I cut my writing teeth in the late 1980s and early 1990s on what was then the Yorkshire Evening Press and as part of my training was posted to Selby. If you have ever experienced travelling through Selby in pre-bypass and pre-toll-free days, then you will understand what kind of hell it was to get in and out of town.
At peak times, traffic would queue for miles along the A19 and it could take up to an hour just to get from one side to the other. The main cause of the holdup was the manual toll bridge in the middle of the town, when actual real people took your 7p to allow you to cross the River Ouse. It was the only crossing for miles, so unless you were prepared to take a lengthy detour, there was no alternative link between East and West Yorkshire for people living in that neck of the woods. So you just had to sit in the queue and wait your turn.
Tolls were finally lifted in 1991 after a buyout funded by Selby District Council, North Yorkshire County Council and some local businesses, and congestion was further eased with the opening of the Selby bypass in 2004.
The concept of paying tolls to cross privately-owned bridges dates back to mediaeval times. Parishes were supposed to maintain their own highways, which in those days were little more than muddy tracks, and until the mid-sixteenth century they were quite adequate.
But as the volume of wheeled transport increased, so did the damage to road surfaces, and deep and dangerous ruts formed, making some popular routes quite treacherous. There was no system for repairing them, and no doubt they caused many coaching accidents.
To encourage locals to repair the roads, the idea of turnpikes was introduced, whereby travellers had to pay to use certain sections, and the money would go to the upkeep of the highway. These turnpikes occurred every 20 or 30 miles, but many were soon highjacked by unscrupulous businessmen who only operated them to make money for themselves.
Road traffic continued to increase rapidly, and long queues would build up at the toll-gates, as would irritation and anger, which frequently boiled over among the frustrated road users. Mail coaches were the source of much resentment as they were exempt from the fees and would jump the queues. Their drivers had to be tough as nails to stand up to the constant verbal and physical abuse.
This simmering tension finally boiled over into full-on rebellion in 1735 when a group of locals in Hereford raided and destroyed a local turnpike. Others followed suit and soon every turnpike in the country was at risk.
Although some measures were taken to try and make the system fairer, it never really worked, and in 1839, a posse of farmers, disguised as women, demolished four gates on what is now the A40. They were never punished, nor the gates replaced, for fear of violent reprisals. This led to a group being formed, with members calling themselves ‘Rebecca’, which began systematically dismantling turnpike after turnpike until finally, in 1895, the system was abolished.
However, as we know, this was far from the end of tolls on our road network, and as my dad says in his column from 7th July 1979, there was talk of introducing them on our busiest motorways as far back as 1966. This approach does seem to work very well in France, which has a reputation for excellently-maintained motorways.
There are some tolls that I am very happy to pay, such as the one at the delightfully quaint Aldwark Bridge across the River Ure. It is one of the few privately-owned toll bridges left in the country, and is in a particularly lovely country location. You feel like you’re taking a step back in time as you hand your 40p to the bridge keeper and feel your wheels rumble over the wooden deck beneath. You wonder if this ancient crossing is capable of taking the weight, but I am told it can comfortably cater for vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes.
And I agree with the conclusion my dad came to in 1979 when he said, ‘Even the new Humber Bridge will have a toll system, so it looks as though toll bridges and toll roads will continue for some years to come.’
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