The Middle Ages

Section 3:

The Roads


The world of long-distance coach travel

Ancient Trackways

The first roads

Celtic Trading Routes

The Celts were trading across Europe and although nothing remains of their roads, they must have followed fixed routes

Roman Roads

The Romans built roads, famously straight. These are the first roads that we in England are familiar with

The Middle Ages

After the Romans left, our roads fell into disrepair. Find out what happened

The Tudors

After the dissolution of the monasteries, even the church’s work ended

The Stuarts

During the Stuart period the first beginnings of improvement appeared

Thomas Mace

The first proposal to improve Britain’s roads

The Blind Roadmaker

The first person to take active steps to improve the roads

Thomas Telford

As pressure for improved transport links grew, this engineer made a real difference

John McAdam

Perhaps the most famous roadmaker, His method is still essentially in use today


Britain’s roads at last allow fast long-distance travel 


 Part 1: Living Memories

Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches

Part 2: The Age of Coaching

The coachmen, the inns, the coach proprietors - they’re all here. Come in and meet them

Part 3: The Roads

Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history.  Coach travel was very difficult until they improved

Part 4: The Coaches

Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed


Sources and information about how I came to create this website

Home Page

Home Page of the Coaching Website

410 to 1457: The Romans left Britain in 410AD. In that year, the last of the army had been recalled to Rome and Emperor Honorious told the people of Britain that they no longer had a connection to Rome and that they should defend themselves.

The Scotti of Ireland and the Picts of Scotland had been raiding Roman Britain for years, but now new invaders joined in - Angles and Saxons from Germany and Jutes from Denmark. In the absence of Roman authority, they raided and then settled into certain areas.

The boundaries of modern England are largely the areas in which they made their homes.  The Roman roads were no longer needed and fell into disrepair.

They began to decay. Bridges and paved fords were carried away by floods, and with no need to travel long distances no-one looked after them. 

By the year 600, the Anglo-Saxons, as the newcomers had become known, had established a number of Kingdoms.

The new rulers each controlled only a part of what had once been Britannica and they were too busy subduing rebellions at home or waging wars on their neighbours to bother about maintaining roads.

Even the roads that survived the longest became fair weather highways as some sections were carried away by floods or became vast lakes which couldn’t be crossed until the waters receded.

On top of that, there were no signposts or maps and so it was pretty impossible to know which way to go for the few who did need to travel - missionaries for example. Guides were absolutely necessary but they were at best expensive and at worst the accomplices of cutthroats and lured travellers to their haunts.

While the civil authorities did nothing for travellers, the Church did do something. They prayed for them!  The very word “travel” comes from travail, meaning labour or hardship and illustrates how anyone who had to travel was to be pitied. 

But praying alone wasn’t enough so the Church began to look at the roads themselves. It granted indulgences (forgiveness of sins) to anyone who helped to repair the roads. 

It also gave permission for hermits to demand tolls and alms from travellers over roads and bridges. The idea was that the revenues would go towards the upkeep of the ways.  At first it worked well but of course, false hermits began to set up in remote places and live dissolute lives on the alms they received, whilst allowing roads and bridges to fall into decay.

Over the centuries, a few more people did begin to travel as the roads became relatively more passable and the great abbeys grew up and began to provide food and lodging for travellers.

Next: The Tudors

Roads in the Dark Ages were little more than cleared trees and shrubs, dusty in summer and muddy in winter.