Summer is a time for holidays; travelling to new places or revisiting favourite spots. But what would travelling have been like 311 years ago and for what purpose? It’s a number that brings back memories of the 311 bus, once a familiar sight in Watford.

Firstly, let me take you back to the 1970s when Sheila Sills wrote Feminine Viewpoint articles for the Watford Observer. In 1974 one of her articles was headed ‘Enjoy a Bookshop Browse’. As a book lover, it made me read on.

Sheila Sills reported on her visit to the Open Book, a newly-opened bookshop at 4 Ye Corner, Chalk Hill, Oxhey. She cited her time there as ‘an eye-opener’, after newly-married Peter and Lesley Taylor showed her one noteworthy volume after another, from 17th century tomes to Victorian children’s books and first editions. She made mention of a 1712 copy of the ‘Roads of England’ by Mr (John) Ogilby, which she liked.

Watford Observer: Sheila Sills' Article Header, 1974. Courtesy of the Watford ObserverSheila Sills' Article Header, 1974. Courtesy of the Watford Observer

Being also a collector of antiquarian Hertfordshire maps, Mr Ogilby’s early 18th century book proved too much of a temptation, so I visited the Open Book the next day and bought it, leaving Sheila Sills’ article in its hand-made pages. The book was impressively bound at some stage in its history, likely by a talented amateur, as the gold lettering on the spine is of a lesser standard than the creatively tooled leather work.

My trip to the Open Book turned out to be the first of many over the years. I recall being impressed at Peter and Lesley’s successful endeavours to reprint several long out-of-print local history books, adding a new illustrated companion volume to one.

My newly-acquired book’s full title was ‘The Traveller’s Guide or a Most Exact Description of the Roads of England, Being Mr Ogilby’s Actual Survey and Mensuration by the Wheel of the Great Roads from London to all the Considerable Cities and Towns in England and Wales, together with the Cross Roads from one City or Eminent Town to Another’. A friend of Samuel Pepys, Mr Ogilby was Royal Cosmographer to King Charles II. His first, larger folio book ‘Britannia’ detailed the roads of England and Wales and was undertaken at the express command of the King. It was one of Britain’s first road atlases.

Watford Observer: Engraving of Mr John Ogilby, 1660Engraving of Mr John Ogilby, 1660

Although the folio book was ‘received with great applause’, the cost of engraving the accompanying maps meant that ‘it came [into] but few hands.’ My own ‘pocket’ volume – people’s pockets were larger then – has a single pull-out map. The expression ‘all roads lead to London’ comes to mind when opening it.

Mr Ogilby deemed the volume ‘more intelligible as well as concise’ and undertaken ‘at small expense’. It was published posthumously.

Watford Observer: Cover of Mr Ogilby’s ‘Roads of England’Cover of Mr Ogilby’s ‘Roads of England’

Mr Ogilby’s method of measuring distances was with a large wheel, which helped standardise the statute mile at 1,760 yards. The wheel was utilised by two surveyors whom he supervised from horseback. The pocket book was used by gentry or coachmen in the days of poor roads, slow travel and highwaymen, when travel was by horseback or horse-drawn carriage. Inland journeys would have been undertaken for work, war, family gatherings or pilgrimages, at a time when the elite completed their education with a grand tour of Europe. Holidays for the working classes were non-existent.

Long before road numbers and tarmac, the book describes sections of routes across open countryside in miles and furlongs, with notes on towns, market towns, villages, garrisons, markets, post houses, taverns, gallows, stone and wooden bridges, beacons, free schools, almshouses, smiths’ shops, trades, windmills and watermills as well as natural features including ‘flu.’ (rivers). A second section provides concise references to cities, towns and villages on particular routes with distances between. Mr Ogilby provided clear directions for intrepid travellers ‘in so plain a manner that meer [sic] strangers may travel all over England [and Wales] without any other guide.’

Watford Observer: Pull-out map from Mr Ogilby’s ‘Roads of England’Pull-out map from Mr Ogilby’s ‘Roads of England’

He left no milestone unturned, even ‘roads notorious for badness’ and ‘turnings to be avoided’. Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin and James (Robert) Snooks perhaps? The book mentions Hunton Bridge, ‘taking the upper highway and turning left at the crossroads to Rickmansworth’. Watford, although listed, receives no comment.

So, returning to the Open Book in Oxhey as I frequently did in the 1970s, Peter and Lesley ran the shop until the late 1970s. As much of their business had been by mail order, they continued to operate from their home in Ganders Ash, Watford. In 2018, they moved lock, stock and many books to Yeovil, Somerset, where their business continues to thrive.

With thanks to Peter Taylor,

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.