The London region, before the Romans arrived, wasn’t a bad place to live. The clay soil was hard work, but close to the Thames and its tributaries the soil was better, and the river itself was rich in food and other resources. For travellers by boat the Thames was also a highway, but for those on foot it was more of a barrier. Long before the Romans arrived, therefore, people would have needed crossing-places on the Thames.
There is a longstanding tradition that there was a ford across the river, roughly between St. Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
And there are versions of the tradition which associate this ford directly with the Roman road, Watling Street, whose southern section comes in to Southwark from Kent, and whose northern section heads up from Marble Arch along the Edgware Road. For some, because the line of Watling Street appears to ‘point’ at the ford, it follows that the ford must be its intended destination. For others, Watling Street in its entirety was merely the Roman version of an ancient pre-Roman track-way which ran from Kent to Wales, and which crossed the Thames at Lambeth.
I have no problem with the notion of a ford at Lambeth. I have no problem with the notion that people would have used the ford in Roman times, just as they did in the centuries before and after. But I don’t believe that this ford was directly connected with the Roman road that we call Watling Street.
Let’s take things in order. The idea of a ford at Lambeth may seem unlikely to us because today, it would be suicidal to try to wade across the river between St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Houses of Parliament. Today’s Thames at this point is an urban, embanked and tidal Thames, deep, fast, and dangerous. But for most of its life the river here was wider, shallower and slower, and it wasn’t tidal because the tide exhausted itself further downstream. Its banks were made up of mudflats, marsh and beach, broken up by creeks and inlets into numerous small islands or eyots. One of these on the north bank was Thorney Island, formed by the two arms of the River Tyburn as it approached the Thames from the north.
Thorney Island no longer exists as an island, but we can still place it, because in the seventh century it was chosen as the site for the church which went on to become Westminster Abbey. We know that early medieval churches were often located on or near roads or tracks, so maybe one reason for choosing the site of Westminster Abbey was its proximity to the crossing-place on the Thames.
It is therefore perfectly possible that there was a ford between Lambeth and Thorney IsIand, and that it was already there long before the Romans arrived. But what connection, if any, might this ancient ford have with Watling Street?
Watling Street is a Roman road. There is no evidence that it was laid on top of an ancient British track-way, and Alec Detsicas, in his well-researched study The Cantiaci, firmly refutes this idea. It is also intuitively unlikely if we look at the line of Watling Street on the map, because it really is one of the straightest Roman roads in Britain, slicing across the landscape along uninterrupted alignments in both its southern and northern sections. It has all the signs of a route dictated by the preferences and prejudices of Roman engineers.
So let’s come at it from another angle. Let’s take two fixed points: the church of St George the Martyr, which marks the junction where Watling Street meets two other Roman roads, Stane Street and Borough High Street; and St Thomas’ Hospital, which we believe was the site of Lambeth ford. If we really want to believe in a link between Watling Street and the ford, then we must posit some sort of spur-road running between these points, from St George the Martyr to St Thomas’ Hospital.
On the map below,
the broken line represents the most direct route for such a spur: parallel with and a short way north of Borough Road, north of St George’s Circus, cutting across Westminster Bridge Road near Lambeth North tube station,
grazing the northern edge of Archbishop’s Park before passing through the Hospital and across the river. On Thorney Island it runs up the nave of Westminster Abbey,
then roughly along the line of today’s Tothill Street towards Buckingham Palace, where it veers somewhat north to track Park Lane up to Marble Arch and Edgware Road.
But this broken line is entirely speculative. The only tentative suggestion that such a route may have existed as a Roman road is a trace of an undated gravelled road in Lambeth Palace garden. There is nothing else. Maps offer no support: the earliest accurate street map of this part of South London, John Rocque’s map of 1746, shows no road corresponding even faintly to our posited route. Nor is there any trace of it in parish boundaries: the boundary between the old parishes of Southwark and Lambeth runs north-south, not east-west as it would need to do if it were following our broken line.
Instead, the evidence suggests that travellers along Watling Street would have passed through the Roman city of Londinium. Coming in from Kent, they would have turned up Borough High Street to go through Southwark, across the bridge and into the city. When they resumed their journey they would leave along the line of High Holborn and Oxford Street to Marble Arch, where they would turn up Edgware Road towards Verulamium (St. Albans) and the north.
On a modern map this may look like a convoluted detour. But modern maps do not reflect Roman priorities. I believe that this ‘detour’ makes perfectly good sense once we grasp that Roman roads were projections of urban-based Roman power.
Roman roads were about control exercised at many levels. Their solid foundations and surfaces allowed for rapid travel, especially rapid travel by soldiers bent on keeping the peace: this is well known. Their engineering, combining straight alignments and pragmatic deviations (discussed in another post), were both practical, and highly symbolic assertions of control over the landscape itself. And most important of all, the roads ran to and from towns and fortresses, the sites from which power was exercised. The roads served both to push the agents of Roman power outwards in the form of soldiers and administrators and tax-gatherers; and to pull its subjects inwards, into the towns, to gain access to markets and special services and the prestige that came from rubbing up against Romanitas. Roman power was an urban power, and its roads were the means by which that urban power projected itself out into the rest of the country.
So, when travellers coming along Watling Street from Kent in the second or third century arrived at the junction where St George the Martyr now stands,
they would not have regarded Londinium as a detour. They would have regarded it as a natural and welcome destination. For farmers or merchants or artisans it had markets. For artists it had rich clients. For soldiers It had barracks. For everyone it offered food, rest, creature comforts, and a renewal of the sense of belonging to a vast, cosmopolitan civilization.
I have no problem with the notion of a ford across the Thames at Lambeth. But I don’t believe that the Romans would have regarded the existence of such a ford as justifying the construction of a new road, when the alternative crossing-place at London Bridge gave access to the city.