Category Archives: Aldford

Eaton Hall Bridge (Iron Bridge) at Aldford, built by William Hazledine to a Thomas Telford design

An idyllic section of the river Dee passes through the Eaton Hall estate, itself part of the Grosvenor estate, with Eaton Hall one side of the river and Aldford on the other.  Connecting the two parts of the estate across the river is the Grade-1 listed Eaton Hall Bridge (otherwise known as Iron Bridge), built in cast iron by William Hazledine (1763–1840) to a design by Thomas Telford (1757–1834).  Like Aldford village itself, also part of the Eaton Hall estate, the bridge and its immediate surroundings are manicured, coiffured, and meticulously polished.  Funny to think of the gracefully decorative bridge as a direct outcome of the innovative Industrial Revolution, one of the dirtiest, noisiest and most polluting episodes in history.  

The first Marquis of Westminster, Robert Grosvenor.  Source:  Wikipedia

A public footpath crosses the bridge from the south and continues to follow the river north on the western bank towards Chester (a few days ago, I described a walk to the bridge along the footpath from Churton, heading north along the eastern bank of the Dee). The bridge is still used for road traffic today, but because it is on a private estate, the daily load has always been very limited, and the bridge had remained in good condition since it was completed in 1824.  Repairs were required in 1980, when some of the iron struts (load-bearing beams) were replaced with steel.

The Eaton Hall Bridge was commissioned by the Marquis of Westminster, Robert Grosvenor who reinvented Eton Hall in an imitation and extravagant Gothic style (by William Porden) and simultaneously restored the gardens and driveways.  It seems surprising that he chose a traditional aesthetic for his house but a modern iron bridge to connect the two parts of the estate, and that may account for the ecclesiastical-style ornamental flourishes that embellish the bridge’s design, also derived from Gothic architecture.

Model of Craigelachie Bridge at the National Museum of Scotland, Source: Grace’s Guide

The Eaton Hall bridge was modelled not on Thomas Telford’s more ambitious suspension bridge projects over the Menai Straits and Conwy river, but on his earlier Bonar (completed 1812) and Craigellachie (completed 1815)  bridges.  It was a formula that worked, and was used again after Eaton Hall Bridge had been completed, with Telford’s Mythe and Holt Fleet bridges.

Like its predecessors, Eaton Hall Bridge was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s iron foundry at Plas Kynaston at Cefn Mawr before being sent by canal to Chester and down the Dee to Eaton Hall.  Hazledine and Telford had met when Hazledine had a small foundry in Shrewsbury.  Telford arrived in Shrewsbury to become county surveyor for Shropshire, responsible for all public building works, and the two men, both Freemasons, became friends and professional collaborators.  Hazledine trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  He established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct (1794-1805), thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  The civil engineer and surveyor for the Eaton Hall Bridge job was William Crosley (b.1802-d.1838), a well-respected canal and railway engineer who is not recorded as a contributor in previous Telford-related projects. The construction of Eaton Hall Bridge was supervised by Hazledine’s right hand man, William Stuttle, who implemented most, if not all, of Hazledine’s works on behalf of Telford.

The bridge consists of a single 150ft (46m) arched span, the same as that of the Bonar and Craigellachie bridges, formed of four ribs (30 x 2 ft / 9.15m x 62cm) that were cast in seven sections.  The ribs are connected with wrought iron bolts and braced by transverse plates.  It has open spandrels (the roughly triangular sections between arch and bridge top) featuring lattice bracing.  Over the top of the arch, the bridge is fitted with cast iron deck plates, which support the metalled roadway.  These are bolted together and lie over the full width of the bridge, 17ft (5.2m) wide.

The stone abutments at either end are made of plain, pale yellow ashlar sandstone, and curve outwards to meet the river bank. At the entrance to the bridge at either end, and on both sides, are short octagonal posts.   These posts are consistent with other Telford bridges, most of which have some sort of carved stonework detail flanking each end of the bridge, usually considerably more elaborate.

