A1-The Great North Road

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North of Lincoln

The Roman Ermine Street ran almost due north from Lincoln to the Humber, for the ferry crossing near Winteringham.  The line is now followed by the A15, with a little wobble to the east round Scampton airfield, to its junctions with the M180 and A18 east of Scunthorpe.  The old road can then be traced as the B1207 from Broughton, through Appleby and on to the Humber just east of Winteringham.  

There is more than twenty miles of straight road between Lincoln and Broughton without a single village though both to east and west there is a line of numerous villages connected by winding minor roads.  We have here a grand example of settlement eschewing the Roman.  The villages to the west probably owe their location to the 'spring line' along the foot of the Limestone escarpment, the Roman road running on high ground almost at the top of the ridge.  Almost, but not quite; there is a ridgeway just west of Ermine Street and probably even older, known as Yarlsgate or the Cliff Top Road, now the B1398.

Set back from the Roman road a short distance to the east, connected by their own road, lies a line of villages: Welton, Hackthorn, Spridlington, Saxby, Bishop Norton, Owmby-by-Spittal,  Normanby-by-Spittal, Glentham, Snitterby, Waddingham, Redbourne, Hilbadstow, Scawby, Broughton and Appleby, the last two just encroaching on the Street to one side.  Medieval folk definitely chose to avoid the Roman road, preferring the slightly less exposed ground with more reliable water supplies to the east.  Most of these villages are listed, in Domesday, as possessing a water mill; this would have been impossible along the Street.

As we head north from Lincoln, Riseholme is lost medieval village, sited east of Ermine Street on the southern side of the lake in Riseholme Park.  A barrow, thought to be Roman, lies just north of the park, close to where the electricity pylons alter their course.  Riseholme Hall was built in 1744 but extensively remodeled by William Railton (the architect of Nelson's Column) in the mid 19th century. He added a colonnade comprising eight Nelson's Columns without their Nelsons.  Long since an agricultural college, it  is now a campus of Lincoln University.

About four miles north of Lincoln another Roman road branches off to the west, now mostly followed by the A1500, more quaintly named Tillbridge Lane (it bridges the River Till).  The hazards of a Humber crossing led the Romans to build a ford across the Trent between Marton and Littleborough and this route, via Bawtry, Doncaster and Tadcaster, became the chief road between Lincoln and York.  Tillbridge Lane actually leaves Ermine Street a little south of the A1500, passing straight through the middle of the Lincolnshire Showground before the modern road meets it.

Marton is the last village before the road descends to the Trent flood plain.  From the village to the river the Roman road is now represented by a rough track.  It leads right to the river and must have been of some importance when Tillbridge Lane was a turnpike and a ferry operated at the site of the Roman ford.  A large quantity of rock scattered along a hundred yards of the eastern river bank is all that remains of the once paved ford.  A small, two acre fort has been recognized from cropmarks in a field nearby but the earthworks recorded by Stukeley in 1776 appear to have disappeared.

Back in the village of Marton we are reminded of coaching days by a large 18th century building, the Black Swan, once a coaching inn, now a guest house.  It stands on the corner of Tillbridge Lane, here called Stow Park Road, and north-south road (the A156 and further south the A1133) that follows the east bank of the Trent.  To the south-east of Marton the Trent meanders towards the village to a site of old wharves known as Trent Port.  Five miles to the south lies Torksey.  Here the Roman Fossdyke Navigation enters the Trent.  It was built about AD120 to link the Witham and Trent, perhaps a greater feat of Roman engineering than the roads.  The canal has seen little change beyond some medieval improvements.  Torksey's importance as a port is illustrated by a 13th century document concerning tolls charged on river freight.


The Black Swan, Marton

There may appear little chance of sightseeing as one drives north along the busy A15 towards Caenby Corner but to the west the road is the site of a Roman settlement and to the east, nearer Owmby, the damage done to a Romano-British cemetery by ploughing, despite the site being a Scheduled Ancient Monument, has caused much concern.  A little further on, again to the west, is a copse with a pond known as Ancholme Head, though it is a mile to the east that a stream emerges above a lost medieval village, West Firsby, to form the true headwaters of the River Ancholme.  Caenby Corner may be an ancient road junction, the pre-Roman east-west route leading to the Cliff Top Road.  The deserted Monks Arms is a melancholy sight, contrasted by the bright lights of new the service station opposite.

