The Roman road from London to Brighton – or to be more precise, to Pyecombe or Portslade outside Brighton – was an industrial road like the Lewes Way, as opposed to a military highway like Stane Street or Watling Street. It linked London to the rich farmland of the South Downs. And like many Roman roads, it followed straight alignments where possible, but adjusted to local conditions where necessary. This is an important point to remember as we chart its route through South London.
Firstly, let’s deal with the straightforward bit. Since the 1930s, it’s been widely accepted that the modern A23 between Streatham and Croydon follows the line of the Roman road. Ivan D. Margary, doyen of Roman road scholars, put the evidence together. He pointed to reliable eighteenth century antiquarian reports of Roman paving visible at Broad Green on the northern edge of Croydon; to nineteenth century builders who found Roman material at various sites close to the road in Streatham; and to twentieth century Post Office engineers (remember them?) who reported regular encounters with ancient hard-packed gravel along the line of the modern road. He also pointed to the straightness of the modern road, apart from a wiggle just north of Norbury Station to accommodate the crossing of Norbury Brook.
Margary fails to mention the more significant shift in direction, from NNW to NNE, at St. Leonard’s Church in Streatham. But here the presence of the church may itself signify that we are still on the Roman route. There is a pattern of medieval churches being located at junctions, turning points and river crossings on Roman roads. The present St. Leonard’s is fourteenth century, and may well be on the site of an early medieval chapel recorded in the Domesday Book. And further north on the A23 a 1967 excavation found signs of a Roman road at the top of Telford Avenue, opposite the bus station on Streatham Hill.
So Margary was right. For something over four miles, from Broad Green in the south to Streatham Hill in the north, the modern road follows the line of the Roman road.
The question is: where did it go next, north of Streatham?
Margary argues that it stuck with the modern road down Brixton Hill, along Brixton Road, to meet Stane Street opposite the Oval, at Kennington Park. In support of this he points out that Brixton Hill used to be called Brixton Causeway. He says this is “most suggestive”, since ‘causeway’ means a paved or pebbled road. But ‘causeway’ also implies a raised track over wet or marshy ground – which brings us to the River Effra.
People argue about the upper parts of the River Effra, but it’s an established fact that once it hit Brixton, it ran along the line of Brixton Road up to Kennington. It is clearly shown on Rocque’s map of 1746
where it is called not the Effra but ‘The Shore’. At Kennington it turns west to enter the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.
Because of the Effra, Brixton Road was notorious for being water-logged: it used to be known as the ‘Wash Way’, and it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the river was contained within the new network of sewers. If the area around Brixton Road was water-logged as recently as the nineteenth century, it is likely to have been even wetter in Roman times, because the climate generally was wetter.
Roman road engineers hated wet, boggy, marshy places, and took drastic steps to avoid them. For instance: they built Stane Street along a lovely straight alignment down Kennington Road and Clapham Road – but they cheerfully abandoned that alignment in order to stay on dry ground at Newington Causeway, and then again at Clapham Rise. So: if we imagine Roman engineers standing at the top of Streatham Hill, looking north, arguing about the best way to link up with Stane Street and reach Londinium, we would expect them to choose the driest option.
The driest option was not Margary’s route, by Brixton Hill, Brixton Road and the River Effra. The driest option was along the line now followed by Lyham Road and Bedford Road, heading down to connect with Stane Street at Clapham North tube station.
This would avoid the Effra entirely, while keeping to the east of another boggy area which Stane Street avoided by veering to the west at Clapham Rise. This Lyham-Bedford line has a long and continuous history in the landscape. A thirteenth century charter confirms it as the boundary between Clapham and Lambeth manors, and Michael Green suggests in Historic Clapham that it may have been a property boundary as far back as the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries. The connection between Roman roads and medieval property boundaries is well-known: Margary himself makes frequent use of it. The Lyham-Bedford line also served continuously as a road or track, and appears in Rocque’s map as ‘The Back Road’, which meets Stane Street at ‘Babilon’.
For all these reasons, it seems to me that the Lyham-Bedford route makes more sense than the Brixton Road route. Of course, I may be wrong. Someone, at some point, did run a road down Brixton Hill, River Effra notwithstanding, and that someone may have been the Romans. The old name ‘Brixton Causeway’ does suggest a paved or pebbled road, whose builders may have been the Romans. And there is no direct archaeological evidence for the Lyham-Bedford route, any more than for the Brixton Road route.
All I’m saying is that it would surely have been peculiarly perverse for pragmatic Roman engineers to run a road into a river, and condemn it to regular flooding, when they had a drier alternative.