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Driving in historic Bermuda

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“I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country.”

Horatio Earle, 1929.“The road to civilisation leads through the sewer.”

Ann Alexander, October 15, 2010.

Perhaps one of the most well-known expressions in the history of transportation and communication is the statement that “All roads led to Rome”, indicative of the epic-making system of highways of the Roman Empire.

There is also the notion that “All roads lead to civilisation”, which is in partly a pun, but also suggestive that roads make for civilised life. Others suggest that the “road” to civilisation is composed of good toilets and that in modern times, in certain countries, marriage is predicated on the presence of said facility in the home of the groom-to-be, as in “No loo, no 'I do'.”!

Perhaps the necessary corollary is the “good” roads lead to civilisation, for a poor, pothole-ridden road is anathema to good transportation, not only of goods and people, but of all other things that rely on ground movement for the achievement of purpose. The Romans excelled in good roads, many of which are still in use and when found archaeologically are equal to the best of cobblestone streets of the present era.

Of many island communities, Bermuda is fortunate in having good roads, indeed very fine highways if compared to some other small places in this hemisphere, in say, the eastern Caribbean. That was, of course, not always the case and one of the major issues in early Bermuda was the question of land transportation, such that much traffic took to the sea, rather than the hills of “jail-nut” pathways.

In the United States, it has been claimed that the bicycle, not the automobile, through its strident advocates in the late 19th century, was responsible for the creation of good roads. Here it was perhaps the establishment of the US Bases, with their hordes of accompanying motor vehicles, that set the stage for the good macadamised streets that we have today, replacing the glaring, dusty Bermuda limestone highways of earlier times.

In most recent times, the fine local roads lend themselves to uncivilised and reckless behaviour by motorists and cyclists of all ilk, for there is no cultural or ethnic lock on studipity on the highway.

If one may quote “Pradski”, a blogger from India: “Our road behaviour is one of the most unbelievable adventures. Nobody has any common sense when they use the road. No rules and no concern for the traffic or people. Everybody wants to be ahead and honk to show their presence. Half the traffic problems could have been solved if only the traffic police did their job. People do not know how to use the road; everybody is a hero on the road, whether it is the pedestrian, cycle, scooter, car and other vehicles users.”

Thus arises a paradox of modern times wherein good roads are essential for civilised life, but through the rise of individualism and “me-first” generations, they are now being used for essentially uncivilised behaviour and the breaking of the law. So possibly poorer roads might be more compatible with a civilised existence.

What then of roads of old in the “Isles of Rest”, now maybe the “Restless Islands” in so far as the modern highways go? The topography of Bermuda in the old days was not conducive, before the arrival of the bulldozer, to road building, so that movement by water was an easy option. Fortunately, a harder form of the local stone was available to break up for gravel to form roads and in most elevations, the surfaces would have drained well after rain.

By the 1790s, when Lieutenant Thomas Hurd, RN, conducted his monumental survey of the Bermuda reefs and at the same time, possibly with the assistance of Major Andrew Durnford, RE, recorded the features of the dry landscape of the archipelago, the Island had few roads. The most numerous were in the central districts of Pembroke and Devonshire Parishes, with the other seven parishes having one or two thoroughfares.

Driving from the east, where civilised Bermuda began, there were no roads on the large islands of Cooper's, St David's and Long Bird in 1797, when the Hurd Survey was finished. A single road connected the town of St George's with the boat at Ferry Point, while from Coney Island at the other end of the ferry, a road went round Harrington Sound to the north and south, with a spur into the western end of Tucker's Town.

The roads met at Devil's Hole and Flatts, from whence several roads proceeded into Smith's, Devonshire, Pembroke and Paget Parishes, the first three containing the most number of highways of Bermuda at that time. From Paget into Warwick, what are now Middle and Harbour Roads were the main circuits, there being no south road in neither, nor such a highway in Southampton or Sandys Parish. Excepting a spur to Church Bay, a single main road ending at Mangrove Bay was largely the main highway of the last two districts.

Given planting, many of the Bermuda byways were things of civilised beauty, such as shown here in the images of some streets photographed in the late 19th century.

Now roadside vegetation is relentlessly beaten back for the convenience of the motorist, or indirectly trimmed by large trucks and containers. Little thought seems to be given to the contribution of the roadsides to the beautification of Bermuda and the contribution of highway elegance to the tourist trade.

Some of that clash between the overweening demands of the motorist and the need to maintain Bermuda highways as things of beauty (as they once were and could always be) is in the reaction to a recent attempt at car-abseiling near Henry VIII's. Everyone in the Island knows there is a sharp corner thereabouts, but now large super-highway-sized arrow-signs and a long wooden fence obscure a once fine view of a spider lilies hedge and the open sea beyond.

Such additions to the streetscape might be favourable to some distracted motorist of the future, but perhaps a “Tourism Aesthetics Committee” should determine whether such additions detract or add to the heritage of our highways and the value of that landscape heritage to our essential and generally civilised trade in visitors.

Given that aesthetics is a branch of philosophy treating with the “nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty”, such a committee might also have oversight of Planning applications, in the hope that it might help to prevent some of the less than beautiful or Bermudian building that has taken place and continues to take place with official approval in present times.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

1. South Road driving east and overlooking Great Turtle Bay (Horseshoe) in right background.
2. Springfield Avenue (Point Finger Road), the bamboo and stone wall were removed in mid-2011.
3. The iconic Cedar Avenue with eponymous trees, now a shadow of its former timbered glory.
4. A ?motor vehicle? of the 1890s enters the west end of The Causeway, opened in 1871.
5. A view possibly of the road to the historic town of St. George?s, motoring east.

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Published September 03, 2011 at 9:00 am (Updated September 03, 2011 at 9:14 am)

Driving in historic Bermuda

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