Gold Hill in Dorset

Gold Hill in Dorset

How did England become quaint?

I once took a long drive across Northern Europe cruising easily along broad straight roads.

As I arrived back in England, I was aghast to find myself in a land of thick traffic and tiny winding roads.  At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, traffic can be terrible.  Sometimes we love the charming meandering of our country whilst at other times we groan as it wrecks our travel plans.

It is not obvious how England came to look as it does and visitors must wonder what happened to make it that way.  It was once widely assumed the Romans built the first roads in Britain.  The great Roman General Julius Caesar, however, records meeting chariots when he landed in Kent.  Chariots would not get far in our wet, forested country without reasonable roads.  An archaeological excavation near Shrewsbury in 2011 found that a Roman road had been built on top of a more ancient one.  There is speculation growing that some roads thought of as Roman or Medieval are actually much more ancient.  Some of our ancient roads had cobbles (smallish smooth stones) forming the top layers and you can still see roads made like this today.

In extremely wet areas, however, raised wooden walkways were built like Sweet Track in Somerset and these of course, rotted away for the most part.

People built roads according to their needs and that is why many old roads or lanes seem far too small;  they were simply built for carts not cars and it was often much easier to use a slightly inconvenient road that was already there rather than build a new one in changeable weather and on difficult terrain.  Roads have tended to remain in their original places and you can still travel over parts of the Roman Road, Watling Street, now called the A2 and marvel at its Roman straightness.  Cart tracks remained useful right into the Victorian era when the deep, hedged lanes were used for Droving, a practice of moving sheep and cattle to market in London or other large towns.

A Sunken lane near Albury, Surrey perhaps reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings

A Sunken lane near Albury, Surrey perhaps reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings

The narrow steep sided, sinking lanes lined with trees that meet above in the middle, feel like they might just swallow your car into the earth; they once helped to stop cattle and sheep from straying away from the path.  Ancient tracks like the Pilgrims Way conveyed pilgrims like those described in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ to religious sites in medieval times and are still used as long distant hiking trails.

Why, you might ask, were English roads not simply widened to fit cars comfortably?  Many towns and swathes of countryside often seem cramped by tiny roads and squashed together buildings.  A surprising thing observed by historians is that Medieval street plans often match the modern towns built on top.  This is because land and buildings were bought and sold as individual lots and so a medieval house has simply been replaced in the same place by a newer one in the same narrow street.  While some of England’s richest landowners are descendants of the Norman conquerors of the country in 1066, it became increasingly a country of independent merchants and smallholders went on to shape the country and townscape.  Towns not so subject to bombing in wartime are more likely to have retained an ancient plan.

Many places such as Guildford have buildings hundreds of years old cowering behind modern shopfronts.  I plan to look beyond the High Street facade of our shops and remind myself of Christmas as it was for our ancestors without heated homes and cars.