Why the Romans built a road to nowhere

PUBLISHED: 12:18 20 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:03 22 October 2010

Peddars Way on the B1145 between Gayton and Litcham.

Peddars Way on the B1145 between Gayton and Litcham.

There may be few visible Roman remains in this part of the country, but we have a superb example of a Roman Road in the form of the Peddars Way. Walker and historian Andrew McCloy told KEIRON PIM why he included Norfolk in his new book, Exploring Roman Britain.

Peddars Way near Great Massingham.

The Romans were a methodical people, not given to acts of folly - so why did they apparently build a road to nowhere? Known as the Peddars Way, it is a typically straight track marching from near Thetford directly through the heart of west Norfolk until it peters out at an isolated coastal spot at Holme, and is now favoured by walkers and cyclists.

But just what its original purpose was when it was built around 2,000 years ago is a question that has long perplexed historians.

Andrew McCloy is the latest to investigate. He devotes a chapter of his new book, Exploring Roman Britain, to the Peddars Way, and has reached a tentative conclusion.

"Usually the routes ended at a fort or garrison, or had another obvious destination," he says.

Andrew McCloy's new book, Exploring Roman Britain.

"Here you come out at Holme, and you think, Why? Where were the Romans going?"

There was a Roman settlement at nearby Brancaster, known as Branodunum, but if that had been the destination they would surely have gone straight there instead of hitting the coastline and then meandering eastwards for a couple of miles.

Instead, Andrew suggests: "I think probably it was a ferry port for a boat across the Wash to the other side. They might have gone across the Wash and up to Boston."

But above all, he suspects, it was a statement of intent - a sign from the occupying forces that they were not to be messed with.

Recreated wooden defences at the Iceni village at Cockley Cley, near Swaffham.

"The Peddars Way more than anything represented them putting their stamp on Norfolk, making their presence felt right through the heart of the county," he says.

"Their legionnaires marching through it must have put the fear of God into local people."

Andrew's book details 15 scenic walks around Britain, taking in Roman sites such as a fortress in Cumbria, a villa in the Cotswolds, an amphitheatre in Hampshire and and the extensive remains at Colchester in Essex. The walk along Peddars Way begins at Great Massingham, finishes 16 miles later at Holme, and is suggested to take six to seven hours.

Illustrated with beautifully shot photographs, the book combines his love of walking - he was formerly the information officer for the Ramblers' Association - with a passion for history.

And although Norfolk is relatively lacking in visible evidence of the Romans, in the form of Roman structures, he believes it offers a different source of interest for the Roman enthusiast.

"It is interesting in ways that are very different from the rest of Britain. The Romans never subjugated Wales, and didn't really get their hands on Scotland, but in England by and large they were assimilated into the everyday English life. But it was a struggle in some places, including Norfolk, because of the Iceni tribe who gave some pretty stubborn resistance.

"Their tribal kings wouldn't play ball with the Romans. Especially after Boudicca's revolt, the Romans had to flex their imperial muscle and show who was boss.

"As such it was interesting to compare with other indigenous tribes who capitulated much more easily.

"Walking through Norfolk with my Roman hat on, compared with other parts of England there are not too many visible Roman remains, but there are other signs I picked up on, not least the Iceni centre. It ties in with why the Romans were there."

Andrew, who lives in Derbyshire, was particularly taken with the recreated Iceni village at Cockley Cley but it was the Peddars Way, as a classic example of a Roman Road, that brought him to the county.

He writes: "To the Romans it was simply logical to link towns and garrisons by a network of direct and reliable highways.

"Troops and supplies could be moved around at speed, and the sight of a detachment of mean-looking legionaries on the march would no doubt cause restless natives a sleepless night.

"However, the skill of the Roman road-builders was really twofold: the roads themselves were made to a high standard, extremely hard-wearing and frequently raised on a well-drained bed of layered material. But they were also expertly surveyed and their alignment adapted to suit the local terrain - famously straight and no-nonsense in many instances, but elsewhere skilfully negotiating the contours and natural features. The Romans created, in effect, the first road atlas to Britain, and it remains a masterpiece."

Peddars Way was one of a number of routes that the Romans carved through East Anglia, and was probably finished around 70 AD. Its name is more recent, however, referring to its use as a thoroughfare for pedlars. It has been designated a National Trail, and runs from Knettishall Heath near Thetford for 46 miles to the sea, passing near Anmer, Fring and Ringstead before meeting the dunes at Holme. Andrew says there is little else quite like it.

"The A5 is the closest example, in North Wales, but it's Tarmac now so you lose the sense of what it must have been like.

"Peddars Way is a largely unmetalled but still very clear route.

"Good drainage was paramount, and often this was achieved by raising the road on a bank or causeway called an 'agger', as can still be seen on the Peddars Way between Anmer and Fring.

"You can see the craftsmanship of those Roman road builders, and how straight it is, running ahead of you in a straight line.

"You have to pinch yourself that it's 2,000 years on."

As well as building a network of major roads - effectively the motorways of their day - the Romans did many things for Britain, not least establishing the way that we eat to this day.

"Before the Romans, we would sit before a fire with a pot, but the Romans introduced the idea of sitting down for a three course meal, with flavours that complemented each other, and finishing with a sugary pudding.

"If you go to a pub and have a meal while walking the Peddars Way, it's interesting to think that you're doing something that the Romans introduced."

Andrew hopes his book will encourage more people to get out and explore the countryside on their doorstep, as well as travelling further afield.

"Get out, have a walk and discover yourself and your own two feet," he says.

"Knowing the history makes the countryside come alive. You are getting to grips with not just the British landscape but British history too.

"I challenge anyone walking the Peddars Way not to be curious about who was walking in their footsteps long before."

Exploring Roman Britain, by Andrew McCloy and Andrew Midgley, is published by New Holland in hardback priced £19.99.

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