steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Arcane Chicanes

I've always known that G. K.* Chesterton was indulging in a little harmless anachronism when he wrote about the "the rolling English drunkard" who made the "rolling English road" long before the Romans arrived - the English being at that time engaged in farming their own bit of the Schleswig-Holstein littoral. But I now read that he made another false assumption, and that English roads got to rolling only in relatively recent times. Ancient tracks such as the Ridgeway are, after all, pretty darn straight, so far as topography allows, and there's no reason to suppose that Bronze Age subsistence hunters and farmers had any interest in taking the scenic route. The Romans may have introduced cambers and drainage and what not, but the straightness of their roads was really nothing new.

So, why do English roads roll? Enclosures seem to be one answer - with the highway going out of its way to steer clear of individuals' private property. Then there were the hills that were too steep for stagecoaches, meaning that the road had to wriggle uphill at greater length, but a gentler gradient - something that became an issue only once horse-drawn traffic was the norm. I also like the idea that some road-kinks represent an attempt to sidestep a one-time obstacle (say, a Mighty Oak) that no longer exists, leaving the jink as a fossilized tribute.

Better than these British examples, though (and I take this from M.G. Lay's Ways of the World), is the news that "in China, kinks were sometimes deliberately introduced to prevent the roads and bridges from being used by fast-flying evil spirits." Traffic-calming measures for evil spirits - isn't that wonderful? The Chinese invent everything first.

* Does anyone else find it hard to think of Chesterton as Keith?
Tags: maunderings
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