The road system in Northamptonshire dates back to the Roman period. It was developed and later expanded and improved so that local towns could trade. Roads are still the main form of transport for trade today.
In the 1st century BC, most of Northamptonshire belonged to a tribe called the Corieltauvi. Like elsewhere, they were conquered by the Romans in AD 43. As the Romans extended their control northwards, their famously straight roads spread across the county.
There had been few large settlements in Iron Age Northamptonshire. The Roman road system spurred growth by linking settlements, markets, and production areas.
The road system was dominated by two major roads. What was later called Watling Street (now the A5) ran from Dover (Dubris) through London (Londinium) to Chester (Deva). It ran across the south-western part of Northamptonshire with a bridge over the Ouse at Old Stratford. The second major road, now known as Gartree Road, cut through the north-eastern part of the county. It ran from Colchester (Camulodunum) through Godmanchester (Durovigutum) and across to Leicester (Ratae Coritanorum).
There are fragments of other smaller Roman roads in the county, mostly in the east. One ran along the Ise Valley linking Irchester and Kettering.
After the Roman army left Britain in AD 410, Northamptonshire became part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the early Saxon period, the Roman road system was probably still used but not maintained. In the late Saxon period, there was a growth in new roads.
Iron production, farming, and the wool trade led to markets and new settlements. Communication was increasingly important and roads were improved.
There were many castles in medieval Northamptonshire. However, from the 13th century, most moved from military to domestic use and others disappeared altogether. New roads and stone bridges provided communications for these seats of power.
Medieval drovers’ roads also brought cattle from Wales en route to London. One was the Welsh Road, which the Trafford Bridge carried over the River Cherwell.
However, there is little evidence of the medieval road system because later developments changed it.
By the 18th century, rural roads were in a bad state and were often unusable by wheeled carts. As the rivers in Northamptonshire were also hard to navigate, expensive packhorse trains were sometimes the only transport. Moreover, long roads in quiet areas or through woods, such as Rockingham Forest, were dangerous. In a letter from 1748, William Jackson wrote that he feared,
Northamptonshire roads are still infested with highwaymen.
The Culworth Gang, for example, burgled houses and robbed road travellers by night. They terrorised a wide area for many years before the ringleaders were caught and hanged in 1787. A later highwayman known as Captain Slash was finally caught robbing a shoemaker and hanged in 1826.
From the early 18th century, Acts of Parliament gave some roads to Turnpike Trusts. A ‘turnpike’ was a barred or piked gate. Travellers paid a toll to pass it and the revenue was used to maintain and improve the surface of that stretch of road. This encouraged commercial traffic between market towns as well as making a profit for the trusts. The Turnpike Trusts were dissolved in 1878 and the new County Councils took over road maintenance.
Industry developed as roads improved and the canals and railways arrived. Ironstone quarrying increased from the mid-19th century and the Corby steel industry took root in the 20th. Lacemaking and leather working, particularly for shoes, made the county famous. However, farming remained a major economic force in the rural areas. Today, the county is at the hub of national communications, with motorway and railway links for business and canals for leisure.