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If you’re currently riding through the UK’s snowpocalypse, you’ll be intimately aware that non-arterial roads are uneven, rutted with compacted snow and solidified slush. They’re hard to traverse: bumpy, pock-marked and liable to throw the rider at any moment. There are no road markings visible, and pedestrians meander in the middle of the carriageway, unmolested by motors.
A lot like roads used to be, then.
The hard, flat road surfaces we today take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread until the 1930s. So, we have motorists to thank for this smoothness?
No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for - and paid for - by cycling organisations.
In fact, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same.
Cyclists were ahead of their time.
When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and badly repaired. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.
Roads in towns were sometimes well surfaced. Poor areas were cobbled; more upscale areas were covered in granite setts (what many localities call cobbles, but they ain’t - cobbles are bulbous river stones, think Shambles of York).
Pretty much every other road was left unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th Century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.
Cyclist organisations such as Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US ‘Good Roads’ movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its AGM.
The CTC individual in charge of the UK-version of the Good Roads movement - William Rees Jeffreys - organised asphalt trials before cars became common. He took the reins of the Roads Improvement Association in 1890, while working for the CTC.
He later became an arch motorist and the RIA morphed into a motoring organisation. Rees Jeffreys called for motorways in Britain 50 years prior to their introduction. But he never forgot his roots. In a 1949 book, Rees Jeffreys - described by Lloyd George as “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world” - wrote that cyclists paved the way, as it were, for motorists. Without the efforts of cyclists, he said, motorists would not have had as many roads to drive on. Lots of other authors in the early days of motoring said the same but this debt owed to cyclists by motorists is long forgotten.
Now motorists tell us to get off “their” roads. Hmmm.
I’m resurrecting this forgotten history in a book. The working title is Asphalt: A Love Story. It might sound dull but I’ve dug up loads of what I hope are entertaining anecdotes, quotes and facts.
I’ve been researching the book on and off for some months. I started on the history of the CTC on Monday. I spent two days in the CTC archive at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. I ploughed through the very first ‘Gazettes’ of the Bicycle Touring Club (founded 1878), which became the CTC. Members of the nascent CTC were obsessed with road surfaces. There were many editorials about the subject and many letters, too.
Along with the National Cyclists’ Union, the CTC created the Roads Improvement Association in 1885 and, in 1886, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage - and cash - from aristocrats and Royals, the CTC published influential pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. In some areas, county surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve their local roads.
Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the Roads Improvement Association stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.
However, in 1896 everything changed. Motoring big-wigs lobbied for the Locomotives Amendment Act to be repealed (this act made a driver of a road locomotive drive very, very slowly and the vehicle had to be preceded by a man waving a red flag). When the act was jettisoned, speeds increased, automobilists demanded better road surfaces to go even faster on, and ’scorchers’ and ‘road hogs’ (terms first used against cyclists) took over the roads.
By the early 1900s most motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.
A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:
The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.
At the time, the CTC had little inkling cyclists would soon be usurped. An editorial in the CTC Gazette of July 1896 admitted the “horseless carriage movement will make an irresistible advance” and asked members whether motorists should be admitted to membership. Such a move was declined by members but cyclists were later instrumental in the foundation of the Automobile Association, an organisation created to foil police speed traps.
Asphalt: A Love Story has received research grants from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund and the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation. The book, available next year and much of which will be available free online, is subtitled “The hidden history of hardtop and how sealed roads paved the way for modern life as we know it.”
The book will include gems such as:
* Think the A1 was built for cars? Think again, much of it was built for Centurions (Romans, not tanks).
* Asphalt is not a new building material; it was widely used in antiquity, including by the Babylonians. And the Egyptians used the stuff in their death rituals: the Egyptian word for ‘mummification’ is derived from ‘asphaltos’.
* John Loudon McAdam perfected road metalling in the 1820s. His McAdamized roads were built from lots of small stones packed into place by cart traffic. Only much later was tar spread on these roads to create ‘tarmac’. McAdam never thought to bind his roads with tar, despite owning a tar factory.