Yesterday I went to find the section of the Roman road that runs from Chester, through Aldford, and down to the east of Churton. The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.” I described the background to Roman Chester and the British road system yesterday, in part 1. The walk I took to find the traces of the road on the ground is the subject of this post, part 2.
The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”
By AD 200, after repairs and reconstruction, with new buildings added, Deva had fulfilled all of its architect’s original hopes, and plans of the fortress at this time allow reconstruction of the first part of the original route from fortress. On today’s city plan the route of Watling Street West begins at the Chester Cross, at the head of Bridge Street. The Bridge Street stretch of the road within the fortress walls was called the Via Praetoria. The fortress headquarters (principia) and neighbouring legionary commander’s residence (praetorium) would have been located here, behind the Chester Cross, facing down Bridge Street. The building housing the Victoria pub (with a toast to our friend Jack), and the neighbouring St Peter’s Church both sit over parts of the the principia and praetorium.
Proceeding down the Via Praetoria, flanked first by the scamun tribunorum (senior officer’s quarters) on each side and then by the thermae (bath-house) on one side, and what may have been the valetudinarium (hospital) on the other side, a traveller would have crossed the Via Sagularis that ran along the inner edge of the rampart. At that point he or she would have been stopped at a large stone gateway mid-way along the southern wall of the fort, the Porta Praetoria, which would have been one of four substantial defensive checkpoints for those going in and out. Sadly, the gateway was destroyed when the Medieval defences were extended. From here, the route passed down the path of Lower Bridge Street, crossing a bridge over the Dee into what is now Handbridge and was then a canabae legionis (civilian suburb) that sprawled beyond the fortress walls.
Once the bridge was crossed and the canabae legionis traversed, a left-hand turn down Eaton Road follows the path of 6a/Watling Street West to Eccleston. Much of the line of the road from here is shown both on the LiDAR (remote sensing) image and the corresponding Ordnance Survey map (from the Roads of Roman Britain website). Some 2km (1.2 miles) to the south of Chester, the road passed through Heronbridge (once a large Roman civil settlement on the west bank of the Dee), before crossing the Dee again, at Aldford. A Roman presence at such crossings, such as a fortlet, roadside inn (mansio) or way-station (mutatio) was not unusual, but to date there is no evidence for any such installation at Aldford.
From Aldford the road passed to the east of Churton and the Roman works at Holt, which were on the west side of the Dee. There was no bridge but the river could be forded at low tide. There is currently no evidence that a Roman site was established at or near Farndon on the eastern bank of the river. The road continued on its way from east of Churton through Tilston and Malpas before reaching Whitchurch (Mediolanum). From Whitchurch, another stretch of Roman road ran to Wroxeter (Virconium Cornoviorum) and from there travellers could proceed either southeast to London (Londinium) or Colchester (Camulodunum), and from these bases to the rest of Europe, or south to Caerwent (Venta Siluris).
A second and short stretch of road into this long section to the north of Churton at Aldford, and is also shown on the above map. In Ivan Margary’s scheme, this stretch of is 6aa. The route had been proposed during the 19th Century, but was not confirmed until recently. Although much of the route is under modern development, sections of the proposed section of road were identified by LiDAR, confirming that the road headed south through Huntington to Alford. LiDAR also revealed what is thought to be a previously unknown Roman camp fort along the path of that road. LiDAR, a remote sensing method, has become invaluable for revealing sub-surface features without excavation.
The red arrow shows the line of FP8, the footpath that runs along a stretch of the original Roman road, Watling Street West (also Margary’s 6a). Although I did a circular walk, along the footpaths marked by the arrows, the photographs below show only the Roman section of my walk, between Aldford and the section of the roadway that runs east of Churton. I will post photographs of the full circular walk that incorporated the Roman section in the next couple of days. There is nothing particularly Roman about it, apart from the broad width of the track and the fairly straight route that it takes, but it makes a very fine walk in its own right, with plenty of scenery and some wide, colourful vistas. I was intending to follow FP8 as far as FP10 (the diagonal path that runs back to where three paths meet on the yellow B-road, Edgerely Road). In fact, just past the dauntingly named but aromatically inoffensive slurry bed (marked on the map above as a blue rectangle) and on the other side of a metalled lane, the grassy path was flooded with very gungy, muddy ankle-deep water and I really didn’t fancy getting a boot fool of distinctly fetid sludge. Instead, I retraced my steps and turned west to cut along the metalled track that leads from FP8 to Grange Farm (of which it is a part) and retraced my original path along FP6 to Edgerley Road (along the route that I took a couple of days ago). So there remains a small run of the Churton section of Watling Street West accessible on public footpaths that I have yet to complete.
As the above maps show, Watling Street West bypassed Farndon completely, running to its east. There is speculation, currently unsupported by archaeological evidence, that there may have been some sort of Roman installation at the present crossing between Farndon and Holt, because this may have been the best place to ford the river. The tile and pottery works to the north of Holt on the east bank of the Dee made use of the river for most of their transportation needs, but a connection to Watling Street West would have been desirable, via a small branch road. Even if there was a small Roman presence at Farndon, like a fortlet, it did not attract a large community and there was no reason to divert the main line of Watling Street West. It is only when Farndon became an expanding community, some time after the construction of a permanent bridge, that a route from Aldford to Farndon was established. Today, the B5130 passes along the 6aa (Huntington to Aldford) route rather than the 6a (Bridge Street to Aldford) route and then heads through the middle of Churton before arriving at Farndon. Churton grew up as a small ribbon development along this new route, its earliest buildings apparently dating to the 17th century. This route eventually replaced the section of Watling Street West that ran from Aldford to the east of Churton. We are lucky that Watling Street West still survives as a farm track and public footpath.
A note on walking conditions. Some of the walk follows a small lane but the rest runs through fields and young woodland or coppices. It is all very easy underfoot. However, at this time of year, and following any recent rainfall, sturdy damp-proof hiking footwear is strongly recommended as there is a bit of slightly uneven ground and some very muddy sections. Hereabouts, the land is not always well drained, and standing water tends to gather and linger soggily on the surface.
Books and journals:
Davies, H. 2008. Roman Roads of Britain. Shire Archaeology
Frere, S.S., Hassall, M.W.C. and Tomlin, R.S.O. 1988. Roman Britain in 1987. Britannia, Vol. 19 (1988), p.415-508
Jones, G.D.B. and Webster P.V. 1968. Mediolanum: Excavations at Whitchurch 1965–6. Archaeological Journal, 125:1, p.193-254
Lathan, F.A. 1981. Farndon. The History of a Cheshire Village. Local History Group
Margary, I. 1973 3rd edition). Roman Roads in Britain. John Baker 1973.
Mason, D.J.P. 2001, 2007. Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus
Mason, D.J.P. 2007. Chester AD 400-1066. From Roman Fortress to English Town. Tempus.
Peel, J.H.B. 1976. Along the Roman Roads of Britain. Macmillan
Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003a. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Aldford Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003b. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Farndon Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
Ward, S. 2013. Chester. A History. The History Press
Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/
The Roads of Roman Britain
A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903