Roman Stane Street: on firm ground through Ewell & Epsom


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,

Stane St Epsom St Martin's church

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.

South London Modernism: Threepenny Bit

Just look at this lovely print


of the NLA Tower in Croydon, aka No. 1 Croydon, aka the Threepenny Bit to us oldies who were around before 1971, aka the Fifty Pee to callow youngsters for whom pre-decimal coinage is as historically remote as the Battle of Hastings or the England football team actually winning something.

The building was designed by Richard Seifert, master of the high-rise tower in the 1960s and 1970s, architect of Centrepoint near St. Giles in 1966, which notoriously stood empty for many years; and the NatWest Tower in the City in 1980, which we are now required to refer to as ‘Tower 42’ as if it had been cast for a bit-part in a near-future urban dystopia directed by Ridley Scott. Seifert didn’t only do towers. He also designed the vile monstrosity of Euston Station, and as such was implicated in the demolition of the nineteenth century station with its famous and irreplaceable Euston Arch.

But the Threepenny Bit is OK. It works. It has character. It’s high but not too high. Its clambering, stacked jaggedness is strangely satisfying. And it has stood the test of time: it was completed almost half a century ago back in 1970, since when other buildings have crowded in, and East Croydon station next door has had a post-modern facelift, and the Croydon Tram has arrived and squatted down in its shadow. But the Threepenny Bit, middle-aged and concrete-clad, is still comfortable in its space, one item – rather a late item – of Croydon’s Modern Moment.

In Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, that extraordinary exercise in utopian social democracy, Croydon loomed large as a centre of population, commercial services and manufacturing industry. In general Abercrombie was hostile to industrial development in the suburbs, but he regarded Croydon’s significant industrial base as a special case that deserved protection.


He also argued that working class housing should be close to workers’ jobs, and lambasted Croydon’s Tory Council for its pre-war cynicism in siting a new working-class housing estate out at Lodge Lane, far from either jobs or decent public transport. That estate continued to grow and became New Addington.

Abercrombie’s vision did have an impact – the Green Belt, New Towns – but the Plan as a whole was not implemented. Local planning stayed with the local boroughs, and in Croydon the borough council was dominated by an ambitious group of Tories. Where Abercrombie had advocated a deliberate, planned redistribution of manufacturing and services across the metropolitan area, they sniffed a local opportunity for a different sort of redistribution – competitive rather than planned, investment pulled in by low rates and good transport links, a zero-sum redistribution of jobs and money to Croydon from central London, with the emphasis on commercial services and scant interest in manufacturing.

The 1956 Croydon Corporation Act gave them the powers they needed, and Croydon’s Modern Moment arrived. The focus was on Wellesley Road, which was comprehensively refashioned as a zone of commercial and cultural modernism: the Fairfield Halls in 1962; St George’s House (the Nestlé building) and St Georges Walk (a first stab at a shopping mall) in 1964; the Wellesley Road underpass in 1965; Taberner House in 1967; the Whitgift Centre (a more ambitious and successful stab at a shopping mall) and the Wellesley Road flyover in 1968; Apollo House and Lunar House (a grimly familiar landmark to generations of migrants) in 1970; and the Threepenny Bit, another couple of hundred yards to the east, in the same year.

Croydon’s Modernist Moment was, therefore, a Tory Modernist Moment. Which is annoying for those of us who (a) don’t like Tories but (b) are rather fond of some bits of Croydon Modernism, such as the Threepenny Bit and the Fairfield Halls. But I suppose we’ll just have to learn to live with complexity.

Meanwhile: if you like the Threepenny Bit print, go to where there are many more wonderful London Modern designs by Kate Marsden.