How did road surfacing start in the U.K.?

A road surface is a durable manufactured surface used for walking, running, cycling, transporting, and driving. We take road surfaces for granted because they have been around for thousands of years. You can trace the earliest road surfaces all the way back to 3,300 B.C. in Glastonbury, England, when corduroy roads had first been built.


Corduroy roads are a series of logs placed down to form a road path in one direction. They came into existence right around the time when wheeled vehicles were invented. These were four-wheeled wagons used to transport items between towns and villages, which helped establish trade and commerce in the region.


The Roman Empire later adopted the corduroy roads in the early years of their rule. But they eventually switched to concrete pavement consisting of limestone and volcanic ash. Road surfacing technology saw no new advancements until nearly 2,000 years later, in the late 18th century.


Two British engineers named Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam were pioneers of modern highway construction. Their method was to dig a trench to create a foundation for the road asphalt. This established more durable roads for heavier vehicles and improved water drainage on the roads.


Today’s road surfaces consist of asphalt concrete material, also called pavement and tarmac. We can thank a British civil engineer named Edgar Purnell Hooley for inventing modern tarmac.


According to his 1901 patent, tarmac requires a mechanical mixture of aggregate and tar, followed by the use of a steamroller to compact the mixture. He found that tarmac created smooth surfaces for the roads that allowed vehicles to move faster and reduced dust and dirt accumulation considerably.


Over one hundred years later, we continue to use tarmac for most new road surfacing projects.