Watling Street is a Roman road that runs from Wales to Dover. On this picture, the road goes through the centre of London.
The Complete Guide To: Roman Roads
When in Britain, why not do as the Romans did? From St Albans to Chester to Hadrian's Wall, follow in legionaries' footsteps, then cool off in Bath's new spa, says Fred Mawer
Published: 05 August 2006
ALL ROADS LEAD TO...
Visit Bath (Aquae Sulis) and its baths where the Romans used to bathe. Visit the newly opened baths set in a modern building that is amongst fine Georgian and more ancient architecture
Bath, at least this coming week, when, after countless delays, the Thermae Bath Spa finally opens.
The city known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis lies on the 220-mile-long Fosse Way, the Romans' cross-country link joining Exeter (Isca) to Lincoln (Lindum). The road could have marked the boundary of Roman rule in the middle of the first century AD. Fossa means ditch in Latin, and at one time, the road may have been, or run alongside, a defensive ditch.
The big attraction, then and now, was the water. In the first century AD, the Romans built a great religious spa complex at Bath around sacred hot springs. The remains of the baths and the temple to Sulis Minerva are among the most evocative and best explained Roman attractions in Britain (01225 4777 785; www.romanbaths.co.uk). To avoid long queues, visit in the evenings during August, when the complex stays open until 10pm; admission £11.
Though you can't wallow in the same baths as the Romans did, from Monday you should be able to test the restorative powers of the springs, when the massively over-budget Thermae Bath Spa (01225 331234; www.thermaebathspa.com) is due to open. The wait has been worth it - Sir Nicholas Grimshaw's brilliant design has incorporated listed 18th-century buildings to revive Britain's only hot-springs resort. The visitor centre opens daily, 9.30am-5pm; spa sessions in the main bath complex cost £19 for two hours, £29 for four; reservations are advised.
You can reach Bath on virtually the same thoroughfare as the Romans used. From Lincoln, you can follow the course of the Fosse Way if you travel on the A46 to Leicester and from there take the B4455 to the Cotswolds, where you pick up the A429 to Cirencester. This town, formerly Corinium, was a centre of mosaic production in Roman times - fine mosaics can be seen in the town's Corinium Museum (01285 655611; www.cotswold.gov.uk; open daily 10am-5pm, 2-5pm Sunday; admission £3.90); and at Chedworth Roman Villa (01242 890256; www.nationaltrust.org.uk; open daily 10am-5pm; admission £5.50), a few miles north, just off the Fosse Way.
HOW MANY ROMAN ROADS ARE KNOWN IN BRITAIN?
Even though Britannia was on the margins of the Empire, over 6,000 miles of Roman roads are known of with reasonable certainty. Historians have been able to deduce where some of Britain's main Roman roads existed not only from archaeological evidence, but also from something called the Antonine Itinerary. Probably produced in the third century AD, it listed series of place names, with distances between them, along routes. Fifteen itineraries were in Britannia. Spread across much of England, and extending into Wales and lowland Scotland, they formed our first national road network. Often, you can identify them from straight-ish sections of roads on a current road atlas.
Many modern trunk roads follow the same course as Roman ones: besides the Fosse Way south-west from Lincoln, the A2 from Canterbury to London and the A5 onwards from there to Wales (Watling Street); the A68 from Corbridge near Hadrian's Wall to Edinburgh (part of Dere Street); and many others still follow the original orientation.
WHY WERE THEY BUILT?
Prior to the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43, plenty of long-distance grass and mud thoroughfares had evolved from repeated use. The Ridgeway is the best known. The Romans' approach was different: most of their roads were carefully plotted and constructed in the 50 years following the AD43 invasion. The network was an integral part of the military campaign. Roads enabled troops and supplies to be moved long distances at high speeds, maintaining control over the territory. Over the next four centuries of occupation, the roads gradually developed into important civilian and trading routes.