Former courthouse at Spital.

Photo: Charles Fox, Lincolnshire Life 1965.

The east-west A631 that meets the A15 at Caenby Corner probably represents the route of an ancient pre-Roman trackway.  Spital-in-the-Street is just north of Caenby Corner.  This is the site of a medicinal spring and a medieval hermitage and travellers refuge that became a hospital, from which the hamlet's place name is derived. The Chalybeate springs of Spital Spa lie in the woods to west of road.  A milepost once marked 11 miles to Lincoln and 12 to Brigg, a convenient staging distance for coaches on the Lincoln to Barton turnpike.  

The Kirton-in-Lindsey Court of Sessions was held first in the chapel and then in a new (well, new in Elizabethan times) building which is now an old barn.  Here are some more pictures.  More recently, Spital-in-the-Street has become infamous as one of the farm scale trial sites for GM oil seed rape.

This early 18th century building is sorely in need of a loving owner, now that the stage coach trade has declined.  It's on the Lincolnshire Heritage Buildings at Risk list.

Kirton-in-Lindsey is the largest of the cliff-foot villages, lying two miles to the west along the B1206, which crosses Ermine Street.  To the east this road leads to Redbourne and on towards Brigg.  But half a mile south of this crossroads there is a public footpath with its fingerboard pointing northeast.  No sensible walker will be strolling along the A15 to reach this footpath.  But if anybody tried they would find a 'footpath' of tarmac wide enough for a major trunk road.  Which is just what this was until 1989.  The Lincoln to Barrow-on-Humber road turned off the Roman line here. It had become much more important then Ermine Street, which led nowhere, and was turnpiked in 1765.  It was this route that became designated the A15, at least as far as the junction with the A18 near Brigg. When the M180 was built, Junction 4 was sited where Ermine Street crossed and a new road was built just to the west of the Roman line allowing the rerouted A15 to continue straight to the motorway instead of inflicting through traffic on Redbourne and Hibaldstow.  The ‘de-trunked’ road has been renumbered the B1206 and the old section between Ermine Street and Redbourne is now closed to all but farm traffic and has become the nation's widest tarmac footpath, used by no one.

Redbourne, as we have seen, lay on the Lincoln to Barton Turnpike, the Red Lion servicing the needs of stagecoaches.  The A15 ran through the village centre and, with traffic increasing, a new road across the village green was constructed.  It is quieter now that the main road has returned to the Roman line, but the remaining traffic is still allowed to sweep through at 40 mph.  Redbourne is a little village with a long history.  Neolithic and bronze age implements have been found.  Some earthworks are all that is left of a Norman motte and bailey castle to the east of the church.  A small Gilbertine priory, founded in 1164, leaves just a portion of moat.  In 1813 a canal opened, connecting to the River Ancholme and iron working proceeded through much of the 19th century, though the village retained its essentially agricultural origin.  The blacksmith’s shop, under the sign of the prancing pony is a real museum piece.  Wonderful to find such a treasure lying by the roadside; pity about the graffiti artist who tells us ‘Darren is a gay’ and 'Nic is a Nob', and the council official who thought that a concrete and pebbledash litterbin would enhance the scene.  Perhaps both should spend time in the stocks on the nearby pavement.

A little further and to the west lies the lost medieval village of Gainsthorpe.  Now marked by brown signs, the site was identified for what it is in 1925 by one of the first uses of aerial photography in archaeology.  Mounds and depressions in the pasture mark buildings and various enclosures.

A railway cut Ermine Street in 1849.  The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway grew out of three smaller companies later becoming the Great Central Railway and eventually part of the LNER.  In1965 Shannon and Appleyard found …an isolated cottage standing guard over a railway crossing gate which has to be operated manually.  The level crossing is gone, the new A15 now rising on embankments to a bridge over the track.

Scawby became an important source of gravel for road construction in northern Lincolnshire in the second half of the 19th century, the gravel pits now forming a lake surrounded by woodland to the north of the village in the grounds of Scawby Hall.  Kelly's Directory for 1900 reports that: The Red Well is a strong chalybeate spring, the waters of which are very beneficial.

