Parish to Turnpikes

obligations the Enclosure Acts imposed on enclosers was the requirement to create a road-way past the newly enclosed meadows. Previously, traffic had simply found its own way across common land, by the best available path. Now, carts and carriages and animals and people took to these new thoroughfares. In most cases, the Enclosure Acts specified the width of enclosure roads as forty feet.

Remember that these weren't metalled roads - just bare grass, soil, mud. A width of 40 feet gave a traveller a chance of finding somewhere to get a cart or carriage through, even if it meant weaving from hedge to hedge. Since these new tracks tended to go from town to town, they established a framework on which a national road network could be built.

When these roads were later metalled, a carriageway of 25 feet or so was quite sufficient to allow passage in both directions. Over the years, roads have been widened, straightened - even made into dual-carriageways, but eventually you'll come back to a stretch of road which is 40 feet from hedge to hedge - tarmac 25 feet wide with 8 feet of grass verge on either side. The A361 is like this for most of its length.

These enclosure roads were little more than rights of way; there was no duty to make them passable. In many cases, travellers would have to employ local guides to pick out usable paths through the mud. These guides were often in league with robbers, so travelling could be extremely hazardous.

The Crown assumed responsibility for the "King's Highways" - mostly the major strategic routes - but made little effort to maintain them. Queen Elizabeth imposed duties on the parishes to maintain the roads within their boundaries, but this duty was seldom fulfilled. The parish might dump a load of stone, and pay a few indigent workers something to spread it around a little, but that wasn't very much help.

Not everyone wanted decent roads. Innkeepers resented roads which allowed travellers to speed past their inns without stopping (and spending money). Land-owners were entitled to any spillages from carts (the original "fell off the back of a lorry, guv"), and had no incentive to fill in pot-holes or ruts.

In 1667, Parliament passed a Turnpike Act, allowing entrepreneurs to build roads, and charge travellers for passage, in order to defray costs.

Slowly, at first, Turnpike Trusts began to establish reasonably reliable roads. This process accelerated during the eighteenth century. By the end of that century, the rudiments of a national road system were in place.

These turnpikes weren't always particular popular; it wasn't uncommon for toll-keepers to be roughed up, their cottages burned down, the tolls robbed.

And the quality of these roads was extremely variable. The trouble was, building and maintaining a "proper" road was extrememly expensive. The principles of road-building hadn't changed much since Roman times. You laid a solid foundation of big, flat stones - which needed skill and muscle. On top, you laid quantities of smaller stone (aggregate) - all of the same size. Again, this needed skill and labour. And this kind of road needed regular maintenance - if left for a couple of years, the whole thing would come apart, and you'd have to start again, from scratch.

With all of these problems, the Turnpike Trusts weren't a particularly good investment - they went bust regularly. A new owner would patch up on the cheap, and try to grab a little profit before it needed fixing again.

It wasn't until John McAdam came up with a simpler, cheaper system that travelling by road became a relatively safe, reliable activity.

Kings of the Road Kings of the Road The Colossus of Roads John Loudon McAdam
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