Contested routes: the Stane Street controversy

Stane Street was the Roman road from London to Chichester – an important military highway from the very start of the occupation, when the Romans’ single most important British ally was Cogidubnus, whose power base lay in what is now Hampshire and West Sussex.

From London Bridge and Southwark, running down through South London, much of the route of Stane Street is on or near the modern A24. But at Merton things get messy. For many years there were very different views, and furious arguments, about its route beyond this point. Everyone agreed that Stane Street crossed the Wandle at the site of Merton Priory (usually called ‘Merton Abbey’). Everyone agreed that, 20 miles to the south, it crossed the River Mole at Burford Bridge just outside Dorking. But there was little agreement about its route between Merton and Dorking, or about its relation (if any) with Morden, Ewell, Epsom and Ashtead.

In the years before World War One, the popular writer Hilaire Belloc walked the route of Stane Street – or at least the route as he understood it – and in 1913 he published a book about it.

belloc-book

 

Belloc was a bundle of contradictions: a devout Catholic of French descent who loved England and the English countryside; a former Liberal MP with a decidedly conservative streak. His book on Stane Street was readable, entertaining, and in large part wrong.

Like many of us, Belloc was impressed by Roman roads, especially those stretches where a long highway streaks, straight as an arrow, through the countryside. But from this he seemed to draw the conclusion that straightness in itself was the Roman engineers’ overriding ambition, and that their roads followed point-to-point “alignments” cutting through the landscape almost regardless of obstacles.

Finally, and quite separately, he argued that in the centuries after the Romans, their roads remained sufficiently important to act as magnets for the siting of medieval churches and abbeys.

Putting these convictions together, Belloc argued that Stane Street ran through South London on a single straight alignment from London Bridge to the downs north of Dorking, where it is represented today by a footpath called Pebble Lane. And he claimed that this alignment ran straight through Merton Abbey on the River Wandle:

“The whole of my argument is based upon the exact alignment of the Stane Street where it has survived with the direction of London Bridge, and upon the identity of the crossing of the Wandle with Merton Abbey, and with the royal land of Merton”.

merton-abbey-mills

 Merton Abbey Mills today, commemorating William Morris’s C19th printworks, which commemorated the C12th Priory

 By committing himself to this alignment, Belloc chose to ignore some inconvenient evidence. Firstly, his alignment by-passed Ewell and Epsom altogether, although he knew perfectly well that traces of Roman road had been found in both places. And more significantly, it required him to ignore long stretches of the modern road which, in his day as in ours, were generally accepted as following the route of Stane Street through South London. To turn a blind eye to this enormous fact on the ground, in favour of an abstract theory of ‘alignment’, was somewhat perverse. We might almost suspect that he was deliberately courting controversy.

Whether or not he was courting it, he got it. In 1922, a retired cavalry officer published a furious refutation of Belloc’s account. The very title of Captain W.A. Grant’s book made his purpose clear – The Topography of Stane Street: A critical review of ‘The Stane Street’ by Hilaire Belloc.

grant-book

 

Blissfully unencumbered by any sense of literary courtesy, Grant laid into Belloc with a will:

“Mr Belloc … jumps to conclusions without taking the trouble to verify them, and gives bearings and distances as ‘exact’ when they are not even approximate … “;

“ … neither of these alignments points where Mr Belloc says it does … ”;

“Surely this must break all previous records for carelessness and inaccuracy”;

“If I seem to have handled Mr Belloc somewhat severely, it is, I think, no more than he deserves … “.

I suspect that, as a military man, Grant was piqued by what he saw as Belloc’s amateurism, and was keen to defend the professionalism of the Roman military engineers who had built the road:

“What Mr Belloc appears to have done was to start off from Chichester along the known course of the road, groping his way as it were from point to point … But what we have to do, I think, is to try and put ourselves in the position of the Roman engineers before there was any road at all … “.

I like this passage. Grant makes no claim to be an historian, but in these few gruff words he neatly summarises the importance of historical sensibility and historical empathy. He recognises the distance in time and circumstance which separates us from those Roman engineers, but also the shared humanity which unites us to them, and he invites us to try to view the world as they viewed it.

Two things in particular infuriated Captain Grant. Firstly, Belloc was cavalier with his data, and even altered it to fit his theory – for instance, by drawing a misleading map which surreptitiously moved Merton Priory a quarter of a mile to the east so that it would appear to lie directly on his pet alignment. And secondly, Grant was convinced that Belloc simply misunderstood alignments. Grant believed that the Roman engineers used them not as building instructions, but rather as practical points of reference:

“ … I am strongly of opinion that in every case the direct alignment would be plotted out, whether it were practicable for the road to follow that line or not” (my italics).

In the case of Stane Street he suggested that the engineers plotted three ‘great alignments’, ‘ideal lines’ across the landscape which they used to find a route which was as direct as possible while allowing pragmatically for local topography.

Grant’s critique of Belloc is unrelenting, entertaining, and mostly justified. Among other things, he confirmed that the modern road from Epsom to London Bridge does indeed follow the route of Stane Street through South London (give or take some wanderings and gaps which I will investigate in the next post). But he didn’t get everything right.

stane-st-map

 

Grant argued that after passing through Ewell and Epsom, Stane Street ran on through Ashtead where there is a small Roman camp, and past Leatherhead to make its way down to the River Mole at Burford Bridge, and so on to the camp at Dorking. He therefore denied that Pebble Lane, which was so important to Belloc and lay further to the east, was part of Stane Street at all. In this, Grant was mistaken and Belloc was correct.

However when it came to the big picture, to the methods of the Roman engineers, an appreciation of the manner in which the road was made, and a practical sense of its route through South London, Captain W.A. Grant, formerly of the 13th Hussars, got it mostly right, while Hilaire Belloc, celebrated popular writer, got it seriously wrong.

Future posts: more on Stane Street’s route through South London including the Clapham Divergence, the Merton Tragedy, the Ewell and Epsom Mysteries, and several significant churches.