Traveling on medieval roads meant traveling on surfaces as varied as stone, gravel, grass, and dirt. There have been roads across Britain for as long as people and animals have traversed the landscape. The original roads were tracks, created by years, decades, and millennia of people and wheeled vehicles, wearing a passage through forests, fields, and mountainous terrain. One of the first videos we produced was about Bwlch y Ddeufaen, an ancient road across north Wales marked by two standing stones, dating back thousands of years. Because of the difficult terrain, rather than build a new road entirely, the old one was improved by the Romans and then was in continuous use up until the modern era when a new road along the coast line was blasted through the mountains.
One of the most lasting effects of the Roman occupation of Britain was their roads, which they built across Britain and for centuries, long after they left, were the best way to travel through the country. The Roman roads lasted such a long time because the Roman legions who built them designed them to do exactly that. The Romans first surveyed the proposed path, endeavoring to keep the roads as straight as possible. The base of the roadbed was dug three feet down and twenty feet across. It was then filled with large gravel and sand for the foundation. A layer of smaller gravel was placed down and leveled. The sides were lined with blocks and hand-carved stones. Stones were often pentagonal in shape (five sided) and fitted together to make the top layer of the road. The roads were sloped from the center so rainwater would drain off into ditches at the sides of the roads. Most of the known network was complete by 180 AD. Its primary function was to allow the rapid movement of troops and military supplies, but it also provided vital infrastructure for trade and the transport of goods.
Once the Romans left, the Britons occupied their cities and settlements—and used their roads. Archaeologists have estimated that even in 1066, when William I conquered Britain, his armies could travel on at least 10,000 miles of usable Roman roads. Today, the Ordnance Survey maps of Britain show 2000 miles of roads. With the departure of the Romans, and their technologies, the weak point in the system became river crossings. As the fords and bridges fell into disrepair, roads developed that diverted from the original course. Then, as the population of Britain grew, new roads were built that connected medieval towns. Historians view these as ‘natural’, meaning they were neither straight nor metalled, and had much more in common with Bwlch y Ddeufaen than any of the roads the Romans built.
These ‘natural’ roads, paved these days, remain, and crisscross Wales in particular. In fact, in some cases, these roads are the only way to get from one place to another, particularly through the mountainous regions of Snowdonia.
Other possibilities for discovering medieval roads in Britain are: