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History of the A361, Part 1: Early history of the A361.

Website article, May 2018.
Later published as a booklet: A Medieval Cart Track with Tarmac.

Roads are often as old as civilisation, as is pointed out in Somerset County Council’s summary of the history of the county’s roads. Many are older still, particularly the ‘ridgeways’ that avoid the once densely wooded and marshy river valleys and keep, where possible, to the ridges of the long hill ranges that cross the county from east to west. Many of these are now converted into modern roads, either trunk roads or local routes – the latter including the route along the Polden hills, south of Glastonbury and the lower Brue valley. (1)

The A361 comes past Frome and Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury, and joins the A39 that comes through Wells. After parting company from the A361 shortly before Ashcott, the A39 joins the local road on the Polden ridge and continues to the M5. (The A361 turns off and heads south-west for Taunton). The reasons why the A361/A39 comes this way, through Glastonbury and Street, rather than taking the route along the ridge as a branch off the Fosse Way, is something of an accident of history. These days taken for granted, in Roman times it required substantial engineering works in order to cross the narrow stretch of wetland between the Glastonbury island and a route up onto the Poldens.​

The road from Frome via Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury certainly has its charm (as well as its modern problems). Approaching Glastonbury, the Tor is visible in the distance from the other side of Pilton and becomes gradually larger as you approach it. Reaching Glastonbury from the east, the road comes quite steeply down Coursing Batch and then levels out on its way past the Chalice Well Gardens.

It continues along Chilkwell Street before turning left into Bere Lane beside the fourteenth century Abbey Barn, which now serves as the Somerset Rural Life Museum. Former doctor, Town Councillor and antiquarian Hugh Sharp described this section – through Coursing Batch and Chilkwell Street – as “a medieval cart track with tarmac”. (2) This describes it very well, especially as it has never been very robustly re-made and it fails to cope with the physical demands of heavy modern-day traffic.

This road is very much older, however, than the mere middle ages. The route from Frome to Shepton Mallet, for instance, must be very ancient indeed. It follows a natural crossing place over the Mendip hills, coming up past Cheese Hill and Nunney Catch before wandering across the near-level top of the Mendips, past ancient earthworks and expanding modern quarries. As it approaches Shepton Mallet it descends Doulting Hill just above, and more or less parallel to, the nascent River Sheppey; then it crosses at right angles the Roman Fosse Way.

From Shepton Mallet to Glastonbury it is similarly ancient, for this was once the only way to reach, on foot, Glastonbury Tor. The road follows an outstretched finger of land that touches what once was an island amidst marshes, floods and rivers (and that sometimes, in wet winters, can still remind us of its famously watery past). The closer one gets to Glastonbury the more the hill ahead dominates the landscape, perhaps rising up out of the morning mists or offset by shadows and evening cloud formations.

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Ponter’s Ball: the 1970 excavation may have been on the site of an older road extending from X to Y. After C.Hollinrake 1986. (From Philip Rahtz, ‘Glastonbury – Myth & Archaeology’.

Ponter’s Ball

Just past Havyatt we arrive at Ponter’s Ball, Pontis Vallum, an earthwork built across the approach to Glastonbury to control traffic coming from the east. It is a dyke and ditch that stretches each way into what were once the marshes on either side of the finger’s tip. This earthwork encloses the mystical inland island on the only side where reliably dry land joins it to the rest of the world. Within this is the sacred temenos of Glastonbury. Nothing really should come beyond this line except with permission from the priests and priestesses of the place. Those who enter must have good reason to be here.

This should apply particularly to loud polluting lorries. They should go some other way (if they have to go at all), perhaps further south and then along the Polden ridge, which was certainly the route for any heavy haulage before the Romans arrived. It is not natural to travel through Glastonbury on the way to somewhere else. Glastonbury is a place where the traveller arrives.

The age of Ponter’s Ball is unclear and quite unproven. Estimates for the date of its construction vary from the Bronze Age to the twelfth century AD. The Iron Age perhaps has the edge, contemporary with the Glastonbury Lake Village. This prehistoric juxtaposition gives rise to what I believe is the theory with most credence: that the ‘island’ of Glastonbury and its immediate environs constituted – in Celtic times – an area free from outside political control or intensive occupation, and was used for both sacred ritual and social commerce, especially during annual inter-tribal gatherings. (3)

It was the Romans in the fourth century AD who built a bridge across the Brue and a causeway through the swamp between Glastonbury and Street, so enabling a through road beyond Glastonbury to the west. (4) And it was Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century that replaced the decaying Roman remains with a stone-built bridge and a more substantial causeway, now the route of the A39 (combined at this point with the A361). It was in the thirteenth century, with the popularity of Arthurian legends at its height, that this stone bridge received its name Pons Perilis, Pomparles Bridge. (5)

Returning to Ponter’s Ball, the archaeologist Philip Rahtz has noted, along with his Glastonbury-based colleagues Charles and Nancy Hollinrake, that where the A361 cuts through the earthwork today is not necessarily where the ancient route into Glastonbury from the east would have come. Excavations in 1970 turned up apparently anomalous material from a site a little to the south of the present road. The suggestion is that this dig took place by chance at a point on the course of an older road, where the earthwork had been rebuilt – probably in the medieval period – when the alignment of the road was changed. (6)


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Map with the likely course of the ancient road into Glastonburyt marked in orange. 

The medieval road to the Abbey

​My intuitive understanding is that the road from there in ancient times came (as suggested) to an entrance through Ponter’s Ball some 90 yards south of the present A361, and it then followed what are now footpaths and field boundaries, avoiding the steep climb up past Edgarley. It would have joined Cinnamon Lane at a point marked Lower Edgarley on the map, skirting the marshes at the foot of what is really the steep southern slope of the Tor itself.

This approach to the Tor, according to Geoffrey Ashe, was the route taken in legend by Sir Bedivere and later Sir Lancelot, before going up the hill to the chapel and hermitage ‘betwixt two holts hoar’ (wooded hills, as the Tor and Chalice Hill would have been in post-Roman times). Here they are said to have lived out their final days after the Arthurian battles. (7) The road into Glastonbury would have continued through the area now occupied by the Redlands Estate, arriving at the Abbey.

A look at the minor roads marked on the current Ordnance Survey map suggests that the ‘medieval cart track’ that led from the Abbey to the settlement of Chilkwell continued up Coursing Batch and then bore left to reach Ashwell. From there it forked back to the right to head through Edgarley, eventually joining the old Glastonbury road at a t-junction inside Ponter’s Ball before passing through the earthwork and reaching Havyatt. The main route into and out of Glastonbury would have been on the flatter ground lower down.

Roads at this time were gaining in importance: “During the Middle Ages there was a considerable amount of traffic on the roads, the great majority of which was on foot or on horseback. Most heavy loads were carried as far as possible by sea and then in river craft up the navigable rivers. They were then unloaded and taken by wagon or sled to their destination. On the roads, the pedlars and the packmen, with their wares on their backs or on pack-horses, joined with pilgrims, players, tinkers and friars making their way slowly on foot, [and] those travelling on horseback, the important and the wealthy … The old ridgeways came into use again with drovers herding cattle, sheep or pigs to markets or fairs in the county.” (8)

Medieval communities tended to be largely self-sufficient, so that trade routes were somewhat limited. “Salt and metals were among the mosty important commodities traded over long distances, with the wool trade also coming into prominence. Luxury items would include wines, cloth, spices and glass. Somerset produced lead and calamine (zinc ore) in the Mendips”. Large millstones were rolled along the road, towed by means of a bar inserted through the central hole. (9) Glastonbury Abbey, of course, often required building stone, which would be brought by cart from Doulting or by packhorse and then by barge up the Saxon canal from Street.

All of this, of course, was quite different in winter compared to the summer, particularly on low ground. Some places regularly became ‘mires’, where the road became progressively wider as travellers attempted to get by whilst avoiding the worst of the mud, sometimes walking through adjoining land. The concept of a road, since the departure of the Romans, had not been a strip of land with a made-up surface in the modern sense; it provided only a legal right of passage. (10) Some roads would become completely impassable in a wet winter, and seasonally a different route would have to be sought out.

Realignment of the road into Glastonbury

There is nothing to say for sure when the road into Glastonbury from the Shepton Mallet direction was realigned. The excavation at Ponter’s Ball in 1970 found sherds of late Saxon or medieval pottery at the original ground level, dated to between the 10th and 12th centuries. If this was where the original road came through a gateway in the earthwork, then the change in the alignment of the road could have taken place at any date between late Saxon times and 1780 when the turnpike road was established.

There is no specific event or construction that points to a particular date, though the route at the foot of the Tor’s southern slope would of course have been very wet during winter, and sometimes impassable. Changing the route of the access road may therefore have been a project that by the time it was done had been waiting to be undertaken for some time.

In Norman times Lords of the Manor repaired roads – if they could afford it after meeting royal demands for resources to pay for frequent wars – and the Church also helped, at least one Bishop of Durham granting numerous indulgences in exchange for road repairs. In 1285 the Statute of Westminster required land to be cleared for 200 feet each side of roads connecting market towns, but although countering ambush and robbery this did nothing for the road itself. (11)

The most important route through West Pennard was described in about 1235 as the “great road going to Pilton” from Glastonbury, crossing the parish from Havyatt to Stickleball Hill near Pilton. (12) It is possible that in winter travellers took the higher route through Ashwell and Edgarley, and that this was made the regular route in the mid-thirteenth century after the Brue was straightened across South Moor. Re-aligning the Brue would have made the land below it and close to the Glastonbury hills more prone to flooding.

There was also a ‘market road’ from Bruton to Glastonbury that followed the lower slopes of Pennard Hill, passed East Pennard church and continued through East Street and Norwood Park to Glastonbury Tor. (13) The term ‘market road’ has not been well defined, though presumably it indicated a road used by drovers herding livestock to market, in the same way as the medieval use of the old ridgeways. It too could have been used as a ‘winter route’ into Glastonbury from the east, though at the same time – if it was the regular road to a market held on the lower slopes of the Tor – this suggests that the main route to Glastonbury and its abbey continued to be the lower, southern road at least until the Dissolution in 1539.

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Part of the road from Bristol to Weymouth, from John Ogilby’s Road Plan of 1675.

Ogilby’s Road Plan

The earliest maps of Somerset date to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; and the earliest of those show no roads, only rivers. By this time, however, there were far more roads in and out of Glastonbury than just the route to the east.

The first maps to identify major roads in England appeared in the Ogilby Road Plan of 1675, which included a detailed survey of the road from Bristol to Weymouth. This went via Wells, Glastonbury, Somerton and Martock. At the top of Fisher’s Hill in Glastonbury, near the marker 25 miles from Bristol, is shown a turning onto what looks to be Bere Lane; this is marked “To Shipton Mallard”. (14) The exact route of this (by now, relatively minor) road, due east, is not shown.

The way towards Weymouth continued up Hill Head and along the length of Wearyall Hill, then crossed the Brue by “Pumparls bridge, of stone”. It parted ways with the “road to Taunton, and so to Exeter” in Street, heading through “Compton Dando” towards Somerton. The way to Bridgwater at that time led out of Glastonbury along Benedict Street; another way would have been by a turning off the Taunton road near Greinton, the route taken by the Duke of Monmouth ten years later on his way to meet his fate at the battle of Sedgemoor.

​By the sixteenth century, increasing use of wheeled vehicles had meant an increasing need for road maintenance. Springless private carriages were introduced during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and the state of the roads was first addressed by an Act of Parliament in 1555. This gave responsibility for road maintenance to the people of local parishes – though this work was an unpaid duty undertaken with little enthusiasm, and most roads continued to be full of holes and often waterlogged. The County Justices were responsible for the most important bridges.

The highway ‘parish’ was often not a parish in the same sense as for Church organisation. Whatever area seemed convenient was so designated, and tiny hamlets were responsible for their own roads in some parts of Somerset. This situation was to persist for more than 300 years; the Highways Act of 1835 included the first attempt to define a ‘parish’: “parish, township, tithing, rape, vill, wapentake, division, city, borough, liberty, market town, franchise, hamlet, chapelry, or any other place or district maintaining its own highways”. (15) Each ‘parish’ appointed at least one highways surveyor or ‘waywarden’, responsible for maintaining the roads with the help of Statute Labour (a duty increased in 1563 from three days a year to six).

Albert Pell described, still in use in the early nineteenth century, “the enormous plough, girt and stayed with iron, which as Spring approached was annually furbished up and brought to the village street. For this the owners or their tenants, acting in concert, made up joint teams of six or eight horses, and proceeded to the restoration of their highways by ploughing them up, casting the furrows towards the centre, and then harrowing them down to a fairly level surface for the ​summer traffic”. (16)

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Turnpike roads in Somerset.

The Turnpike Roads

It was in the eighteenth century, with the growth of manufacturing industry, that both road building technology and a better means of administering road maintenance finally began to catch up with what the Romans had achieved nearly 1,500 years earlier. However, until 1834 the Turnpike Trusts did not have to account for the disposal of their funds in any way, and there was never any requirement for their accounts to be audited. “That the system worked at all is perhaps surprising; that the trusts ended up hopelessly in debt is less so”. (17)

The first Turnpike Trust was introduced in Hertfordshire in 1663, and although it was more than 30 years until the second it was to become the standard means for administering the main road routes across the country during the eighteenth century: “In 1745 the Young Pretender raised his standard in Scotland and the English army hurried north, happy in the knowledge that General Wade had built 250 miles of military roads in southern Scotland to help in dealing with possible trouble. These had not been maintained, the army got bogged down, and Parliament decided that road maintenance was a good thing and that turnpike trusts were the best way to meet the need without using government funds.” (18)

Each trust required its own Act of Parliament; 400 such Acts were passed between 1700 and 1750, 1,600 between 1750 and 1800, including most of Somerset’s trusts between 1752 and 1759. The introduction of signposts in 1773, and mileposts in 1776, both began as requirements for the turnpike roads.

