Road to 2050

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How did the Romans build roads? Find out all about old roads!

Find out more below!

Thousands of years ago Britain was covered by swamps and forests. There weren’t any roads, only tracks made by the hunters.

When people settled in villages, they made paths from hard earth from one village to another so they could trade with each others.

The oldest road we know about in Britain is near the River Brue in the south west. This six-thousand-year old walkway was discovered in 1970 and is thought to come from an era when farming had just begun, around 4,000BC.

We can still see remnants of these early kinds of roads – often as ancient pathways. Quite often they follow the tops of hills and are called Ridgeways.

There are still many around that you can walk along!

Neolithic settlements

Over time, people realised that if they used animals, like donkeys and horses, they could carry a lot more stuff around. We can see evidence of animals being used from Neolithic times. Over time, sleds were also used to drag loads and then around 5,000 BC wheels began to be used, both of which needed the roads to be much smoother.

Roman roads 

Roman roads were designed to be a very efficient way to connect towns, ports and forts and were so well planned and built that many still exist to this day. On maps today they are still marked as ROMAN ROADS.  

To make sure that their roads could cope with heavy use, the Romans used crushed stone to make the surfaces strong and help drain away water. They also built them as straight as possible – to stop enemies from hiding around corners! To keep the roads straight, bonfires were lit a long way from each other, and slave workers built the road between those points.

These roads were primarily for the army, connecting camps at first then as the empire was established, towns and cities.

Roman Roads used deep roadbeds of crushed stone as an underlying layer to ensure that they kept dry, as the water would flow out from the crushed stone, instead of becoming mud in clay soils. The legions made good time on these roads and some are still used millennia later. 

The Roman design generally consisted of four layers (top to bottom) as follows:

  • Summa Crusta (surfacing): Smooth, blocks bedded in underlying layer.
  • Nucleus: A kind of base layer composed of gravel and sand with lime cement.
  • Rudus: The third layer was composed of rubble masonry and smaller stones also set in lime mortar.
  • Statumen: Two or three courses of flat stones set in lime mortar.

The way roads were built wouldn’t change for around 1,200 years.

1600 onwards

As the world’s population increased, and villages and towns started to grow, more people than ever were using the roads – from men and women on horseback, to carriages and stagecoaches which began to be used around the 1600s.

The growing number of people using the roads meant that, in time, it was necessary to think about better ways to build roads to make them smooth and safe for all those horses, the heavier carriages and busier traffic. In those days there weren’t many road signs or rules about how to use the roads. To keep people safe it was necessary to begin to think about how people should use the roads, and how they would be repaired.

Milestones and Turnpikes

Even from the very early days people would get lost. So, thousands of stone milestones were placed to help people get around telling them which way to go and how far it was. They were like an early kind of satnav! To help pay for the repairs to the road turnpikes were set up – these were gates where travellers had to pay to use the roads and the money was used to keep the road in good order. We still have tolls on some roads to this day. There’s one on the M6 motorway just north of Birmingham.

These early improvements were just the start, as the roads were going to become busier than ever over the next three centuries, and even more new ideas would be needed to make sure the way ahead was smooth.

MOBILE: Kids Guide to Transport: Rail and Road

Bex and Dan learn all about the future of Britain's roads and railways!

Are We There Yet? with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering

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Road to 2050

Find out more about why roads are built and how they help us get around the country.

More From Road to 2050