The History of British roads, part one.

The first roads 

   One of the things we should remember at this point is what the word ‘Road’ means. To us when we say road we think of a hard surfaced carriage way with raised footpaths either side, but that’s not the whole story.
   A ‘road’ was originally ‘a right of way’; a route over which the people exercised their right to travel freely, with their vehicles or animals, rather than the physical surface they moved over. Even the 1984 act states this :-

                                                                "the land over which a public right of way exists is known as a highway”.

   Although most highways have been built into tarmac roads to ease the passage of all types of traffic, the presence, or absence, of a made road has nothing to do with the distinction. A dirt track with the right of way can be considered a road.

   Humans Migrated into Britain following the retreat of the ice age, around 10,000 years ago. These people were hunter gatherers with no roads or transport; they simply roamed where the search for foods took them. 

   After Britain became cut off from mainland Europe, about 8,000 years ago some of these peoples slowly started to move around territories that would suit their needs for the time of year. By 6,000 years ago settlements were becoming permanent and farming was becoming the way to produce food rather than going out looking for what might be lying around.

   As societies develop, so does trade. Moving animals and goods to market becomes ever more important and local routes without any formal construction simply occurred. Historically this continues to happen until around 1800.

   In approximately 4,000BC two important things happened, the invention of the wheel and the taming of the horse. The earliest examples of wheels aren’t from Britain but as such things seem to develop rather than being one ‘Eureka’ moment it’s hard to imagine that these early Britons hadn’t discovered easy ways to roll heavy loads around.

   It is quite possible that wheels and axles evolved as running sleds over rollers slowly caused groves in the rollers. Eventually some bright spark had the idea of joining two slices of tree trunk with a stout pole, thus doing away with the heavy rollers. Then, by attaching this wheel and axle combination to a flat load bed, a hand cart is born, scale that up and attach a horse or ox and you can move a considerable amount of goods over long distances.

   In the Bronze Age roads became recognisable routes, negotiated amongst tribes and settlements, and marked with large wooden posts or standing stones. One such stone, known as the ‘Growing stone’, can be seen beside the A40 from Abergavenny to Crickhowell close to Gwernvale Dolmen.

   It is thought to mark the important route through the hills of the Black Mountains to the north and the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons to the south. A route later formalised by the Romans who called it the Via Julia.

   The use of wheels really took off with the advent of metal tools. Tools meant the shaping of wood became easier; holes could be drilled through the tree trunk slice to make it lighter. Make the holes increasingly bigger and spokes start to appear. Now the idea of making wheels in sections occurs and they can be bound by iron rims.

   But wheels left ruts in the soft earth roads quickly churning them into mud. So the Ancient Britons became adept at making road ways, and importantly, different styles of road to suit the local conditions too.

   The Sweet Track, in the Somerset Levels, is a raised wooden footpath crossing marsh lands. It is dated through dendrochronology to between 3807 and 3806 BC, pretty much 6,000years ago! On the Fore shore of Swansea another track way has been discovered. This one made by mats woven from narrow branches of oak and alder, covered in a thin layer of brushwood to provide a level walking-surface. This was also an aid to crossing marsh lands, but in an area where there were no known dwellings. The road was made specifically to go somewhere. This dates from around 2,000BC.

   The “Upton Track” across the mudflats along the Severn estuary is another wooden road dating from around 400 years BC. 

   At Geldeston, in Norfolk, a timber road likely built by the Iceni tribe, dated by dendrochronology to around 75 BC has been discovered preserved in peat.

   The Iron Age road discovered at Sharpstone hill from around 100BC is most impressive. It has a bed of brushwood and river silt with rounded river stones set into the silt to provide a solid road surface. Grooves in the silt/stone surface have been discovered raising the belief that the road was used extensively for trade by carts. Furthermore, the dimensions of the road are large to say the least. It is 4.5m wide and rising 50cm above the surrounding ground level. 

   Some of the ways the archaeologists know these roads were constructed in a sophisticated way are their findings at Sharpestone Hill. 

1 - The original ground appears to have been prepared by the burning of the vegetation on top. Burnt sand and stones were found at the base of the roadway.

