For thousands of years, the countryside of southwest Somerset must have been covered with a network of track-ways and paths. Evidence of human habitation dates from warm periods in the Ice Age, some 50,000 years ago. To follow the story of Man's lines of communication from ancient track-way; through the roads symbolic of the power of Rome; the journeys of medieval monks; the high life of the romantic coaching days; to the technological age with its powerful vehicles, is the aim of this present fascinating study.


Prehistoric Trackways (before 50AD)

The first trackways were created when animals and then people made regular seasonal journeys along the same routes. A local example of this was when the rivers from Chard to the sea were exploited both for the raw material for tool making, chert (a coarse flint), and food in the form of wild animals, marsh birds and sea fish. Numerous beautifully worked chert stone tools made by Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) people have been found at Broom gravel pit below Tytherleigh and by the River Axe. This indicates a preferred summer habitation site of early man, in a warm period, when mainland Britain was still joined to Europe. Further cold spells were still to come, though, and the early tracks would not have survived these extreme conditions. Millennia passed before man could return. Once more beautifully made local stone axe and arrowheads were made in the New Stone Age (about 3000BC), this time using flint from the cliff at Beer Head. These first ridgeways along the more open tops of the downs to the sea grew naturally.

In the succeeding Bronze Age (about 1500BC), burial or way-marking mounds such as Combe Beacon and Northay Barrows were constructed beside the principle tracks which were used both by long distance traders and also as part of a local network. More troubled times (about 300BC) were to come as the great local fortified encampments of the Iron Age show. A ring of these can be seen from the hill above Chard; Ham Hill, Lewesdon, Pilsdon Pen, Coney's and Lambert's Castles, Membury and Castle Neroche. The track-ways on the high and dry ridges still carry some of our local roads today and often include "short cut" sections originally only passable in Summer (see map 1). The ridgeway running along the Blackdowns is continuous, north from Combe Beacon to Castle Neroche and then west to Culmstock Beacon. To the south-east of Chard, an even more important prehistoric way, now called the North Dorset Ridgeway, ran from the coast at Axmouth, via a chain of hill-forts, Hawkesdown, Musbury, and on to Lewesdon and beyond. Various possible linking routes between these ways can be seen. The driest but not the shortest, passed along the watershed where Chard now stands, then headed for White Down on the Windwhistle ridge before turning south to Pilsdon Pen. In lower Chard, only a narrow strip would have remained dry, because there, roadside springs turn north or south to the rivers Isle or Axe. At this time, some local people probably lived near or in the small circular enclosure by Kingston Well Lane. Another of the summer routes passed a larger ringwork at Bounds Lane, continuing on to Storridge and Sadborough.

Finally, the line of two locally important trackways branching from the Blackdown Ridgeway must be mentioned. The first appears to have run south from Buckland, past Northay Barrows, along Bewley Down, to Membury Castle and beyond towards the sea. The other heads west from Snowdon to Hawberry hill-fort (above Horsepool in Whitestaunton Parish). It is most noticeable on the map today because it was used later to mark the County Boundary. See map.


Roman Roads (50 - 410AD)

Many earlier ways continued in use or had sections added. Soon after the first stage of the Roman conquest of Britain was completed (about 50AD), a military frontier supply road, later called the Fosse Way (a fosse was a roadside drainage ditch) was built. It linked the legionary fortress at Lincoln with the Southwest, passing the settlements of Leicester, Cirencester, Bath and Ilchester. It probably originally ended at a wharf beside the wide anchorage in the Axe estuary. Some sections of these are still major roads, such as the A303, Ilchester to Petherton Bridge. The Fosse Way appears to have initially had a chain of forts associated with it, the nearest being on Ham Hill (within the Iron Age hill-fort), Waddon (a supposed cavalry fort to the rear of the Fosse), Woodbury (where the Dorchester to Exeter road crossed) and Seaton (overlooking the harbour). Looking at the area close to Chard in more detail (map 1), it ran south-west from Ilchester on the line of the A303 road to Petherton Bridge, then on a minor road though Dinnington, In the climb up Windwhistle hill it deviates to the east, probably to avoid wet areas in Chillington. On the climb, a terrace way and then an agger (construction ridge) can be seen. Passing Cricket St. Thomas on the A30 road, an agger bears off to the left under the trees. At this ancient crossroads the famous White Down cattle market and fair was held. Continuing on the approximate line of the B3167 road, traces of Roman buildings have been found on the right. Further on, the names Street Farm and Perry Street are significant (straet was the Saxon word for a paved road). From Tytherleigh, the A358 to Axminster represents the line in places. In later Roman times, the Fosse Way was largely used for commerce, the more frequently used sections being more strongly constructed than others were.