The Bonar, Craigellachie and the later but very similar Mythe and Holt Fleet bridges were elegant but rather plain.  At Eaton Hall bridge a lively ornamental element was added.   The spandrels, spandrel struts and outer arch ribs were provided with decorative cast iron motifs that give it a slightly frivolous edge, consisting of trefoils, quatrefoils and mouchettes.  Cast iron fretwork  (a repeating design of interlaced linear elements) is also bolted to the outer bracings, something that was done at other bridges but generally with a much simpler motif.   I don’t know what the original colour arrangement was supposed to be, but today it looks excellent in light blue and white.  The build date is cast into a the crown of the arch on the south side.  

None of Telford’s earlier or later bridges have this delicate ornamentation.  The only exception of which I am aware is Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed (1815), which has themed ornamental components in its large corner panels, as well as a bold statement spanning the full arch, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

The gently arching road crossing the bridge is flanked with lovely white cast iron railings with short “dogbar” intervals between  decorative features and decorative details beneath the rail adding real elegance to the overall impact.  At the apex of the bridge are a pair of cast iron double gates made to the same design, that today are usually kept open.  The railings terminate in the octagonal sandstone pillars.

Gates at the crown of the bridge.

It seems clear that although it was built to a Telford design, Telford himself was so busy with other projects that he was not involved with the contract.  William Hazledine presumably took responsibility for the job, using the designs for Bonar and Craigellachie bridges, for which Hazledine had cast the iron and implemented the build.  Hazledine himself was probably also rather busy on Telford projects at this time, and the work itself seems to have been carried out by the civil engineer William Crosley, who performed the essential survey work, with William Stuttle, Hazledine’s trusted Clerk of Works and Stuttle’s son William Westaby Stuttle helping to implement the build. Being  experienced in the building of this type of bridge, Hazledine and the Stuttles would have needed minimal input from Telford.  

Telford’s workload was certainly immense at this time.  Just a few of these projects include ongoing on the Mythe Bridge over the Severn at Tewkesbury (started 1823 and completed 1826), the reinvented 3000 yard / 2743m Harecastle canal tunnel (started 1822 and completed 1827) and the Holyhead road (started 1810 and completed 1829) that included Holyhead harbour and two fabulous suspension bridges crossing the Conwy and Menai Straits.  He was also involved in a number or road and railway surveys.  Hazledine’s foundry provided the cast iron and the construction expertise for these as well.  This probably accounts for the presence of William Crosley, who was not usually employed by Hazledine and seems to have been brought in specially for this job.

By this point in both Telford’s and Hazledine’s careers, Eaton Hall Bridge was a very small  private project, but its decorative flourishes means that it stands out from other Telford and Hazledine bridges for its fragile beauty.  That it was the subject of much pride by those most closely involved with its construction is indicated by the incorporation of the names of its key builders  into the bridge’s design, preserved in raised cast iron lettering in the far corners of the delicate ironwork:  “William Hazledine Contractor” (in the northwest corner), “William Stuttle, Founder” (in the southwest corner), “William Crosley Surveyor” (at the northeastern corner) and “William Stuttle Junior Founder” (southeastern corner).  Unfortunately, apart from one corner that is clearly visible from the footpath (William Stuttle Junior), the other three are partially concealed by tree branches, so I was unable to get clear photographs.  The absence of Telford’s name in these credits also suggests that Telford was not directly involved in the construction of the bridge.

Next to the bridge and to its south, on the west bank of the river is Iron Bridge Lodge, a typically polished Grosvenor Estate building.  It was commissioned by the first Duke of Westminster, designed by the Chester firm of architects Douglas and Fordham and completed in 1895.  The plastic-topped black shed next to it doesn’t contribute anything positive to the aesthetic, but I assume that it is only temporary, and the Lodge is an otherwise very attractive addition to the bridge and its surrounding scenery.  There is a full description of it on the Historic England website.