2 - Over this a layer of brushwood was laid then a layer silt/river mud seems to have been very quickly put on top is this. The archaeologists found some of the elder brushwood branches to be encased in mud and well preserved. This is thought to be an attempt to consolidate the surface which may have been in an area of wet land. The mud is also important as the micro morphological evidence in the also helps to give evidence of the type of vegetation and micro-life that was prevalent when the road was made, and suggests the deposited material was collected from another location. This ‘foundation’ layer was 4.5m wide, quite a size considering the type and frequency of traffic we might suppose existed at the time.

3 – The actual road surface was a dual layer system with a mix of gravel and small stones bound in a silty sand with a layer of smooth river cobbles compacted down onto this. These stones were not from the immediate vicinity but most likely brought up from the river Severn which is only about 3km away. Together these layers provided a strong all-weather surface that was about 50cm higher than the ground surface, and it was cambered to aid water drainage. Something else that was really very advanced considering drainage was almost forgotten by the 1700s!

4 – It was also found that the road had kerbing, gullies and post holes alongside it on the southern side; suggestive of a boundary fence of some sort.

– Archaeologists also found that the road had been overlaid in similar fashion at least twice until the final road width was over 7m wide. Another discovery was areas that appeared to be repairs rather than a full resurfacing, wheel ruts caused by wagons must have been a problem then (just as now).


   Pits were found in the surrounding area and one which was actually under the road. The pit beneath the road was located at a point where the three historic parishes met, and must have held a substantial post of about 70cm diameter. The interpretation placed upon this is that it may have been a marker post suggesting the road's origins thus lie in a Bronze Age drove way that ran over the hill, within a landscape already identified as containing occupation and funeral remains from that period. 

   The discovery of a Roman style road overlaying the original foundations of another much earlier road, dating from the Iron Age, is now prompting archaeologists in other parts of Britain to re-examine other more typically Roman-looking roads to see whether they too were originally constructed by Britons.  There are known routes that were used throughout pre-history, largely these early routes were just that but as time went on wooden road ways were constructed, but this is the first of this type of engineered road and clearly built before the Romans arrived. This road was probably part of a road that might have been as long as 40 miles running through the British Iron Age kingdom of the Cornovii, linking the hill fort of the the Wrekin, near Telford, with Old Oswestry hillfort. 

   Such a road might have been for the prestige of local tribal leaders, and for linking hillforts but it must have been used for normal daily life moving animals, farm produce and goods. 

   Another road which has had to be rethought is “the Danes’ road” in Ireland. Originally named so as it was thought to be of the Viking era or later people started to question this assumption in the 1980s and with the aid of tree ring dating it was found the wood this road was cut in 148BC. This road is also interesting as it’s sophisticated construction, of raised Oak planks over birch runners, was wide enough for two carts to pass each other.

   It has also come to light that there are many wooden roads across Europe built in the same way at the same time. Furthermore the thought that Romans built the first roads has been undermined as the first important Roman road, built in 312BC, the Appian Way, built after the “Upton Track” in south Wales.

   Recent research suggests that Roman roads were often simply placed over the paths made by local traffic. It now appears Roman roads were only completely straight when built anew by the Romans to go directly from one distant area to another.

   Now; if we consider this evidence, along with evidence of the adoption of European farming methods and grave goods that have come from much further afield, it is clear that there were no howling, uncivilised barbarian ‘Brits’ when the Romans arrived. There was already an established network of tribes, towns and trade routes which linked Britain to the continental countries; and they had wheeled vehicles.

   It is known that by the time the Romans ‘arrived’ in Britain, around 2,000 years ago, the Ancient Britons had large numbers of chariots which they used for warlike purposes. A basic frame of basketwork covered with animal skins rolled on wheels of up to 16 spokes with iron or bronze hubs. Two 'yoked' horses pulled the chariot, and they certainly surprised the Roman troops during their Invasion!


   Very few hints of the wooden carts of the past remain as wood degrades so easily. There are fragments of carts found across Europe that have similarities and these parts have been brought together to give us an idea of what it might have looked like. What is clear is that the complicated fittings of harnesses meant that few Iron Age farmers would have had a horse or a cart; most people would have walked carrying their own load. Over the next few hundred years the domestication of animals increased, the skills of building carts and uses and designs of carts increased. Fast, light carriages were pulled by horses with heavy wagons being pulled by oxen.