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In Witheridge, as elsewhere in North Devon, the roads and lanes prior to the 19th century were notorious for their appalling state, making them at times impassable. Writer after writer detailed the dangers and horrors of their rutted and muddy conditions. The naturally hilly countryside in this part of Devon led to many of the roads being dangerously steep, with constant use and repairs leading to deeply rutted tracks and increasingly steep banks on either side.

Unless an individual could afford to travel by horse, they usually walked. It was not until the mid-sixteen hundreds that wheeled traffic first began to appear, and even then, weight limits, along with restrictions on the number of animals drawing vehicles, were imposed to protect the roads from further damage. The movement of all goods relied on the packhorse, one of the earliest forms of transport, and one, which survived until deep into the 19th Century, was the heavily laden packhorse, with a pannier on either side of the animal, Celia Fiennes, that much quoted traveller, describes their use in 1698:

"All their carriages are here on the banks of horses, with sort of hookes like yoakes stand upon each side of a good height, which are the receptacles of their goods. Either wood, furze, lime, coal, corn, hay or straw, or what else they can convey from place to place, or I cannot see how two such horses can pass each other."

As roads and lanes continued to improve, carts became more numerous, and from these it was only a step to the horse and cart. Matters further improved in the eighteen hundreds with the introduction of Turnpike Roads. The Exeter Turnpike Trust, formed in 1753, covering all the main roads around Exeter, and with the Tiverton and Barnstaple Trusts following 1757 and 1760 respectively. Old routes were improved, and new roads built, which avoided some of the very steepest hills.

It was better still for Witheridge, when, in 1837, the trustees of South Molton Turnpikes proposed an Act for a number of roads from that town, which included a direct road through Witheridge connecting with the existing main road Westway Cross. An Act of Parliament approved this in 1839, and the new road entered Witheridge parish at the point were West Yeo Bridge crosses the Adworthy Brook. The road then curved and ran level to Dart Cross, whence it sliced straight through the fields of Dart Raffe and West Yeo before dropping down to cross the river on a causeway and a new bridge over the Little Dart River.

Successive Acts of Parliament, the Highways Act of 1835, the Highway Amendment Act of 1864 and the Local Government Act of 1888 all went some way to regularising the system for maintaining roads, and by the 1880s, the principal roads in Devon were generally said to be excellent, although the side-roads remained of lesser quality. High banks and steep hills continued to make journeys on these roads hazardous and uncomfortable.

Further improvements to the condition of the roads resulted from the Turnpike Acts in the mid-eighteenth century, prompting a growth in the number of carriers, and a new wave of Turnpike Acts in the 1830s and 1840s encouraged the establishment of regular services. The Trusts also experimented with new ways to build roads, adding new methods of making roads stronger and last longer. Very few trusts would ever make money, most in fact lost money, however they did leave a legacy of improved roads. At the same time, Britain saw the arrival of the first railway lines, which became a very popular and safe way to travel. They were fast and more difficult for highwaymen to stop. People stopped using the stagecoaches and the Turnpike Trusts gradually became bankrupt, with the last company closing in 1895.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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