View from the bridge to the north


Sources: 

Books and articles

Ching, F.D.K. 1995. A Visual Dictionary of Architecture. John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Website resources

Grace’s Guide
Eaton Hall Bridge https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Eaton_Hall_Bridge
William Hazledine https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)

Historic England
Eaton Hall Bridge
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1129943 
Iron Bridge Lodge
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1138387

Engineering Timelines
Eaton Hall Iron Bridge
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=785

A walk along the Dee from Churton to the fabulous Eaton Hall Bridge at Aldford

Ordnance Survey Landranger 117, annotated with route details.

On yet another lovely spring day I again neglected the garden in favour of discovering one of the local walks, again from Churton to Aldford, but via a much longer route and this time to the west of the villages.  A couple of weeks ago I described short a walk from Churton towards the Dee, actually my first walk from Churton, but on that occasion I stopped short of actually reaching the river.  On Saturday I walked down the same track to the  Dee and headed north as far as Thomas Telford’s wonderful 1824 iron-built Eaton Hall Bridge at Aldford, before walking back through Aldford, over the B5130 and across the fields to Churton.

I’ll talk about the bridge on a separate post because it deserves some special attention, but here are details of the walk, which took over 3.5 hours at a fairly fast pace, but with stops to take photographs, chat to others and drop in at the Aldford village shop.  Although it is a short 45 minute walk by the shortest route across the fields from Churton to Aldford, the path along the Dee takes over twice as long to walk because it follows all the bends in the river.  The footpath numbers quoted throughout are derived from the Cheshire West and Cheshire Public Map Viewer.

The walk is very straightforward.  The start is reached by walking down the footpath that runs in a straight line from Hob Lane in Churton is “Churton by Aldford FP2.”  The track is wide and inviting, heading downhill as Hob Lane itself vanishes round a corner.  The hedges that flank the track are full of interest, but they form a fairly solid wall, so there’s not much else to see beyond.  The footpath simply follows the course of the river until Aldford comes into view on the right, and shortly afterwards the Eaton Hall Bridge becomes visible through the trees to the left.  The OS map (Landranger 117, the relevant section of which is shown above) indicates a short cut just north of the woodland section, eliminating a somewhat angular bend in the river, but I didn’t follow it.  In the future, given that it would cut out most of the less scenic portion of the river, I would take this short cut.

It is a nice walk from Churton to the Dee and as on my previous walk a couple of weeks ago, the high hedges largely block views of the fields but are very beautiful in their own right, with an increasing number of bluebells and campions at their feet.  By the Dee itself, there are dense zones of wild garlic, which is delicious.

Wild garlic, which will produce lovely star-like white flowers soon.

This less scenic section is immediately visible when you emerge from the track beyond Hobs Lane and turn right along the Dee.  It is really rather dispiriting.  There is a lot of flood damage in the form of fallen trees, branches and washed up debris, but rather more off-putting is on the opposite of the river, a stretch characterized by small chalets, many of them in a poor state of repair or completely derelict, with a series of messy landing stages made of pieces of scaffolding.  Not a promising start, but once that stretch ends, the rest of the walk is thoroughly enjoyable.  As I said above, there is a short cut that eliminates some of this section.

It is not always possible to see the river, because the footpath is set back from the edge and after the recent dry weather, the river is currently sitting rather low in its river bed, a couple of metres below the riverbank.  There are a lot of trees and shrubs growing on the bank, all now coming into leaf, and these hide the river from view along some sections, but where the river is visible it is very fine.  The riverbank trees are lovely in their own right, the spring leaves and catkins picked out in the sunshine.  The views across the well-maintained fields and hedgerows to the east give a sense of openness and order, the dark green crops a contrast to every light spring colour surrounding them.

 

Most of the footpath is very open, and there were a lot of butterflies, mainly red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and peacocks, although most refused to sit still long enough to be photographed.  There are also some small tracts of attractive woodland clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map, one of which, just outside Aldford, is absolutely carpeted with more delicious Ramsons (wild garlic) that is just about to come into flower, after which it should be a spectacular sea of white blooms.  

 

 

A 10-year scrub clearance  and tree replacement scheme managed by the Eaton Estate along the banks of the Dee, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), has resulted in the planting of very young saplings supported in green tubes flanking the path in single, double or triple rows like a very short guard of honour.   The clearing of scrub, as well as flood damage, should considerably improve the river bank.  It will be interesting to see how it develops in the future. 

