather a track over higher ground would be used. Much depended on a traveller’s local knowledge.
Happy days !!
The quality of the roads was terrible. They were rutted and dusty in summer, a mud-bath in winter.
The need for good quality maps was great and in the 1670s John Ogilby made a vast number of road maps. Even so, as late as 1668, Samuel Pepys became lost his way on a journey from Newbury to Reading.
During the early 1700's the pressure for road improvement increased and road traffic grew.
Section 2 Menu
Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.
Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.
Home Page of the Coaching Website.