Silchester to St Albans

Although a road connecting these two important Roman towns has always been suspected, actual evidence remains scanty. It is unthinkable that the very thorough Romans left out a direct route from Calleva Atrebates to Verulamium. Margary concurs with us on this. It is a route that a new explorer could make a name for themselves by providing proof. As yet, the full route is a mystery.

At each end there are clear traces – and it is probably a good place to start, and review the situation as it exists today (2018).

At the Silchester end, one would have taken the ‘east’ gate, taking the main route to London, almost due east. This road has since become known as the Devil’s Highway, and its route is now established. At Fair Oak, one would then turn north-north-east along a route that starts as a lane, then very quickly becomes a track, but a track which remains as a straight byway going up and down hill regardless, in the true Roman fashion. This route then starts to get difficult to define as we approach Shinfield.

It is here where we start to play with Roman survey lines… [to be continued soon]!

A New Roman Road for Hampshire – Winchester to London

A few years back, a new Roman road was discovered by the North East Hampshire Historical and Archaeological Society (NEHHAS) Field Archaeology Branch. In brief, it found that the A31 which runs from Winchester to Farnham follows (in part) a Roman road. This was suspected but had never been proved. Now it appears, evidence has been amassed, and this road can be added to the canon of Hampshire Roman roads.It is also shown how this road then connects to London. There are several clues along the way, which have been comprehensively followed up, and it is all described in the NEHHAS Journal No 3: “Collected Reports on the Roman Road Winchester – London” published by by NEHHAS and available here.

Road 53 – Wickham to Marlborough: clarification required

Showing main orientations fof Margary routes 41 and 53. Dashed lines represent possible routes.

Showing main orientations fof Margary routes 41 and 53. Dashed lines represent possible routes.

Ivan Margary’s descriptions and maps of the routes for Roman roads are usually very accurate, but here and there, amendments may be suggested.  The start of the route from Silchester to Bath is one such. This commences at a junction with road 41 near Speen (Roman Spinae).

I am mostly concerned in this post, with the start of the branch at the Speen end. There is indecision about road 41 to begin with. Even on the latest 25,000 series O/S map, there are two competing alignments for the Roman road (see just under Wickham). Further, there is no indication on the modern O/S map of either the point of the junction or the direction taken after this (Indeed no O/S map information exists until west of Marlborough). To me, it is unclear how this road from Marlborough connects to the ‘main’ Roman road 41 at or near Speen. Did it go through Hungerford or is there a cross country route? Margary thought it was cross-country – and he had a reference to depend on.

Margary wrote:

This, the main western Roman road, branched from the Speen-Gloucester road (41) at a point 3/4 mile to the south of Wickham, but for the first mile there are no visible traces although the alignment is certain.

His confidence is due to the reference at this point to Berks, Bucks & Oxon Archaeology Journal vol 29, page 232. Remarkably, this page is now on-line and can be seen here: Berks, Bucks & Oxon Arch J. vol 29 page 232.  (Thank you, all at ADT (University of York)). It turns out to be a paper written in 1925 by P. Williams entitled ‘Roman Roads of Berkshire’.

But there are difficulties with Margary’s description. How does one measure “3/4 mile south of Wickham”? And where does such a measurement start anyway? At the junction, the church, or another central unit? But we need to see if it is certain the alignment exists.

So what did Mr Williams write about this road junction?

At Wickham the branch Road to Bath must have diverged at about an angle of forty-five degrees, but its beginnings have not been discovered. The Ridge has been found in Orpenham Copse and at Elgar’s Farm: it becomes unmistakable through Three Gate Copse, and in the next dip, across tillage, it is plain.

Elgar’s Farm cannot be located on the 25,000 O/S map. The first point which is identifiable is Orpenham Copse. It should also be noted that embankments in the woods mentioned by Williams are currently labelled as ‘Roman road’ by the modern O/S map. So working backwards from these, an extension of this alignment would join road 41 about the site of the modern B4000 (which is here shown on the map as being yards to the side of 41 at this point) and a side track going south-west. (Not “3/4 mile south of Wickham”). The grid reference for this point being SU402713. Interestingly a road to the north east – to Easton – is aligned to this fork in the road, and could be a continuation of 53, so this could be a crossroads. A note on place names: Easton’s name is because it is east of Wickham, which would have been the main focus here. To Roman road hunters, the name Wickham is important: its name is from vicus, a small administrative land unit (or town). In the present age, Wickham is but a village of few houses. Its church (St Swithins) stands 200 yards from the modern road junction, away from modern habitations, but very close to the old route of Roman road 41. Significantly, it has an Anglo-Saxon tower with re-used fabric – including Roman columns. In my experience such ancient churches are constantly placed next to a Roman road.

As there is no clear evidence of route 53 closer than Orpenham Copse, should we look for other possible routes? The junction may not exist where Margary and Williams expect it to be. Are there any other possible ways 53 could connect with 41? There is an unclassified road leading north in the neighbourhood of Orpenham Copse, that takes one to the centre of Wickham, via the church. Along some of its length is a parish boundary. It’s not straight by any means, but the junction with the main road would be dignified by the old Roman settlement of Wickham, again, close to the site of the old church. I think this possibility should be considered.

(Both these routes are shown as dashed lines in the map at the head of the post).

So we have seen where the junction may be placed, and where 53 starts its course. Where does Mr Williams see it continuing after Radley Farm?

The Road evidently passed through Radley Farm House; it is clear through Stibb’s Wood, on emerging from which, on the West side, there is a steep drop on to the lane in Radley Bottom. The Ridge is here very clear, sloping diagonally downwards on untouched grass, and where it crosses the valley there is a plain hump in the road surface. The Ridge can be seen in Heath Hanger Copse, and it continues as the North fence of Oaken Copse. Then it is carried on as the South fence of Great Hidden Farm, and by Peaked Lot, to the main road at Memorial Cross.
From this point no traces have been found, but it re-appears again near Marlborough.

But Margary has been able to add more information. He says

From this point the course goes across cultivated land, and little trace remains for some miles, but signs of the flattened ridge are perhaps visible just west of the Chilton-Foliat road and west of Cake Wood.

We can see on a map that this proposed route takes the road directly down the steep sided valley of the Kennet, across a marshy floor (where no bridge or ford exists) and back up a steep slope the other side, then to Cake Wood on the summit. I don’t see any evidence of this route now. Could we look elsewhere? And would it be possible to backtrack instead, from the known route of the Roman road along this stretch?

The nearest identifiable traces towards Marlborough are in Hen Wood. But this wood is large, and Margary isn’t clear about the exact route through it. So we are stuck for now, with more work to do in defining the exact route.

So in conclusion, Margary can be found to be inaccurate, sometimes vague. However, there is an opportunity to clarify and amend in detail the routes that he first collected together for us to explore.

The Quest Begins

How did the Romans move around the Hampshire countryside? There are few roads. Roman sites abound, but to me it’s unclear how they moved around with so few roads being recorded. The following sites are all miles from the nearest Roman road:

  • Lodge Farm near North Warnborough – site of a modest Roman villa. How did they transport the produce from the farm? (Or, if they had a farm shop, how did everyone travel to it?)
  • Alice Holt Potteries – on the eastern edge of Hampshire in the neighbourhood of Farnham. Alice Holt ware is found at many Roman sites, both in Hampshire, and further afield. It was a very successful pottery in later Roman times: how did they transport their pottery safely?
  • Bramdean Roman villa. Roman villas all over Britain were economically very important for the Romans. But for their full economic worth to be realised, good communications were essential. How did the surplus grain from Bramdean get to its market?

These, and many other Roman sites, are all ‘stranded’ in the middle of lovely Hampshire countryside, and no currently recognised road. I suspect that the roads are there, and we should start to look for them.

