Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Purton, Wiltshire

Hexagonal or octagonal buildings often started life as the dwellings of the people responsible for collecting tolls on the turnpike roads of the 18th and 19th centuries – that’s why they’re often referred to as pike houses. They are this peculiar shape for a reason – having sides facing different ways meant that the toll-collector could easily see people coming along the road from more than one direction, and could be ready to leap out and collect the appropriate dues before a traveller slipped swiftly by in his gig or chaise.

By the year 1800 there were around 23,000 miles of turnpike road in England controlled by more than 1,000 separate local turnpike trusts. There are still lots of their former pike houses dotted all over the country. But not many of these survivors bear their old toll boards, listing the fees charged to different kinds of traffic, wheeled and/or hoofed. Tenpence for a score of oxen, fourpence halfpenny for a coach, and so on. This signboard is on a polygonal pike house in Purton, Wiltshire, that was built in the early-19th century by the Swindon, Calne and Cricklade Turnpike Trust. Its occupant would have collected tolls from traffic travelling between Cricklade and Wootton Bassett. It’s good to know that both house and signboard are still there, even though a man doesn’t pop out and demand fourpence halfpenny as one passes.

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