 

The Telford bridge just outside Aldford is an absolute treat.  It first emerges as brief glimpses through the trees before its fully glory becomes apparent, a thing of industry and restrained fantasy, solid and intricate, functional and decorative.  Above all, with ironwork picked out in pale blue and white, and with smart, narrow railings along the top of the bridge, it achieves an most refined elegance.  It spans a particularly well-manicured section of the Dee, linking two highly-polished parts of the Eaton Estate, itself part of the Grosvenor Estate.

 

Map and overlays copied from the Cheshire West and Cheshire Public Map Viewer. Poulton FP4 is the Telford bridge and the black dot in Aldford is the church.

Again using the online map viewer, the footpath (Aldford FP13) leaves the bridge road and crosses a field diagonally, heading for the impressive remains of a motte and bailey castle (of which more on a future post) and, just beyond, Aldford’s distinctive St John the Baptist church.  I walked from there along School Lane and turned left into Rushmere Lane, which flows into Green Lake Lane.  There, I paused to buy a few supplies from the well-stocked Aldford village shop before heading over the B5130 and threading my way through the fields, along footpaths Aldford FP6, Aldford FP4 and Churton By Aldford FP7 to Churton, swinging a particularly divine brown cob loaf for which there was no room in my rucksack.

It is an excellent circular walk if you have a few hours to spare.  In total, it will take about 3.5 to 4 hours depending on how fast you walk. It took me about 3.5 hours, but even pausing to photograph and chat, I’m a bit of a route-marcher.  If you prefer to stroll, it will take longer.

After having spent a winter in semi-hibernation (I truly hate the cold), by the time Churton was in sight my poor legs felt like a pair of old dogs that just wanted to curl up and sleep in front of the fire.  On the back of that thought, I remembered that on my way back from the Roman road last week, I was walking along Edgerley Road and ahead of me saw a man and a golden Labrador.  They were standing in the middle of the road engaged in an obviously fraught dialogue.  The dog, not old but clearly miffed about something, was refusing to move.  All four feet were glued firmly to the floor, and he was deaf to argument, persuasion and entreaty alike.  He simply wasn’t moving any further.  I did grin.  After giving the dog the usual ear massage and some general fuss, which was rewarded with soft eyes and a wagging tail, I offered commiserations to his owner and moved on.  My amused sympathies were with the owner at the time, but after today’s walk I have switched allegiances, and my empathy is now firmly the Labrador who didn’t want to move one more step.

 

A touch of Rome just east of Churton #2 – The Walk

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.”

Plan from David Mason’s comprehensive book “Roman Chester. City of the Eagles,” 2007, p.50. My annotations in colour, picking out structures mentioned in the text that flank Watling Street West on the start of its route to Aldford, Churton, Whitchurch and beyond. Click image to enlarge.

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.

A section of the route of 6a from Aldford to Churton – LiDAR and Ordnance Survey. Click to see the bigger image. Source:
Roads of Roman Britain online gazetteer.

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 map on the right is from the online  Map from the online Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer

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.

Roman Road Watling Street West (Margary 6a) where it crosses Edgerley Road.  The section south of the road is not a public footpath.  Source: Roman Roads in Britain Gazeteer

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.

Aldford viewed from Lower Lane

Footpath FP7 across a field from Lower Lane, just short of the B5130 road that runs through Churton and  Aldford.  A short flight of wooden steps leads to a stile.

Footpath across the field from Lower Lane  The footpath goes through the hedge and heads south, to the right

There are good views over the fields as you head to the south.

Follow the footpath to the east end of the restricted byway (RB16 on the map above), turn left and proceed along footpath FP8 along the Roman road

After crossing a small metalled lane leading to Grange Farm, the track runs out and a grassy and soggy section of the footpath leads further south.

The sogginess became very wet indeed and I turned back at this point, and will resume on another day.

Looking back the way I had come, the Roman road heads back towards Aldford and I turned left towards Grange Farm and a dry route back to Churton.

