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Prehistoric and Roman Roads

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The subject of prehistoric trackways is a fascinating one; it is associated with the downs and fresh air and holiday tramps over the breezy uplands of Wessex or Kent; but there are many pitfalls for the unwary.

We may begin by stating an obvious fact. Ever since Britain was inhabited there have been trackways across it, from the days of the hunters of the old Stone Age onwards. But it is not until the Age of Iron, shortly before the Roman conquest in a.d. 44, that we can pretend to identify any of these tracks, and when all has been said our pretensions often fail to convince. We do know, however, that, for several centuries at least before the beginning of our era, England, and especially the chalk region in the south, was pretty thickly covered with agricultural villages. They were scattered over the downs, not strung along the valleys as they are now; and their inhabitants cultivated the land around. The banks and lynchets of their fields can still be seen, dividing up the land into rectangular cultivation-patches.

Living as they did on the high dry ground, the villagers had to go down hill for their water; and we may generally find, at the bottom of some adjacent dry combe, a "spring pond" with an old hollow track leading to it. Between the lynchet-fields, too, one may often detect a grassy terrace where once a cart-track passed between them. Such tracks, called (for reasons which cannot be detailed here) "double-lynchet ways," occur wherever, on the downs of Sussex or Wessex, there is to be found one of these areas of prehistoric cultivation. They are most striking when seen from an aeroplane, but may also be seen from the ground when looking across a valley to the opposite slope. When passing between fields on a level plateau or along the top of a ridge, such field-tracks are generally bounded by a bank and ditch on either side, and the banks, at any rate, can often be seen. There are good examples at Park Brow, near Cissbury, and on Windover hill, in Sussex; on Pertwood Down, in Wilts; and in the Romano-British village of Woodcuts in Dorset.

An excellent and very early example of a genuine prehistoric track may be seen climbing the escarpment on the north side of the Vale of Pewsey, near Allington. It is deeply cut into the chalk by the wear and tear of centuries of traffic and rain; and it may be traced across the ploughlands below right into the prehistoric village of All Canning's Cross. This village (of which there is nothing visible on the surface) belongs to a period which has been dated to about 600-400 b.c. It was excavated in 1911 and after the war by Captain and Mrs. Cunnington; and it brought to light a new period and cultures. The road was doubtless the one by which the villagers drove their sheep and cattle to pasture on the downs. When these Iron Age people settled on stony ground they laid out their fields in the same way, but surrounded them with dry stone walls, just as they do to-day in the Cotswolds. The foundations of these walls can be seen to-day; there are hundreds of them on the hills round Bath, on Charmy Down, Lansdown, Bathampton Down and West Littleton Down; and in the Isle of Purbeck, especially near Worth Maltravers. At the last place the foundations of rectangular buildings can be seen, set in the middle of a large group of fields. In such districts the field-roads were bounded by the walls of the fields; and wherever we find the grassy remnants of two such walls running parallel, we may safely infer that a road of sorts ran between. Several such may be seen on the Bath golf links on Bathampton Down; though they are of course grass-grown and long since disused, and probably quite unrecognized by the hundreds of people who tread them daily.

But besides these open, undefended hut-clusters, there were also strongly fortified villages on the hill-tops. Misnamed "camps" - for all, or nearly all, were permanently inhabited - these village strongholds were surrounded by stout bulwarks of earth or stone (whenever available); and they contained a self-sufficing community. We know, from tangible remains, that there were permanent huts, or small cottages, of wattle-and-daub with straw roofs; and that grain was stored in pits. One thing only was lacking in sufficient quantity to meet all emergencies - water. No doubt water was stored in large pots; but there can hardly have been an adequate supply for all, including the animals. At any rate, wherever we see a "camp" we should look for the nearest water-supply - a stream, spring or pond; and we may generally find traces of the well-worn track leading to it. Such a track, deeply bitten into the chalk, descends the steep slopes of Hod Hill, near Blandford in Dorset, to the river Stour. Water-carriers must have toiled up it in all weathers.

