by Roger Baker

Crook of Lune Bridge, Howgill (G.Brambles)

Although the study of roads in Cumbria has its devotees, (and this guide owes everything to the work of Paul Hindle and others), it has not produced the volume of research – and number of publications – to compare with that on the subject of railways in the region. So unlike in that section I cannot simply point you in the direction of existing websites on the subject, but have attempted here to summarise the development of the road network in Cumbria, linking to other web-based resources and listing other useful material as I go.

It is quite possible that the road or track you are following today had its origins many thousands of years ago, but the physical evidence to prove that is virtually non-existent. Only when routes were engineered – as was the norm in Roman times, but only when difficult terrain demanded it in other periods of history – is there evidence on the ground. It was only much later that routes were mapped and recorded in detail, for example as part of a submission to establish a Turnpike Trust.

Similarly any measures of the amount or type of traffic using the roads that did exist stay unrecorded until the days of the turnpikes and later traffic censuses. What is clear, however, is that roads were crucial to the development of industry in Cumbria, which depended on them for the transport of both raw materials and finished goods, and that is what I will try to highlight in the notes that follow.


Evidence has been uncovered of the presence of Early Man in various parts of Cumbria. Nomadic Old Stone Age hunters ventured as far north as Furness and Cartmel; Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers established more temporary settlements along the west coast; and New Stone Age farmers and herders established more permanent settlements around the fringes, but ventured into the central core to “quarry” axes from the volcanic rock. Bronze Age people spread from the North-East through the Eden Valley to the west coast, preferring the upland fringes at around 500 to 1000 feet; and Iron Age people reached this area from Yorkshire over the Pennines to the Eden Valley and Solway Firth.

Throughout the period, however, the overall picture is of small settlements which were self-sufficient and so had little need to journey to meet needs and establish trading routes. What travel there was would not follow a defined track so much as a general route over which the traveller would choose their own trail. Nevertheless there would be exceptions to the rule, dependant on the amount of traffic. Stone axe production in the crags of the Langdale Pikes, for example, was a seasonal activity – the axes were roughly “cut” in the summer before being carried for polishing at coastal sites to the west over the winter. Given that at that time (3000-1500BC) much of the land up to 2000ft was forested – pine and birch on the higher fells, hazel, oak and elm in the valleys – it seems likely that the axes would be transported along known ridge routes towards their destination, keeping to the high ground as much as possible. Langdale axes have been found at various sites throughout the country, not just in the local area, and Millward & Robinson have suggested a network of delivery routes from the production area:- over Esk Hause and Styhead Pass towards Ennerdale and the coast, over Silver Howe and Loughrigg Fell towards Windermere and the south, and along High Street towards the limestone hills to the east.

[ Prehistoric settlements : Robert Bewley, Batsford/English Heritage, 1994 ]


The Romans arrived in Cumbria in the 1st Century AD in order to subdue the Brigantes and establish a northern frontier to protect their province of Britannia. This was a military zone, and any civilising influence was purely secondary, so as a result there is not the wealth of buildings such as villas that you find in the south of the country. The Romans built military roads and established forts at regular intervals along them. Only later did these roads also become trading routes, and civil settlements grew alongside the forts to supply their needs.

Only occasionally were existing tracks adopted and improved – they went in the wrong direction and were physically inadequate. Roman roads were surveyed, engineered and constructed to a hierarchy of exacting standards: the main roads which are the typical survivors (and many still in use today), local roads with little in the way of engineering or surfacing, and private roads to a villa or mine. An area north of Penrith has been identified as possibly the one surviving example of local roads in Cumbria – where new agricultural land was opened up through “centuriation”.