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.

Sources:

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

Website resources:

Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
https://maps.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/cwac/webmapping

Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/

The Roads of Roman Britain
http://roadsofromanbritain.org/index.html
http://www.romanroads.org/gazetteer/cheshire/cheshire.html

A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903
https://tinyurl.com/75ujdd43

A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background

Yesterday I went to find the section of the Roman road that runs from Chester, through Aldford, and down to the east of Churton.  I have divided this post into two parts.  The first part, below, looks at the background to Roman roads in Britain.  Part 2 describes the walk itself.

The Cuppin Street excavation one lunchtime, 1986 or 87. My photo.

As mentioned in the introduction to this blog, I trained as an archaeologist and spent my summers in the 1980s digging up various parts of England and Wales. Although technically a prehistorian, my early excavation experience also included the Roman temple site at Caerwent (Venta Silurum in southeast Wales), the basilica at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum in Hampshire) and three consecutive seasons with the Grosvenor Museum team on the multi-period Cuppin Street site in Chester (Deva). Whenever modern building work takes place in Chester, the city’s archaeologists are given time to undertake excavations. Before we started digging it up, under the capable direction of Dr Simon Ward, the site was an informal, roughly surfaced car park that was destined to become the Magistrates Courts, originally just outside the Roman town’s walls.

A collapsed road was one of many important features that made up a truly fascinating site. The metalled road had a central dip along its depth, which we set out to investigate. Black tar from a defunct Victorian gasworks oozed into a very deep trench, where a friend and I were excavating what lay beneath the road. A wood-lined drain beneath the road had slowly collapsed over time, becoming blocked with general waste, the middle of the well-made road had gently subsided into the void, creating a bizarre concave profile. Drains in Deva were often located under roads, and could be up to 5ft deep. The Cuppin Street example was one of several major and minor roads and lanes that punctured Deva from all directions. I’ve had something of an interest in Roman roads ever since.

Deva (later Deva Victrix) was at the far northwestern edge of the roman Road network Where England and Wales met at the point where the Dee emptied into its estuary. It was a strategically important Roman base with a large command area over much of the northwest and north Wales. The legionary fortress was established by at least AD79 in the territory of the Cornovii who were based at Wroxeter (Virconium Cornoviorum), although Rome’s presence in the Chester area predates the permanent fortress by two decades. There is no indication of violence, and it is possible that the Cornovii had already come to terms with the Roman invaders, perhaps as early as AD43 when Claudius entered into treaty relationships with a number of kings. Whatever Roman presence had been here previously, the fortress was established in AD79, having been started in around AD74-75, and was built by the Second “Adtiutrix” Legion. In AD86 the second legion was sent to the Danube and was replaced by the Twentieth “Valeria Victrix” Legion, which remained until the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain in AD 410.

One of Julian Baum’s stunning impressions of Deva, showing the
beginning of Watling Street West (Margary 6a) and the Dee
crossing. Source: Julian Baum, Take27 Ltd.

When completed, the Deva fortress covered over 60 acres (24 hectares) on the standard playing-card plan (see site plan below), and eventually housed up to 6750 soldiers, servants and slaves, and was the headquarters of the local legion. It was a sizeable entity, 20% larger than both Caerleon (Isca) and York (Eboracum), which were both permanent legionary fortresses that were built at much the same time as Deva. It has been suggested that this size may have been needed to accommodate some unusually grand buildings under orders from an important official resident at the fortress, perhaps the provincial governor who, appointed by the emperor himself, would have required a more impressive portfolio of amenities than the usual fortress would have provided. A civilian entourage followed the military, including merchants, service providers and families of the soldiers (legionnaires were not permitted to marry until AD212, but this did not prevent them having partners and children). They were not permitted to live within the fortress so settlements (canabae legionis) grew up as suburbs immediately in the vicinity of the fortress. Also near to the fortress were the site’s cemeteries. Other small civil settlements growing up further afield at Heronbridge, a farming community, and the smaller Saltney. A tile and pottery works was established further down the Dee at Holt.

