This was the problem faced by entrepreneurs throughout the early days of the industrial Revolution, especially in the textile areas of Lancashire. Two thousand years before, the Romans had built a magnificent system of arterial roads linking all parts of the country, but centuries of neglect meant that little or nothing remained of it in the mid-18th century.
What passed for roads were now simply bone-breaking tracks at the best of times, and in winter they became impassable morasses of mud and water, upon which only the bravest or most foolhardy would venture.
In summer, it was sometimes possible to use a horse and cart. At other times, pack-horse trains were the only method of moving goods from one town to another.
Coal from the Duke of Bridgewater's mines at Worsley had to be brought this way to Manchester, at a cost of 1s (5p) per hundredweight. Completed cotton goods for export went by the same method, often travelling to Bewdley on the River Severn because there was no suitable way to reach the port of Liverpool through the bogs and marshes of South-East Lancashire.
Things were changing, slowly. From the early 18th century, the power to charge travellers for the use of roads was vested in trustees, who were able to use the money collected to improve conditions.
These so-called turnpike roads became more common as the century progressed, and by the mid 1750s most of the trunk roads to London had been improved in this way. But expenditure was begrudged and it was considered more expedient to restrict traffic rather than to improve roads - a law of 1753 made it obligatory for all goods wagons to have wheels nine inches wide to avoid damaging road surfaces.
The first stagecoach from Manchester to London began to operate in 1754. But the "Flying Coach" took four and a half days (barring accidents) to complete its journey, compared with 30 hours by the end of the century.
In the North West, one man did more than any other to improve the road system. John Metcalf, who was born in 1717, was an amazing character.
Known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough - he lost his sight at the age of six - he became an outstanding athlete and horseman, fighting in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 before instituting a stagecoach service between Knaresborough and York.
Between 1765 and his death in 1810, he surveyed and constructed many of the new roads in Lancashire and Cheshire, among them those running from Bury to Blackburn and from Oldham to Ashton. In all, he made 185 miles of new road.
More than 20,000 miles of road were controlled by turnpike trusts by the 1830s, and tolls were worth an annual £1.5million. But still, 80 per cent of Britain's highways were unimproved and by then, better answers had been found to the problem of transporting large amounts of material around the country cheaply and efficiently.
The way forward had been suggested back in the 17th century by Thomas Patten, a Warrington businessman. By 1698, Patten had made the River Mersey navigable as far as Bank Quay, at Warrington, by clearing fish weirs in the river. In a letter to a friend, Patten pointed out the benefits of widening and straightening the river as far as Manchester.
But things moved slowly. It was 14 years before Thomas Steers, who had built the first docks at Liverpool, surveyed the river and came up with a plan which would involve building eight locks between Howley at Warrington and Manchester.Eight more years passed before the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Act got through Parliament, and it was to be nearly 20 years after that before the river was made navigable to craft of up to 50 tons with customers charged a fee of about 16.5p a ton from Liverpool to Manchester.
SHAPE of things to come ... a London tram. The tram was a cross between the bus and the train ... running on rails through urban streets. The electric tram, which drew its power from overhead wires, was developed from the horse-drawn tram and steam-powered examples. Its heyday was in the early 20th century.
On the face of it, this should have been a godsend to Manchester businessmen, but for various reasons, the initial take up was slow and, at first, only five Mersey flats were in regular use. It was several years before these vessels became a regular sight on the waterway, either under sail or being hauled eastward by gangs of men. The problem was that, despite the construction of many locks between Howley and Manchester, the waterway was still difficult to navigate, with time-consuming meanders and dangerous shoals and mudbanks, especially in summer when the flow of water was at is lowest.
And things were not made easier by millowners on the river banks, who frequently syphoned off too much water and made certain stretches impassable. In drought conditions, boats could be left stranded on mudbanks for days, even weeks at a time, with their precious cargoes inaccessible.
By the early 1750s, the Mersey and Irwell Navigation at last seemed to be working efficiently - and then along came the Duke of Bridgewater.
At first, the Navigation owners did not see the Duke's canal as a threat, even allowing him to use their facilities to bring in materials to build his waterway, and offering preferential rates for the transhipment of his Worsley coal to river flats at Barton, for onward carriage to Manchester, before the canal was completed.
Soon, however, it became clear that the Duke was after their business, as he turned his canal towards Runcorn and the sea, paralleling the course of the Mersey river. The Navigation tried to fight back, building an eight-mile canal of their own between Warrington and Runcorn to cut out the worst of their remaining tidal problems, but it was too little, too late.