Playing it straight: Roman Roads

 Many of these ancient highways are still in use today

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Known as Quintilis before Julius Caesar modestly renamed it in his own honour, the month of July is a fitting time to consider one of the most striking features of the British historic landscape, the Roman road. Although there are about 2,000 miles of them shown on Ordnance Survey maps, estimates of the total length of the network – including presumed minor thoroughfares undiscovered across Britain – could expand it to around 6,000 miles.

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Roman roads were built as logistical tools of empire, to move legions and supplies at speed and, in some cases, to scare the willies out of the locals. Ackling Dyke on the chalk upland between Martin Down, Hampshire, and Blandford Forum, Dorset, strides out across the landscape on an overstated, 1.8m (6ft)-high embankment that shows utter contempt for the barrows and dykes it ploughs through.

The bank – or agger – of the road, though exaggerated, is of a typical layered construction; indeed, the Latin word for layers, strata, gave us the word street, an Anglo-Saxon place name often found along the course of Roman roads. This can be found in names of settlements such as Stretford, Stratford, Church Stretton, Stony Stratford and… er, Street.

In Europe, the maxim holds that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ while in Britain, they tend to radiate from London. The Fosse Way – between Exeter and Lincoln – goes against the grain, however, and may have even started as a defensive structure during the early years of the Roman invasion, then adapted later as a road. Much of it survives today as a taut thread of primary and secondary routes through a tangle of English country lanes.

Despite their reputation for straightness (between Ilchester and Lincoln, a distance of 180 miles, the Fosse Way never deviates more than six miles from the crow’s flight), pragmatism forced Roman architects to make more concessions to the landscape over time and the Roman road eventually learnt how to bend. 

Stanegate, which crosses the Pennines south of Hadrian’s Wall, is one such winding road. It connects at Corbridge with Dere Street, the most easily traceable Roman route into Scotland. Given that there’s evidence
of Roman activity as far north as Stonehaven and claims of a fort at Inverness, there are likely to be many more long-forgotten roads hidden in the remote straths and glens of Caledonia.

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Image credits: The Armatura Press, Topfoto, Getty, Alamy