Leading the Way: A History of Lancashire's Roads

Article excerpt

Book reviews

A. G. Crosby (ed.), Leading the Way: A History of Lancashire's Roads, Lancashire County Books (1998), 351 pp., illustrated, Pb. L14.95

Road transport has long fascinated historians, though the subject has often played `poor relation' to the railways. This book, although a regional study, certainly places Lancashire on the map in terms of the development of roads. Even though the claim in the introduction `to provide a comprehensive account of the character, extent and development of the road network of Lancashire' may be rather exaggerated, it delivers its promise to cover the period of Lancashire roadbuilding stretching from the prehistoric era to the late twentieth century.

With the exception of one chapter which deals with traffic and travellers, all the chapters examine road building within a chronological period. However the chronology of two chapters overlaps, as a whole chapter is devoted to the turnpike system while a second chapter deals with all ordinary roads built in the county between 1550 and 1850. A useful feature throughout the book has been the examination of the engineering involved in road building. This topic is discussed with authority by two of the contributors who, before they retired, were employed as engineers by Lancashire County Council.

After helpful biographical details of authors and some introductory comments, the first chapter takes the reader on an interesting journey over the trackways and roads of the prehistoric and Roman periods. The author, Ben Edwards, who was formerly the County Archaeologist, provides a fascinating discussion of the development of the Roman communications network. The chapter is particularly useful in offering an alternative view to theories held by antiquarians and others about such issues as the actual routes and the road-building techniques of the Romans. A slight weakness of the chapter is the lack of a detailed discussion of road use and of the place of Lancashire, vis-d-vis roads, in relation to the rest of the country.

Fortunately, the deficiencies are not repeated in the next two chapters, which cover the period from the Dark Ages to 1850. The building of the roads, their use, and the social context in this period are subjected by the authors, Mary Higham and Alan Crosby, to detailed analysis and discussion. This is particularly true of the `Roads of Dark Age and Medieval Lancashire' chapter, where the wide-ranging discussion includes, for example, comments on the role of the King's highways and on the transport of the valuable commodity of salt. This level of analysis enables the historian to position the development of Lancashire roads not only in a social, political and economic context but also in a broader geographical sphere that stretches beyond the county's borders. A fact that is impressed upon the reader in this chapter, and one which is frequently overlooked, is that medieval man was often highly mobile. Further, although the roads, in places, were in a parlous state, it is claimed that they were not so uniformly bad as to seriously impede the traveller. This same topic is continued into chapter 3 (1550-1850), where a sense of the rapidly increasing pace of change is engendered both by an analysis of such developments as enclosures and industrialisation and by highlighting the breakdown of the parish system of road maintenance. …