Highways & byways: 15 things you probably never knew about our ancient routes…

Discover the oldest, narrowest, steepest, shortest, prettiest and spookiest roads in Britain.

Path in the green forest. Hiking mark on tree


1. Evidence of the earliest known journeys made in Britain comes from footprints preserved on the shores of river estuaries by early hunter-gatherers of the last Ice Age.

Advertisement

2. The steepest sign-posted road in Britain is Ffordd pen Llech, in the Snowdonia National Park. It has a gradient of 40%.

3.  Archaeologists have uncovered timber trackways from the prehistoric Mesolithic period. Crossing water-logged areas, the wooden remains are the earliest evidence of deliberately constructed routeways in Britain.

4. The M6 is ranked as the spookiest road in the UK, closely followed by Scottish Highlands’ A9. White horses drawing a Victorian coach and footmen are reported to have been seen, while a tiny lane in Westhoughton that passes by the Pretoria Pit mine where 344 miners died in 1910 came third in a survey conducted by road-building company, Tarmac.

5. The Roman Army built and maintained 2,000 miles (3,200km) of paved roads during their occupation of Britain, between 43-410 AD.

6. At only 120 metres, the A962 in Kirkwall, Northern Ireland, is one of the shortest roads in Britain. Linking London with Edinburgh, the A1 is the longest classified road, measuring 410 miles (660 km).

7. Ancient trackways provide valuable insights into prehistoric wood-working techniques, as well as woodland management and how timber routeways were repaired over time. Artefacts are often deposited along trackways, and environmental information such as flooding or nearby agricultural activity can also be traced from the debris and patterns left behind.

8. The Romans chose London as the centre of their road network as 6 roads already linked the city with the rest of the country. The A2, A257, A30, A15, and A24 still follow the lines of the first roads built in Britain.

9.  Contenders for the most beautiful roads in Britain include: the B3306, which begins in St Ives and hugs the western coast of Cornwall for 13 miles until it reaches St Just; and the A686 between Penrith and Haydon bridge linking Hadrian’s Wall, Benedictine monasteries, remote market towns, and the breathtaking Penines.

10.  ‘Herepaths’ or ‘Herewags’ is the term given to the network of interconnecting military roads built by the Saxons during the 9th century to keep out the Danes. Saxon roads often followed monuments attributed to legendary figures, such as ‘Wodin’s Barrow’ and ‘Adam’s Grave’.

11. Roads tended to be wide before the enclosures of the 18th century and would have consisted of large stretches of more-or-less parallel hollow-ways, formed by people creating new routes around over-worn paths. Walls and hedges were built around enclosure roads between 1760 and 1840 as common, open land was divided up under ownership.

12. Road-users began to be charged for using British roads when a Parliament Act came into effect in1633. The revenue generated was used to improve and maintain road surfaces, which went on to support the manufacturing industries as national trading networks developed. 

13. The narrowest road in Britain, and possibly the world, is Parliament Street in Exeter. Measuring just 48in (1.22m) at its widest point, the 14th century road is only just wide enough for two people to pass side-by-side.

14. The Cat and Fiddle road (A537) between Cheshire and Derbyshire is one of Britain’s most dangerous roads, with 44 fatal crashes recorded between 2007-11 on the 7-mile stretch. With many sharp bends the road is attractive to motorcyclists, but stray livestock and heavy tourist and goods traffic make a dangerous combination.

15. The Ridgeway is widely regarded as the oldest road in Britain. For 5,000 years travellers have walked along this high path linking the Dorset coast with the Wash in Norfolk. Now a National Trail of 87 miles (140km), the trackway connects numerous ancient sites, including the Uffington White Horse and the ancient stone circle of Avebury.

Advertisement

Words by Agnes Davis