Stane Street at Merton: the Wandle and the Priory

Despite arguments about the precise course of Roman Stane Street as it makes its way through South London, there has always been a consensus that the road crossed the River Wandle at Merton, close to the site which later became Merton Priory. However, for a long time no-one knew the exact location of the crossing.   

In trying to identify this location, we might expect the River Wandle itself to provide a reliable fixed point from which to start. But rivers are not fixed. It is in their nature to wander, to find new courses, and in Merton the course of the Roman Wandle was some way to the east of the modern Wandle. Two thousand years ago the river ran close to the line of today’s Christchurch Road, and passed in front of today’s Colliers Wood tube station. In fact Colliers Wood tube station is the site of the Roman river crossing. An extended and highly successful archaeological excavation, which ran from 1976 to 1990, answered this and other longstanding questions. 

stane-st-merton-map

The Roman river crossing was simply the first in a long line of interventions which have continued right up to the present, and which make this part of Merton into a perfect illustration of the rationale for this blog. My aim in PengePast is to look beyond and beneath the suburban familiarity of South London, and to reveal it as an ancient landscape of human endeavour, struggle and strangeness. Merton certainly does that. 

To illustrate the point: here is the southern edge of the retail park, next to Merantun Way, as it is today. 

stane-st-merton-abbey-retail-park

Three thousand years ago, this site was a riverside meadow. A little less than two thousand years ago, it carried the Roman road. 800 years ago it was the west end of a large priory church, as shown in the map at the top. 100 years ago  

stane-st-merton-1909-map

it was Merton Abbey railway station. And today it is a retail park of quite astonishing ugliness. But in its very ugliness it makes the point that even the most mundane and hideous expressions of suburban modernity are part of an historical process. Even a shoppers’ car-park represents another set of meanings, laid on the palimpsest of South London’s landscape. 

Roman Stane Street was first built around AD 50, with further work carried out between 150 and 200. It seems to have fallen into disuse – or at least, it wasn’t repaired any more – towards the end of the Roman period, from about 350. But the string of Anglo-Saxon settlements and medieval churches along its length show that even if its paving fell short of the Roman ideal, it continued to serve as an important highway long after Britain fell out of the Empire. 

The map at the top highlights two phases of the site’s history: the Roman phase, including the course of the Wandle, the line of Stane Street, and the river crossing; and the medieval phase, including Merton Priory church, and the boundary of the Priory precinct. Both phases were addressed by the 1976-1990 excavations.    

The Augustinian Priory at Merton was founded in 1117, and became an important ecclesiastical institution enjoying royal patronage. At this time abbeys, monasteries and priories acted as clerical, economic and educational centres in their surrounding areas. Merton certainly played this role, and in the Priory’s early years the young Thomas Becket was sent from his home in the city of London to be a scholar here. By the time the Priory church was built towards the end of the C12th, Becket was already a martyr, murdered at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. 

The church was built in the Romanesque style, its west door standing directly on top of the Roman road, and for more than three centuries it stood as the most imposing element of a powerful institution. With the C16th Reformation, of course, like other abbeys and monasteries throughout the country, Merton Priory was closed down. But whereas the buildings on many other sites were simply left to moulder, Merton’s church was promptly dismantled, its stones robbed for re-use in Henry VIII’s new palace a few miles down the road at Nonsuch. Some buildings seem to have survived into the 1640s, when the site was used to garrison troops in the Civil War. But the whole area was transformed from the late C17th as the Wandle in general became increasingly industrialised. Among these industries was textile manufacture and printing, which eventually led William Morris to establish his Abbey Mills works here in 1881.  

By this time, any physical traces of Merton Priory were thought to have disappeared. But in 1914 a Romanesque gate-way was discovered, built into the fabric of a local house. It had clearly belonged to an important Priory building, such as a guest-house or chapel. It was removed and re-erected about a mile away in the church-yard of St. Mary the Virgin.  

stane-st-merton-priory-gate-2

Here it still stands, a robust piece of C12th masonry, its chevron pattern still sharp, a surprising and rather wonderful remnant of the great medieval Priory at Merton.  

