Pathways > The Pathways book > Roman roads
The Roman invasion of Britain changed our islands completely, not least because of the network of Roman roads that the conquering army swiftly constructed. Over time the Romans built a vast web of mostly well built roads. Although the primary purpose was military they became important trade routes, taking the 'Roman way' to the indiginous population and carrying away valuable minerals, metals and foodstuffs.
When Roman rule ceased in around 410AD their roads continued in regular use but, without a central power to govern their maintenance, they gradually fell into disrepair. In many cases, however, the original line of the route remained and many have become the roads of today. In other places, as on Stane Street in West Sussex, the route fell out of use and the remnants of the original Roman road can still be seen.
The Stane Street walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
The Romans were the first to build a planned network of roads across Britain, a feat of engineering and construction that proved to be way ahead of its time. Nearly 2,000 years elapsed before there was once again a systematic effort to develop and improve the road system in Britain, with the construction of the toll-charging turnpike roads in the 18th century. Looking at a map of Roman roads at the height of the Roman occupation, it is striking how similar it is to our road network today, with the majority of trunk roads radiating from London. This was the product of a national, rather than local, road-building strategy.
The Roman roads were designed primarily to facilitate military control. They dramatically increased speed of passage and were seldom impassable in bad weather. A journey that might previously have taken several days could, with regular changes of horses, be done in a matter of hours. It is no surprise then that the first Roman roads were built to consolidate the new frontiers. The very first major road, the Fosse Way, linked Exeter and Lincoln, passing through Bath, Gloucester and Leicester. Within a few decades of the invasion in 43 AD the frontier had been pushed out to include Lincoln, York, Wroxeter, Chester and Caerleon and new military roads were built to link them. Later the military network extended into what is now Scotland, past Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall even further north.
But this was not just about the imposition of military might. As time went by and the conquered regions became settled, the roads increasingly became trading routes. Side roads were built to connect important commercial and industrial centres, for instance to the iron-mining area of the Weald. The Romans were masters of the art of assimilation, so the roads brought luxury goods and fine foods to the elite class of the indigenous population. The network was also a method of raising revenues, with a tax (portorium) imposed of some 2–2.5% of the value of the goods passing along it.
In their heyday Roman roads stretched throughout the land, an estimated 10,000 miles in total. They were the motorways of their time but, just like modern motorways, they were by no means the only pathways across the country. They were additional to an already extensive track and path network. Often, however, the Roman road was quite isolated from the indigenous web of paths and population. The Romans favoured high ground and their routes were driven, at least initially, by military rather than local communication needs.
A cut-away view of a Roman road must be one of the most popular wall posters to be found in classrooms, illustrating the construction in graphic detail, usually with a proud Roman centurion posing alongside. A Roman road typically comprised an embankment (‘agger’), up to about 35ft wide, with a ditch on either side. The ditch was for drainage and also the consequence of quarrying for materials for the agger. The road metal was then laid on top, sometimes as a single layer of flint, gravel or other stony material, sometimes with layers of foundation material too, depending on the terrain. The surface was generally cambered to let the rainwater drain off easily.
We think of the completed roads as being absolutely straight and, all things being equal, they were. This tells us something about the Roman demand for efficiency, but it can also be seen as an expression of power. As conquerors, there were no considerations of land ownership or local objections to deter them from taking the most direct line. However, straightness was not an absolute rule: larger natural obstacles or steep gradients were sometimes avoided, with the road diverting around them before reverting back to its original line.
Following the collapse of Roman rule around 410 AD, the roads ceased to be properly maintained. Many of those with minimal engineering simply disappeared back into the landscape. Bridges, largely of wooden construction, were often the first things to give way. Inevitably some stretches of road were washed away by floods.
However, large chunks of the major routes survived and were in use up to medieval times, albeit often on a much more localised basis. Some of the well-known Roman road names, such as Watling Street and Ermine Street, are probably Anglo-Saxon, suggesting that they continued in regular use well into the post-Roman period. Some were eventually improved as turnpikes in the 18th century, having been pretty much neglected for over a millennium and a half.