Posting stations - the Roman equivalent of our motorway services - appeared at intervals along the highways. You can visit the remains of a posting station on Watling Street called Wall Roman Site, or Letocetum (0870 333 1181; www.english-heritage.org.uk), south of Lichfield, where the foundations of a mansio, or inn and bathhouse, can be seen.
ARE ROMAN ROADS ALWAYS STRAIGHT?
No; it is more accurate to say they were built in a series of straight stretches. The Romans preferred, where possible, to take a direct route. As conquerors, they would have had few concerns about who owned or used the land they wanted to build a road across. But they were prepared to deviate around natural obstacles such as hills or marshes. One of the longest, virtually ruler-straight sections of known Roman road in Britain is the 33-mile stretch of Ermine Street from Winteringham, on the southern side of the Humber, to Lincoln. The present-day B1207, and then the A15, follow its course.
HAVE ANY ROMAN ROADS SURVIVED INTACT?
Wade's Causeway, extending more than a mile over the North York Moors, south-west of Goathland, is said to be one of the best-preserved in the country, though some experts dispute its origins.
Another example of a little-altered paved Roman road is the one that climbs over Blackstone Edge, north-east of Rochdale, near Littleborough (south of the junction of the A58 and B613. As well as tightly packed cobbles, you can make out wheel grooves, and a central slot possibly for drainage or to assist carts with braking. However, some people question the road's Roman provenance.
TAKE ME ON A ROMAN ROAD TRIP
Start at Dover (Dubris), close to where the Romans landed in 55BC and AD43. Pause for long enough to see the ruins of a Roman lighthouse within Dover Castle (01304 205108; www.english-heritage.org.uk; open daily 9.30am-6pm, and from 10am in September; admission £9.50), and the painted plaster walls in the Roman Painted House (01304 203279; open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm; admission £2), which was an inn for travellers crossing the Channel.
Take the A2 to Canterbury and on to London, entering the capital via the Old Kent Road. You're following Watling Street, an ancient Celtic track paved by the Romans and turned into one of their major thoroughfares (later used by Chaucer's pilgrims). From Marble Arch in central London, the Edgware Road, or A5, aims north-west towards St Albans (Verulamium). The name Watling Street probably derives from a Saxon tribe, the Watlingas, who lived around the town.
St Albans (Verulamium)
Verulamium was the third-largest settlement in Roman Britain. Its Roman walls and theatre are still in evidence, but most impressive is the collection of Roman artefacts in the Verulamium Museum (01727 819340; www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk; open daily 10am-5.30pm, 2pm on Sunday; admission £3.30) - mosaics, amphorae, lead coffins, wall paintings, and a newly displayed hypocaust.
From St Albans, the A5/Watling Street slices through Milton Keynes, then passes to the north of Birmingham. It then shoots due west to Wroxeter (Viroconium), just outside Shrewsbury. This was a significant town in Roman times, whose most impressive ruins are its municipal baths (01604 730320; www.roman-britain.org; open daily 10am-6pm; admission £3.10).
From here, Welsh Watling Street, sometimes called Watling Street (West) goes north to Chester (Deva), though its route cannot be detected from the current roads. Once one of three legionary bases in Britannia, Chester's centre is enclosed by walkable city walls that are Roman in origin. Other Roman attractions include the remains of the largest amphitheatre found in Britain, and a superb collection of inscribed tombstones in the Grosvenor Museum (01244 402008; www.chester.gov.uk; open daily 10.30am-5pm, 1-4pm Sunday; admission free). You can also tour the city guided by a Roman legionary (01244 324324; www.chester.gov.uk; call for departure points and times; £4.50).
DID THE ROMANS USE ROUNDABOUTS?
No, the circular road junction first appeared in Britain in 1911, in the newly built Letchworth Garden City, some way from Watling Street. Where roads met, the Romans employed T- and dogleg junctions, and especially crossroads, to marshal traffic. Towns often had regular street layouts, with aligned gates and the main streets meeting at a crossroads adjacent to the forum. This was true of York (Eboracum), whose main crossroads was the junction of Stonegate (the via praetoria) and Petergate (via principalis).
