The Rocky Road to Somewhere

Photo: B Brunen/Wikipedia

By Peter P Dobbing

For far too many years, relationships across the Irish Sea were a trifle fraught as they say, not necessarily between the people but between the politicians. Thankfully, things are much better now and if there is one thing that the Brits and Irish agree about, it is the state of the roads.

Roads have been around for years and one would think that ongoing problems would have been resolved long ago. Not so, today the cost of road development and upkeep is astronomical and getting worse by the day. In the UK, the 2019 budget for new roads was £28 billion while for repairs to existing roads the budget was £720 million.

Motoring organizations claim that a more realistic figure for the latter should be £9 billion. In the Republic of Ireland the figure stated seems to be €450 million for all purposes. I will leave it to readers to comment on that.

Roads go back to prehistoric times and likely started as animal tracks that were later adopted by hunters and eventually travellers. In the valley of the River Brue in the Somerset Levels England, is the Post Track believed to be the world’s oldest constructed trackway and dating to 3838 BC.

The earliest paved road was constructed in Egypt by the Pharaoh Cheops about 2500 BC, and was 1000 yards long and 60 feet wide, leading to the Great Pyramid. In pre-Christian times the Chinese were the great road builders developing great trade routes such as the Amber Road stretching from Afghanistan through Persia and Arabia to Egypt and the Silk Road which stretched 8,000 miles from China, across Asia then through Spain to the Atlantic Ocean.

Trade routes usually carried the name of the goods being transported and the price of such goods would double for each 100 miles carried. So important was trade to the Chinese that in the seventh century BC they commenced building the Great Wall for protection against the barbarian nomadic northern tribes. These roads were not of course like highways today, they were well defined semi-permanent trails often marked by the litter of human detritus such as animal bones.

Chinese roads generally traversed east to west but trade to the north or south of these was equally important. As well as trade goods, roads were important for the passage of armies. The Old Testament has many references to such as the King’s Highway running from Damascus to Palestine and the Royal Road built by the Persians from the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea a distance of 1775 miles.

As north to south communications developed then also towns and cities grew. One such city was Timbuktu in the heart of the Sahara Dessert. Known since Iron Age times it became a centre for the Tuareg tribes who were otherwise dessert nomads. The city became a centre for the trade in gold, ivory, kola nuts and salt.

In its Golden Age around the twelfth century Timbuktu had a university, a library and was home to an estimated 100,000 people. Around 800 BC Carthaginian road makers on the northern coast of Africa began to pave their roads with stones, a technique that was followed by the Romans.

From the 1st century on the greatest road builders were the Romans. Until the present day they built the straightest, best engineered and most complex roads in the world. At its peak the Roman Empire supported 53,000 miles of road which covered England, much of Western Europe, the Iberian Peninsula and much of the Mediterranean Area.

These roads were the first to be properly engineered and designed with foundations and graded in fillings. Many still exist and are used today, Dere Street for instance is not far from my home and Hadrian’s Wall is just a mile away. Across the Atlantic road making remained undeveloped for centuries.

The problem was that both the Incas in the south and the Native Americans in the north developed their civilizations without inventing the wheel. The Incas in particular never used draft animals nor had the benefit of a written language. Without wheeled vehicles to worry about they climbed steep hillsides by using terraces and steps. Only European settlers brought roads and highways to America.

Coming much more up to date the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a great surge in the technology of road making. Two British engineers Thomas Telford and John McAdam studied the problems of road foundations, surfacing, cambering and drainage. In the day McAdam’s roads proved to be quicker and cheaper to build and were adopted over most of Europe. However, with the growth of heavier and increased traffic Telford’s roads have proved more durable and his system of construction has become the accepted standard.

These days virtually every country has a unique name for its long distance highways. The top layer are the motorways, a term used in the UK, Ireland and generally in countries that drive on the left. In continental Europe we have autostradas, autobahns, autoroutes and others; they all mean the same. In the US and Canada there are Interstates sometimes freeways or turnpikes, the list is almost endless. In England major roads are termed Trunk Roads, an expression borrowed from India.

The Grand Trunk Road formally known as Uttarapath, Sadak-e-Azam, Badshahi Sadak is one of the oldest and longest roads in Asia. Since before 322 BC it has been in continuous use over the 1,700 miles between Chittagong in the east and Kabul in the west, linking the great cities of the subcontinent.

Probably because roads can be such a topic of conversation there are countless tales and anecdotal stories associated with user’s daily experiences. To end my story here are a couple:

The N22 heading east from Killarney is a magnificent new highway but just prior to Macroom it reverts to a much older surface. A large sign claims this to be the National Pothole Route, and I believe someone may be correct.

Near to where I live there is a road comprising an incline about 1 mile in length. This road is permanently under repair. In sequence it is closed by the Gas Board, the Electric Board and then the Water Board, each starting immediately the previous one finishes.

So much overtime is worked on this job that workmen refer to it as the Golden Mile. Is road making a question of carry on regardless?