Comments switched off due to massive amounts of spam…

Comments are now turned off due to the hundreds of daily spam comments submitted for mediation. Once again the fascists of the global internet (aggressive spammers, ‘marketing departments’, hackers, drug peddlars) have conspired to force the closure of a potentially useful resource. The internet was once considered a great opportunity for international global discourse. WordPress is great, but it falls prey too easily to spamming attacks from the world over.

How the spam breaks down

About 30% foreign – Russian / Chinese (about I know not what)
About 10% web companies that try and sell SEO (Search Engine Optimization) consultancy. No thanks, not here.
About 20% big business marketing departments who unofficially pay kids to send out wordpress spam in order to market their stuff: trainers, shoes, athletic gear, online casinos, performance enhancing drugs etc
About 40% ‘online pharmacies’ – that is, those with chemicals to sell who lack the legality to sell on the high street.
I have had a handful of authentic comments. In future if you have a comment, send it to my email address (which can be subject to much more effective filtering). Send it to tyrone at romanroads.net.

Roman Road Ownership

All Roman roads so far traced across the landscape have been painstakingly researched by at least one person in the past. The researcher has spent hours looking at maps, aerial photographs, and has spent days in the field looking for traces. This research has sometimes been fruitless, with no evidence of a road being found. But where evidence has been found, and has been published to the world, we must be grateful. They have not only found a road, but they have consequently announced it to the world. In a sense they have ‘owned’ the road when researching it, but they are generous enough to share it with the world by publication of its route.

I certainly value the contribution of their discovery, but I also appreciate the public disclosure of it. I intend to highlight who has discovered a particular road (where an individual is known), and when this occurred. This is highly important as it is part of the roads’ provenance; like an old master or a Ming vase, this provenance is every part of the road’s history. After all, a new Roman road discovered and added to the canon of known routes is a big event. We must encourage discoveries, and publication of Roman road discoveries by mentioning who discovered it in the first place. It is almost like citing the author of a reference work.

If you have discovered a Roman road but have not yet gone public, let me know, and I will publish the details, and make sure you are cited as its discoverer. If two or more researchers have independently found the same road, they should all be classed as the road’s discoverers as they each reinforce the efforts of the other.

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John Michell, the New Age and the Roman Mile

New View Over Atlantis

John Michell’s New View over Atlantis

John Michell (1933-2009) was an author who had an enormous influence in New Age thought – he wrote The View over Atlantis in 1969, a follow up of his earlier Flying Saucer Vision of 1967. His writings spawned a balooning of public interest in previously obscure areas such as geomancy, divining and ley hunting. I was a ley hunter before becoming interested in Roman roads. Of course ley hunting is anathema to the traditional archeologist, but it gave me an early awareness of the English landscape, and provided me with an enthusiasm to read more about it. Not only was Alfred Watkins (The Old Straight Track) eagerly devoured, but so was anything to do with the English landscape. WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape was borrowed from Hemel Hempstead library, where I also found the exciting books by TC Lethbridge (Ghost and Ghoul, Gog and Magog etc) together with Landscape Archaeology by Michael Aston and Trevor Rowley (David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1974). Yes, that’s the late Mike Aston, of Time Team fame – Landscape Archaeology was his first book which was written as a manual on how to read and document the land. Other authors I read at this time included Colin and Janet Bord, Peter Underwood  and Geoffrey Ashe.

Of course, you don’t have to believe every theory put forward by these authors, but you have to admit, they’re entertaining, and usually thought-provoking; especially Michell: he made the world feel a much more exciting place than it seemed at this time.  With IRA car bombs going off, spectacularly bad music (I’m You’re Long Haired Lover From Liverpool etc), seemingly endless industrial strife, and increasingly worrisome fashion trends (I personally didn’t care much for flares or long floppy shirt collars), the English landscape was an easily accessible escape to a place where the problems of daily life simply didn’t exist.

