Why British roads have so many bends

Road with very high sides and trees arching over it

As you drive around Britain, you will notice many of the small roads are not straight – even if the land is flat. This can be very frustrating because it is almost impossible to drive fast. It is also a bit puzzling. Why would anyone create a road that is longer than it needs to be?

The reason is that these roads are often very old, perhaps thousands of years. They would have started as paths made by people walking, leading packhorses or herding animals. Often they had to avoid objects like big rocks, fallen trees or water. This resulted in lots of twists and turns, even across flat landscapes.

From the late 1600s, most main roads were gradually straightened and given a hard surface, but there was a charge for using them. People who didn’t want to pay would find other routes instead, but these were usually longer and twistier. These routes often still exist.

In East Anglia (which is famous for being very flat) the roads are not straight for a different reason. Once, much of it was under the sea. As the land was drained, roads were built gradually. Unfortunately, no-one thought about the final layout, so they do not follow any kind of logic.

In contrast, the Romans who came to Britain in 43BCE planned their roads carefully and with skill. These roads were not muddy – they were built with stone so wheeled carts could use them. It is easy to spot an old Roman road on a map because they are mostly straight (for example, the A5, which was part of the Roman route called ‘Watling Street’).

Some very old roads lie below the surrounding land because over many years, mud and soft stone has been worn away. If they are bordered by hedges or walls, it makes it very difficult to see the road ahead. In south Somerset and west Dorset, there are roads that are 3 or 4 metres below the landscape, as you can see from the picture. With the trees on either side, it can feel like driving in a green tunnel.

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