It is possible to present a general picture of where the main roads went, although many have yet to be fully traced on the ground, and the picture changes as new discoveries are made and established views are challenged:-

  • The road from the south via Burrow-in-Lonsdale (near Kirkby Lonsdale) via the Lune to Brougham (Penrith) and Carlisle. At Brougham it was joined by the road over the Pennines at Stainmore via Brough and Kirkby Thore, from where the Maiden Way headed north towards the central Hadrian’s Wall via the lead and silver deposits of the North Pennines
  • The military road that accompanied Hadrian’s Wall, and superceded the Stanegate that ran in a similar east-west direction to the south of it. This was extended westwards in order to act as a service road to the chain of forts, fortlets and watchtowers that were established along the Cumbrian coast. In turn this was itself replaced by a road running south-west from Carlisle to Papcastle (Cockermouth), with links from it to the coast.
  • The cross-country road from Burrow to Watercrook (Kendal) and Ravenglass via Ambleside
  • And another major east-west route from Brougham or Old Penrith to the north to Moresby (Whitehaven) via Keswick (fort yet to located)

There were links between these routes, from Ambleside to Old Penrith over the Kirkstone Pass for example, which possibly replaced the more well-known parallel route over High Street. Some may have had local connections to areas of mining interest – at Coniston for example – but the evidence has yet to be uncovered.

[ The Roman road across the northern Lake District : Martin Allan, Centre for NW Regional Studies, 1994 ]


The withdrawal of the Romans left the way open not only for the British to re-establish themselves in the region but also for new settlers – first Anglian then Norse peoples – to move in. Each was attracted to different areas – Celtic Britons to the pastoral uplands, Anglo-Saxons to farm lowland, and the Norse Vikings to the coast and inland valleys – so they and their descendants could generally co-exist for most of the time, a situation unique in the whole of Britain.

Tracks were established by usage – from farmsteads and hamlets to fields and upland pasture, or to neighbouring settlements with surplus produce to barter. However, unlike in other parts of the country, no examples of tracks that can be reliably dated to the period have been identified – there being neither physical nor written evidence. Nevertheless it is highly probable that the minor road system in Cumbria – created piecemeal over a long period – was essentially complete by AD1000.

Cumbria, most of which at the time of the Norman invasion was not yet seen as part of England, was consolidated into the kingdom through the establishment of castles and monasteries in the 1100s, and the growth of markets and towns in the 1200s. Trade and traffic were gradually increasing, mostly making use of the existing network of tracks for travel on foot or on horseback. Upkeep and repair was negligible or non-existent, but the system was generally adequate for the amount of traffic, even in winter. Heavy or bulky goods would be moved by water as much as possible.

There is little direct record of travel and trade, but examples would include:

  • the network of tracks leading from Shap Abbey into the isolated eastern valleys of Lakeland
  • the track over Sty Head and Esk Hause used by woolpack trains carrying the produce of Borrowdale farms to the storehouses of Furness Abbey for export at their landing places on Walney Channel
  • routes to the manorial corn mills
  • tracks to the fulling mill in association with local cloth production (there are records of six fulling mills in Grasmere Parish in 1453)
  • packhorse routes from mining areas – Alston silver from 1130, Goldscope copper from early 13th century
  • the movement of iron ore from Low Furness to bloomery sites in High Furness
  • ways to market for the sale of cloth and other goods – Kendal in particular becoming the centre for the wool trade
  • corpse roads to take bodies on horseback for burial at the mother church which could be many miles away – for example from Wasdale Head to Eskdale via Burnmoor, and from Mardale Green (Haweswater) to Shap via Swindale
  • tracks to harvest bracken or peat, and to move animals to and from summer grazing areas on upland pasture

[ The harvest of the hills : Angus Winchester, Edinburgh University Press, 2000 ]


Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries traffic and travel increased in response to sustained economic growth, although it should be remembered that most of Cumbria – along with most parts of Britain – did not have roads fit for wheeled vehicles until the late 18th century. As traffic grew there was an increasing number of references to the poor state of roads. In theory at this time they were maintained by unpaid statute labour, but in practice this was generally avoided.

From the later Middle Ages through to the 19th century – when the railways took over the trade – herds of Scots cattle were driven through eastern Cumbria to destinations further south. Up to 200 cattle or 2000 sheep would move at something like 6 to 12 miles a day along routes with appropriate facilities along the way – overnight pasturing, inns for the accommodation of their human companions, and fairs and markets at which the animals could be bought and sold. These routes would originally be wide and unenclosed. The routes mostly converged on Carlisle, continuing south to Penrith and then over Stainmore via Brough or through Kirkby Stephen to Hawes or towards Kirkby Lonsdale via Shap and Tebay. One alternative involved crossing the Solway to Bowness and continuing south towards the old fair ground at Rosley before joining the main routes south. Locally reared or fattened cattle travelled on routes north-eastwards towards Rosley or cross-country from Eskdale via Hardknott and Wrynose to Ambleside and Longsleddale before joining the routes south. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were moving south from Scotland – a large proportion of them through Cumbria.