I think it was an escape route for many at this time. In fact the 1970′s was a golden time for landscape studies. Many young people’s minds were switched onto reading the landscape in various ways, due to these books and a number of TV programmes which were produced at the time. I remember WG Hoskins’ book was adapted as The Landscape of England which became a landmark BBC series, with the author presenting it. Metal detecting was born about this time, and the Ordnance Survey went metric with their 1:50,000 scale replacements for the ’1 inch’ maps (scale of 1:63,360).  This magnified the scale giving increased detail.  People were constantly going out, divining for underground streams with metal rods or ‘witching’ sticks, metal detecting for gold or ley hunting, armed with their new metric map, a ruler and a pencil.  I remember there were psychic vibrations reported at the Rollright Stones, the Toronto Experiment proved conclusively that ghosts were real, and Yuri Geller meanwhile showed us that mental powers alone could bend metal.

So amongst all these 1970′s New Age happenings (some undoubtedly more New Age than others) I continued to follow Michell’s writings. In 1983, I bought his revised 1969 text – The New View Over Atlantis. In this book, amongst many other fascinating subjects, he wrote about ancient measurements, and how many of these measures still exist enshrined not only in modern systems, but within the structures of the ancient world – like Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Michell was trying to find a formula to unify the ancient Roman, Greek and Hebrew systems. Then, a moment of inspiration:

It was the good fortune and joy of the author in 1980 to find the key to defining the exact values of the ancient units of measure and thus of the earth’s dimensions as formerly reckoned. These were set out the following year in a book called Ancient Metrology. The discovery confirms the statements of many of the old writers, and the suspicions of many today, that the standard of science in remote prehistoric times was at least as high as that which has been achieved in this [the 20th] century.

(John Michell, The New View Over Atlantis, Thames and Hudson, 1983, London, p.126)

Michell then relates how the various ancient systems of measure are sub-units of the proportions of the world. I won’t go into this in detail, as this will spoil a good read but the important point is that during this discussion, he relates that the Roman mile is equivalent to 4866.048 feet, or 1622.016 yards. This is very close to Smith’s calculation of 1618 yards, and is 173 feet shorter than Margary‘s calculation of 1680 yards. Judging by the persuasive arguments put forth by Michell, I would favour 1622.016 yards as being the most accurate measure of the Roman mile yet.

Naturally, I recommend Michells’ book, which is always refreshing to read.

See my page about The Antonine Itinerary for other calculations of the Roman mile’s length.

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Which Hampshire Archaeological Society?

In North east Hampshire, the world of archaeology is served comprehensively by three groups:

Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society
http://www.fieldclub.hants.org.uk/

This society goes back some years but it is “constantly evolving and is not bound by tradition”. They have a yearly O.G.S. Crawford Lecture, and an Annual Report of Archaeology in Hampshire, which is a report of all excavations in the county.


North East Hampshire Historical and Archaeological Society

http://www.nehhas.com/

They are

interested in historical and archaeological matters relating to North East Hampshire UK. We encourage members to take part in research, field work and excavations.

As an alternative, there is:


North East Hampshire Historical and Archaeological Society
(Field Archaeology Branch)

http://www.nehhas.org.uk/

These guys have been closely involved in the research of the recently discovered Winchester to Farnham route, and they are currently looking at a direct route from Winchester to Chichester (The Antonine Itinerary route goes via Clausentum (Bitterne), though the mileages given would suit a more direct route, hence the reason for looking for such a route.

Both NEHHAS and NEHHAS (FAB) have published details of the Winchester to Farnham route separately. It makes studying Roman roads in this area rather difficult, especially as both these societies are looking at Roman roads. Which society do I join? Can I become the member of all groups at a discount?

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Welcome to Roman Roads.Net!

How appropriate that the domain romanroads.net was available: the roman road system was one of the very first organised networks in the world.

We know about many Roman Roads, but I believe there are more waiting to be discovered – for example smaller, shorter ‘feeder’ roads that would allow access to the main routes to the local market towns. The movement of foodstuffs, and grain in particular, would have been significant in an economy that was based on large agricultural surpluses.

I will start by looking at the Antonine Itinerary.

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