British Roads, Then and Now

On The Road Travel Essays

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British Roads, Then and Now

(COURIER: You can use these notes coming into London from the airport, or else leaving London on a field trip.)

Freeways  Why aren't there more freeways into and out of London? The answer is complex, but several factors can be mentioned. First, is the strong community-consciousness of the British. The people living in the local districts don't want their neighborhoods disturbed by highway construction.. They have the means to enforce their desires: local community government is much stronger in England than in any other European country, an any London administration would be committing suicide to thwart the wishes of local townspeople.

Example: When Heathrow Airport was built, most Londoners were quite indifferent to the problem of providing rapid transportation from the airport into the city; they simply ignored the airport. After all, airports were for the convenience of foreigners, and not of much interest to people living in London itself — and especially not to people living in the suburbs of the city, who would be affected most by highway construction. Only in the last 5 years has a freeway been built out to Heathrow, and even that is inadequate for rush-hour traffic.

But what freeways there are show striking advances in highway technology. Two examples: the "Westway" (the freeway going out to Heathrow) has special yellow-colored streetlights. These are specially designed for fog. Usually, streetlights help little when heavy fog blankets the roads. But these yellow lights can penetrate the fog in a way that white-light can't. A second example: much of the Westway has underground heating elements which prevent the road from freezing in the winter. Since the Westway is "the" highway going west out of London, the city can't afford to have it closed because of slippery conditions.

Anecdotes from history that reflect the place of roads in English life. (1) Excavations for road-building have sometimes uncovered strange remains from the past. Several corpses from the Bronze Age were dug up when the Westway was being constructed. Sometimes the positions of the bones have indicated that the bodies were victims of murder. Since modern roads often follow older roads, we may surmise that these victims were robbed by highwaymen centuries ago. They were travelers who didn't make it to their destination.

(2) If you're in a traffic jam, you can envy medieval royalty, who had special rights for road-travel. Many of the roads (especially the London-Oxford road) were considered to be the exclusive property of the crown; and when the royal party was traveling, all other traffic had to move aside — somewhat like an ambulance screaming through town today. Queen Elizabeth I (in Shakespeare's day) was a frequent traveler on the London-Oxford road; she would spend as much time as possible visiting the country estates of noblemen as a "guest", because it cut down on her own household expenses.

(3) Road-travel was extremely hazardous centuries ago. You took your life in your hands in making a journey. For that reason, people seldom traveled alone; they grouped together in bands, and the men usually carried swords to defend themselves in case of ambush. Around Oxford, for example, a famous teenager once robbed 4000 from one of Oliver Cromwell's pay wagons. The theologian Charles Wesley (founder of Methodism) was held up once; the thieves took 30 pence from his pocket. But they couldn't find 30 which he had hidden in a special pocket. Precautions like this were standard procedure for road travel. The inns were spaced a day's trip apart from major cities. Around these inns, villages and then towns eventually grew up.

(4) Better roads were often unpopular with local villagers, in spite of the revenue that travelers brought to them. Reason: local people were often obligated to provide lodging and entertainment for traveling courtiers and civil servants. These "guests" helped themselves to everything they could find. Perhaps something of this resentment accounts for the indifference, even hostility, of local townspeople to highway-construction today. Little has changed!

Notes on the London Underground  (Preface the talk by pointing out an Underground station emblem: the red circle with a line through it.)

How did the London Underground system come to be built? The answer is to be found in the way that the railroad stations in London were built. The railroads were owned by separate companies, and each company built its own terminal-station in London. Each station was the start of a railroad line that served a certain part of the country. So, for example, the stations for rail traffic going north were located in the northern part of London; those going south in south London, etc. The problem was that it was difficult, especially with streets clogged with horse-carriages (and then horseless carriages), for people to get from one station to the other. The solution was to build a railroad that would go under the streets from one station to another. Hence the term used for the subway system: "Underground Railway".

At first, there were several distinct Underground railroads, with different names. These are today the different "lines" marked with different colors on Underground maps. The first was the "Metropolitan" line, opened in 1868, and using (of all things) steam-engines. Then came the "Circle" line, and others. The whole system was electrified in 1903-05, and this eliminated the smoke and soot from the old steam-engines. At first, the trains were not fully underground. They ran along deep ditches, thus allowing the smoke to escape. Only later, in 1890, were the rail lines completely covered over as they are today.

Modern extension of the Underground system. New lines continue to be opened, many of them serving suburban areas of Greater London. By the time they get very far out from the center, however, the "Underground" railroad usually runs above ground. Land that far out is cheaper, and so the cost of using overland space is proportionately less. The whole Underground system is run today by a single administration, but each line still has its own character. The modern Victoria line, for example, is new and clean. But the Northern and Piccadilly lines are old and sooty. Local commuters call them the "misery" lines. The Victoria line has murals at each station which represent characteristic traits of the neighborhood around the station. The Finsbury Park station has murals of duelling pistols, because Finsbury Park used to be a favorite duelling spot.

During World War II, the Underground "tubes" were used as mass air-raid shelters during the German Blitz. People would bring sleeping bags, pots of tea, portable gas cookers, and "camp out" for the duration of the raid.

Somewhere near "Bank" station, it is rumored, there is a hidden tunnel leading to the vaults of the Bank of England. Stories have circulated from time to time about elaborate attempts to find and use this tunnel.

In addition to the Underground proper, there is another sort of "Underground" which has been built in recent times. This "other" Underground is a series of 8"" pipes crisscrossing the city; the pipes are used by the Post Office to shoot mail from one sorting depot to another.

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