Roman roads of the Chester area. 6a and 6aa leave Chester and head south, meeting at Alford. 6a continues south, passing to the east of the Dee and the villages of Churton and Farndon. Map source: The excellent “Roads of Roman Britain” online gazetteer.

The fortress was in a good strategic position, convenient both for subjugating fractious groups in north Wales and for maintaining control over the northwest, where subjugation of the troublesome Brigantian tribe had become a priority. It was built on a rise in the land within a bend in the river Dee, meaning that it had natural defences on two sides, which contributed substantially to the security of the walled fort. The racecourse, on the Roodee, sits on the location of what was once a natural harbour, enabling a busy port to flourish on the Dee just beneath the fort. This was a natural extension of the road network, enabling the fort to be provisioned, with both soldiers and supplies being brought in from Europe, and for local commerce to develop along the coast. The Romans brought a wide selection of foods to Britain that we now think of as everyday, but were then luxury items, including apples, pears, cherries, grapes, asparagus, cabbages, carrots, onions, turnips, cucumbers, fennel and dill. High value perishables like these were much better transported by sea than road, which was both slower and could seriously jolt fragile produce. Other luxury items usually trusted to sea rather than road were high quality but delicate or costly objects like samian pottery, glass and vessels of wine. To link north and south, the river required the provision of a bridge, and this was erected where Lower Bridge Street crosses the Dee into Handbridge. In its place is now the Old Dee Bridge, dating to the 14th Century. The road went on to Whitchurch and Wroxeter, from where a number of destinations were possible. Today it is known as Watling Street West. Other roads out of Deva headed north, east and west, as shown on the map below.

The vast and complex road network was the glue that bound the impressive imperial infrastructure of forts, fortresses, fortlets, towns, inns, way-stations, camps and industrial centres. It is a remarkable cat’s-cradle of long straight stretches, most metalled or paved, others very rough, with some following much older trackways. Today many modern roads follow these original Roman routes, like Watling Street, along which the A5 now travels. Roman roads were planned out by teams of engineers and surveyors.  There are no documents detailing how the task was achieved, but the first step was probably to establish the line of the road, which was planned as a more or less straight line, as the crow flies, from a to b (in this case Chester to Whitchurch).   Just as today, the army had trained surveyors and engineers.  A map would probably have been prepared, and the required line would have been staked out

The profile of Stane Street in Surrey offers a good idea of how many roads were built in Roman Britain. Source: Epsom and Ewell History Explorer website.

Although the local geology, geomorphology and soil structure determined the exact construction of roads, they followed a basic conceptual idea of how a road should be built.  Roads were flanked by drainage ditches, which carried rainfall runoff and provided quarry material for a raised section along the road.  In profile, the roads were were usually built up above the level of the surrounding landscape and were cambered, with a curved top and sloping edges to aid drainage.  Many modern accounts describe four or more levels of construction, but Hugh Davies says that this belief, widespread but incorrect, was probably a misreading of the work of a famous Roman architect called Vitruvius who certainly describes for successive layers, but was actually referring to paved areas around prominent buildings rather than roads.  In the case of roads,  a standard arrangement was usually much simpler, consisting of two levels, although road construction methods differ from one place to another.   The standard arrangement consisted of an agger (a built-up section of road between the two drainage ditches), a layer of rough metalling consisting of stones, cobbles, pebbles  and smaller infill, and then a top layer of smaller stones and/or gravel.  Some were then topped with paving stones, which helped to preserve them.  The agger could be up to 1.2m (4ft) but was often raised only just above the level of the surrounding landscape.  Like forts and temples, roads were not strictly standardized.  Today some remarkable examples survive, but the greater majority have been destroyed or eroded.  Re-use for modern roads and expansion of urban settlement have destroyed sections of roads, while weather damage and compaction over the centuries have flattened many of the surviving roads and broken up their surfaces.

