Previously I argued that the Romans may have chosen London’s (Londinium’s) site for three reasons: its status as virgin territory, a place of no particular British tribal significance; its location on the tidal Thames, a good place for a port; and its potential as a road junction, given the early focus on Kent, Essex and Hampshire as target areas for the consolidation of Roman power. In the next few posts I will focus on “the southern radial roads” as Ivan Margary, the great authority on Britain’s Roman roads, called them.
There are four of these “radial roads” running through South London, three of which still function today, as they have for nearly two thousand years, as major routes to and from the city.
Stane Street was the Roman road to Chichester and is now the A24 running through Kennington and Clapham, Balham and Tooting, Morden, Ewell and Epsom and on towards Dorking. Watling Street was the Roman road to Kent, more or less represented today by the A207 running down the Old Kent Road to New Cross, and on from Greenwich, Shooters Hill, Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford. These were both high-priority military highways.
The roads to Brighton and Lewes, on the other hand, were about trade and industry. They linked Londinium to farmland on the South Downs and iron-works in the Weald. The road to Brighton is now the A23 running through Brixton and Streatham towards Croydon.
Finally, the Roman road to Lewes is, for my money, the most intriguing of the lot. It heads down from the Old Kent Road through Peckham, Nunhead, Brockley, Beckenham and West Wickham, and passes by New Addington on its way to Titsey. It is represented by no major modern road, and effectively cuts across the grain of south-east London’s suburbs. But there are other traces on the landscape – parish boundaries, borough boundaries – which still remember it.
If the Lewes road is the most mysterious of the four, each of the others still has some controversy or debate attached to it.
Stane Street is remarkably well-represented by long, straight stretches of modern road, such as those from Newington Butts to Stockwell, and from Morden to Nonsuch Park. But it disappears completely from the modern map where it crosses the River Wandle; and again where it passes through Ewell and Epsom. Its precise course at these points has at times provoked furious debate.
Watling Street too comes with a conundrum, which centres on the ford or ferry which crossed the River Thames between Lambeth and Westminster. The question is: did Watling Street continue to the west, beyond its junction with Borough High Street, to link up with this ford? And if so, did it also continue on the other side of the river towards Marble Arch, to meet up with its northern branch on the Edgware Road?
As for the road to Brighton, the surprise here is its route through Croydon and beyond. Down through Brixton and Streatham to Thornton Heath the Roman road is reasonably well-represented by the A23. But from Broad Green onwards it takes a course which is quite unexpected, and which shows just how differently Roman engineers, and modern engineers, have responded to the landscape.
These are some of the questions I’ll be looking at in the next few posts.