Roman Stane Street: the Clapham Deviation

Ivan D. Margary was the doyen of Roman road studies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He is still recognised as a formidable authority, and his books such as Roman Roads in Britain and Roman Ways in the Weald

 margary-roman-ways-weald

are a wonderful resource. Margary always stressed the disciplined pragmatism of the Roman engineers. They used straight alignments to identify ideal and economic lines across the landscape, and would happily run their roads along these alignments where practicable. But when local topography or soil conditions intervened, they adjusted.

So for instance, at the northern end of Stane Street close to the Thames, the Roman landscape was made up of small islands, creeks and marshes (for more on this see ‘South London Begins‘). Between Newington Causeway and Great Dover Street was a marsh later known as ‘Stewfens’; just to the north was the aptly-named Marshalsea, later the site of a famous debtors’ prison; and the name ‘Newington Causeway’ suggests a raised track around boggy ground. Pragmatic Roman engineers were hardly likely to run their road straight through a marsh, when a minor detour would keep it on firm ground. This is why Margary and others agree that the curve of Newington Causeway round to Elephant and Castle does represent the original route of Roman Stane Street.

But for the next six miles or so, from Kennington right down to the Wandle crossing at Merton, Margary argued that Stane Street was guided by a single straight alignment pointing to the road’s ultimate destination of Chichester.

The modern road more or less sticks to this alignment, with one major exception. It is pretty straight from Kennington to Stockwell; and despite some wandering it stays broadly faithful to the alignment between Balham and Merton. But between Stockwell and Balham we have the “Clapham Deviation”: at Clapham North tube station the modern road veers off to the west up Clapham Rise and Clapham High Street, and then along Clapham Common South Side and Balham Hill, only re-joining the alignment at Balham Station.

In Margary’s view, the route followed by Roman Stane Street was much more direct. It did not veer west at Clapham North, but ploughed straight on through the tube station, through the residential streets to the east of Clapham High Street, through Clapham Crescent, across Clapham Park Road, running just east of Klea Avenue to cross Cavendish Road, and on to meet the modern road close to Balham Station. The map below

stane-st-map-2

shows the deviation in diagrammatic form: Margary’s alignment is in red, and the course of the modern road in black. It also shows the locations of the Northern Line tube stations. I like tube stations. They are friendly and familiar markers in the London townscape, and along this section of the Northern Line they represent a string of ancient South London settlements which sprang up along the length of the road. Kennington, Clapham, Balham, and Tooting are all recorded in the Domesday Book, and must go back many centuries before that.

Essentially Margary’s argument was an application of Occam’s Razor: since the Romans who built the road followed a clear alignment from Kennington to Stockwell, and resumed that same alignment from Balham, the most economical assumption is that the section between Stockwell and Balham was also on that alignment. However archaeological excavations, while not proving him wrong, have failed to prove him right. An excavation in the 1940s at Tableer Road/Worsopp Drive south-west of Clapham Park Road; and another in the 1960s at near-by Lambeth College; found no sign of a road, though both were close to his projected alignment. A 1970s dig on the north side of Gaskarth Road did find pebbles and gravel which seemed to indicate a road or path, but not necessarily a Roman one.

Consequently local historian Michael Green, in his 2008 book Historic Clapham, argues that Roman Stane Street passed through Clapham not on Margary’s alignment, but on the route of the modern road. And he suggests that the Roman road took this course in order to avoid boggy ground in the area which later became Clapham Park. If this is right, then the “Clapham Deviation” is no deviation at all, but a sensible adjustment undertaken for the same reason as the adjustment at Newington Causeway.

Next time: Stane Street, the Wandle crossing, and the tragic fate of Merton Priory.