I've just finished Beatrice and Sydney Webb's English local government: The Story of the King's Highway.
It's very readable, with well-chosen quotes and quite vivid in places, given that it's a fairly dry subject. The hero of it is Macadam, the capable administrator who had energy that would have made him fortunes or conquered territories in other lines of work and which he used on getting the roads built and maintained.
You can feel the Webbs' exasperation with the lack of organisation and sense behind the management of English roads. The ineffectualness of local bodies, numerous and small. The Acts passed in Parliament that were badly drafted and badly implemented. The corruption and amateurism of the Turnpike Trusts, with their surveyors who knew nothing about road building and the administration and mortgages swallowing up the money that should have gone on to actual road maintenance. No wonder the Webbs fell in love with the centralisation in the Soviet Union and Five Year Plans.
Meanwhile Irish and Scottish roads were managed better through central control – hangovers from Ireland's colonial position and the Jacobite rebellions.
I can now see why the state of the roads was as discussed by Jane Austen's characters as the price of rail travel and Underground routes are discussed today. It was a kind of shared element that everyone has to swim in.
The turnpike roads though were noticeably better than the local parish roads. I've been reading Mr Sponge's Sporting Tour (1852) and the characters there are very aware of when “having cleared the rushy, swampy park, they came upon the macadamized turnpike” - I.e stone based smooth surface fit for carriage wheels.
“Jawleyford Court was twenty miles from Woodmansterne as the crow flies, and any distance anybody liked to call it by the road. The road, indeed, would seem to have been set out with a view of getting as many hills and as little level ground over which a traveller could make play as possible; and where it did not lead over the tops of the highest hills, it wound round their bases, in such little, vexatious, up-and-down, wavy dips as completely to do away with all chance of expedition. The route was not along one continuous trust [ie the Turnpike Trust, a body of incompetents who would manage a stretch of main road] but here over a bit of turnpike and there over a bit of turnpike, with ever and anon long interregnums of township roads, repaired in the usual primitive style with mud and soft field-stones, that turned up like flitches of bacon. A man would travel from London to Exeter by rail in as short a time, and with far greater ease, than he would drive from Lord Scamperdale's to Jawleyford Court. His lordship being aware of this fact, and thinking, moreover, it was no use trashing a good horse over such roads, had desired Frostyface to put an old spavined grey mare, that he had bought for the kennel, into the dog-cart, and out of which, his lordship thought, if he could get a day's work or two, she would come all the cheaper to the boiler.”
I suppose the rail travelling public would have had as smooth a journey as we have over longer distances, then for the short journeys in the countryside it would be rough surfaces for mountain bikes only.
The carriage drives over a sound, hard road through the park at a spanking pace – those gravelled roads that we see in period dramas with the period hoof sounds and the rolling wheels. (I have to say that cycling along avenues round a mansion is some of the most agreeable I've ever done – Glamis Castle was the last one. Good gradients and magnificent views.)
So then they leave this and get into the “deeply-spurlinged, clayey-bottomed cross-road” and through the mire. “Bump, bump, jolt, jolt, creak, creak, went the vehicle.”
Being a member of a Turnpike Trust had status.
'Oh, nonsense,' replied Mrs. Jogglebury; 'we can entertain him well enough. You always say fox-hunters are not ceremonious. I tell you what, Jog, you don't think half enough of yourself. You are far too easily set aside. My word! but I know some people who would give themselves pretty airs if their husband was chairman of a board of guardians, and trustee of I don't know how many of Her Majesty's turnpike roads,'
When Mr Jogglebury is outraged by an insult:-
“It damaged the respect inspired by the chairmanship of the Stir-it-stiff Union, to say nothing of the trusteeship of the Sloppyhocks, Tolpuddle, and other turnpike-roads.”
So journeys were broken by stopping at toll gates to pay the charge:-
"Bilkington Pike now appeared in view, and Jog drew in as he spied it. He knew the damage: sixpence for carriages, and he doubted that Sponge would pay it.
'It's no use going any (wheeze) farther,' observed he, drawing up into a walk, as he eyed the red-brick gable end of the toll-house, and the formidable white gate across the road."
[I'm fascinated that “the damage” was used as “cost” then. I thought it was a modern slang term. Now hotels produce bills called The Damage.]
As a trustee Mr Jogglebury was allowed to go through tollgate for free if attending a trustee meeting. If not, he had to pay 6d like everyone else and there's a droll scene where his guest Mr Sponge pretends he's left his wallet behind, then seethes while the slow Mr J takes forever to pay, get the change and then a ticket.
"Then he [the tollgate keeper] had to look out the tickets, when he found he had all sorts except a one-horse-chaise one ready--waggons, hearses, mourning- oaches, saddle-horses, chaises and pair, mules, asses, every sort but the one that was wanted. Well, then he had to fill one up, and to do this he had, first, to find the ink-horn, and then a pen that would 'mark,' so that, altogether, a delay took place that would have been peculiarly edifying to a Kennington Common or Lambeth gate-keeper to witness."
Much local travelling then was finding routes that avoid the tollgates, as cyclists find routes that avoid the dual carriageways. This kind of orientation has stayed in British brains. Bill Bryson observed that when discussing a journey with the English by car they would go into endless detail on best routes – “take the A30 to Stockbridge then the A303 to Ilchester or the 361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet”.
I suppose the Satnav has destroyed that part of the British brain though cyclists happily discuss routes and surfaces on forums for weeks at a time.