We saw in a previous post that in his book on Roman Stane Street published just before the First World War, Hilaire Belloc insisted that it followed a single straight alignment from Merton Priory to Pebble Lane, seven or eight miles to the south on the downs above Dorking. If true, this would mean that Stane Street was unconnected with the suspiciously straight stretch of the modern A24 from Morden to Nonsuch Park, and it would mean that it simply bypassed modern Ewell and Epsom.
After the Great War, Captain Grant published his damning rebuttal of Belloc. He argued, correctly, that the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24 was an authentic part of Stane Street. He then projected this line to the south-west, and argued that the road ran through Ewell and Epsom and on to Ashtead, before turning south-east to cross the River Mole at Burford Bridge. In Grant’s view, Pebble Lane had nothing to do with Stane Street.
Grant was right in general, but wrong in this particular. Both the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24, and Pebble Lane, are bona fide survivors of Stane Street. But they are clearly on quite different alignments. So we have to ask (a) how do they connect? and (b) why did the Roman engineers make things so complicated in this area?
First of all, let’s sort out the route of the Roman road through Ewell, which was clarified by excavations in 1970-75 and 2003.
The modern road runs down from Morden and alongside Nonsuch Park, then does a dog-leg before meeting the dual carriageway which by-passes Ewell. The Roman road, however, carried straight on along the Morden-Nonsuch alignment, crossed the dual carriageway, crossed St Mary’s churchyard, and continued to the Old Tower just beyond the church.
Here it shifted slightly to the west to cut through Ewell’s residential streets (Staneway, St James Avenue).
It ran on to cross the modern railway line close to Windmill Bridge, through St Martin’s churchyard in Epsom,
and on to the top of Woodcote Park. Here it shifted east, ran on, shifted west, ran on, shifted east, and finally met Pebble Lane just beyond Thirty Acre Barn.
There is nothing unusual about a few changes of direction in a road or path over the course of four or five miles, the distance from Nonsuch Park to Pebble Lane. However, this is not just any road, but a Roman road which is notable for its long straight alignments. As we saw in the previous post, the Roman engineers liked their alignments – but they were also happy to make pragmatic compromises when circumstances justified it. So: what were the circumstances around Ewell and Epsom?
According to Ivan Margary, the doyen of Roman road studies, it was all about the road surface. We saw previously that the course of Stane Street at Newington, and possibly at Clapham, was diverted to skirt around areas of marshland. In the Ewell and Epsom area the issue wasn’t marsh but clay: the connecting route between Ewell and Pebble Lane was chosen to keep the road off the clay and on firm chalk.
Finally: note once more the recurring theme of churches. Medieval churches situated directly on Stane Street as it passes through South London include St George the Martyr, Merton Priory, St Mary’s Ewell, and St Martin’s Epsom.
Belloc made much of this connection and, however wrong he may have been about other things, he was right about this. There is a pattern here to which we will return.