Tollgates and road tolls were resented by the general population, and one result was that they were attacked and destroyed by mobs. At Bristol in 1749 there were riots against the introduction of turnpikes. These lasted for a fortnight before they were eventually suppressed by six troops of dragoons. (19)

Though an onerous financial burden for tradesmen and carriers with wagons, the demands of a growing capitalist economy required improved transport facilities. Travellers on foot, soldiers and mail coaches were not charged a toll, but all others – including drovers taking beasts to market – had to pay. Many however would evade payment by using minor side roads. This in turn meant the construction of ‘side bars’ such that users of side roads could still be charged a toll.

​The creation of serviceable road surfaces was, however, essential, and Turnpike Trusts were able to employ road engineers and surveyors capable of designing them. Thomas Telford, nicknamed by the poet Robert Southey as the ‘Colossus of Roads’, developed “a very sound but rather expensive method with stones nine inches long packed closely together on end, with smaller stones rammed into the top to provide a really firm base for the renewable surface layer of small stone laid overall”. (20) He worked mostly in Wales during the early part of the nineteenth century. His method of construction was sufficiently hard-wearing to remain in use in some locations until after the second world war.

The production of a hard, cambered surface made from a layer of small stones mixed with water and then crushed and compacted using a heavy roller was a cheaper means that became the basis of the most commonly used method, pioneered by Blind Jack Metcalf in Yorkshire from 1765. An improved and cheaper process – relying on the horses hooves and vehicle wheels to do the crushing, and on cheap female or child labour to beak and lay the stones – was devised by John Loudon McAdam whilst working for the Bristol Turnpike Trust between 1816 and 1820. This became known as ‘macadamisation’, which soon spread to the rest of Europe and to North America. (21)

A section of turnpike road that had been very little used was excavated near Shepton Mallet by the Somerset Industrial Archaeology Society in 1997. Details of its construction, “a good example of water-bound macadam surface, with stones not too large to go into the mouth – not a very hygienic test!” were published by the Society. “The small stone surfacing is only about 6-11 inches deep, with a rough base of much larger stones below, visible in one of the SIAS trial trenches. J.L.McAdam would not have approved such base construction, so clearly he carried out no major repairs here during his short and inglorious term as surveyor to the Turnpike Trust.” Between 1823 and 1829 (when the trustees finally managed to get rid of him) McAdam’s son and nephew were supposed to have worked here under his supervision – which was sadly lacking. (22)

Tolls provided the finance – in theory – for regular maintenance as well as new road construction, though the ‘parishes’ were still legally responsible for road maintenance. In reality “Indictment at Quarter Sessions was the normal practice for enforcing action by fining the unfortunate parish in order to raise funds to pay for repairs.” (23) Another minor source of income was the sale of scrapings off the road surfaces, which was more than 50% animal droppings and could be used as manure.

Turnpike roads reached their peak during the 1830s, when they controlled one third of all the roads in the kingdom – including nearly all the main roads between towns and cities. They would gradually diminish with the introduction of canals, and particularly with the coming of the railways. Turnpikes were not in fact an efficient means of administering a road system, and most barely covered their costs – including interest on their debts. Between 1867 and 1883 the trusts in Somerset were all dissolved one by one.

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Mail coach in the early nineteenth century.

The Shepton Mallet, Bruton and Wells Turnpike Trusts

The Shepton Mallet Turnpike Trust was created in 1753 and the Bruton Trust in 1756, with the road between Shepton and Frome partly administered by each. There was also a Frome Trust established in 1757, though its roads were mostly not main roads. The Shepton Mallet Trust was responsible for establishing a new road from Shepton to Glastonbury in 1780, by a further Act of Parliament. The Wells and Bridgwater Trusts each controlled part of the road leading west from Glastonbury.

Toll gates were frequent, each demanding payment from road users. Between Frome and Glastonbury the Shepton Mallet Trust was known to have had tollhouses and tollgates at Dean, Cranmore, Fosse Lane in Shepton Mallet, Whitstone, Pilton and Glastonbury. (24) An advertisement for letting the operation of tollgates dated June 1819 also includes Charlton (on the Frome side of Shepton Mallet) and Steanbow. (25) The Wells Trust had them at Northover Bridge (replaced by Street – Mead – Gate in 1783) and at Walton, on the way west from Glastonbury. (26)

The heyday of the turnpike roads around 1820-1840 coincided with the heyday of travel by stagecoach and mail coaches. Horses had to be changed every seven miles, so that feeding and stabling the thousands of horses required became an industry in itself. A good average speed for a stagecoach – including stops at coaching inns – was about 10 mph. The mail coaches would announce their approach to a tollgate with a loud blast on a horn, “as a reminder that they, along with churchgoers, local farmers and the military, were entitled to free passage”. (27)

​By the 1820s the main London to Exeter mail coach route came through Wells and Glastonbury, heading west via the turnpike road to Bridgwater – the route to Exeter now being through Bridgwater rather than through the villages south of the Poldens. There was also a coaching route from London that came through Frome, Wells and Glastonbury, terminating at Bridgwater. This route is described in detail below.