Numerous Roman roads are still in evidence today, whether as main roads such as the A5, country lanes, parish boundaries (so used because of their longevity and prominence) or simply tracks and footpaths. Some, such as the Peddars Way, have become long-distance footpaths. In one way or another they have remained a key element of the British landscape and its pathways.
Stane Street in West Sussex
Nicholas Rudd-Jones travels back to the stomping ground of his youth.
Stane Street connects Chichester – then called Regnum, the tribal capital of Roman Sussex – with London. It is likely to have carried inter-town traffic and facilitated the distribution of corn from the rich agricultural area of southern Sussex to London and the rest of Britain. There were, no doubt, lots of tracks criss-crossing Stane Street, especially on the crest of the Downs, which would have formed an east-west thoroughway long before the Romans arrived.
The street took the most direct route that the lie of the land allows; it is a good example of the skill and thoroughness with which these roads were planned by the Roman engineers. They saw, for example, that by building the road a little east of the direct alignment from London to Chichester at Pulborough they could take advantage of a convenient descent from the South Downs between Gumber Corner and Bignor. The best place to see this descent is looking south from the Roman villa. There is a point in the field where in dry weather you can see the merest shadow of its form.
Bignor Roman Villa was discovered in 1811 by a farmer, Mr Tupper, who was ploughing his field and hit a large stone. The site was fully excavated almost immediately and turned into a major tourist attraction during the Victorian era. The villa was one of the most opulent in Roman Britain, though considerably smaller than nearby Fishbourne Roman Palace. It was inhabited by a Romano-British farming family, who took advantage of the ridge of fertile greensand soil on which it sat to make themselves wealthy. It was linked to Stane Street by a metalled track.
The villa complex grew in a series of stages, from an original timber building dating from around 200 AD. Over the following two centuries it expanded to more than 60 rooms, several of which house fine mosaics, now protected under a thatched roof. There is an example of Roman underfloor heating and a sumptuous bath complex, complete with warm rooms, hot room, cold plunging pool and changing area.
There is little or no evidence of when or why the property was abandoned. It was not damaged by fire, like Fishbourne Palace, so it may simply have fallen into disuse after the end of the Roman occupation, in around 410 AD.
Every 13 miles or so along Stane Street there would be a ‘posting station’, equivalent to the motorway stop of today. These were rectangular enclosures through which the road ran. Inside were whatever buildings were needed to service the traffic passing through, in particular stabling for a change of horses for high-speed message carriers. The nearest posting station to Bignor Hill is a few miles north, on the road to Pulborough, at Harding.
It is reckoned that Stane Street was maintained for well over three centuries, until the Romans left around 410 AD, at which point it started to fall into disrepair. It was, however, still in use in the 13th century, when it was mentioned in a ‘feet of fines’, an agreement to end a legal dispute or establish a property ownership.
The road is still being used today, but for leisure only – walkers, cyclists and horse riders make good use of the firm ground and level surface. The South Downs is now a national park, which should ensure that the road is preserved for centuries to come.
This whole area is special to me, as the place where I grew up and explored every nook and cranny, latterly dragging my children along with me. It was special to my mother, who rode up here and used to bring a good friend for a walk along the top (a good friend who incidentally lived in the house of John Hawkins, the man who led the excavation of Bignor Roman Villa). It was a memorable place in the summer of 1977, when as teenagers we climbed up the adjacent Duncton Down to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, lighting a beacon as one of a network of flaming lights across the country, an ancient tradition most famously put to use to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada.
On the day I walk it again, it is certainly special to the many hikers, bikers and horse riders who are enjoying themselves, especially the father and son perched on a bench looking down towards the sea, deep in conversation and crisps.
My seven-mile walk begins at the top of Bignor Hill. Instantly there are glorious views to the south: you can see the sea glistening and on a clear day the Isle of Wight. To the north you can pick out the Hog’s Back and the North Downs, the route that Stane Street takes towards London. Bignor Hill is now part of the Slindon Estate, run by the National Trust. It is an exquisite piece of country, running south to the village of Slindon, and criss-crossed by myriad well-kept paths.
