Taking a Ride on Watling Street

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Celtic traders trudged it and Roman soldiers marched along it, but when two middle-aged would-be adventurers set out in an old Land Rover to trace Watling Street’s route, their first move was stopping for lunch

GREGORY PROCHE

©HOLMES GARDEN PHOTOS/ALAMY

The recumbent lions are a familiar sight at the gates to Woburn Abbey, ancestral home of the Duke of Bedford. Real lions roam the grounds of Woburn Abbey’s safari park out of sight from Watling Street.

The discovery last year of the original Roman coastline at Richborough, Kent, revealed for the first time the actual beach Emperor Claudius’ men crossed to claim the prize of Britain. After the Romans had managed to take over most of Britain, they built roads. And one of the most important led from the channel coast across the country diagonally to Viroconium, today’s Wroxeter Roman City.
That was Watling Street.
The Richborough discovery made me curious to trace Watling Street, the Roman road that led northwest from there eventually to Chester and across north Wales to the Isle of Angelsey and Holyhead, then as now the port to Ireland. Much of its length today remains true to the route the centurions knew.
Study the map and it is clear that the modern day Watling Street neatly divides into two convenient sections. From the coast at Dover to London, it is the A2 sometimes called the Great Dover Road. From London, the A5 follows Watling Street north to its original end in Wroxeter, just outside Shrewsbury. Like occupiers through the ages, the Romans quickly adapted the infrastructure of the colonized and built their street on long-established routes.
The street has two acknowledged starting points: Dover, the site of Rome’s arrival in A.D. 43, and Richborough, just a few miles north along the Kentish coast. It strides off into some of England’s most beautiful countryside, drenched with its bloody history—passing Canterbury, where an enraged English King made a bloody martyr of a tiresome priest; through the idyll of Kent into the gaping metropolis of London, along the Old Kent Road (the cheapest square on the British monopoly board) to the Edgeware Road.
Hurrying north from Marble Arch, the road, now Edgeware Road, passes through an area with a long-settled Arab population. Immigrants began to settle here in the late 19th century as Britain increased its trade with the Ottoman empire. Later British links with Egypt and events such as the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution and Algerian unrest increased the population of the area. The sights and sounds of the Shisha hookah pipes would have reminded the centurion of a Middle East posting.
Plan to take two days to travel along Watling Street. Leave the south coast and stay over in or around Towcester, the ancient Roman fort of Lactodurum, which is a convenient halfway point.
Follow the road out of London to St. Albans, where a Roman centurion paid the price for following the new religion and where Ye Old Fighting Cocks, which claims to be Britain’s oldest pub, sits among some of the country’s most expensive real estate. The road then marches past the exotic lions of Woburn until it arrives in the modern city of Milton Keynes.

PETER DINKLEY

Allowing a day to travel to Towcester means that should something look intriguing there is time to side-step the timetable. Canterbury Cathedral, Rochester Castle, Woburn Abbey and the WWII spy center at Bletchley Park are just some of the sites along the way. The presence of the Silverstone motor racing circuit, means there is no shortage of comfortable and luxurious hotels and more basic B&B accommodation in the Towcester area.
I planned to drive the northern half of Watling Street, and called my friend Peter Dunkley, a man with an intimate history with the old road. Peter lives in an 18th-century farmhouse just 150 yards from the A5 and little more than six miles from Towcester.

BRITAINONVIEW

Milton Keynes was a purpose-built “New Town” to relieve the population pressure on London after World War II. Danelaw:

HEADING NORTHWEST

“Do you want to make the road trip in a classic Land Rover?” Peter asked. “It’s a military road so what better to use than a military vehicle?” His 1967 Land Rover has seen better days. Its mileage is impossible to determine as the numbers have gone around the clock a too many times. We rendezvoused at his house and set out to explore Watling Street’s northern stretch. But before we tackled the tarmac, there was a more pressing concern: lunch.
We set off for Jack’s Hill Café to take on an all-day full English breakfast. Though the café has been a favorite with Peter for more than 30 years, this was the first time I had stepped across Jack’s doorstep. This is a truckers’ café; the food is basic, unashamedly English with no nod to fashionable Mediterranean cooking except for the canned Italian tomatoes. The fare is prone to give a cardiac specialist sleepless nights. Truckers’ cafés like Jack’s are a throwback to a pre-expressway age, when trucks were smaller, loads lighter and long distance trucking followed the Roman roads.
“Jack’s has always been here. Drivers still use it as they prefer it to the more expensive motorway services,” Peter explained as I tucked into my pork sausages. “Lorries coming up from Southampton and the south coast will pass here to the M1 and M6 on their way north.”

BRITAINONVIEW

The keep of Rochester Castle is one of the most complete Norman structures in England.

