Cobbles were used for years as hard wearing road surfaces.
Cobbles and Cobbled streets are an iconic and much loved part of British life. The sound of cars driving, bikes rolling, even horses clip clopping over them is something that is familiar to us all, and the strange and unique feeling of them underfoot is a sensation never to be forgotten. But have you ever stopped to wonder why the cobbles are there in the first place? What they do, what is their function, who came up with the idea, and when?
They are part of the landscape, lovely to look at, heart warming when you come across them unexpectedly, and something that offers up an instant hot of nostalgia for a time that is almost out of living memory now.
The word ‘cobblestone’ itself comes from the English word ‘cob’. Think of cob loaves, bacon cobs, or even cobnut – the image that comes to mind is of a small, round, lumpen shaped item. So it is no wonder that the stones used in constructing roads, those small, round, lumpen shaped ones, were known as cobbles. The term was first used in the beginning of the fifteenth century, when new roads were being constructed up and down the country. Workers had the job of wading through rivers and streams, ducking down into the chilled waters, and plucking out the roundest, sturdiest pebbles. These were the cobble stones (later cobblestones) that would be used to lay the roads.
Later, the term ‘cobble’ came to mean any rounded stone that was between 2.5 and 10 inches across, but at the time of the road laying, there were no measurements taken. Everything was done by eye, and fitted together like a long and arduous jigsaw.
But why? Why spend the time (and money) building new roads, when the old ones had been used for hundreds of years? Horses and carts had driven up and down the original dirt roads, delivering their wares, taking messages, journeying countrymen and squires with no problems. But that was the problem itself. The old dirt roads were worn, full of potholes, in need of repair, and the government (where it had control), or the landowners if it was private land, had big repair bills to face each spring when the winter had done added to the damage. Often, the roads were impassable, making travelling and trade impossible.
Cobbles were a way to ensure that the road – or at least part of it – would last, no matter who or what rode across it, and no matter what the weather did to it. The cobblestones were placed in sand, or, in some cases where the landowner was wealthier, in specially made mortar. Each one was hand picked, and then carefully dropped into the ground. There could be no big gaps, and no stones that were much taller or smaller than the others. The effect had to be as smooth as possible, so that carts could get across the roads without accident.
Cobbled streets also meant that pedestrians could get across the roads without accident too… More often than not, on the old dirt roads, the thundering hooves of the horse and madly spinning wheels of the cart would be on top of a poor, unsuspecting walker before they even knew what was happening. At least when cobbles went down, the loud sound of the approaching vehicles meant that they could get out of the way with time to spare. Cobblestones were the first means of road safety in the country, at a time when there were no health and safety laws to contend with.
However, it wasn’t the English who invented these innovative roads. It was the most famous road builders of them all; the Romans. The Romans built an impressive network of over 50,000 miles of road, all of which really did lead to Rome, and their preferred method was to use cobbles. Durable and reliable, cobbled streets were the only way to travel in Roman times (starting about 250BC, when the first recorded mention of what today are known as cobblestones is made).
Although paving streets with cobbles has fallen out of favour, with road builders turning to tarmac and asphalt, as their preferred materials, it is always a joy to find an old cobbles street, to hear the sound of wheels driving across it, and to feel that small, round, lumpen stone beneath our