Mapping Modern Britain: How Roads and Maps Have Shaped the UK

12th Nov 2013

Everyday in the UK, millions of us get behind the wheel and battle our way through traffic and tension, bumps and bottlenecks, in our bid to make that most habitual of journeys, from A to B. Over the past fifty years, the number of UK drivers has more than tripled, with statistics from 2010 revealing almost 76% of British adults now hold a full driving licence.

There’s no doubt that the automotive industry is booming, but what effect has this uptake had on the British landscape? More drivers mean more roads, and more roads means the way in which we live and work in the UK is changing. According to the Ordnance Survey, there are approximately 321,000 miles of ‘driveable’, roads in the UK. Other recent studies have shown that we depend on our road network for 86% of passenger journeys and more than 90% of freight including almost everything we buy in the shops or online.

Roads and road expansion have played a critical role in the development of the British landscape, and although many of us may have a love-hate relationship with our bustling, often congested routes, they are undeniably, irreversibly stitched into the tapestry of British history. Today there are towns and cities that exist entirely because of the development of roads and the transport system in and around the area, such as Milton Keynes. Roads give us the freedom to live wherever we choose, to visit friends and relatives, to travel and to explore the many marvels that our country has to offer.

In his latest book ‘Mapping the Roads’; map enthusiast Mike Parker charts the ambitions and hopes of a nation through maps.  With its colourful cartography and vivid illustrations, Parker’s book tracks the importance of British road building since 1500bc, revealing how some things have almost gone full circle from the early turnpikes to the current tolls (M6 (Toll) and proposed A14 toll). It also logs the AA’s century of involvement with roads - from the AA erecting the first road signs and setting up the first petrol pumps, to speed camera maps and the AA route planner.

Here are some interesting facts from Mapping the Roads:

The Great North Road was the only road shown in John Speed’s Tudor County Atlas of 1611. It would take four days to go from London-York and cost 25 shillings on the outside of the coach.

The A1 is the longest numbered road in Britain tracking 410 miles from London to Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott described it as the “dullest road in the world” but is it the British Route 66?

The Turnpike Act came in 1695 and by 1770 there were 15000 miles of turnpike roads.

The first AA petrol pump was introduced in November 1919 on the Bath Road with fuel equivalent to more than £2 per litre.

In 1934 7,343 people were killed on roads – today we have15 times the number of cars and one quarter of the deaths.

Parker’s book offers invaluable insight into the advancement of the British road system, revealing how the development of the transport system has shaped and defined the Britain we know today.

“By mapping the roads, we are, in essence, mapping the evolution of Britain.”

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