Early roads in South Wales

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The Romans left Britain with a legacy of good quality main roads. They  were so good that wheeled traffic in the form of carts and wagons was very common. After the Romans left there was no interest in maintaining the roads. Although the routes remained as important as they ever were, the quality deteriorated terribly between 400 ad and the early 1700s. As the good quality Roman surfaces wore away, the roads changed to wide muddy tracks that were impassable to carts and wagons. Large numbers of people and goods still had to travel around the country, and many travelled for religious reasons as pilgrimages were very common. As wheeled traffic was mainly useless, people travelled on foot, or (if they were lucky) on horseback. Some roads were maintained if they were thought important to the church or the security of the nation (that is why some roads were known as ‘Church Ways’ or ‘Military Ways’). 
By the 1580s, the growth in trade and the first shoots of the industrial revolution were starting to see an increase in road use for commercial gain. Large wagons pulled by six or eight horses and known as ‘stage wagons’ started to appear on busy roads. At about the same time early versions of carriages started to appear, copying similar developments in Europe.  

By the late 1600s and into the early 1700s, roads across the country were being used rather heavily which unfortunately made them worse than ever. In the winter they were a muddy mess into which wagons or carriages would sink axle deep in minutes. 

Above: A stage wagon from the early 1800s. Wagons such as these carried a wide range of heavy industrial goods. 

Ironically, the bad winter frosts of the eighteenth century made them easier passage as they froze solid and gave an unyielding surface. In the summer they were maelstroms of fine grey dust like talcum powder which got into everything and made travel most unpleasant.

 Another important point to remember is that there were far more roads and tracks in South Wales in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than there are today. The road improvements of the nineteenth century resulted in a sharp drop in the number of roads that communities used.

The importance of bridges

In the Middle Ages, many communities would work hard to build bridges because bridges were often seen as ways of helping pilgrims on their way, people recognised these as works of piety and were often very proud of them. This often explains why we find mention of bridges in place names throughout England and Wales. Bridges were built of stone or wood depending on what the community or parish could afford or was capable of. An easy crossing of any river usually meant that the place would be a popular place to meet, rest or stop for the night. 

The dangerous rivers of South Wales were always a problem for travellers and many settlements grew up around a bridge or easy crossing point. This last point is important. If a community is located on or near a large stream or river, you can be sure that there was some significant way of crossing the water. This may have been a ford or a bridge. The bridge may not be there today. Many old or unsafe bridges would have been dismantled or fell into disrepair when the Turnpike movement developed main roads across Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

 Bridges were important to the nation and the Statute of Bridges of 1531 (22 Hen. VIII, c.5) made it a duty of Justices of the Peace to look after the maintenance of bridges that didn’t have clear arrangements for upkeep. The dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540 took away the main force for building and maintaining bridges and contributed to a decline in new building.

 Early bridges can be recognised by their rather narrow shape. They were designed for use by people and livestock only; wagons and carts would be expected to use a nearby ford. Early bridges were often very well designed to cope with local weather and climate problems. Nowadays, we hardly notice bridges when we drive over them at 40 mph. They are big high structures that are rarely affected by the river that flows beneath. Early bridges are far smaller, they will have small arches and are often distinct in the landscape. 


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All content © Nigel A. Robins and Swansea History Web 2006, 2007

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