29 Apr Britain’s Historical Highways
On an island as small as Britain, it’s very easy to stumble across one historic road or another whilst carrying out transport contracts. These ancient Roman roads or old trap roads intended for horse and carriage can tell us a lot about Britain’s history. Here is a selection of my favourite roads in Britain; some of them have a past so interesting that I could almost forgive them for the odd traffic jam:
Watling Street is the name given to the ancient trackway in England and Wales that was first used by the Britons in the Roman times. The road was built to link the modern cities of Canterbury and St Albans and now makes up the A2 from Dover to London and then the A5 from London to Wroexeter. The name Watling Street is derived from the original name, Waecelinga Straet, which means “the paved road pertaining to the people of Waecel”. It is believed that Waecel was a variation of the old English word for foreigner, a term applied to the Celtic people that inhabited Wales at the time. Although the road fell into disrepair when the Romans left Britain, parts of it still remained. Therefore, it is likely that this road was also used by Chaucer’s Pilgrims to travel from Southwark to Canterbury in Canterbury Tales. Nowadays, the road is not used so much by pilgrims, but rather hauliers carrying out transport contracts to or from London. The sections of Watling Street that pass through London are known better as Edgware Road or Maida Vale, and can get quite busy during rush hour.
I’ve been lucky enough to carry out a few transport contracts on the Devil’s Causeway, up in Northumberland. The 55 mile road stretches from Dere Street in Corbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed. The old Roman fort of Onnum is less than a mile away from the start of the road and it’s believed that the road was patrolled by a Calvary unit that was based there. Interestingly, the road is also steeped in Arthurian legend. King Arthur’s first battle was at the mouth of the River Glein and, although there are two places in Britain that this could be, it is likely to be the Northumberland Glein, which was guarded by the bell-hill fort. It is therefore probable that King Arthur and his troops used this road when making the way to what would be King Arthur’s first battle.
The A207 leading out of Shooter’s Hill, was once a notorious haunt for Highwaymen. I travel through the route regularly on my transport contracts and luckily highwaymen are no longer an issue. In 1611, Samuel Pepys mentioned passing under the man that hangs upon Shooter’s Hill, likely serving as a warning to other highwaymen in the area. The last reported robbery by a highwayman took place in 1831 and the term was first used in 1617. Although many highwaymen used robbery with violence, they were originally admired for taking from the rich and giving to the poor. In fact, many people have already heard of the world’s most famous highwayman; Robin Hood.