Another may be seen leaving the entrance of Freezing Hill Camp, north of Bath, and ending at a spring half-way down the slope. In Wales, where such fortified hills abound, the road leading up to the main entrance may nearly always be observed, flanked on either side with huge stones, remnants of a wall, and hollowed out as usual by constant use and the ravages of rough weather.

None of these tracks were of great length or of more than local importance. They led from the village to its water-supply, its fields and its pasture-grounds; or to the next village. They were the merest tracks, unmetalled and uncared-for. They came into existence to meet a local need, and came to an end when their objective was reached. They were not deliberately planned, but grew, like a footpath, beneath the feet of those who trod them, whether man or beast. Main roads or thoroughfares, such as the Romans made, were unknown. Like causes produce like effects. Wherever to-day there exist semi-barbarous communities such tracks exist. They may be seen in Asia Minor, and occasionally nearer home; and those who would form some image in their minds of what England was like in the Iron Age should study conditions in these primitive regions.

Nevertheless it is probable that certain lines of communication connected widely separated districts. We know that, even in the Neolithic period, the people of southern England obtained weapons and ornaments from afar; and in the Bronze Age this primitive trade was nourishing. The people of Wessex obtained gold ornaments from Ireland, jet from Yorkshire, stone hammers and axes from some distant region at present undiscovered, and metal, or metal implements, from another. Trade implies trade-routes, for, even if some of these goods were bartered from village to village, there must have been wide uninhabited spaces to be crossed. We know, from the finding of their "hoards," that travelling tinkers flourished in the Bronze Age; and we may reasonably suppose that pedlars dealt in other wares.

But when it comes to identifying on the ground the trade-routes used by these old merchants, we are faced by a very difficult problem. The tracks were, of course, unmetalled; they must have resembled the camel-tracks of Arabia, which flow like wide rivers across the country, their course marked only by the impression of the pads on the desert sand. Over the open downs any marks the traffic might make would be but skin-deep and after a few years' disuse would be effaced by the healing power of Nature. But such tracks have a soul as well as a body. Their soul resides in the memory ol those who use them, and nothing but the complete extermination of a whole population can efface that memory.

One of the best known of these tracks is the Ridgeway. Starting probably from a ford on the Thames at Streatley, it goes up on to the Berkshire Downs. This is the district once called Ashdown; here Alfred defeated the Danes in 871, of whom it is recorded that they marched (from their base at Reading) along the Ridgeway. The route follows the crest of the downs, passing Scutchamer Knob (on East Hendred Down), a huge round barrow formerly called Cwichelmes Hlaew - the burial mound of Cwich-helm I, a king of Wessex. Its course throughout is grass - grown and unmetalled. The banks which contain it on either side are quite modern.

Throughout the first thirty-eight of its forty-three miles the Ridgeway does not pass through a single village; and until recently not a single house stood upon it. In contrast to this, no less than eight "camps" occur by its side, and one of these - Knap Hill - is Neolithic. The rest belong presumably to the Iron Age, but are in any case of pre-Roman construction. Of all these "camps" the best-known is perhaps Umngton Castle, a fortified prehistoric village on the highest point of the Berkshire Downs. Close by is the celebrated White Horse, carved in the turf and visible from everywhere in the vale and from the distant Cotswolds that rise beyond. A little farther on is Wayland's Smithy, an artificial burial-place made of the local sarsens and belonging to the Neolithic period.

As it approaches its goal on Salisbury Plain the Ridgeway passes innumerable sites of the greatest interest. On Seven Barrows Hill, above East Kennett, between Marlborough and Beckhampton, it crosses the Roman road from Marlborough to Bath and, shortly after, the modern Bath road. The Roman road is well preserved and worth a visit. Close by is a fine group of barrows. At the foot of Walker's Hill it is joined by a modern road, which follows it through the village of Alton Priors. Here, a mile east of the village, in the huge open ploughlands between Knap Hill and Woodborough Hill, two entirely unsuspected "camps" were discovered from an aeroplane by Squadron-Leader Insall, V.C.

We do not know at what date the Ridgeway was first used. It must be stated as clearly and emphatically as possible that there is no proof of its existence before the Saxon period, when it is first mentioned by name. That it was in use long before this is an inference, not a proven fact.

