Friday 30 December 1988

The History Of Warminster's Roads

Andrew Houghton in front of one of the buildings that feature in his book,
Holly Lodge, the former toll house, at Boreham Road, Warminster.

The history of Warminster's roads, leading up to the opening of the town's bypass, is chronicled in a new book published by the Warminster History Society. Written by Andrew Houghton, the book tells the story of local roads, starting with the Iron Age tracks which linked hill forts such as Battlesbury and Bratton Castle.

Mr Houghton, the head of sixth form at Kingdown School, became interested in the subject when he started cycling round the area soon after he moved to the town in 1974.

His highly detailed research, fascinatingly illustrated with maps, drawings and old photographs, shows how the local road network has developed from the chaos of early centuries into the highly planned and organised system we are familiar with today.

"To account for the appalling roads of the past, we have to understand the way people thought about roads in principle," he says.

"For the modern travellers, roads form a national network, a planned hierarchy. The pattern is so well established that we take it for granted; we can hardly imagine a world without it."

"In reality most of the world DOES exist without this sort of planned network even today, and in Britain's past only the Romans provided a national network."

"It would seem presumptuous for long-distance travellers to expect anything more than a track, itself barely sufficient for local traffic."

"It was often inappropriate to talk of THE road from one place to another - there were usually several routes of equally poor status; one route might be preferred in winter, another in summer, depending on the weather and the state of the ground. It is hardly surprising that road travel was so arduous."

As well as traces of Iron Age routes, Roman roads run near Warminster: one across Pertwood Down and another south of Bishopstrow Farm, leading to the Roman villa at Pit Meads, near Norton Bavant.

Medieval roads were used for trade and travel, but were built only when strictly necessary. For example, a record exists of how Walter, Lord Hungerford and his wife Lady Catharine paid for a causeway to be built across Standerwick Common in 1426, supposedly after they narrowly escaped death crossing this very marshy area.

Although early roads were mainly used by pack and riding horses, by the 16th and 17th centuries waggons and coaches were coming into use and Warminster began to grow in importance as a corn market for the area. Although parishes were made responsible for roads in 1555, it was not until the early 1700s that a better system of maintenance was introduced with the coming of turnpikes.

An Act of Parliament would give a group of people the right to erect turnpikes, or gates, across certain stretches of roads, charging travellers to pass through them - and using the money to improve and maintain the roads.

Warminster had its first Turnpike Trust Act in 1727, and it was unusual in that it covered a series of roads radiating out from the town centre, rather than a single stretch of road running through an area.

Tolls were set at a shilling for passenger vehicles and waggons drawn by three or more animals; six pence for waggons drawn by two animals; a penny for a led, laden or ridden animal; ten pence for a score of cattle, and five pence per score of other animals.

The trust was run by local nobility and tradesmen, and in the interests of the town they declared that some things could pass through turnpikes toll-free. These included waggons carrying the means of repair to the roads, wood, hay, corn, coal, grist for any mill within three miles of Warminster, animals going to or from pasture or water, post horses and soldiers.

Later additions included vehicles going to or from an election, as there was no polling station in Warminster.

The Turnpike Trustees made significant improvements and alterations to the roads and effectively created the face of Warminster as it is today.

Better roads led to more traffic and communications, and the book traces the development of these in some detail, complete with copies of bills, posters, maps and plans. Mr Houghton's cycle rides around Warminster also led him to make a survey of ancient milestones, erected by different authorities over the centuries, and the book contains a complete guide as to where these are to be found.

He also lists all the roads maintained by the Turnpike Trust at the height of its powers, when it controlled 27 miles of routes in and out of the town.

Changes in local government at the end of the 1800s brought the end of the trust, which was wound up in 1870.

Alison Phillips, Wiltshire Times And News, 30 December 1988.

Before The Warminster Bypass, The Story Of Our Local Roads, by Andrew Houghton, is published by the Warminster History Society, price £5.00.