Minor roads to the Fosse Way would link many nearby estates (villas) such as Wadeford; Whitestaunton and South Chard, but the line of these roads is conjectural. The prehistoric trackway (now the A30) through Chard was probably "Romanised" because a slight agger and some Roman finds have been found in places on its north side.


Celtic (410 - 680AD) and Saxon (680 - 1066AD) Ways

The withdrawal of the power of Rome, destroying the largely money based trading conditions of some 350 years, reduced but did not remove the need for trade. Trade in small settlements reverted to the former hilltop exchange centres, which developed a network of radiating tracks. Whitedown Fair is known to date from 1361 but probably had much earlier origins. An ancient pilgrimage chapel of St. Wite stood nearby but was destroyed by lightning in 1740. Another market site may have been at the Bounds Lane ringwork (called Coldharbour), west of Chard and this may also have been used for administration of the area. A mention of a "Mot Way" (see History of Chardstock) could refer to the ge-mot (the meeting place). Very little can be inferred about Celtic times, when the area came under the Kings of Devon and Cornwall but where useful, parts of the roads of earlier periods continued in use.

The coming of the Saxon penetration and administration in about 680AD resulted in a change of spoken language and place names. Some early land charters with boundary descriptions also survive. Ways that were in use at this time can be inferred from place names such as Wadeford, where "ford" has been added to an earlier form of the same word (waed). Another early ford was at Forton (Fordington - the large farm's ford). Some charters have boundary descriptions, the nearest being that for Ilminster (704AD). In this, a branch of the White Way called Sticklepath (map 2) is described as running (east) to join the White Way and then running down to Cress Ford (on the River Isle). In those times without maps, way markers were important, for example, beacon can mean just a sighting point and Sticklepath (steep way in open country) runs up to it from the former Forest of Neroche. Punishment places were also beside roads, as the name "headstock" (a head-post) near Ilminster and Holditch indicate. Ways came in a variety of quality and purpose. The most important were harepaths (army roads) such as the one running up to Castle Neroche from the east. In Tatworth, Church Path was probably so called because it ran up the "creech" (the hill) from the open common field (see booklet Tatworth Middle Field). Another way in this field was Ellen Stile - the steep way lined with elder bushes. Near Perry Street, Bug Way may have been thought to be haunted!

The Fosse Way continued in use and at Chillington gained the name Fisherway, the way used by fishermen. By Tytherleigh, it was Walway, the way leading to Cornwall. This way was also important because it led to the coast, always a dangerous place, especially in the days of Viking pirates. Many harepaths also led there, by hilltop or valley, and various battles between the county army and raiders are recorded. Such ways were, for centuries, used by packhorses moving dried sea salt inland from the coast. Salt was a vital ingredient for preserving food. See map.

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Medieval Ways (1066 - 1485AD)

So many of these ways are difficult to identify, but with the granting of the charter of Chard Borough in 1235, the evidence is surer. The Charter outlines the bounds of the new borough, giving it a long axis for a market area along Fore Street - High Street and a shorter one along Combe Street (Crimchard Lane) - Holyrood Street. These bounds remained unaltered until 1892. This was an attempt to promote and profit from the growing trade developing along the Crewkerne - Honiton road, an important route to the West. An Itinerary (route), dated 1400-1405, for Premonstratensian monks travelling from Tichfield Abbey to a sister house at Torre in Devon, describe the way through Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Sherborne, Yeovil, Crewkerne, Chard, Stockland, Honiton and Exeter. This must have been the way which, bearing left at the top of Snowdon, runs past a lost way-marker called Cock Crowing Stone, a former pond called Spittle (early roadside hospital?) and a barrow at Higher Wambrook. It then passes over Bewley Down, down to Longbridge at Higher Yartyford and then to Stockland village. The most important maps of the time, Paris 1250 and Gough 1360, show this main West Way clearly. Chard, although not named, can be identified as one of the towns along it. This does not mean that the alternative Fosse Way route via Axminster ceased to be used. Royal Itineraries of 1200-1300 preferred it, probably because it was safer and more suited to wheeled traffic. The holders of the manors through which routes passed maintained medieval ways. Those designated King's Highways were legal rights of passage for the king and his subjects. The law decreed that it was the good passage and not the beaten track that was the highway. By a statute of 1285, land 200ft (61m) either side of ways to market towns (included Chard) had to be kept clear to prevent robberies. Note that the word "road" was not used before Tudor times.


