A1-The Great North Road

Home ] Up ] Contents ] Tithe Farm ] Horse Troughs ] Milestones ] Back ] Next ]

Roman Roads

For a great atlas of Roman Britain try Roman-Britain.ORG.

Dere Street was built around 77AD - 80AD, after the Brigantes had been brought under Roman control, and ran from York to the Firth of Forth in Scotland.  South of the Humber, to London, the Roman Road is known as Ermine Street.

The line of trees, stretching across Cambridgeshire, marks the Via Devena.


Although London was an important Roman town it vied with Colchester.  For communication between the continent of Europe and northern Britain, Colchester (or Camulodunum) was a significant port and the road leading northwest might be considered as part of an early Great North Road.  Since Colchester was the site of a major British settlement it is likely that a road leading northwestward pre-dated Roman times.  18th century antiquaries called it the Via Devana, implying that it led to Chester (Deva).  Maybe.  It certainly reached as far as Godmanchester, where it met the Ermine Street, later to become the Old North Road, just before this crossed the Ouse to enter Huntingdon.  

One of the best places to walk a good length of the Roman road is south-east of Cambridge where it crosses the relatively high ground of the Gog Magog Hills, a Chalk landscape rich in iron-age and Saxon archaeology.

Margary, in his Roman Roads of Britain introduces his chapter, London To The North, by relating the Roman roads to the Great North Road.  Writing in 1955, the A1 was not quite what it is today and the relationship between the modern road and its ancient roots was perhaps more apparent but today's motorway is just a little further in the evolution.  Here then are Margary's words, slightly abridged, from his section entitled The East Midland Network.

The East Midland road system is based almost wholly upon the Romans' main North Road, Ermine Street, which traverses the whole region in its course from London to Lincoln, and eventually to York, the northern capital of the Province. In the northern part of the region the Foss Way from Leicester to Lincoln also traverses it, with a few branches.

Ermine Street runs due north from London to Braughing, a small and picturesque village 6 miles beyond Ware, from which roads diverge in several directions, making it quite an important junction at that time. A road joined it here from Verulamium in the south-west and continued north-eastward to the Roman town at Great Chesterford, to connect with roads in the Cam­bridge district. Another runs due east to the important centre of Colchester (Camulodunum). Yet another runs north-west to Baldock, Biggleswade and, swinging north, eventually to rejoin Ermine Street at Godmanchester; from it branches led south-west at Baldock to join the Verulamium road and westward at Biggleswade for a short distance.

From Braughing, Ermine Street continues on a generally northerly course through Buntingford and Royston to Godmanchester. At Royston it is crossed by the ancient track of the Icknield Way and, a little farther on, by a straight road, Ashwell Street,which follows a parallel course upon the lower ground.

At Godmanchester, Ermine Street is trending a little to the north­west, to keep upon higher ground, and it continues so to Alconbury Hill, and again from Norman Cross until well beyond Stamford. First, how­ever, at the Roman town site of Durobrivae, in Chesterton parish, but close to the better-known Water Newton, on the Great North Road, we reach a district which was another important road junction.

To the north from Durobrivae two routes were provided: Ermine Street runs north-westward through Stamford to high ground near Greetham, where it turns slightly east of north and, as the High Dyke, follows an exceedingly direct course on the high land above Lincoln Edge, through Ancaster to Lincoln; but a second road, King Street also runs north, keeping closer to the fen land, through Deeping and Bourne, and then bearing north-west to rejoin the other at Ancaster, a small Roman town.  A branch road from Bourne, Mareham Lane continues the northward course to Sleaford and perhaps beyond.

At the southern entrance to Lincoln, Bracebridge, Ermine Streetis joined by the Foss Way at the end of its immensely long and almost straight journey right across England from Devon, through Bath, Cirencester, High Cross, and Leicester. At Six Hills, 10 miles north of Leicester, an easterly branch followed the high ground to the south of the Vale of Belvoir all the way to Saltersford, near Grantham, and was continued eastward across Ermine Street and Mare-ham Lane to the fens at Doningron, much of it a Romanized trackway, which was one of the old Salt Ways. A similar trackway, Sewstern Lane, crosses it near Croxton Kerrial, and may reasonably be considered as Romanized from this point southward, past Roman villa sites, to its junction with Ermine Street near Greetham.

Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) was an important place, and from it several roads diverged. Ermine Street continued its northward course to the Humber in a most impressively undeviating fashion, and at a point a few miles from Lincoln a branch  led off north-westward, crossing the River Trent at Littleborough, to give another route to York, through Doncaster, that would avoid the Humber crossing.

Since Ermine Street was the North Road of the Romans, it may be appropriate to mention here the relation of the present Great North Road to the Roman roads that make up a good deal, but not all, of its course. The Old North Road, from Ware northward to Huntingdon and Alconbury Hill, just beyond, follows Ermine Street throughout. The Great North Road, or A1, does not run on any Roman line till just beyond Welwyn, where for 3/4 mile to the foot of Mardley Hill it follows the course of the St Albans-Braughing road. Having passed over the hill, it turns rather sharply north at Woolmer Green, coming thus on to the line of another Roman road which it follows through Stevenage, and then from Graveley to Baldock it makes use of another.  At Baldock this road meets yet another, though the point of junction is not at the present cross-roads but south of this, and the Great North Road then follows it to Biggleswade, a fine straight length. This Roman road continued straight on near the railway to Sandy, a fact which the modern driver can reflect upon as he follows slowly behind lorries along the present twisting course of A1 (since straightened and double-tracked).  He will not encounter a Roman road again till he joins Ermine Street and the Old North Road on Alconbury Hill, and, unluckily, just beyond this the course of the old road near Sawtry, although based upon the alignment, is much distorted, probably by foundering in the wet land, and is only now being straightened by the road-works abandoned during the war. Beyond the low ground the straight alignments near Norman Cross show the true character of Ermine Street as far as Durobrivae, near Water Newton, where the Great North Road again leaves the old line, crossing it at Burleigh Park and only rejoining it to the north of Stamford. Ermine Street crossed the river 1/4 mile west of the town, in a position that, if the route were reconstituted, would provide an ideal line for the by-pass so sorely needed there. The Roman line is rejoined 1/2 mile farther on, and is then followed through Great Casterton and as far as Colsterworth, 11miles on. After this A1 does not again follow Roman roads, save for a brief bit of the main street of Newark upon Trent, between two right-angled bends on and off the line of the Foss Way, until it reaches Bawtry, where the road to Doncaster is part of the Roman road from Lincoln to York, avoiding the Humber. The contrast between the twisting non-Roman and the direct Roman portions of A1 is usually quite noticeable, although some of the former have been straightened from coaching times onwards.

Roman Roads in Lincolnshire


Mothersole's map of 'Agricola's Road into Scotland', 1927


We know remarkably little about the vehicles used by the Romans.  This cartwheel, found at Newstead Fort and drawn by J. Carle in 1911, is one of the few significant transport artefacts discovered.  At the Antonine Wall fort at Old Kilpatrick another wooden wheel was found.  With an iron rim, an elm hub and spokes of willow it is of Celtic design and may have been taken as booty or tribute from the lowland Caledonian tribes.

There was a mosaic pavement at Horkstow, Lincolnshire, close to where Ermine Street crossed the Humber, which depicted chariot racing.

There is considerable doubt about how much of Roman transport was by packhorse, cart and boat.  The use of navigable rivers running east off the Pennines and waterways such as the Foss Navigation and the Carr Dyke may have been significant.


One may wonder why many Roman roads were so very well built.  The posting system used light two-wheeled carts, whilst the 4th century imperial edicts of the Codex Theodosianus limited wagons to loads of about half a ton, probably because the wooden hubs revolving on wooden axles could not stand heavier loads. With much of the freight moved by packhorse or boat, some have suggested that the roads represent a job creation scheme for soldiers with no fighting to do.

What happened to the Roman roads?  The Romans left Britain in the first decades of the 5th century.  They left behind an extensive network of roads that were of little use to the Saxons.  Britain was no longer governed by a society willing and able to maintain strategic roads.  But just how the roads fell into disrepair,  which parts continued to be used and which parts were permanently abandoned, was left unrecorded for the next millennium.  Curiously, there are many examples of the Roman road running close to the route of a modern road, quite abandoned and traceable merely by crop marks or a slightly raised agger.  In other places modern roads now run directly on the Roman line though it may be wrong to assume that the route has been in continuous use.  There is evidence that some Roman roads were completely abandoned, only to be reopened centuries later.


Hugh Davies discusses Roman Roads in the on-line British Archaeology


Tithe Farm Bed & Breakfast

B & B Lincolnshire B&B

©Biff Vernon 2002, 2003