What is a “Highway”?

Thomas Mace used the term “highway” to describe the road to Scotland. Today, the words “highroad” and “highway” are very familiar. But what really is - or was - a highroad? 

We might think of a highway as a main road between important towns, or we might just refer to “the highway” as any tarmacced road.

The original meaning, however, referred to the fact that roads were actually higher than the surrounding land. “High roads” were causeways constructed across, and above the level of, marshes and low-lying lands, and the term was therefore excellently descriptive.  The changed meaning no doubt arose from the fact that, as it would scarcely ever have been worthwhile to build embanked roads for the purpose of connecting obscure villages out of the way of trade, consequently the “high ways” and the “high roads” only came into existence between important centres.  

In mediaeval times, there were very few main roads and they were used first and foremost by the king. As a result, they became the King’s Highway. This term remained for many years.

It lasted until the first Turnpike Acts began to be passed.  They authorised the building of Toll Gates and the requirement to use the money collected to improve the roads, which were referred to as “highroads” or “highways”.

Nowadays, pretty well any road or street is referred to as “the highway”.

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History of Roads



Ancient Trackways

Roman Roads

The Middle Ages


The Tudors

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Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.

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Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.

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Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.

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