The railway from Bristol to Exeter was built between 1841 and 1844, and for a while generated additional traffic on local turnpikes. Then the Somerset Central Railway’s line between Evercreech Junction and Highbridge – where it linked to the main line – began operation in 1854. (It was incorporated into the Somerset & Dorset Railway in the 1860s). With the proliferation of such local branch lines, the Shepton Mallet Turnpike Trust ‘expired’ in 1878 and the Wells Trust – the last in Somerset – in 1883.

As the Turnpike Trusts were dissolved there was no attempt made to provide for the transfer or preservation of their records – parliament did not apparently want the records of the discredited turnpike trusts to be preserved! (28) Those that did survive have been invaluable to such researchers as John Bentley and Brian Murless. ​

Pipers Inn

The Piper’s Inn – one-time coaching inn at Ashcott.

The road from Piper’s Inn to Glastonbury

The coaching route from Bridgwater via Glastonbury and Frome and then on to London – the Swiftsure – took a minor detour to include Wells in its itinerary, and so did not go direct from Glastonbury to Shepton Mallet; otherwise its route more or less followed the modern A361 through Ashcott, Street, Glastonbury, Shepton and Frome, all of which was ‘turnpiked’. (29)

From Bridgwater to Ashcott this road was turnpiked by the Bridgwater Trust in 1759, utilising the ancient ridgeway route along the Poldens. (30) The section between the Piper’s Inn at Ashcott and Fisher’s Hill in Glastonbury (and then through Glastonbury High Street and on to Wells) had already been turnpiked by the Wells Trust in 1753.

Unspecified alterations were carried out between the Piper’s Inn and Street in 1834, though apparently without making any significant diversions. The road continued through Street past Street Cross, where the tollhouse still survived in 1987 when it was recorded by Bentley and Murless in their Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society monograph. (31)

In 1804 the Commissioners of the Brue Drainage Board erected a bridge across the recently excavated South Drain. This bridge, “between Pond Perilous Bridge and Street Tollgate” was “insufficient and grievous to the public” and the Commissioners were requested to widen it to the full width of the turnpike road. After several years of legal wrangling it was eventually replaced.

Pomparles Bridge was also in a ‘ruinous state’ in 1797; in 1805, being a county bridge, it was to be “indicted or presented at next Quarter Sessions” as being too narrow and in poor repair. The present bridge, an early reinforced concrete arch, was built in 1912 when the old one became unsafe; it was widened in 1973-74.

The 1753 turnpike ran from Pomparles Bridge over Wearyall Hill to the crossroads at Bere Lane/Fisher’s Hill; the new Street Road, on lower ground to the north of Wearyall Hill, was built in the mid-1820s. In 1904 it was recorded that “This road was made nearly 80 years ago. … Opposite the Armoury [at the top end of Magdalene Street], before the new road to Street was made, was the entrance to Fishers Hill and the middle portion of the Park Estate. Old inhabitants of Glastonbury, recently dead, could well remember the gate between two poplar trees leading into these fields, and the footpaths across them by the ditch under Weary-All.” (32)

From Fisher’s Hill the route leads along Bere Lane, which was turnpiked by the Shepton Mallet Trust in 1780; so too was the road from the top of Glastonbury High Street, through Chilkwell Street and Coursing Batch and out via West Pennard. Turnpike gates in Bere Lane were a constant source of friction with the townspeople. Chilkwell tollgate was situated on the junction of Chilkwell Street with Bere Lane, controlling traffic coming along both of these roads. In 1803 the Wells Trust erected another at the far end of Bere Lane “upon the road belonging to this turnpike”, but was promptly made to remove it.

In 1821 a deputation of Glastonbury residents requested that the gate in Bere Lane be withdrawn. This was rejected, and so the town refused to keep the two roads (west and northwest of the gate) in good repair.

In 1853 the people of Glastonbury offered to resolve the situation by building a new tollhouse at Edgarley, if the Chilkwell tollgate and the side-bar at Tor Lane (now Wellhouse Lane) were removed – but this was also rejected. Eventually in 1860 the Chilkwell gates were moved to the junction of Tor Lane with the far end of Chilkwell Street/Coursing Batch, where a new tollhouse was built by April of that year. There the building can still be seen, with its distinctive windows from which traffic on the road could easily be seen in every direction.

