A GENTLEMAN AND A LADY travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long a scent, half rock, half sand.The accident happened just beyond the only gentleman’s house near the lane a house which their driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling looks been constrained to pass by.He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the carriage was not his master’s own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said house were left behind expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.The severity of the fall was broken by their slow pace and the narrowness of the lane; and the gentleman having scrambled out and helped out his companion, they neither of them at first felt more than shaken and bruised. But the gentleman had, in the course of the extrication, sprained his foot; and soon becoming sensible of it, was obliged in a few moments to cut short both his remonstrances to the driver and his congratulations to his wife and himself and sit down on the bank, unable to stand. – Jane Austen, Sanditon, Chapter One
At the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th century, the roads in England began to improve vastly over the rutted, dirt tracks that slowed lumberous carriages and that turned into quagmires on rainy days. In those days travel on rural, unimproved roads was laborious. When encountering a steep upgrade, passengers often had to get out of the carriages to lighten the load for the horses or to help push. As with today, accidents on the road were not uncommon. Even with road improvements, passengers sitting outside of a coach were in danger of being flung from their perch and killed.
Road improvements began on a large scale in the early 19th century. Engineers placed emphasis on good drainage and thick stone foundations, widening roads, and reducing gradients. However, macadamised roads, which are used to this day, did not come into widespread use until 1816, only a year before Jane Austen died. The custom before then, was “simply to spread a layer of broken rock and gravel on the cleared foundation of earth, which was often lower than the fields on either side. The narrow treads of the farmers’ wagons cut ruts in the soft road, and the hooves of animals further disturbed it. At bad places, everyone took a route that seemed the best at the time, creating a wide disturbed mess.” (Coaching Days and Road Engineers)
As those who live in rural areas today still know, well-drained and crushed stone macadamized roads are not fool proof. They must be graded regularly, or ruts and depressions develop, creating a tough situation for travel:
“Where there is much traffic as in towns macadamised roads get worn into innumerable holes causing the greatest discomfort to persons driving over them I refer to the granite made roads as with those made of a softer stone this discomfort is not felt It was on this account that a road was being taken up at Tunbridge Wells while I was staying there which is mentioned in the chapter on Road Construction and Maintenance The road on the Thames Embankment between Northumberland Avenue and St Stephen’s Club was a striking instance of this peculiarity The whole roadway was one mass of depressions causing the wheels of one’s carriage to fly about in all directions this could of course be remedied by picking up the roadway and laying it afresh but it is no doubt in consequence of the hardness and unyielding nature of the granite that this happens. Highways and Horses By Athol Maudslay