Walking west along the main chalk ridge, the path soon reaches Stane Street. Clamber up on to its embankment, or ‘agger’, and it is easy to imagine yourself as a Roman soldier or aristocrat heading home to Regnum. If you had rested at Harding the night before, as most travellers did, it would probably be about lunchtime now and you might be feeling a bit peckish. What better place to stop than the point you reach in a few minutes, where you get the first proper view of your destination and the end of your journey? Nowadays you can just spy the spire of Chichester Cathedral, marking the very centre of the old Roman settlement.
The track here opens out onto a great expanse of downland. On a fine day in almost any season the Sussex Downs are utterly beautiful, and this is one of the best spots. This being early October, I am lucky enough to see a Clouded Yellow butterfly, an immigrant from southern Europe, blown in on a southerly wind. Just like the Romans themselves, really.
As the track enters the wood there is a vast array of footpath choices. If you continue straight on you eventually get to Chichester, but here we leave our imaginary Roman companions and cut back via Gumber Farm, which is run by the National Trust and has a bothy and camping field where you can stay overnight. It’s in an exquisite remote setting and would make the perfect base for exploring the area. Iron Age lynchets can be found in front of the farm cottages – banks of earth formed on the slope of a field through endless ploughing, making a series of wide steps. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), the writer, poet and walker, was a frequent visitor to Gumber Farm and the South Downs. There is a blue plaque in his memory on the bothy wall, with the inscription, ‘Lift up your hearts in Gumber.’
Heading back up to Stane Street on the left are the remains of a second world war decoy airfield disguised as an RAF base. I wonder what the farmer thought about being a target? I retrace my steps back onto Stane Street, and at the pedestrian gate peel right towards the Neolithic camp. I clamber over a metal gate and stroll around the area of the camp. One’s imagination needs to work overtime here, as there are just a few undulations, like waves in the sea, to indicate the signs of past human activity. But if you look up and around, it’s easy to appreciate what a splendid spot its inhabitants chose, right on the top of the hill with views in all directions. The site may have been first occupied about 6,000 years ago, when settled farming replaced hunting and gathering as the main source of food. Dips left by old flint mines can be seen in several places.
I walk on and swing left down through a wood, back up the other side of a dip and join the South Downs Way. To the right of the track there’s a dew pond, a typical feature of the South Downs. They were built with clay-lined bottoms, often at the top of hills above the water line. Despite the name, the primary source of water is believed to be rainfall rather than dew or mist.
From here it’s a delightful stroll back to the car park, with wide views in every direction. On the way, there’s Toby’s Stone – a mounting block commemorating a local huntsman who, just like Hilaire Beloc, fell in love with the spirit of the place. Toby’s inscription reads:
‘Here he lies
Where he longed to be
Home is the sailor
Home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill.’
Toby, incidentally, was Toby Fitzwilliam, master of the Leconfield Hunt, and his son Richard (also on the inscription) used to live in the house that my family later inhabited.
Below is a list of other walks visiting Roman Roads:
The Greensands Ridge is Bedfordshire's premier long- distance route, from the canals of Leighton Buzzard to the rolling green fields of Gamlingay. It traverses forty miles of the county along a ridge above clay valleys on each side. The route covers... More info
This anticlockwise route takes you through a range of scenery to the east of Crowthorne, including woodland, SSSI heathland, which is important for wildlife including insects, lizards and birds and a section of ancient Roman road. You will also be... More info
A mid-length stroll along paths and (mainly!) quiet roads in a circular route from Swallowfield, including two short riverside stretches and a Roman road.... More info
Part 2 of The St Cuthbert's Way is from St Boswells to Harestanes along the banks of the River Tweed and through the surrounding countryside, following the path of a Roman road. There is an optional return via public transport.... More info
A countryside walk following St Cuthbert's Way from Harestanes along Dere Street Roman Road, then onto Cessford Castle and finishing at Morebattle.... More info
This is classic Borders walk which encompasses all the features famously associated with the landscape of the Scottish Borders: ruined abbeys and castles, famous rivers, a Roman road and of course, beautiful countryside. ... More info
