From main roads connecting towns and cities to meandering green lanes and mysterious paths to nowhere, our highways and byways are steeped in history.
Freight lorries bound for the Continent still use prehistoric tracks, long-distance coaches hurtle along Roman roads and farmers depend on medieval lanes to reach their fields.
A number of these routes have been protected through scheduling: is there an ancient road near you?
Early Footsteps: Tracks on the Somerset Levels
Human footprints have been found preserved on English shores before the end of the last Ice Age (roughly 11,500 years ago). Then, over time, well-trodden paths developed.
Prehistoric ridgeways following chalk and limestone hills, such as the South Downs Way, were part of a wider network of early routes. These included causeways made of twigs, split logs and planks across low-lying, water-logged places. Historic England protects many of these, including sections of the scheduled Sweet Track on the Somerset Levels, which is over 5,800 years old. A reconstruction can be found in the British Museum.
Roads to Conquer: Blackstone Edge Roman Road
The Romans famously made our first ‘proper’ roads. These hard-surfaced highways (laid on embankments called ‘aggers’) were built by their army for invasion purposes. From AD 43 – when the army of Emperor Claudius began their conquest – troops could move rapidly and transport supplies using wheeled freight wagons, a novelty in Britain.
Cursus publicus (imperial mail service) messengers used roads to travel up to 150 miles a day, changing horses at wayside mutationes (posting stations). Roman engineers connected key points by the most direct route, skilfully keeping to a straight course despite natural obstacles. The roads’ straightness today helps us identify them as Roman, even when obscured by modern tarmac.
Some of the finest Roman roads can be seen on open moors, such as the Blackstone Edge paved road that still crosses the Pennines, and the road crossing Tideswell Moor to Whiston in Yorkshire (shown in our banner image).
Ancient Hollow-ways: Twyford Down, Hampshire
Roads often gained special status as legal and customary rights of way. As a result, many routes that have declined in importance still survive as public footpaths. The aerial photograph above, taken in 1929, shows the multiple ‘hollow-ways’ (or sunken lanes) criss-crossing the ancient landscape of Twyford Down in Hampshire. These lanes – which can still be walked today – confirm the area’s importance as a communications conduit for Winchester, from the Romano-British period onwards.
Medieval Tracks and Drift-Ways: Kirby Bank Trod, Yorkshire
After the Romans left Britain (by the 5th century AD), little attention was paid to making or repairing roads. The bumpy dirt tracks that remained were frequented by robbers.
Despite this, roads with specialist functions emerged. Narrow pack-horse tracks, like North Yorkshire’s flagstone ‘trods’ at Kirby Bank in the image above, wended their way through hills. Royal processions toured the country enjoying various subjects’ hospitality, pilgrims travelled great distances to visit shrines, ‘church paths’, and ‘corpse roads’ connected parish churches with outlying settlements and trade routes attracted names like ‘portway’, ‘maltway’ and ‘saltway’.
Travellers shared roads with herds of cattle being driven to market from distant pastures. The wide verges of these drove- or drift-ways reveals their past, along with inns and ‘stances’ or ‘halts’ (resting places) on their route.
High-Speed Coaches: the London to Brighton route
By the 18th century, there was more traffic than ever before. The work of road engineers heralded the beginning of a new age, when some of our ancient routes were transformed into modern highways.
From 1706, when the first stage coach route was established between York and London, the popularity of coaches improved the condition of England’s ancient roads. The 18th century coaching road in West Sussex was developed from a Roman road that stretched between London and Brighton. The section surviving near Pyecombe runs for over 500 metres and was scheduled in 1968 to protect both its Roman remains and Georgian additions.
To find out more about the history of the roads near you:
- Read our introductory guide on Pre-industrial Roads, Trackways and Canals.
- Search the National Heritage List for England to discover which roads, from prehistoric times onwards, have been scheduled.
Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our “Brief Introduction to” series is for those who want to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.