Until the road improvements of the 18th century, most goods were carried by packhorse. The tracks they followed – the same ones in use since early medieval times – were not usually engineered or metalled except were the conditions were difficult e.g. by zig-zagging up a steep slope. These tracks criss-crossed the whole of Cumbria, one valley being linked to the next via mountain passes, with trains of up to 30 horses travelling in single file along them, passing over packhorse bridges recognisable by their narrow width and low parapets. A wide variety of goods were transported by this means – for example slate from Honister, peat from around Skiddaw to Keswick, tobacco from Whitehaven harbour to the snuff mills at Penrith and Kendal.

One unusual type of route was the use of the oversands route to Furness and Cartmel and beyond over the Duddon estuary towards Ravenglass and the west coast. The first recorded crossing was in 1322, but this route was without doubt used in earlier times than that, and continued as the usual route to the area as late as the mid 19th century. It was certainly the shortest route, and usually also the most comfortable, with guides appointed to lead travellers over the safe routes which constantly varied according to the tides and the weather.

[ Old Lakeland : J.D.Marshall, David & Charles, 1971 ]
[ Cattle droving through Cumbria : Peter Roebuck, Bookcase, 2016 ]
[ “Distance and ill roads” – North Pennines packhorse carriage in the early 18th century : Greg Finch, Transactions of the CWAAS, 2023 ]


Until the mid 18th century, this area  had the reputation of having some of the poorest roads in the kingdom – “a most confused mixture of rocks and bogs” – despite the fact that the economy and population were growing rapidly, especially in the towns. The need for adequate roads to cope with the movement of both people and goods was clear, and the solution that was identified was to create toll roads whose upkeep would be paid for by those who used them.

The first Turnpike Trust had been established by Act of Parliament in 1663, but Cumbria did not join the movement until 1739, by which time 100 had been established in other parts of the country. Even then the four turnpikes designed and built to ease the transport of coal and other goods into Whitehaven from the surrounding area were part of the town’s Harbour Act rather than a road plan, and were not connected to the rest of the county until 1762.

The period 1751 to 1772 is referred to as the time of “turnpike mania”, when 389 new turnpikes were enacted in the country as a whole. Most of these were about improving existing roads, rather than building new ones. It was only later – from the end of the century – that improvements in road building techniques brought about by engineers such as Metcalf, Telford and McAdam led to the rebuilding or rerouting of the original turnpikes.

The following list of Cumbrian Turnpike Trusts and their routes during this period is copied from Paul Hindle’s book, which is required reading for anyone interested in the subject. Those in brackets were not implemented.

Whitehaven 1739
Bowes-Brough 1743
Egremont-Salthouse, Duddon Bridge, Santon Bridge 1750
Richmond-Lancaster 1751
Preston-Lancaster-Heron Syke 1751
Newcastle-Carlisle Military Road 1751
Brough-Eamont Bridge 1753
(Carlisle)-Cockermouth-Workington 1753
Keighley-Kirkby Lonsdale-Kendal 1753
Carlisle-Eamont Bridge 1753
Heron Syke-Eamont Bridge 1753
Penrith-Chalk Beck 1753
Kendal-Milnthorpe, Dixies-Clawthorpe 1759
Appleby-Kendal, Orton-Shap, Tebay-Brough 1761
Hesket Newmarket-Cockermouth-Keswick-Kendal-Windermere, Keswick-Penrith 1762
Kirkby Stephen-Sedbergh-Greta Bridge, Sedbergh-Kendal, Sedbergh-Grayrigg 1762
Kendal-Kirkby Ireleth 1763
Carlisle-Skillbeck 1767

By 1820, 1000 Trusts had been established in the country as a whole, with over 7000 tollgates and 22,000 miles of turnpikes making up 20% of the total public highway. This compares with 32,000 miles of the current network of motorway and A-roads. It was around this time that – as mentioned above – existing turnpikes were re-routed and improved e.g. the road north from Kendal over Shap, and new ones built e.g. that from Levens Bridge to Newby Bridge via Lindale which replaced the earlier turnpike from Kendal via Bowland Bridge, itself an old packhorse route unsuitable for wheeled vehicles.