Tudor to Turnpike Times (1485 - 1760AD)

The first real effort to maintain many main roads, neglected since Roman times, was an Act of 1555, which placed the burden on the parishes, using newly created Surveyors of Highways. By this time, Chard badly needed effective and safe roads to carry its growing production of cloth to the port of Lyme Regis. The Book of Customs there gives for 1586 the amount of cloth from Chard merchants, Edward and Henry Mondaie, Robarte Tucker, and John Cogane, which formed part of the cargo of the ship Fforesighte of Lyme. This cloth was transported to Lyme via Axminster by packhorse, causing a considerable flow of traffic along the way. By 1607, much of the cloth exported from Chard was destined for "Britanie Rochell and Bourdeaux. In the 1500's, the old west road passing through Chard to Honiton, via Stockland, was considered inadequate but stayed in use for travellers on foot or horseback. It was later improved, a bridge at Longbridge being shown on Saxton's map of 1575. In 1677, it was reasonable enough for the town to be a stage on the western postal route or "running" as it was designated. The mails were carried on horseback at 5 miles per hour (8km/h), a half-hour stop being allowed at each stage. In 1720, Ralph Alien of Bath obtained a contract for the "cross posts and by posts" of England, the Somerset post towns (for collection and distribution of mail) being Bristol, Bath, Taunton, Crewkerne and Chard. Direction posts had to be provided by an Act of 1698. In 1724, the antiquarian, William Stukeley, described it as "a very bad road of stones and sand, over brookes and spring heads and barren downs". Earlier, in 1645 during the Civil War, Fairfax marched from Honiton to Chard, via Axminster, not Stockland. In the first map showing roads in Somerset (Philip Lear's 1690 edition of Saxton's map) and in traveller's guides (such as Britannia Deplete or Ogilvy Improved of 1736), there is no road shown going through Chard. Instead, the Fosse Way from Windwhistle to Axminster was recommended.


Turnpike Acts and Local Trusts (1753-1895)

The Act of 1555, mentioned above, was a partial failure, because the "voluntary" labour required by the Act from all able bodied men was said to provide opportunities for vast and disorderly rural "picnics". The first Turnpike Road was established as early as 1663 on a section of the Great North Road. The Act allowed the Counties affected to charge tolls for the maintenance of the road. In 1706, a standard scheme was devised, whereby a Board of Trustees was granted powers to issue shares and use the money to pay officers, erect tollbooths and turnpike gates and milestones. The gates were set at the entrances to towns or villages or at busy road junctions and usually consisted of a swivelling horizontal bar or turnpike. Travellers had to pay a fee or toll at the gates before proceeding. The collector of these tolls generally lived in a tollhouse built beside the road. These were purpose built or sometimes adjacent cottages were used. Typically, they had angled windows to view approaching traffic and a board to display the scale of charges. These varied according to the type of vehicle, the number and width of its wheels and its load. Animals in herds were charged by the score (20). The roads were looked after by a way warden, appointed by each Parish Council. At first, toll keepers were directly employed but later the collection of tolls was "farmed out", each gate receipts being sold annually to the highest bidder. To get the lowest price each year, the "farmers" kept their receipts secret. In times of agricultural depression, many ways of avoiding the payment of tolls were tried, and to combat this the Commissioners put up more gates with bars on side roads. There were various Acts of Parliament setting up the Turnpike Trusts. These were all local Acts until 1822, when a General Act was passed that repealed all the previous Acts. See map.

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