Roman roads

Roads were introduced into Britain by the Roman army c. AD 43. They were used throughout the Roman period and later. Roads facilitated both the Conquest and the subsequent policing of the province. Once the regime was established roads were also used for administrative and commercial purposes. It is possible that some Roman roads followed the course of pre-existing lines of communication but artificial roads in Britain are a Roman innovation.


A Roman road is usually between 4m and 24m wide, which provided a means of communication suitable for wheeled traffic between settlements. The most obvious characteristic of a Roman road is its straightness. Where changes of alignment occur they are usually angled rather than curved. Aerial photography is the best way to recognise Roman roads by picking out the straight alignment over long distances in the form of modern road alignments, hedgerows, cropmarks, and earthworks. At ground-level the course of a Roman road is often indicated by stretches of low earthworks, hollow-ways and ploughed-out metalling recorded during field surveys.


It is generally accepted that the main network of roads was built between AD 43 and AD 81. Secondary roads which linked industrial sites, eg. iron working in the Weald, and agricultural settlements, eg. the Chiltern villas, to the main network were built in the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Maintenance and repair certainly extended into the late Roman period. Many roads continued in use after the Roman period. A Tudor horseshoe was found on the road surface of the Wrekendike, Tyne and Wear.


Roman roads under excavation at ThornboroughThere are two major Roman roads that pass through Buckinghamshire, Watling Street and Akeman Street. Watling Street only just passes through Buckinghamshire in Soulbury parish but otherwise passes next to Milton Keynes. The modern A5 follows its line. It was the road from London to the northwest. Akeman Street, the modern A41 was the road from London to North Wales and passes through Aylesbury and then up to Bicester. Other minor Roman roads are found in excavation, like the crossroads at Thornborough, or have been identified by surveyors, such as Margary, who numbered the routes he thought traced the course of Roman roads.


Most Roman roads were raised on a slight causeway, especially where they crossed wet ground, in order to provide drainage. This low bank or agger can often be traced even if the surfacing material (rammed chalk, gravel, iron slag or the like) has long since been denuded or covered by vegetation.


Here is a map of Buckinghamshire showing the definite (green) and possible (maroon) routes of the Roman roads in the county

Medieval roads

Many medieval roads have continued in use and will largely be covered by modern roads, obscuring or destroying the archaeological evidence; only the alignment will be visible. It is only the medieval roads that have subsequently gone out of use, or which have a different alignment from the modern roads, which have visible archaeological traces. Aerial photography has added greatly to our knowledge of road patterns in, for example, deserted, shrunken or shifted villages; at ground level these may be visible as sunken features in the form of hollow-ways, or areas of metalling found as a result of ploughing or during excavation. Further identification and verification of these features may be provided by place-names, documentary sources, and parish boundaries. 


Medieval roads may be confused with earlier and later roads; Roman roads, however, tend to be on straight alignments, observable from high points; post-medieval roads are of a much more solid construction than medieval roads, with graded stones forming a firm, dry foundation and a compacted surface. Individual roads were located according to the places and features they served; unlike the Roman roads, medieval roads tended to follow the natural lie of the land, running along valleys, crossing rivers at easy fording or bridging points, and avoiding features such as already existing field systems, thus tending to zig-zag. Causeways were built to facilitate communications in marshy areas such as the Fens. Due to the lack of artefacts, the dating of roads is difficult; finds on a road surface only indicate when it was in use, not when it was constructed.


Roads were in use throughout the whole of the medieval period, permitting regular communication between towns, villages, industrial sites etc. and made centralisation of national government possible. The basic network of roads in use in the medieval period was provided by the already existing Roman road system, but new roads came into use to serve the new towns of medieval England as well as the numerous villages established during this period.


Roads in Buckinghamshire have mainly been identified from historical sources, such as two mentioned in Stowe Park in 1226 or Oxford Lane in Woodham, known from a First edition Ordnance Survey map.


Post-medieval toll roads

Also known as a ‘turnpike’ toll roads were improved, private, roads constructed in the 18th and 19th century. The construction of turnpikes was funded through the setting up of Turnpike Trusts. The use of a turnpike road was chargeable and rates varied according to region and administrator. Many turnpike roads resulted from the fact that an increase in industry required a better road network to transport goods and materials. An increase in the urban population also led to a need for food to be moved efficiently from the areas of its production. Turnpikes were characterised by the directness of their route, their uniformity and the presence of tollhouses, signposts and milestones.


Toll-roads also had toll or ‘turnpike’ houses. These were buildings constructed adjacent to a transport route to collect money for the use of that route. Commonly associated with toll (or turnpike) roads, bridges and canals they were manned by a ‘toll keeper’ whose job it was to collect the money owed. The structures varied in design but commonly had windows located to provide the best view of approaching traffic. Toll houses date to the post medieval period, such as that on the toll-road London Road in High Wycombe.