The turnpikes enabled a decrease in travel times and an increase in traffic. Travel could now be regular, reliable, and carried out at all times of the year. Carriers’ wagons and stage coaches were seen on the county’s roads, along with an increasing number of tourists. It was the building of the railways that led to a decline in revenue – the Trusts were eventually dissolved and responsibility for the upkeep of the roads passed to the local authorities.

[ Road transport in Cumbria in the 19th century : L.A.Williams, Allen & Unwin, 1975 ]
[ The Royal Sailor stagecoach 1811-1842 : Shirley L Thornhill, The Author, 2008 ]
[ A guide to the milestones, mileposts and toll buildings of Cumbria : Colin Smith, Brow Bottom Enterprises, 2011 ]
[Visit for maps and tollhouse locations]


The process of enclosing common land and allocating sections into private ownership was made simpler by a series of Acts from the mid 1700’s. The impact this had on the minor road network in Cumbria was as great as that of the turnpikes on the main roads.

About 25% of the total land area of Cumbria was involved – 430 square miles in Cumberland and Westmorland. The size of the enclosure varied, from 12,760 acres of Cartmel in 1806 and 28,000 acres of Inglewood Forest after 1819 to much smaller ones.The result would be a complete re-design of the whole landscape – typically adopting grid-like boundaries between the various allotments. Sometimes old roads across the common or waste would be retained, but straightened, widened and their surfaces improved, but many were destroyed (and not even retained as rights of way). And new roads – typically straight and wide – were created to give access to fields or to new farmsteads. The pattern however was affected by the landscape – a regular pattern could be most easily established in the coastal salt marshes or peat mosses or where the topography was fairly uniform. Elsewhere it was more flexible.

[ Transforming fell and valley : Ian Whyte, Centre for NW Regional Studies, 2003 ]
[ Gated trackways between common land and in-bye land within Satterthwaite Parish : Kevin Baverstock and Suzanne Tiplady,  Transactions of the CWAAS, 2009 ]


Responsibility for the upkeep of the public road network passed to local authorities in the late 1800’s, and the story since then has been one of road progress failing to keep up with the growth in volume and the changing nature of traffic. This has been especially so in Cumbria, where the demands of the tourist can be added to local pressures.

Some ‘progress’ has been made, however, for example:

  • some enforced changes of route because of local developments e.g. the creation of Thirlmere reservoir in the 1880’s and Haweswater in the 1930’s
  • improvements and widening of major routes, for example to the A590 in the south of the county
  • some largely new roads such as the A66 through the heart of the Lake District to the west coast, or the link further south across from Tebay to Kirkby Stephen taking advantage of the vacant rail track bed
  • by-passes around traffic bottlenecks like Staveley
  • the opening of the M6 motorway in 1971, which in itself took traffic away from a number of pressure points e.g. Carlisle. See and the John Laing Collection

The minor road network meanwhile has changed little, but handles an ever increasing number of vehicles. And traffic has grown not only on the roads – bridleways are being used by increasing numbers of mountain bikes, and byways by trail bikes and off-road vehicles.

A history of Cumberland and Westmorland : Phillimore, 1996
Roads and tracks of the Lake District : Paul Hindle, Cicerone, 1998
The Lake District : Roy Millward & Adrian Robinson, Eyre & Spottiswood, 1970
Roads and tracks of Britain : Christopher Taylor, Orion Books, 1994
Roads and tracks for historians : Paul Hindle, Phillimore, 2001
Old roads of Eastern Lakeland : A.Wainwright, Westmorland Gazette, nd
The impact of motor transport on Westmorland, c.1900-1939 : Jean Turnbull, CWAAS, 2021

Heavy transport in Cumbria before 1800 (article)
Road gates (article)
The droving tradition of the Upper Eden Valley (website)
Kendal carriers (article)
Listed bridges in the Lake District National Park (article)

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 06/01/24)