Eboracum began its Roman life as a military outpost, but grew into a sophisticated self-governing town, or colonia, that was capital of Britannia Inferior - for more information, visit Yorkshire Museum (01904 687687; www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk), which currently has an exhibition (until 29 October; daily 10am-5pm; admission £5.50) on Constantine the Great, who, AD306, was proclaimed Emperor in York.
When you hit the road, make it the A1079 to Market Weighton, and you'll be on Ermine Street. Another Roman equivalent of our motorways, it ran for around 200 miles between Eboracum and Londinium. South of the Humber, pick up the A15, which will take you along Ermine Street to Lincoln (Lindum). The street entered Lindum via the Newport Arch (now the city's most impressive Roman sight), then ran right through the centre of the settlement, down what is now Bailgate, which was next to the forum, and along the High Street.
You can pick up Ermine Street again south of Lincoln, on the A15. West of Sleaford, it becomes the B6403, then the A1/A1 (M) to Huntingdon. Here, stick on the Roman road by switching to the A1198 to Royston, joining the A10 into London.
HOW CAN I GET THE CHILDREN INTERESTED IN ROMAN BRITAIN?
Let them meet some Romans. English Heritage is laying on Roman festivals this weekend at Scarborough Castle (0870 333 1183; www.english-heritage.org.uk; from 11.30am; £4); and on 27/28 August at Corbridge, with drill and falconry displays.
CAN ONE WALK ALONG ANY ROMAN ROADS?
Since so many roads in our towns and cities follow Roman roads, many people do, without realising it. For example, London's Oxford Street was part of a Roman road connecting Hampshire with Suffolk. But there are more atmospheric Roman roads to follow on foot, including Wade's Causeway and the road over Blackstone Edge (see above). Invest in a copy of Exploring Roman Britain by Andrew McCloy (New Holland, £19.99) for its well-illustrated Roman-themed walks, including three based on Roman roads that are free of cars: Sarn Helen in the Brecon Beacons; Dere Street in the Cheviot Hills; and the north-Norfolk section of Peddars Way. Built by the Romans in the first century AD for troops to move through East Anglia after the revolt of Boudicca and the Iceni, Peddars Way is now a National Trail (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/peddarsway).
Easily the best Roman walking is around and along Hadrian's Wall (www.hadrians-wall.org). OK, it's not strictly a road, but the route of the wall took its lead from the Stanegate, an earlier Roman military road that ran between forts at Carlisle and Corbridge. You can walk along a section of the Stanegate, passing through Corbridge's Roman site. Thanks to the 84-mile-long Hadrian's Wall Path National Trail, you can hike between the North and Irish Seas following sections of the wall.
CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Yes, on the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain (£6.25) and the website www.romans-in-britain.org.uk.
HOW TO BUILD A ROMAN ROAD
First, decide where to build your road. Two thousand years ago, you probably wouldn't have had the use of a map to help you (though the evidence is debated). To get your road as straight as possible, employ basic surveying techniques - setting up markers on high or open ground, and aligning poles with an instrument called a groma.
To construct your road, you (or a team of Roman soldiers - the army provided the manpower for road building) need to dig a drainage ditch either side of the route, and pile the spoil up in between to create an embankment known as an agger. On that you place a foundation of large stones, then a layer of compressed smaller stones, gravel and flint.
If the road is in a town or is likely to be heavily travelled, you may want to put on a topping of paving stones, and add kerbstones. Give the surface a camber for drainage, and ensure the road is wide enough for two-wheeled vehicles to pass each other - Watling Street (the widest road) was around 10 yards across, the Fosse Way about half that.
In Roads in Roman Britain (Tempus, £16.99), the author Hugh Davies says, "the quality of construction was not bettered until the days of Telford and McAdam in the 19th century".