AS HOLIDAY TRAFFIC BUILDS, CORNWALL TODAY JOURNEYS BACK IN TIME ALONG THE COUNTY’S ROADS, TRAVELLING FROM TURNPIKES TO THE GOLDEN AGE OF MOTORING Words by Belinda Dixon
n Cornwall this month, however many crafty shortcuts you know, you’re likely to get caught in peak season traffic jams. As you wait for the route ahead to clear, it’s worth pondering how our roads came to be built, when, where and why. They not only tell us intriguing things about the county’s past, but also have surprising parallels with the present - from tolls to tarmac and from petrol to poetry. The potted history goes something like this: Stone Age man created the first tracks before the invading Romans brought us engineered roads. In the Middle Ages, the routes became the responsibility of each parish, and people were required to do maintenance work for free - putting car tax into perspective. By the 1700s roads clearly couldn’t cope with the increase in wheeled vehicles and Turnpike Trusts began springing up. These saw businessmen acquire the right to maintain a section of road, then charge a toll for using it. By 1830 there were 1,000 trusts across the country.
TOLL HOUSES There’s evidence of those days all over Cornwall in the form of toll collectors’ houses. Often built in the early 1800s, they’re sometimes irregular-sided and are always right beside the road. Their number includes those at Liskeard; Perranarworthal, near Perranwell Station; St Stephen’s near Launceston; Kea, just south of Truro and at St Breock, near Wadebridge. At Newbridge, near Callington, beside the A390 where the road crosses the River Lynher, there’s another one. This rubble stone house, with sharply pointed gable ends and a slate roof, was built in 1874, replacing a Callington Turnpike Trust toll house of the 1760s. Tolls included sixpence for a six-horse carriage and one penny for a horse. Some 130 years later and nine miles south at the Tamar Bridge, the tolls may be a little higher, but the principle of paying to use an expensive engineered structure remains the same. Even as the Newbridge toll house was being built, the days of the turnpikes were numbered - railways swept the country and the last trust closed in 1895.
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THE GOLDEN AGE By the end of the 1800s, local councils were responsible for local roads, but they couldn’t cope with the massive car boom of the early 1900s. That led to the1936 Trunk Roads Act, which gave the national government the job of looking after key routes. It coincided with the golden age of motoring. A time of compact Austin 7s, stately Riley Lynx Tourers and low-slung MGs; an era of Art Deco petrol stations, motoring goggles and elegant running boards; when the fast set drove a fast track at Brooklands. This age is beautifully, if surprisingly, evoked at St Mawes, the picturesque fishing port on the Roseland Peninsula. There, right on the harbour-front Marine
Parade, beside the Co-op and outside the gig club, are four cherry-red petrol pumps topped by creamy-white Shell globes. The oldest two are thought to date from the 1930s; the younger ones are probably mid-1940s. A bright yellow AA sign hanging just above informs us that Tregony is 10 miles away, while London is 263 miles. The St Mawes pumps stopped working in the 1970s, but are such a feature of the village they’ve recently been lovingly restored by volunteers. Signs now reveal the cost of refuelling: two shillings and three pence per gallon - that’s the price charged in October 1949; researchers went to the trouble of finding out the exact cost from Shell. Unfortunately, for those wanting to fill up at this now-bargain rate, a pump-side note also declares: “Sorry - Sold Out!”➔
ABOVE: PETROL PUMP, ST MAWES; LEFT: TAMAR BRIDGES. PHOTOS: WESTCOUNTRYPHOTOGRAPHERS.COM OPPOSITE PAGE: TOLL HOUSE ON THE LIZARD. PHOTO: CORNISH PICTURE LIBRARY/DOROTHY BURROWS
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VINTAGE VEHICLES This month, hundreds of classic and vintage vehicles will descend on the Royal Cornwall Showground for Wadebridge Wheels. Last year’s event saw 700 gleaming vehicles gather, ranging from cars and motorcycles to steam engines. One of those who’ll be bowling up in an 80-year-old car is Tony Barfield, chairman of the Cornwall Vintage Vehicle Society. The proud owner of a 1932 Austin 7 and a 1933 Riley, he puts the appeal of these elegant machines down to nostalgia. “People remember being driven around as a child in the back of these cars,” he says. “And these vehicles bring that back. I was brought up with the cars of the 1920s and 1930s so I gravitate towards them. Younger enthusiasts often go for the Austin 1100s and the Triumph Heralds.
Others have memories of going to race meetings; they tend to opt for Austin Healeys and MGs. “Of course when you’re driving these cars you’re also experiencing a different Cornwall. It’s a step back in time because we often stick to side roads. So we’re driving, in these old vehicles, through villages that modern roads bypass. We’re in different era cars, but we’re also driving through a different era Cornwall.” The Cornwall Vintage Vehicle Society’s events include Pendennis Castle’s 1960s’ weekend on July 3 and 4; a rally at Hayle Rugby Club for Hayle Rotary on July 24; and Wadebridge Rotary’s Wadebridge Wheels on Sunday, July 18 at the Royal Cornwall Showground; doors open at 10.30am. Call 01326 564330 or visit www.cvvs.freeuk.com
RIGHT: A SHELL GUIDE FROM THE ROYAL CORNWALL MUSEUM COLLECTION BELOW: A VINTAGE HEALEY. PHOTOS: WESTCOUNTRYPHOTOGRAPHERS.COM
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SHELL GUIDES Wadebridge also has another link to motoring’s golden age, and a direct connection to St Mawes’ Shell petrol pumps. Wadebridge is home to the John Betjeman Centre. Most famous for his poetry and broadcasting, for many Betjeman’s accessible but deeply evocative verse conjures up the essence of Cornwall. But this one-time Poet Laureate also wrote a series of travel books; the Shell Guides. His first, Cornwall Illustrated, was initially published in 1934. The books were aimed at guiding the growing fleets of motorists, dubbed “plus-foured weekenders” by Betjeman, around England’s historic and architectural sights. Some of those filling up at the St Mawes’ pumps in the 1930s, no doubt had a copy of Betjeman’s Cornwall Illustrated in the glove compartment. Although the Betjeman Centre doesn’t have any Shell Guides on display, its memorial room does feature some of the poet’s academic honours and furniture, as well as his books, videos and postcards for sale. The centre is in Wadebridge’s Southern Way; open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. Call 01208 812392. Cornwall’s modern roads are also full of surprises. Parts of the A30 (initially called, more romantically, the “Great South West Road”) were built under the Design Build Finance Operate system. That’s where businessmen build the road, then get a ‘shadow toll’ from the Government for every car that uses it; a modern twist on the Turnpike Trusts. And, putting the debate over rerouting the A30 at Goss Moor to one side, the ultimate irony is that the old road has been reduced to a bridleway: the 21st century development of a key Cornish route has turned the clock back, on that small stretch at least, to a pre-car era. CT
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