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
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
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.