Saturday, 14 February 2015

Sitting the Oxford Entrance Exam in 1933

Question from Oxford Entrance Paper :

Write an essay about "Roads"

Roads are a sign of human and economic activity, as well as the dominance of modern man over Nature. The word ‘road’ indicates a hard surface, as opposed to a track. A track could be an old bridlepath, or Iron age trading route with a rough surface, muddy in winter. The hard surfaces of modern roads should be passable and fast, even in extreme weather, They are not maintained locally, as tracks used to be, but centrally, by The Department of Transport.

We live next to a valley which lacks any road, but it has an Iron Age track, which was once the quickest route between two ancient hill fortifications. Such rough tracks were the superhighways of the ancient world. The train to London uses its own ‘road’ (rail track) through this valley, but no cars can penetrate it. As a result, Nature still dominates undisturbed. Deer wander free in herds at dawn and rabbits eat in broad daylight unhurried. There are no picnic areas with litter; no children playing; no petrol stations and no shops. People gaze from the train window at it, thinking “What beauty...”. In this sense a modern road is a disfigurement on our landscape, which an ancient track is not. Modern roads bring 'clutter' with them.

If one looks on a map at an area without roads, one sees an area often without villages, or churches. Areas of our wild coastline lack roads to the shore and the only way or reaching a cliff or seaview is a track through farmland.· Roads open up remote beauty to the masses: they share it, democratically. We recently drove through the Maritime Alps, through gorges of such beetling grandeur, one was breathless with awe. Without highly engineered cliff-hanging roads, in such places, the greatest wonders of the Book of Nature would remain sealed to all except mountaineers and Alpine shepherds.

For centuries, roads were all the same width as Roman roads. These roads which were often dead straight. They held together Pax Romana, an Empire as large or larger than the European Union, yet they were the size of B roads today. Traffic was thinner and speeds were 4 miles per hour. Today speeds average 50 mph and the volume of travellers, due to population growth, demands ever wider roads, swallowing up food-producing farmland

Politicians and business people love talking about “roads”. When they talk today about roads they usually mean motorways. One thinks about getting to the West County in the context of roads, because it still takes a long time, as there is no M1 equivalent road to Penzance. In addition to this, the southern railway line to Cornwall is crumbling into the sea, near Dawlish. The length and congestion of this journey is one reason why David Cameron is talking about tunneling a road under Stonehenge. Such engineering feats, known as ‘infrastructure projects’, like the Cross Channel Tunnel are supposedly good for the economy in pouring taxpayers’ money into private enterprise. Roads are therefore strongly linked not to an Empire, but to sustaining free market capitalism. 

Whether the general population is as keen as politicians on roads is another matter. Many would prefer areas of Nature to remain untouched, as outside Bexhill, where there have been demonstrations and court actions against the building of a road to connect it to Hastings. Such roads are not universally popular.

Are roads destroying our Planet? Some would say that roads and widening roads which it is claimed just produces more traffic, are producing much of the carbon which is destroying our Planet. The speed of getting to places encourages people to do journeys they would not otherwise make, creating carbon emissions.

Perhaps, in future, all our motorways could be replaced with electric, driverless trains run on renewable energy? Would people want to sit with other people, rather than enjoy their own company in an individual unit all the way to Cornwall? Probably not. It is likely that roads will remain but cars will probably get lighter. Our cars and trains are currently too heavy. Either they will use so little petrol in energy efficient cars, that one could get from London to Land’s End on two litres of petrol, or they will use renewable energy. An idea I like is this:  while you are heating your house for example with sustainable woodfuel, you use the heat to drive a sterling engine to power your car battery with electricity.

Roads can also be used figuratively, for example "The Road to Freedom" but this use is rare.  The word 'road' is rather unromantic because it is so connected to petrol, engineering and smelly tar.  The word 'highway' has romantic connotations such as "The Highway of the Righteous" (Book of Proverbs) and "Highway to Nowhere" - which is a contradiction in terms. Roads and highways are supposed to go somewhere. In Italy, we were once driving along a clearly signposted road only to suddenly meet concrete blocks set across the road, with no explanation.  This seems irrational: a road must lead somewhere.

Today, a satellite navigator can tell you that you are driving across a field, because it is out of date and a road has been recently built there. Or more alarmingly, it can lead you down a very small rural road, as 'the shortest route' and straight into a flooded river. 

Roads must make sense: they are the arteries of the body of the state. Just like blood has a reason and purpose in its travels - so should we.


  1. I agree. And would add that modern badly planned roads can disrupt an older city centre and its cohesion, as I think Preston's inner ring road does here. Also it is an interesting fact (told to me by Prestonians) that some old local roads still go over or under the M6 his was effectively Preston's outer ring road. Near us, the M6 M55 interchange marks the artificial boundary between Fulwood and Broughton. Once outside the M55 I feel as if I am outside the M25. Finally motorways can encourage developers as the green space between our houses and the M55 becomes eroded and degraded.