This is an easy moorland walk. Good paths take you round Mendick Hill which dominates the route for most of the way and follows the route of an old Roman road. Two miles from the start there is access to the summit of Mendick Hill. As you walk past... More info
From Carlops, this walk follows a Roman road, turns down a lane and joins a tree-lined avenue. After some rough grazing, a minor road leads to another avenue. From the hamlet of Kitleyknowe, the route crosses the wooded Esk Valley and returns to... More info
This circular walk in the foothills of the Pentland Hills follows an old drove road and a Roman road, later used as a turnpike. Climbing Mendick Hill affords extensive views, but it is this option that makes the walk a hill scramble rather than a... More info
Soon after leaving Carlops, the walk follows a path which leads to a byroad along the route of an old Roman road. A farm track then rises to a col in a less-frequented part of the Pentland Hills. After descending by a narrow path and crossing a dam... More info
This walk takes you through a delightful area of Cambridgeshire which is surprisingly hilly. Starting from an interesting former settlement known as Wandlebury Ring, you use a long stretch of Roman road (now a grassy track) and visit the charming... More info
The walk takes you by a well-constructed track up to a col above Dolwyddelan with wide views. When this is left, the ground is rough moorland, although there is a fence for guidance. A steep drop into the valley brings you to a rough track, later... More info
A moderately-sized walk that uses bridle-paths, country roads, Roman roads and paths. Its start and finish is the ancient church of Bewcastle and has its own castle there too.... More info
This fantastic long walk takes in so many great features around Fusedale, including four Wainwright Fells, the High Street Roman Road and a 3,000-year-old stone circle.... More info
This walk has it all: old village streets, valley and summit walking. The journey follows a circular route from Old Glossop in Derbyshire, through Doctor's Gate Valley which was the course of a Roman road and up to the summit of Bleaklow, which... More info
The rocky tor which is the summit of Win Hill dominates Hope and the valley so that most ascents are steep, putting it beyond the reach of many walkers. This route though, uses a slowly rising path to gain the ridge. By doubling back, the top with... More info
This super walk starts from the car park near the Thomas Hardy cottage in Higher Bockhampton, the route leading into the splendid Puddletown Forest and circling back to cross a Roman road before returning to the start point. There are a few steep... More info
Starting on National Trust land, this walk takes you along a Roman road, over and under the busy A31 road, alongside the Rivers Stour and Allen and through the market town of Wimborne Minster.... More info
Starting from Tibbs Hollow Walkers Car Park, through woodland, crop fields, bridleways, quiet country roads, Roman Roads, Plantations and a National Cycle route there's always a feeling of being high up, with far reaching views across beautiful... More info
This walk takes you through some of the most isolated countryside in southern England. You also visit the site of a former Roman fort after a brief stretch of old Roman road. Bypassing a settlement used by modern Christians you have a look at the... More info
A circular walk through the forest, some views, an exposed Roman Road and a choice of pubs!... More info
This walk combines a visit to the site of a Roman fort, with a walk with fine views and and the chance to walk on part of an old Roman road.... More info
Although this walk is on the fringes of suburban Southampton, there will be times when you will be surprised how close you are to the centre of this busy city. Evidence of man’s influence over the landscape ranges from remains of Iron Age hill-forts... More info
A very attractive and quiet walk on rural Hampshire downland, between the two conservation villages of Weston Patrick and Upton Grey, crossing farmland and woodland and encountering points of historical interest, from a Roman road to an ancient 12th... More info
This walk starts from one delightful village and visits two others, as well as using sections of the complex Chain Walk and a section of track along the route of an old Roman road. The village of Ardeley figures on the front cover of the OS Explorer... More info
A pleasant route from Hollingworth Lake along a wooded valley, over a moorland golf course and onto open moor via a Roman road over Blackstone Edge on the Pennine Way until crossing the M62 motorway. Then a broad, undulating, ridge walk and descent... More info
The walk is in what is still a relatively quiet area, although Bowland has its devotees, me included. The Salter Fell track, which is a Roman road, was described by Wainwright as 'the finest moorland walk in Britain'. This route takes in the highest... More info
