A road eighty years ago was anything but a wide and neat strip of smooth Tarmac, and the state of the roads must have been an important topic of conversation at all times. This week elderly people recall how roads were made up, what they were like to use, and the arrival of the very first motor cars.
The Westmorland roads were made up of a local concoction called sammell, which was a form of gravel excellent for horse transport but rough on bicycle tyres:
"The roads were awful, they were all made of stone and covered with what was called sammell which is a special kind of soil found here, not everywhere, in sort of pockets, and I am not sure of the geological composition of sammell but it looks like reddish sand. First of all they laid a layer of stones, and then a layer of smaller stones, and then they rolled this down with an antediluvian steam roller, and then they had a water cart, then put sammell on; then they rolled it again and it made quite a good, durable road. It was dusty, yes... but on the whole it wasn't so bad that you couldn't walk on it in ordinary shoes."
Another elderly person recalled that the sammell had to be relaid every year:
"The sammell was put on top and every two years it was covered with a new layer, or probably every year; they'd do a part at a time, but all the roads were kept so clean, they were very narrow but the road men kept all the roads so tidy in those days because there was a road man, a length man, and he used to keep the road sides beautiful - but not any more now."
There were "sammell holes" on the side of Lingmoor and Blea Tarn where the red soil was dug out, and although horses could get a good grip on it, cyclists were less fortunate:
"Our bicycles were very much like bicycles today excepting that as the roads were stone we hardly every went anywhere without getting a puncture, we were swift at mending punctures, going off the road and finding a stream and mending a puncture, but we used to go quite a long way...the tyres must have been thinner and the stones were sharper, then of course there were all the hedge clippings, because there was a certain time of the year when everybody was laying their hedges, the roads were covered with rose hip spines so the tyres must have been quite thin because these would make a puncture."
Roadmen worked hard in villages to keep the roads clean and to lay the dust in summer:
"There was no Tarmac or anything like that then, just the ground - but kept perfectly clean. There was a great big brush going occasionally, they did it with a big brush and then the watering can, they would go round the streets with the watering thing."
Although the occasional car passing through a Lakeland town before the First World War would cause great excitement with the whole population participating in a new spectator sport, few people saw many cars before the end of the War with the exception of the chauffeurs at the big houses who were formerly grooms and coachmen. Only the very, very rich had cars, so the line-up among the gentry in a place like Grasmere was impressive even in those days:
"Dansons had a Lanchester, John Taylor had a Rolls, there was a Rolls past Wordsworth's cottage...there were umpteen Rolls's, they were all wealthy people in those days.
This chauffeur had his first driving licence in 1911:
"The first car my father had was an old Dijon Singleton, what they called a Governess car, you sat two each side facing one another, a driver and a passenger in front which made it a six seater, actually, though it was only about nine horse power if that, and the gears were underneath the steering wheel, just one, two, three and reverse, the clutch was there. There was no accelerator pedal, you used a quadrant on top of the steering wheel so that I could stand up; and if I sat on the seat I couldn't reach the clutch pedal but I could stand up, you see, and hold on to the steering wheel and shove the clutch out, put her in gear, let the clutch in and open the throttle with this quadrant on top of the wheel. You got quite used to it, of course. And you could alter your timing, your spark as well, you could either advance it or retard it if it started knocking badly, you just took it back a bit. Aye, it was queer! We used to take it to pieces, me and my brother who was four years older. We had a pulley on the stable roof and we used to lift the cylinder block off, single cylinder of course, clean it out, all the carbon, grind the valves in. We could almost pull that car to pieces and we were only young lads you know, but cars were very rare in those days. If you saw a car go by, you rushed out to see where it was going and who it was."
"I personally liked the old fashioned cars with the slow revs. I would only be 19 at the time in 1912 when I took a car from Dieppe down to St Moritz and over the passes into Italy, St Remo, and I took the car along the Riviera coast to Marseilles and shipped it back to Tilbury....during the whole of that time I never put a spanner on that car. We'd no detachable wheels, if we had a puncture we had what was a complete wheel with three or four clasps with wing nuts on them, and you pushed the clasps over the edge of the existing wheel and tightened the wing nuts up - Stepney wheels they called them...the next invention after that was a detachable rim but that didn't catch on so very well until somebody had the bright idea of a detachable wheel but it was a job in those days to fit those Stepney wheels, you had to have it straight or the boat rocked!"