Absorbing enough calories to stave off the winter chill, Peter and I set off northward. Not long into our journey, our first major detour came at the village of Weedon. This unprepossessing collection of Victorian houses and stores, straddling a busy crossroads, holds the secrets of the ancients—it is chock full of antique stores.
We parked the Land Rover and explored some of the Aladdin’s caves to be found there. These are not London antique stores; nor do items have London prices. We browsed at Village Antiques Market, searching out that elusive Ming vase at the knockdown price that all browsers secretly hope they will stumble upon.
What we found was a great number of model cars and other toys from our childhood, which only served to depress us with the realization we had not hung onto what were now valuable antiques.
The arcade runs with an honor system, where 40 unmanned stalls groan with delights, and customers are trusted to either look or purchase. I pointed out what appeared to be a name plate from the Flying Scotsman engine, which, had it been authentic and full-size, would have been worth 2,000 times its £30 price sticker. The Ming moment must await another visit.
Back on the road, we were not far from the Watford Gap, the easy pass into the Midlands taken by route builders since the British painted their faces blue. Watling Street is joined here by the Grand Union Canal going north, the London to Birmingham railroad mainline and the M1 motorway. Each transport mode faced the same inclines and all chose the easiest route.

©DOUG BLANE/ALAMY ©COLINUNDERHILL/ALAMY

Just past this point, the A5 passes radio masts planted 83 years ago at Rugby Radio Station to connect the far-flung colonies of the Empire by the latest in technology. The signal was lost as British Telecom finally killed their radio signal, turning off the switch at Rugby a few years ago. The arrival of satellite communications had gradually made the site redundant and BT searched for a partner to redevelop the site. The inevitable intricacy of dealing with local government has meant the project has yet to start and the masts remain as silent reminders of a disappeared empire.
From Towcester thus far, Watling Street passes fairly rural countryside. Now, entering the heart of England, the vista changes. Bucolic Old England gives way to 21st-century warehousing as England’s manufacturing base has withdrawn, bloody and battered by its battle with Chinese industries, to be replaced by the distribution industry that brings back goods from China to be distributed to store shelves throughout the kingdom.
From the first sight of warehousing at Daventry right across to the top of Birmingham, Watling Street has now taken on an industrial edge. No-nonsense towns with strip malls and business premises make up the route for the next 50 miles. Nothing here wins a Beautiful Britain prize, yet communities look strong and an occasional remnant of the long departed coal-mining industry shows this area was once a true workshop.
This part of the journey was new to Peter, who had never traveled so far north on the A5. Here the road curiously avoids cities that must have grown up since the it was built. Hinckley, Tamworth, Sutton Coldfield and Lichfield are all glimpsed but avoided. From London, Watling Street has traveled a straight line to the northeast. At Rugby, it begins a slow arc westward and at Cannock faces directly west.
At Cannock the street’s atmosphere changes again. Freed of industry, the countryside returns to bucolic life. As the light faded, we were treated to the beauty of the Shropshire landscape as we drove into the village of Weston-under-Lizard.
We agreed that a call into Weston Park would be welcome, had it not been so late in the day. A 17th-century stately home, Weston was chosen as a G8 summit location and played host to President Bill Clinton in 1998. P.G. Wodehouse used his memories of Weston Park, which he renamed Blandings Castle, in a number of his books. The former seat of the Earls of Bradford, the house contains portraits by artists such as Van Dyck, an interesting collection of furniture and exceptional Boucher-Neilson Gobelin tapestries. Weston Park is open to the public from May to September.
We passed Weston-under-Lizard, deciding it was getting too dark to stop.

REAL ALE AWAITS

We arrived in Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s medieval county town. Shrewsbury has a major range of accommodation; from high-end hotels to B&Bs. This year, the town is enjoying a year-long celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of native-son Charles Darwin. Events run to November and are expected to draw thousands of visitors.
While Shrewsbury is not the official end of Watling Street, it certainly felt that way as we eased out of the car. Having arrived as dusk was falling, we missed out on the the famous medieval charms of Shrewsbury. What we did not want to miss were some liquid refreshments.
With a thirst for real ale and no knowledge of the city, some initiative was called for. “Are you local and do you know a decent pub?” I asked a passing traffic warden. “It cannot be a chain pub.” The traffic warden directed us to the Coach and Horses on Swan Hill.
The bar was snug; the gas fire burned brightly as the pub filled up. Pints of Wye Valley’s Golden Pale Ale were quickly given over by the barman. Having to drive back to Peter’s that night, we left Shrewsbury with a heavy heart, not least for missing out on the pub evening promising the best Shropshire fare including almost every form of game.

A SIX DAY WALK

I stood Peter lunch the next day at The Saracen’s Head in Towcester, a three-star hotel with an impressively long ironstone frontage directly on the A5. Charles Dickens’ readers might recall the name from The Pickwick Papers. In what is possibly one of English literature’s earliest product placements, Dickens wrote that Pickwick meets an old acquaintance at The Saracen’s Head. At the time, Watling Street was the key stagecoach route between London and Holyhead for services to Ireland, and the inn offered overnight accommodation.
It would be nice to report that the hotel maintains a suitably Dickensian atmosphere, but the march of time has removed anything that Pickwick might have recognized. The lunch was barely a triumph of modern British catering, but the beer was decent and that made it all right. It was with pleasure that we realized we had traveled in one afternoon the distance a Roman expected to walk in six days.
Even if you do not have the noisy, character-building discomfort of a 1960s Land Rover to travel along the Watling Street, do not travel the route as keen students of Roman history looking for evidences of Roman Britain. In the 2,000 years since engineers plotted its route across England, it has remained a working road that takes you into the heart of modern England. Each era has widened, resurfaced and removed Roman artifacts, making it truly a route from Roman Britain into the 21st century.

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