Pipers Inn

The old tollhouse, now No 48 Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury.

The road from Glastonbury to Shepton Mallet and Frome

The Shepton to Glastonbury turnpike is recorded as a ‘new’ road in 1780 although this must have been a way much travelled for millennia. At this date, if not before, the main road into Glastonbury from the east would have been established through Edgarley, Coursing Batch and Chilkwell. There would have been various improvements and straightenings, for instance between Coursing Batch and Edgarley – the straight stretch of road that bypasses Ashwell is dated to 1780. The ‘hill at Edgarley’ was probably lowered later, about 1855 when the trustees and the people of Glastonbury were debating who was responsible for the work.

The road from West Pennard by way of Whitelake and Redlake Bridges was ‘in progress’ in 1852, and toll bars would be needed at points of junction with the turnpike. These were erected but the windows of the two tollhouses were broken in February 1854; iron shutters were then fixed. In April 1855 “The constable of the parish of West Pennard was cautioned to keep a lookout as a previous attempt had been made to burn the Bar, and his reply was ‘the Bar ought never to have been put there’.” Two nights later both houses were burned down and had to be rebuilt in brick or stone.

At Steanbow Bridge, terminus of the original 1753 Shepton Mallet turnpike (five miles from Glastonbury), there was a main tollgate. The bridge at Steanbow needed repair and widening in 1827 but the Clerk of the Peace found that it was not on the County Roll of bridges and refused the customary contribution; the trustees were forced to carry out repairs entirely at their own expense in 1839 and again in 1849. The 1874 County Bridge register does include Steanbow Bridge, and a grant towards rebuilding was eventually made in 1875.

At Pilton the main road runs via a sharp bend at the crossroads, and Bentley & Murless suggest that there could have been an earlier direct route along a surviving lane and nearer to the church and the village centre. The sharp bend has always been a problem, as it must have been during the turnpike days; people still alive can remember lorries coming down the hill and failing to stop before crashing into the buildings, which apparently happened fairly frequently before the second world war.

From the present junction above Pilton on Whitstone Hill, where the tollhouse stood, the turnpike followed what is now the B3136 over Lamberts Hill, northeast into Shepton Mallet. From the centre of Shepton the road turned east to rejoin the present A361 beyond the Fosse Way, where the second Charlton tollhouse survives (the old tollhouse was south of the road, but was demolished in 1823 when its successor was built on the north side). The present road dates from 1835; the old road was south of the stream, and was exchanged for the land required on the north side.

Until 1869 the road to Doulting was south of the present A361 (now showing up clearly as a footpath on the OS map). It made fairly directly for the village’s Abbey Barn from where it turned north and then east, rejoining the A361 route. Plans to build the new road had been postponed for years due to lack of funds; they were eventually revived at the instigation of Col. Phipps and Mr. R.H.Paget, both enthusiastic trustees. It was an astonishingly late date for a major length of completely new turnpike road to be constructed, only nine years before the Trust was wound up. The new road was completed in 1871 and Mr Paget, as a local landowner, had to allow dumping on additional land for two years to repair slips and absolve the trust from its duty to maintain fences. He also had to provide personally the final £49 8s 4d to complete payment for the work.

At Cranmore, a Captain Strode was given permission to cross the turnpike road with a tramway from Waterlip Quarry to the railway station in 1866, the last traces of which disappeared when the road was widened in 1971. Inhabitants of Cranmore were exempt from paying tolls unless trading in coal, and in 1820 a side gate was set up at Dean to catch coal traffic coming from ‘The Rocks’, north of the road.

East of Dean, until 1828 the road continued fairly straight as far as a turning still known as ‘Turnpike Lane’, and then followed a section of Roman road for nearly half a mile to the site of the old (1798) Cranmore tollhouse. This was replaced by a new tollhouse at Turnpike Lane at the time of later road alterations. The ‘Hills at Mere Head’, near Leighton, were improved in 1830, helped by a donation of land from Mr Paget, father of the Mr R.H.Paget who later supported road construction on Doulting Hill. He had hoped to recoup his expenses and the value of land by tolls from residents, but was told that he could not. He did however receive the old road in exchange.

The Bruton Trust’s turnpike began west of Leighton, and the whole of the road through Nunney Catch to Frome was turnpike in 1756. East of Leighton the road ran north of the present A361, which has been altered considerably since to cater for quarry traffic; the old road ran through Holwell, Nunney Catch and Ridgeway. There was only a ford at Holwell in 1828, but Holwell bridge had been built by 1839. The tollhouse at Nunney Catch stood in the angle between the A361 and the A359 (though north of the present junction and roundabout) until the 1920s.

