Members of Crewkerne & District U3A heard about the rise and fall of turnpike roads and tolls at their August meeting. Guest speaker Rob Curtis, a retired RAF officer from Milton Abbas is a blue badge guide who meets cruise ships which come into Portland and takes those who are interested, on tours of the West Country. Rob told U3A members: “If you think the pot-holed, pock-marked roads of 2017 are bad enough, you should go back a few hundred years.”
It was not until the 18th Century that the state of the roads in Britain returned to being as good as they were in Roman times. Otherwise people travelled along muddy tracks, or hardly ever left their village because the roads were impassable. Rob Curtis also reminded members of just how good the Roman roads were, which were usually built in straight lines 24ft wide, with a smooth stone surface and drainage at the side. A good example of the remains of a Roman road was discovered during clearance work in Puddletown Forest in 2011.
The introduction of turnpikes and tolls led to the creation of a national network of roads and the funds to maintain them: “At one time there were 17 trusts in Dorset that looked after 500 miles of highways,” Rob told members at the meeting in the Henhayes Centre. Better roads saw the introduction of horse-drawn coaching services for passengers and the delivery of mail. Inns were built, such as the George Hotel in Crewkerne, that provided accommodation for travellers and stabling for horses.
“It was not unknown for complete strangers who were travelling together to share a room or even a bed!” he explained. A team of horses would pull a coach, usually weighing about two tons for 10 to 12 miles, before needing to be changed and it took 17 hours to deliver a letter from London to Exeter. As with the canals, the advent of the railways had spelled the death knell for the age of coach and horses and turnpike trusts. Many former coaching inns and toll houses remain today as reminders of those days, including the picturesque toll house on the A30 at Chard.