Sasha Trubetskoy’s schematic map of Roman Britain, based on
Harry Beck’s London Underground map of 1933. Click image to see a bigger version. Source:  Sasha Maps

Modern knowledge of this vast network, extending from the south coast into mid Scotland, has been built up by extensive detective work from the 18th Century onwards. Initial research into the British Roman road network was based on the “Antonine Itinerary,” written in c.AD 200, one of handful of surviving Latin documents that provide records names and other data that can help to located both and the routes of roads. The document is made up of a series of lists, and each list, or iter, provides details about the start and end point of each route, its total mileage (mille passus or m.p, meaning 1000 paces) and notes places distributed along the routes. The lists only cover about 25% of British roads, and are by no means complete, but they have been an invaluable research tool. Today, with dedicated work on foot, together with the use of remote sensing technologies from the air, each year new discoveries help to fill the obvious gaps and to reveal unsuspected stretches. One of the most important organizations contributing to this task of identifying sections of the road network is the terrific Roman Roads Research Association, which builds on work pioneered by Roman road expert Ivan D. Margary. Margary devised a numbering system to both identify and categorize Roman roads, publishing his comprehensive “Roman Roads in Britain” in 1955, which continues to be an invaluable reference. The Roman Roads Research website includes an invaluable online gazetteer, the Cheshire section of which has been assembled by David Ratledge and Neil Buckley, with many thanks for such a great resource. The outcome of all of this research is nicely captured on a cleverly conceived schematic map designed by cartographer Sasha Trubetskoy, using the London Underground of map of 1933 designed by Harry Beck as a template.

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.”  This is the subject of part 2.

 

Sources:

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

Website resources:

Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
https://maps.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/cwac/webmapping

Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/

The Roads of Roman Britain
http://roadsofromanbritain.org/index.html
http://www.romanroads.org/gazetteer/cheshire/cheshire.html

A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903
https://tinyurl.com/75ujdd43

Walking from Churton to Aldford on “Churton and Aldford Footpath FP6”

Still exploring routes between Churton and Aldford after my walk along Churton by Aldford FP4, today I went along FP6.  The FP numbers refer to the interactive Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, from which the map at the foot of this post is copied.

From Churton, head down Pump Lane, turn left into New Lane and then right along the footpath that passes the stud farm.  Keep going past the the metal kissing gate on the left, staying on the metalled road until the left-hand corner.  Then climb the stile into the field and head straight on.  There are a number of stiles on this part of the walk.  Shortly you cross a small stream, cross over a field diagonally and then pop out on Edgerley Road, where there are two footpath choices on your left.  Choose the one on the left, following the path of the stream.  This is footpath FP6 and you can follow it in a straight line all the way to Aldford.

FP6 is a particularly interesting as well as scenic route at this time of year, taking in views over the rapeseed fields, Grange Farm where tall, slender trees (possibly poplar?) flank a wide track north and were shining bright and light in the sun.  The little cluster of lovely buildings at Brooklands on Lower Lane is particularly nice, and immensely peaceful.  Most of my walks are circular, but this time I enjoyed it so much that when I reached Aldford I turned around and came back again.

I walked it later in the year, early August, and found it very overgrown with nettles and huge umbellifers.  The fields had been planted with corn, which was likewise very tall, so views over the fields very limited.

For notes on accessibility (for those with legs that don’t necessarily want to climb over stiles and gates) and for what it’s like underfoot, see my notes at the end of this post.

 

From the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, with my arrows added in blue.

Accessibility.  There are a number of stiles to cross as you head west to east along the first stretch of the route, but if you go along Pump Lane and follow the road left into Edgerely Road, you will find yourself at the gate that takes you due north past the farm and to Aldford.  It’s a climb-free walk from there onwards.

A note on walking conditions.  Although there has been standing water on other walks, this one was very dry except for a bit of hoof-trampled mud around the stile from the field into Edgerley Road, and this was easy to walk around.  It is all on the flat, and although the first part to Edgerley Road is partly field, most of it is track and metalled road.  It is very easy-going underfoot.

