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Monday, 16 July 2012


High Milton Cottages, near Sauchrie, South Ayrshire (Grid Reference NS 3013). The road is believed the first to have been Macadamised.
Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

It's rained a lot recently here in the UK. Sidestepping the pavement puddles and driving along main roads sheeted with water, I remembered that civilisations in decline forget how to use - or cannot be bothered to use - the technologies which once made them great. Think of what happened to Britain when the Romans left.

In school, and quite young, we Did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. We learnt about road improvement and knew the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Macadam (1756 - 1836), both Scotsmen.

I can still remember the diagrams, though I don't have the exercise books any more. The basic idea was something like this:

You built up the road with small stones and at the same time you cambered the road, so that water ran to the sides where it could be drained into ditches. Unlike the old mud roads, the Macadamised road would remain passable in the wettest weather.

In towns, water from cambered streets would drain towards gutters and from there channeled into drains. Pavements would be gently sloped so that water ran towards the gutters.

All this we have forgotten.

In towns, our roads and pavements are dug up endlessly by utility firms and councils. They employ the same firms: Bodger and Sons, Bodger and Daughters, Bodger and Bodger. None of them have heard of road cambering or water run off. Or if they have, they don't want to know. They want the money.

Not so many years ago, cumbersome council vehicles dropped great nozzles into street drains to suck out leaves and other debris and thus ensure that the drains were fit for purpose. Now we have privatised drains and no cumbersome vehicles. Drains are blocked: when it rains, the water may run towards the drains but there it simply overflows and spreads out into those great ponds of water which buses drive through.

On the main roads and motorways, large private companies extract from the Exchequer millions for maintenance. But Bodger and Bodger Plc has never heard of cambering or storm water drains or ditches and, if it has, it doesn't want to know. It wants to lay tarmac at however-many-million pounds a mile and move on.

This is a civilisation in decline. Remember that next time you hit a sheet of water laying across your motorway or as you dodge the puddles sitting on your high street pavement.

Further Reading: Thomas Codrington, The Maintenance of Macadamised Roads. Second edition. E & F N Spon, London 1892.

Added 25 July 2018: This Blog is expanded into the chapter of the same title in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

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