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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Friends, Romans and Percy Shaw

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas January. 11, 2021

This is a bit of a strange post, even for me, but I hope you like the results none the less.

Back in 2010 I was exploring my local area at that time, which was in the Midlands. I was particularly interested in ancient remains and one thing that has also fascinated me is the way our cities, landscapes and infrastructure, still bear traces of ancient people which are still dictating how we live and travel around centuries later.

In Britain for example the main tracery of our national road networks still has a remarkably similar footprint to the two thousand year old Roman road network.

Some years ago we visited York and went on one of those walking tours of the city. The guide gave one of the simplest and clearest starts to a tour I have ever seen when he handed us a copy of the earliest map of York in existence and let us examine it. Nearly every road that dominated the map formed the original Roman network into and out of the city. He then handed out the modern map of York and we were all pretty stunned to see that they were almost exactly the same with a gap in dates between the maps of many centuries, there was barely a change and the whole modern city was shoehorned into that original layout.

Some years back when in-car Satnavs were still not common we went out for the day with some friends in their new car. They were proudly showing off their Satnav and as we drove along through the countryside I was captivated by the rolling map on the screen disappearing under us as though we were flying over it and not driving through it. At one point the road ahead turned into a perfect straight line disappearing right over the horizon. There was no doubt that this was a Roman road. Straight lines on maps in Britain are not common, not like they would be in the Prairie lands of North America. Sure enough there in black and white on the road in the rolling map on the screen were the actual words Roman road. For some reason this blew my mind because here we were driving down a road designed and laid out two thousand years earlier when making things out of metal was fairly recent science following a map beamed down to our car from GPS satellites flying around above us in space, which recognised and announced that this was Roman technology we were using to get to our destination.

As an aside which was funny, our friends were still getting to know how the Satnav operated as it was probably over complicated. So the friend who was the passenger up front was playing with the settings and wanted to demonstrate how she spoke in many different languages. It was one of these touch screen jobs with text which gave you the options to change the settings. So he manages to get her speaking French which was quite impressive and hearing the announcements in French was amusing for a minute or two and then he went to return it to English. But there was a bit of a problem, because she wasn't just speaking French now, she was writing it too and all the instructions and options were also now in French, and he didn't speak French, and we didn't know how to get where we were going and there were junctions coming up and which direction do we take? After a lot of guessing and trial and error and red faces we managed to get back on track both virtually on the screen and in reality on the tarmac.

Redditch in Worcestershire and just outside Birmingham in England is what is termed a New Town which is a bit ironic since it has a Roman road running through it, a ruined abbey destroyed by Henry VIII and much history from the Industrial Revolution besides. At one point Redditch which even today is quite a small town was the world capital of needle making. Up to forty needle mills produced almost seventy per cent of all needles used anywhere in the world.

The New Town status though was a post war government policy of developing New Towns for housing which were planned in great detail using all the know how they had back then. Redditch was planned in the fifties and sixties and was one of the great successes of the New Town policy. Part of the Redditch plan was to have at the town's heart a huge country park, like a recreational island, accessible by almost everyone on foot. Redditch even had a dedicated bus track servicing one of the main housing estates giving a direct traffic free link to the town centre still in use today, decades ahead of the first bus lane.

This New Town plan entailed redrawing the road map of the area and resulted in a small stretch of the ancient Roman Icknield Street becoming a pedestrianised route closed to traffic. Before it was closed off it was a normal tarmac thoroughfare with it's own cat's eyes down the middle.

When I went to have a look at this old marooned piece of road I was intrigued by the fact that it still showed traces of it's former use in the form of the forgotten cat's eyes, some half buried, some worn away, and I decided to do a series of shots of as many as I could, just as they were on that day.

Icknield Street or Ryknild Street is a Roman road in England, with a route roughly south-west to north-east. It runs from the Fosse Way at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire to Templeborough in South Yorkshire . It passes through Alcester, Studley, Redditch, Metchley Fort, Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield, Lichfield, Burton upon Trent and Derby.

What would the Romans have made of cat's eyes? They certainly would have understood why they got their name as the Romans were great cat lovers. In fact the Roman army travelled with their own cats as they were seen to be useful in keeping down vermin and therefore protecting their food supplies.

The cat's eye design originated in the UK in 1934 and is today used all over the world. The original form consisted of two pairs of retroreflectors set into a white rubber dome, mounted in a cast iron housing. This is the kind that marks the centre of the road, with one pair of cat's eyes showing in each direction. A key feature of the cat's eye is the flexible rubber dome which is occasionally deformed by the passage of traffic. A fixed rubber wiper cleans the surface of the reflectors as they sink below the surface of the road (the base tends to hold water after a shower of rain, making this process even more efficient). The rubber dome is protected from impact damage by metal 'kerbs' – which also give tactile and audible feedback for wandering drivers.

The inventor of cat's eyes was Percy Shaw of Boothtown, Halifax, West Yorkshire, England. When the tram-lines were removed in the nearby suburb of Ambler Thorn, he realised that he had been using the polished steel rails to navigate at night. The name "cat's eye" comes from Shaw's inspiration for the device: the eyeshine reflecting from the eyes of a cat. In 1934, he patented his invention, and on 15 March 1935, founded Reflecting Roadstuds Limited in Halifax to manufacture the items. The name Catseye is their trademark.

The blackouts of World War II (1939–1945) and the shuttered car headlights then in use demonstrated the value of Shaw's invention and helped popularise their mass use in the UK. After the war, they received firm backing from a Ministry of Transport committee led by James Callaghan and Sir Arthur Young. Eventually, their use spread all over the world.

In 2006, Catseye was voted one of Britain's top 10 design icons in the Great British Design Quest organised by the BBC and the Design Museum, a list which included Concorde, Mini, Supermarine Spitfire, K2 telephone box, World Wide Web and the AEC Routemaster bus.

As you can see below the road has the hallmark straight line and it is also nicely green and overgrown.

There was something poignant about looking down this road, now cut off from the national road network and bypassed, which spoke of so much history that it had witnessed.

It would have had Roman legionaries marching down it, bandits and highwaymen robbing wealthy travellers, medieval carts pulled by horses carrying salt for trade from nearby Droitwich, packhorses laden with valuable miniature cargoes of carefully wrapped needles on the first leg of a journey to take them right around the world, and latterly children collecting conkers (Horse chestnuts) for playing games in the school yard and people walking their dogs and jogging. The whole of history came down this road.

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Unknown member
Sep 08, 2022

Not sure if I had read this one before or not. Either way, I am glad it popped up for me to read. Intersting and even more interesting is your photos of each eye. Clever. :)

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Sep 09, 2022
Replying to

Thanks. Old rusty bits of road not everyone's cup of tea. 🙂

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