The Bruton turnpike continued right into Frome to link up with Christchurch Street near the site of the old Lamb Inn, though the road junction here has been so altered that a precise termination point can no longer be discerned. Beyond Frome, the A361 leading towards Trowbridge had been turnpiked by the Black Dog Trust, based at the Black Dog Inn near Dilton Marsh. (33)

19thC Rakeman – First American Macadam Road

Construction of an early macadamised road.

Beginnings of the modern road system

The development of the road system after the demise of the turnpike trusts was intimately bound up with the development of local government: “The work of the Turnpike Trusts drew attention to the need for the improvement and repair of other roads in Somerset. In towns, the borough councils or local boards of health or improvement commissioners maintained the streets, but in remoter areas the parish was still responsible for road maintenance. To relieve the burden of expense and to form a more effective administrative unit, parishes were grouped into highway districts.” This happened by means of the 1862 Highways Act, along with the appointment of County Surveyors. These local highway authorities took over for a time, but with the road system in serious decline the Local Government Act of 1888 made roads the responsibility of the new County Councils; after the Act of 1894, some were transferred to the Borough and District Councils. (34)

The 1835 General Highways Act had confirmed the parishes’ responsibility for roads other than turnpikes. The burden of having to maintain roads largely used for through traffic was already recognised as unfair on local parishioners but was not removed for another half a century. The 1835 Act codified existing legislation and good practice, including some that is now incorporated into the Highway Code.

“The main effect of the Act on turnpikes was the abolition of all restrictions on weights and on types of wheels … This utopian concept lasted just 30 years, the existence of ‘Extraordinary Traffic’ being legally recognised in 1865, when traction engines were beginning the inexorable destruction of McAdam’s roads and many bridges were proving woefully inadequate … Traction engine wheels continued to be designed to dig into the road surface to provide a better grip until 1915, when the worst types were finally banned”. (35)

The infamous ‘red flag’ provisions came with the Locomotive Act of 1865, which restricted speeds of mechanically-powered vehicles to 4 mph (2 mph in towns). One of the three persons required to “drive and conduct” the vehicle “shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same.” This law was repealed in 1896, with the increasing use of internal combustion engines. (36)

Road surfaces had not changed since the days of Telford and McAdam, and by 1907 the increasing use of motorised vehicles had created a dust problem that was becoming intolerable. A technique for surfacing roads using tar had been patented in 1903 by the British engineer Edgar Purnell Hooley. He had been walking in Denby, Derbyshire when he noticed a smooth stretch of road close to an ironworks. “He was informed that a barrel of tar had fallen onto the road, and someone poured waste slag from the nearby furnaces to cover up the mess. Hooley noticed that this unintentional resurfacing had solidified the road, and there was no rutting and no dust.” (37)

With the introduction of town gas for light and heat, unrefined tar became readily available. “This noxious fluid began in due course to be spread on the surface [of roads] to lay the dust. The worst poisons were eventually eliminated, reducing danger to livestock and fish, and a programme of tarring main roads in Somerset was started in 1908; this was purely a surface dressing, and except for a few trial lengths more comprehensive improvements in construction had to wait until the 1920s”. (38)

David Lloyd George was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced Vehicle Excise Duty and the ‘tax disc’, in the budget of 1909. The road system was to be self-financing and one of the first projects undertaken by the new Road Board was to encourage the use of tar instead of water, to bind small stones into what became known as ‘tar macadam’. (39) “Steam rollers, tar-boilers and tar-barrels, roadmen’s huts and equipment became familiar sights along the county’s roads as more and more motor cars and lorries were manufactured and used.” (40) Thus the word ‘tarmac’ entered the English language, though not until more than 70 years after John McAdam’s death.

The first trials of different road surfaces in Somerset were carried out in 1921, between North Petherton and Bridgwater. Various proprietory surfacings were laid, each using several inches of stone pre-coated with tar or bitumen, as well as one length of concrete carriageway. The performance of these was reported in the Annual Reports of the County Surveyor each year: concrete was the most durable, but cost more in the first place. Over the next ten years much work was done on main roads as Unemployment Relief Works, largely paid for by central government. Material was still spread manually, although surface dressing with tar was becoming mechanised. (41)

In 1921 the road classification system was introduced, with the first 99 A-roads being given their numbers by the following spring. Three-digit A-roads were in place by June 1922, including the A361, while the remaining A and B roads were completed by February 1923. Since then the system has been gradually expanded and developed.

