A1-The Great North Road

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York to Aldborough

The main Roman road from York to the North started westward, across the bridge as if heading for Tadcaster but soon turned north-west, a couple of hundred yards out of Micklegate Bar.  It is thought to have run not along the present road but parallel and a little to the north west of Micklegate and Blossom Street but evidence is scant.  Turn right for the A59 out of the city and after almost four miles the road straightens as it picks up the Roman line at the insignificant Foss Bridge.  And so it continues another four miles to the Nidd Bridge and beyond to Green Hammerton, from where the road nurns more northerly to head for Aldborough or the Romann town of Isurium. But why did the Roman road not take a straighter line from York?  Taylor explains it thus:

The obvious route for this road, on leaving York, would seem to have been directly north-west parallel to the River Ouse and its upper reaches called the River Ure. However, it actually leaves York in a west-north-west direction but then, after some nine miles, turns in a series of short alignments to the north-west at the village of Green Hammerton. In effect the actual course of the road followed the two sides of a rather flat triangle instead of the more direct route across the base. The reason for this major deviation is almost certainly because of the River Nidd, which meanders its way north-east to join the Ouse. Though we cannot be certain, it is probable the road was turned to cross the Nidd two miles upstream from it junction with the Ouse, at a more convenient crossing place.

Jessie Mothersole, in her 1927 description of the Roman road, noted some interesting landmarks that may now be quite hard to find: The modern high road indicates its general course beyond the environs of York, but it cannot actually be traced for 7 miles out.  About a mile beyond the turning to Marston Moor Station, a parish boundary coincides with both the modern road and the Roman Road for about 2 miles, crossing the river Nidd.  Then, when the modern road bears to the north, the boundary keeps straight on, along a track through fields, to Providence Green.  This track represents the Roman Road.  Leaving the modern road nearly opposite a turning called Red Lane, it keeps along the north side of field-boundaries, passes through Doodle Hills Plantation, then past Cattal Nurseries to the cross-roads at Providence Green.  It is noticeable that the ground here, where the Yorkshire Inebriate Reformatory stands, is still known as "Roman Barfs", and is so marked in the Ordnance Maps, sounding temptingly like the cockney rendering of a familiar feature in Roman architecture!

At Providence Green five roads meet, and three of these are Roman.  Our Road from York joins here the Rudgate from the south, which has crossed the Wharfe north-west of Tadcaster, at St. Helen's Ford.  

The situation at Providence Green may be more complex than Mothersole indicates, with the road from York turning north-west at Green Hammerton and only meeting Rudgate a couple of miles north of Providence Green.  The Doodle Hills track may have been a link connecting the two main roads rather than the thoroughfare to the North.


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Old Skip Bridge

The A59 crosses the Nidd on the New Skip Bridge but just upstream the old bridge is a magnificently solid structure with semicircular refuges above the semicircular cutwaters between semicircular arches.  The design is very similar to that at Boroughbridge and may be by the same architect, John Carr, who was working at the end of the 18th century.  You can still drive across it but it is now just a lay-by with a cafe on the west end of the bridge.  Looking upstream, the river curves through deeply cut sandy banks, material deposited in some ancient lake but now occupied by a colony of sand-martins.
On its approach to the bridge from the east, the road runs on a causeway with arches below for the escape of floodwaters.  And this is twenty feet or more above the normal river level, testament to the volume of water that sometimes floods down these Pennine rivers.  At low flow one could easily paddle across.

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Arches in the causeway

Fletcher, writing in about 1900, tells of the Skip Bridge and the causeway: "At a little distance from Nun Monkton, and lying between that village and the site of the Battle of Marston Moor, is Skip Bridge, a structure which carries the highroad from York to Boroughbridge and the north over the river.  From this point there used to run - presumably along the line of the present highway - a pavement or causeway which connected the country hereabouts with York.  Leland speakes of seeing it when he was in the neighbourhood, and observes of it that it was built by one, Blake, who was twice Mayor of York, and had no less than nineteen arches or bridges in its length between that city and Skip Bridge, which arches were carrying it over the small streams and rivulets draining the surrounding moorland.  The arches visible today appear to be contemporaneous with the main bridge and may also be the result of John Carr's work.  John Metcalf was also working on this road  in the late 18th century.  One would need to dig deeper to find Blake's causeway that Leland described. (There's a Blake Street in York.)

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From Old Skip Bridge to New

A little to the south of the road, near the railway and south-west of the meandering Nidd, is the site of Wilstrop, a deserted medieval village.  Another mile to the south lies Marston Moor, where in 1664 a major battle of the Civil War took place. The site straddles the road between Long Marston and Tockwith.  There is a large obelisk on the roadside, possible the largest such monument marking an English battlefield.

Back with the Romans, Mothersole continues her description of 'Agricola's Road': The direction now becomes nearly due north for a mile and a half; after that there is a steady straight stretch of 4 miles along the modern York-and-Boroughbridge road in a more westerly direction, to within a mile and a half of Aldborough.  The embanking of the Road on low-lying land can be traced at intervals.  Then, leaving the road to Boroughbridge, which bears more to the west, we can follow the Roman Road through the fields towards Aldborough, where for 500 yards its straight course is very distinct, till finally it joins a lane and continues thus towards Aldborough Hall, which stands on the actual line of the east wall of the city of Isurium.

A couple of miles up the road from Green Hammerton and a mile to the east of the road lies Thorpe Underwood.  It was here, at Thorpe Green Hall, that Anne Bronte lived for a while and set her novel Agnes Grey.  The Hall was burnt down in the late 19th century and the mock Tudor building that replaced it houses Queen Ethelburga's College, a school to which the children bring their own horses.  Ethelburga was the wife of Edwin, King of Northumbria in the early 7th century.

There are no villages actually on the Roman road (here the B6265) till we reach Aldbouorugh, the Roman Isurium, but there are villages sited a little way off. Little Ouseburn, Great Ouseburn, upper Dunsforth and Lower Dunsforth lie to the east while Marston is to the west of the road.  A similar pattern of settlement, following but set back from the Roman road, is to be found along Leeming Lane between Boroughbridge and Catterick.

Where the road passed Marston is the probable site of the Duel Cross (or Devil Cross).  This was a Roman milestone, dug up in 1776 after some period of burial during which the name transferred to a nearby Anglo-Saxon burial mound.  Its location and significance is discussed by Herman Ramm.



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