Roughly parallel with the Ridgeway, along the foot of the same escarpment, runs the Icknield Way. Both start from Streatley and after thirty-five miles unite again on Seven Barrows Hill. (The Icknield Way continues far beyond Streatley, of course. It runs at the foot of the Chilterns and on into Cambridgeshire, passing through Royston and Newmarket. It probably ends on the coast of the Wash near Hun-stanton, in Norfolk.) The Icknield Way, however, passes through no less than thirteen villages, situated at the springs which burst out from beneath the chalk. These villages themselves were founded by the Saxons, but there is evidence that the sites which some of them occupy were also inhabited during the Roman period. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that the Icknield Way is of prehistoric origin.

It would be impossible to describe all even of the better known tracks for which a prehistoric age has been claimed. A mere enumeration of three more must suffice: - (1) The Harroway: from Farnham to Weyhill and Salisbury Plain (perhaps O.E. Hearh-weg=[heathen] shrine-way, because it led to Stonehenge); (2) the Pilgrims' Way: from Canterbury to Farnham and Winchester: (3) Banbury Lane: from Banbury to Northampton. (Probably an Iron Age road connecting Somerset with Yorkshire via Bath, Birdlip, Andoversford, Stow, Rollright, Banbury, Northampton, Kettering, Lincoln and Winteringham.)

We now proceed to deal with the Roman roads. The Romans were civilized people. It would be inaccurate to describe their civilization in terms of our own, though it had many features in common with ours. But the Romans were the first to introduce a centralised government into Britain and to perform the first duties of government - the maintenance of law and order. This was achieved by the construction of a road-system. Roman roads differed in kind from any which had existed before. They were deliberately designed as a complex whole, radiating from a few central points. They were constructed by means of a raised causeway with metalling (the materials being often brought from a distance). They were laid out in straight lines with mathematical skill. In all these three respects they differed utterly from any roads that had previously been in existence.

The fact that such a quantity of material was used to form the causeway - raised sometimes as much as eight feet high - enables us to trace the course of many of these Roman roads with considerable accuracy. Many of them survive in use at the present day. One of them, connecting Londinium (London) with Durovernum (Canterbury), after lying derelict for centuries, has recently been partly reconstituted as an arterial road - and a very fine road it is. Nothing so good as these arterial roads of ours has been ever achieved in any country since Roman times.

Roman roads were laid out in straight sections from one hill to the next. In the mountainous districts of Wales and the North such straightness could not often be attained, and the roads generally followed the valleys. Elsewhere, however, natural obstacles were few. Very steep slopes were negotiated by an oblique descent, but the line was resumed again beyond. Tidal estuaries were generally, but not always, crossed above the highest tidal point. Marshes were negotiated by means of a gravel cause way of the same character as that used for the rest of the road.

One of the most remarkable of Roman roads is the Foss Way. It ran from Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) to Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and it never deviates more than six miles from a straight line drawn on the map between these two points. It has been suggested by Mr. R. G. Collingwood that the Foss Way represents a stage in the Roman conquest of the island - the front line or frontier of the first century. His suggestion is strongly supported by the evidence of the "stations" along the road, many of which have yielded first century remains and recall in their plan the typical square Roman camp. It was the custom of Roman commanders thus to delimit their military frontier by means of a road. The would-be conqueror of Scotland made just such a road in Strathmore, placing a line of signal-stations at intervals along it, between strongly entrenched forts. Such signal-stations are still to be seen, in an excellent state of preservation, along the Gask ridge, between the great fort of Ardoch and another just outside Perth. They will probably be found some day along the Foss Way.

Watling Street is another well-known Roman road. (The name, like the names of all Roman roads in Britain, was given to it later by the Saxons; we do not know what, the Romans called it.) It runs from London to Chester; and the names of the places along it are preserved, together with a great many others, in an old Roman road-book called the Antonine Itineraries. This Roman Bradshaw gives also the distances which separated the places; and from it we can locate them to-day, with the exception of about half a dozen. They are shown, together with the roads themselves and many other remains of the period, on the Map of Roman Britain published by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton).

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