Across the fields from Churton towards Aldford

I had noticed a footpath sign whilst delivering My Village News in the eastern section of the village, pointing past the stud farm.  So yesterday, on another bright, sunny day I went to investigate the possibilities.  It was bitterly cold with a sharp, unforgiving wind, but very beautiful. I hadn’t bothered looking up the footpath on a map, so was just happy to go wherever it went, but was surprised to find myself heading north rather than east, as the footpath took an abrupt left-hand turn in the rough direction of Aldford.

The north of Churton, and as well as being a picture village with an interesting history (about which there will be details on a future post), has the twin benefits of a village shop and the excellent Grosvenor Arms.  Chester Road, that links the two villages with Chester to the north and Farndon to the south, is very busy and there are large stretches with no pavements, so walking along the road is not viable.  It had always been my plan to see if there was a footpath through the fields to Aldford, so it was therefore good news that I had found myself on a footpath heading in that direction.  Helsby hill was ubiquitous to my right, and eventually the spire of St John\’s church at Aldford came into view.

Having seen various signs to other footpaths, all clearly officially sponsored by the council, when I returned home I had a scoot around on the Internet and found the Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer, a really invaluable resource for walkers (and horse riders).  It showed me where I had erred in my attempt to reach Aldford (ending up at Glebe Farm) and introduced me to the vast network of footpaths that criss-cross the West Cheshire area.  Impressive and a promise of great walks to come.  I was initially somewhat confused by the repetition of footpath numbers, but you have to check the placename that precedes the number.  At first it made me go slightly cross-eyed, but I soon go the idea. I started off on Churton by Alford (CbA) FP1 and turned left into CbA FP4. That  segued seamlessly into CbA FP7.  I next crossed on to Aldford (A) FP6, which leads via Lower Lane to Aldford.  On the return leg, walking back down FP6, I saw that there was a footpath to the left and when I looked it up on the map viewer this was another FP7, but this was an Aldford FP7, not a Churton by Adford FP7.   It can be a tad confusing at first.  I have circled both on the map to the left, to clarify matters.  The red arrows show the route I took.

Skirting the edge of fields and through a young patch of woodland, the original path bifurcated, and it became clear that there was a complex network of well-marked paths, with excellent signage provided by Cheshire West.  My first route took me on a path that emerged on the main road at Glebe Farm on a section with no pavement, so I retraced my steps and took one of the other branches, which linked to a narrow lane that led to Aldford.  A great find. I had had the footpaths almost completely to myself, but the lane was clearly a favoured promenade, with a lot of dog walkers out and about.

It was a remarkably diverse walk.  The fields were all quite different.  One was turned over to neat little rows of small saplings, including tiny conifers and fruit trees just coming into blossom.  Another, a deep lush green with a baked red track dramatically bisecting it, had clearly been used for growing sweetcorn, as aged husks remained on the track.  Desiccated and skeletal remains of last years verges ran along one field, a meter tall.  I look forward to identifying them when they emerge later in the year.  Farmhouses in the traditional local red brick Grosvenor Estate style looked out over the rolling landscape, and in a dip a large patch of blue water glistened alluringly.  A field of ransoms provided a lovely yellow contrast to all the green, brown and blue.  In the patches of woodland there were big rabbit sets, and the sunlight filtered through the mainly deciduous bright new leaves, but there were also carpets of pine cones. The walk back, providing a different perspective on things, was equally rewarding.  The little patches of woodland,  in geometrically precise shapes, were young and presumably planted deliberately, and were small jungles of bright new growth.  The further I walked, the more I realized that Cheshire, or at least this western edge of the Cheshire Basin, is not as flat as I had expected it to be.  The term “undulating” seems to fit the bill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

The footpaths on the walk are shown on the Ordnance Survey maps of the area, but Cheshire West and Chester Council has developed the Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer, a really invaluable resource for walkers (and horse riders).   it is free to use, and there is no need to register.  On the ribbon at the top of the screen, you can click the + symbol in the ribbon at top left, which gives you a drop-down menu.  From the Leisure and Culture tab, you can chose which options you want to display on the map.  I chose Bridleways, Footpaths, Restricted Byways and Walking, which gave me the tracks shown on the above map.   It is worth playing around with the features to find out how to get the most out of the site.