Roads and communications


In the practical everyday world few things have affected us more individually or as communities than roads. They are so integral to life that in general we only notice when they interrupt our journeys through flooding or some other problem. People quite recently were upset and angry about the closure of the B3055 at Latchmore (Brockenhurst) because of railway bridge repairs.

I think it is instructive to pause and think about how roads came about and why they sometimes seems to meander so annoyingly—so amusingly parodied by G.K. Chesterton, “The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road. A reeling road, a rolling road that rambles round the shire…” I find Flora Thompson (1876-1947), in penning the chapter “A Hamlet Childhood,” in “Lark Rise to Candleford” (1939) provides such an evocative picture of how she as a little girl remembered the road to Oxford and in so doing captures much of the wonder and essence of the road. And, as an adult she recalled, “Today, past that same spot, a first class tar-sprayed road, thronged with motor traffic, runs between low, closely trimmed hedges. Last year a girl of eighteen was knocked down and killed by a passing car at that very turning…”

For thousands of years, from way back in prehistoric times, roads or defined tracks formed a vital part of everyday life and provided the essential means of land-based communication affecting administration, trade and the pursuit of pleasure. In the middle ages our monarchs and their great retinues were continually on the move around the kingdom and itineraries of their travels survive. The church officials, such as cathedral deans, used the road system extensively when making their visitations. Heavy loads, such as timber and stone for buildings were transported by horse drawn vehicles. Pilgrims, too, trekked along the roads en route to the shrine in cathedral or abbey which was their objective. As described so beautifully in the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The fact that all these things were achieved tells us that the road system was effective. A nice anecdote recorded in the Southampton Brokerage books tells of Henry III on 21 November 1252, instructing the town bailiffs to send three tuns of wine to Kingston Lacy “with speed.”  Analysing the surviving records leaves a strong impression of well maintain principal roads but of much less satisfactory minor roads.


The main roads tended to be laid on elevated land to minimise their flooding but necessarily they also had to cross streams and rivers, especially as nearly all towns and settlements were built on the banks of rivers. River crossings were made either by ford where the watercourse was relatively small or by bridge to span the larger rivers such as the Avon at Christchurch, Ringwood and Fordingbridge and the Test at Redbridge and Romsey. Our local streams were nearly all crossed by fords as at Somerford, Mudeford, Walkford, Efford, Wainsford, Flexford, Stanford and Passford.

Bridge engineering reached a high standard through necessity. Bridges were often damaged or even swept away by torrents of floodwater and continually the replacements needed to be stronger. Early wooden bridges were soon replaced by those made of stone. Cut-waters were an early innovation and became incorporated widely as time went by. The fine four-arch bridge spanning the River Avon at Christchurch shows splendid cutwaters between each arch. It was built early on in the middle ages and no less a cleric than Simon Meopham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in about 1330 granted an indulgence to those who aided the construction and repair of the bridge. That was the main way in which nearly all the larger bridges were financed. At Stockbridge where the original bridge carried the road over the River Test a commemorative stone was set up on the parapet stating:

“Say of your charyte a pater noster and an ave for the sowlys of John Gylinges otherwise said Locke and Richard Gatin and Margaret the wyf of the aforesaid John and Richard, founders and makers of the bridge, on whose sowllys God have mercy.”

I find it very pleasing to record that when the County Council rebuilt the bridge they had the original stone plaque, which was almost indecipherable, re-carved and set in the replacement parapet.

Such arrangements are a striking demonstration of how deeply the Church was integrated into the social and political fabric of our country and the consciousness of the people. After the Reformation in Tudor times financing through the church either directly or by persuasion was no longer possible and bridge maintenance eventually fell upon each county through the Quarter Sessions and was financed from the Poor Rate levied in every single parish. For example, we find Hordle in October 1805 paying £10 16s. county rate which was used not only for bridges but also for the county gaol. Later in the nineteenth century the newly formed county councils took responsibility which in most instances they still retain. Smaller bridges over lesser streams fared less well and their maintenance often fell directly on the parish. The trouble experienced at Beehive or Beckley Bridge in 1826 is a salutary reminder of how fraught matters could become. It was declared that half the bridge belonged to Milton and half to Christchurch (the stream which it spanned was the boundary). The bridge was described as broken and ruinous and that “the liege subjects of our Lord the King (i.e. the public) could not pass over it without great danger of their lives and the loss of their goods.” It is a pity that the records relating any improvement have not survived but evidently the trouble was resolved and we can drive over it today without giving a thought to the possibility of its collapsing!