It was the 1936 Trunk Roads Act that first defined ‘trunk roads’ and brought them under the direct control of the Ministry of Transport, which “shall be the highway authority for the principal roads in Great Britain which constitute the national system of routes for through traffic”. This included the road from London to Penzance that went through Yeovil, Crewkerne and Chard. (42) The A361 through Somerset remained a county road and (so far) has been ever since.

 Notes and references:​

 1.      Somerset County Council archive, Roads, Introduction:   http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Roads.htm
 2.      Hugh Sharp, minutes of Glastonbury Town Council’s A361 Committee, 24 September 2015.
 3.      For a discussion of this see Bruce Garrard, The River (2018 revision), pp 72-76.
 4.      See John Morland, The Brue at Glastonbury (1882), in The Proceedings of the Somerset  Archaeological and Natural History Society (SANHS) volume 27, pp 44-49; and The Roman Road, Pons Perlis and Beckery Mill (1922), in SANHS volume 58, pp 65-70. Summarised by Bruce Garrard, The River (2018 revision), pp 90-91.
 5.      For a summary of these works and their context, see Bruce Garrard, The River (2018 revision), pp 167-169; see also John Morland, as above.
 6.      Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts, Glastonbury – Myth & Archaeology (2009 edition), p 29. See pp 28-32 for a discussion of Ponter’s Ball generally; p 29 for a map based on Charles Hollinrake, 1986.
 7.      Geoffrey Ashe, From Caesar to Arthur (1960), p 231. The story is from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.
 8.   Somerset County Council archive, Roads, Introductionhttp://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Roads.htm
 9.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Somerset Roads – the legacy of the turnpikes, Phase Two, Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society (1987), p 8. This was certainly the method employed in the nineteenth century (“and possibly much earlier”); in about 1820 charges for the Marlborough-Coate Trust included “Millstones, in pairs or singly, drawn by 5 horses, 2s 6d”. 1s extra was charged for each additional horse.
 10.   Somerset County Council archive, Roads, Introductionhttp://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Roads.htm
 11.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase Two, p 8.
 12.   British History Online, West Pennard: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol9/pp142-154#h3-0002
 13.   Ditto.
 14.   John Ogilby, The Road from Bristol to Weymouth, from The Ogilby Road Plan (1675), available on the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society website: http://glastonburyantiquarians.org/site/index.php?page_id=157
 15.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase Two, p 9.
 16.   Ditto, p 13.
 17.   Ditto, p 10.
 18.   Ditto, p 10.
 19.   Wikipedia, John Loudon McAdamhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Loudon_McAdam
 20.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase Two, p 10.
 21.   John Bentley and Peter Daniel, Investigation of turnpike road north of Shepton Mallet, Somerset Industrial Archaeology Society Bulletin No 77 (1997).
 22.   Somerset County Council archive, Turnpikeshttp://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Turnpikes.htm
 23.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase Two, p 10.
 24.   Shepton Mallet Turnpikehttp://www.turnpikes.org.uk/map%20Somerset%20turnpikes.jpg
 25.   See Sandy Buchanan, The Shepton Mallet Turnpike Trust, fig. 2, in Somerset Industrial Archaeology Society Bulletin No 77 (1997).
 26.   From http://turnpikes.org.uk/Somerset%29-%20Wells.htm, quoted in The Turnpikes and Tollhouses of Wells, Wells Museum.
 27.   Geoffrey Body and Roy Gallop, The Coaching Era, Fiducia Press (2003), p 38.
 28.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, ?
 29.   Geoffrey Body and Roy Gallop, The Coaching Era, Fiducia Press (2003), p 45.
 30.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase One, p 10.
 31.   The detailed description that follows of the road between Ashcott and Glastonbury, and then between Glastonbury and Frome, is based on J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Somerset Roads – the legacy of the turnpikes, Phase Two, Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society (1987), pp 60-61 (re Wells Turnpike Trust), pp 48-50 (re Shepton Mallet Turnpike Trust), and p 31 (re Bruton Turnpike Trust).
 32.   J.G.L.Bulleid, Glastonbury Highwayshttp://glastonburyantiquarians.org/site/index.php?page_id=224
 33.   J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Phase Two, p 22.
 34. J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, Somerset Roads – the legacy of the turnpikesPhase Two, Somerset Industrial Archaeological Society, 1987, p11.
 35.  J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, ?
 36.  Wikipedia, Red Flag Traffic Lawshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_flag_traffic_laws
 37.  Wikipedia, Tarmacadam, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarmacadam
 38.  J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, p13.
 39.  Wikipedia, Road Fundhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_Fund
 40. Somerset County Council archive, Turnpikeshttp://www1.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Turnpikes.htm
 41. J.B.Bentley and B.J.Murless, p13.
 42. Wikipedia, 1936 Trunk Roads Acthttps://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Trunk_Roads_Act_1936