Start from the Fosse Meadows Nature Reserve. Then follow The Fosse Way, the old Roman road from Lincoln to Bath. This stretch is the only part in the country untouched by modernisation; the part on which you will walk is now a track and a pathway. As... More info
A short walk from Burton Overy, through the village and the hamlet of Scotland, across fields to the old Leicester - Colchester Roman Road, along the ancient track and back to the village.... More info
This is a delightful half day introduction walk to the Cómpeta/Canillas area with super views over the Mediterranean coast and the Sierra de Tejeda. Walk the old Roman Road and Bridge (Calzada y Punte Romano) at Canillas and visit the Ermita de... More info
Starting in a scenic mountain village, this walk winds down an old Roman road then climbs through orchards and olive groves high above the Cajula Valley. Skirting through pinewoods, it then plunges into a valley carpeted with wildflowers and follows... More info
The route is mostly along tracks, some of which are old Roman roads; one has a Bronze Age stone, a cowell stone, marking a boundary. The route touches the market town of Swaffham and starts in the forest car park, where deer can be seen.... More info
This is an enjoyable walk. The pub in Stonebridge is now reopened. The walk is through woodland, along tracks and a country lane, an old Roman road. There are wild flowers to be seen, such as foxgloves, dog rose, honeysuckle and speckled wood ... More info
This is a mixed terrain circular walk starting at and returning to, Tasburgh, south of Norwich. There are ancient monuments, churches, field tracks, a Roman road and riverside meadows, together with opportunities for a variety of refreshments in Long... More info
This wonderful walk is full of variations, steeped in history, and with a rich diversity of nature. The vast natural area of wetland and scrub meadows is a site of Special Scientific Interest. Part of the route is on Roman Road, lengthy and straight,... More info
A lovely walk rich in wildlife; the area is on the edge of the Black Mountains and is easily accessed from a lay-by on the A40. The outward route rises gradually, with lovely views to the Usk Valley. After a stiff climb up to the hill-fort it is... More info
Lavenham is a picturesque mediaeval small town with much to see (see walk 1106). The walk follows the River Brett, crosses the valley then climbs via an old Roman road and field paths to visit two tiny hamlets before returning to Lavenham.... More info
This walk starts from a town upon a river and visits a village on a Roman road. Shipston is a large historical Cotswold town on the River Stour and has much to interest the visitor.... More info
A beautiful circular walk through varied countryside with fantastic views over West Sussex and the English Channel. The walk starts from Slindon and takes you to Nore Folly and then along Stane Street - the old Roman road to London. You won’t see any... More info
On a fine day in almost any season the South Downs are utterly beautiful. This walk takes in Stane Street, the Roman Road that ran from London to Chichester. It has majestic views in both directions.
Walk featured in the 'Pathways' book.... More info
A lovely wooded walk with great views over the Wylye Valley through the trees, following Grim's Ditch and a Roman road.... More info
A circular walk over the downs west of Salisbury, the majority of it between the Wylye and Nadder Rivers. The walk provides great views over the river valleys and an interesting walk along a Roman road through the woods. You can also check how the... More info
A walk mostly following a section of the Fosse Way, an old Roman road which linked Lincoln with Exeter. The remains of the road cuts its way through the countryside on the edge of the Cotswolds in a dead straight line, mostly between hedgerows and... More info
From the attractive village of Sherston with its wide High Street, the walk follows the River Avon downstream through parkland to the picturesque small village of Easton Grey, which is set around a 16th Century stone bridge over the river. The route... More info
The walk starts from Semer Water then goes up to Wether Fell and along a section of Roman road, before descending Bardale to Marsett and back to the start.... More info
This walk starts at Marsett Village, following Marsett Beck to Bardale Head, giving splendid views back over Semerwater to Addlebrough. It then turns NW and follows the Roman road above Wensleydale, before turning back down a sometimes steep descent... More info
One of a series of circular walks covering the entire Pennine Way, it follows the Pennine Way south from Gargrave to Thornton-in-Craven. Here it turns north-east to follow a dismantled railway track, itself following the path of an ancient Roman road... More info
This walk starts and ends just within South Yorkshire, but most of the walk is actually in Derbyshire. On this walk you will cover almost every terrain possible: woodland, farmland, a sheep-track which follows the line of a Roman road, bleak moorland... More info