The construction of the M180 has brought major changes.  As we approach Junction 4 the A15 veers off to the west of the Roman line about a mile and a half south of the motorway. The old Street makes a pleasant, if straight, walk.  This section was never more than a country lane and has enough tarmac for a single car's width, now being encroached upon by moss.  There is now a roundabout where Ermine Street meets the A18, and the line southwards to the motorway has been abandoned, moss encroaching on tarmac.  On the north side of the motorway a short spur of the A18 takes leads to another roundabout and then back on the Roman line, northwards to Broughton.

Like other villages, Broughton was not built along the Street, the older houses being sited entirely to the east along the road that led towards Brigg.  The straight line of the Roman road is briefly interrupted as it crosses the Moor Beck, and in the neighbouring woods.  In 1965, Shannon and Appleyard wrote, The countryside grows prettier and you find yourself in sandy common land where birch and pine trees cluster and the landscape grows more wooded… the indescribably lovely smell of celandine and pine needles overwhelm the sense. … Broughton is rapidly increasing in size as a dormitory of nearby Scunthorpe but manages to retain its own unique and charming character.  Broughton has continued to grow since the 60s and nearby West Wood, is particularly convenient for the residents.  The celandines still grow but oh woe – the quantities of litter – all manner of plastic bottles and packaging threaten to overwhelm the loftiest larch.  Mounds, perhaps marking some ancient burial, testify to a long history.  Below one particularly large bump a spring gushes the clearest water into a fast-flowing brook.  Shame about the rusting car wheel the sparkling water meets a few seconds after emerging from Mother Earth.

The next village, Appleby, also lies just to the east of ermine Street.  Shannon and Appleyard praised its …mellow-stoned cottages and beautiful, un-spoilt scenery.  And when they remarked that, The church has a clock with no face – it just strikes the hour, I wonder if they noticed the wealth of fantastic gargoyles, including this ‘bat on the belfry’.  Changing architectural styles are clearly seen in the houses.  17th century stone cottages, some still thatched, nestle amongst estate houses built in the 1880s.  These were of the highest quality in their day, the stone walls being finished with brick corners and striking use of red and yellow brick decoration.  This theme is being revived in new construction, using a mixture of stone and brick to provide modern housing of some character.  In 1965 we learned that There has been some new house-building, but I prefer not to dwell on this period of architecture.  Another regrettable change has been the closure of the post office and shop that had stood on Ermine Street until the mid 1970s.

Ermine Street reached the Humber, or Abus Fluvius, probably just east of the present Winteringham Haven, and the Romans had to ferry across to Brough from where their Great North Roads led to Malton and York.  A Roman town was established to the east of the Street, its site perhaps influenced by an ancient chalybeate spring.  Sadly, the spring is now dry, the local water table perhaps lowered by nearby quarrying.  This photo, taken by John Kirk in the mid sixties, shows a pool of open water.  The site is marked by three enormous willows towering over a weedy hollow.  Empty shotgun cartridges and plastic litter desecrate this venerable spot.  All trace of another ‘Holy Well’, by the side of Ermine Street, southwest of Winterton, is also lost, victim of the drainage needs of arable farming.

Ermine Street ends on the banks of the Humber at Wintringham Haven, in Shannon and Appleyard's words, …a weed-filled creek with a tiny bridge crossing it where it narrows into a drain.  A notice tells you that it is dangerous to walk along the wooden causeway running next to the rather sad little inlet and it is difficult to transport yourself back through the centuries when the Roman hordes descended, choosing this desolate place to land.  This was a low point in the Haven’s history; there had been boat-building and fishing and ferries across the Humber.  Cement and iron and slag were exported. The railway from Scunthorpe, opened in 1907, closed in 1951, boat-building and commercial use of the wharf, important during the war, had ceased.  But then in 1976 the Humber Yawl Club moved to the Haven and the creek is now a colourful scene of activity again.  In consultation with English Nature, work is planned to further restore and improve the local environment.  This is a seriously good place for bird-spotting. There are even bitterns nesting sear here.

We may be at a bit of a road's end but there is plenty of interest in the neighbourhood.  There was a large Roman villa at nearby Winterton in which three mosaic pavements were found in 1747 and described by Stukely. Further to the east, across the River Ancholme, another mosaic, in a villa at Horkstow, shows a lively representation of chariot racing.  Dragonby was a large Celtic settlement, sited near the Humber estuary, at the confluence of the River Trent. Roman pottery kilns have been unearthed here.  Here are some interesting pictures of the dragon.

Winteringham Haven


Tithe Farm Bed & Breakfast


©Biff Vernon  2002, 2003, 2004