Parish Roads and the Turnpike Road system

The Reformation starting in the reign of Henry VIII brought about many changes in everyday life. The role of the Church remained important but with the closure of all the religious houses the underlying administrative structures were wholly disrupted and civil government had then to fulfil many of the roles that formerly were managed, directly or indirectly, by the Church. So far as roads were concerned parliament passed a Highways Act in 1555 (reign of Phillip & Mary) which remained the foundation of highway law for nearly three centuries. The responsibility was placed in the hands of the parish and officers were elected named either Overseers or Surveyors of the Highway. In Lymington two were elected each year but they needed no special qualification to serve in that role. In the borough they were regulated by the manor court.

Most economic historians agree that by and large the quality of the roads became worse and as the country’s manufacturing and commerce expanded: this created a problem. In 1663 parliament passed the first act authorising the creation of a toll road. This was part of the Great North Road (between Wadesmill and Stilton). The key objective was to charge all road users a toll, the income being dedicated to improving and maintaining the road. It was to be administered by trustees who were responsible for employing road engineers and tollgate keepers. But charging travellers for using the king’s highway proved very unpopular and, as the system spread, led to riots (the Rebecca Riots), whose objective was to destroy toll gates and disrupt the work of the trusts. However, the economic benefits of well-engineered and maintained roads made the turnpike system overall a great success. There was some financial return for trustees who invested capital in setting up and running the turnpiked roads. The interest paid ranged between 4½% and 6%.

Only one turnpike road linked directly with Lymington, originally known as the Lymington and Buckland Trust, it was authorised by act of parliament in 1765. This road ran from Gosport Street to Buckland and then northwards to Lyndhurst, turning east there to proceed to Rumbridge where it linked with the Eling to Salisbury turnpike. Perhaps this paucity of turnpikes in our immediate area is explained by the comments made in 1810 by Charles Vancouver in his book on the agriculture of Hampshire, he writes:

“Nothing can possibly exceed the goodness of the roads through the New Forest, and the southern parts of the county. It is no less true than strange, to say that the traveller may pass from Lymington to Christchurch, and thence to Salisbury, without a turnpike, and all the way on parochial roads, which may vie for goodness with the best turnpikes in the kingdom.” (p.392)

As can be seen from Vancouver’s remarks the individual parishes remained responsible for their own road system and under the 1555 act had to provide labour for the repair of the roads. They no doubt learned much from the more professional road maintenance that was developing under the turnpike system. Statutory labour was required under the law which ensured that work was done and farmers had to supply some of the basic road materials such as gravel and timber.

Coaches, carriages and communications

One of the important developments as a result of the turnpike system was the great improvement in road transport. Regular coach routes were established which allowed for much easier conveyance of both people and goods. And the staging posts were inns such as the Nags Head in Lymington which not only provided accommodation but also stabling for horses and grazing in the fields behind the inn. The Angel seemed to be the premier inn with superb facilities in the large yard at the rear. Col. Peter Hawker in his diary relates several tales related to his travels, some really quite amusing. Just to select one snippet: “Walked to Everton (from Keyhaven) in a gale of wind and drizzling rain to mount Judd’s coach at eight. Misinformed as to time and was ten minutes too late…” so he had to tramp three ‘long more miles in wind and rain to Lymington…”

One really significant and durable consequence arising from the road developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the setting up of milestones, some of which display information additional to that merely recording the number of miles. Despite the vicissitudes of time quite a number still survive but all were either removed or buried during the war, in case of invasion, to prevent the enemy from easily learning his whereabouts.


Highwaymen and footpads

One unfortunate consequence of developing dedicated roads was the concentration of traffic and in the later eighteenth century in particular robbers appeared who waylaid travellers and their coaches in order to demand money or valuable items. One renowned highwayman who operated in the New Forest area was Thomas Boulter. While awaiting trial at Winchester Assizes on 31 July 1788 he recounted his life story and one incident involved a gentleman travelling from Lyndhurst to Lymington. Boulter joined him on the road and politely told him he was a tradesman but complained of his current distress wondering if a might borrow “a trifle on the highway… The civility of the attack so operated on the old gentleman’s goodwill that he forthwith pulled out a small morocco pocket book and gave him a £10 bankbill…Boulter returned his thanks in a very civil manner” and then bade his companion good day. Thomas Boulter was hanged on 19 August.

To understand the many ramifications of the development of the road system is a huge and fascinating study and has been written about at great length. But some of the most informative and charming descriptions can be found in contemporary literature, such as memoirs and diaries but, perhaps most particularly, from novels.

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 23rd April 2016.