Roman roads: discovering history along Britain’s oldest routes

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Ancient roads that were laid in Britain by Romans almost 2,000 years ago provide a glimpse into a wealth of historic sites along the way. Many of these old thoroughfares can still be traced today.

The Romans ruled Britain for almost four hundred years and paved more than 3,000 kilometres of roads, connecting formative settlements and impressive fortresses. Most of the original roads have been overlaid and altered over the centuries, but there are still certain routes where it’s possible to retrace ancient footsteps for an authentic Roman journey. From the famous Ermine Street linking London and York, to Fosse Way, the longest route leading from Exeter to Lincoln, these roads connect towns and cities with a rich Roman heritage – great for those wanting to delve into Britain’s unique and colourful history.

Ermine Street – London to York

York. Photo by Luke Porter

Ermine Street, connecting London to York, was one of the major Roman routes through England, and remains a key route in modern times. Those eager to retrace Roman journeys can add Bishopsgate as the official start of their Roman road trip. Here, parts of the original road can be found in the now very trendy neighbourhoods of East London, including Shoreditch and Stoke Newington.

Moving north from the capital, Ermine Street largely follows the modern-day A10 and sections of the A1, a route that passes important Roman towns and cities, including Royston, Godmanchester and Lincoln. Those dreaming of exploring the charms of the cathedral city of Lincoln can add historic sites such as the Newport Arch of Roman North Gate, Lincoln Castle, and the Medieval Bishop’s Palace to their century-spanning itinerary.

Continue the ancient route to its finishing line at York, before marvelling at York Minster, a site that has been admired since the 7th century, or stepping into the sights, sounds and smells of Viking-age York at the Jorvik Viking Centre.

The Fosse Way – Exeter to Lincoln

Exeter Cathedral. Photo by Visit Exeter

For a lengthy Roman road trip across Britain, dream of driving the longest remaining Roman road, the Fosse Way. Built to connect Exeter to Lincoln, it is possible to drive almost end to end on (what were once) the original Roman roads, passing a selection of spectacular scenery and historic sites along the way…

Exeter, a gem of Britain’s southwest, is the Fosse Way’s starting point. Those planning a history-themed road trip can begin by exploring Exeter Cathedral and the city’s medieval underground passes, or by following the city wall trail – parts of the wall are almost 2,000 years old.

Next on this route, Bath boasts several historic attractions that no Roman road trip should be without. Brimming with places to explore, eager visitors can dream of tracing historic footsteps through the Roman Baths, one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the world. Another ancient settlement stop-off is the Cotswold town of Cirencester, a spot that makes dreaming of visiting a Roman amphitheatre a reality. Delve further into British history at the nearby Rodmarton Manor, a great historic house and garden of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Before finishing in the Midlands’ city of Lincoln, this route passes Leicester, a city bursting with centuries of heritage. An itinerary here could include seeing the imposing spire of Leicester Cathedral or the 14th century timber-beamed Guildhall, once a police station and now a museum. Leicester is also home to the archaeological gem of Grey Friars, a former medieval priory and final resting place of a royal – a story told in great detail at the King Richard III Visitor Centre.

Watling Street – Dover to Wroxeter

Historic timber-frame houses and shops in the City of
Chester, Cheshire, England. Photo by Visit Britain, Lisa Ruohoniemi

First used by ancient settlers and Britons to travel between the key settlements of Canterbury and St Albans, and later connecting Dover with Wroxeter, in Shropshire, this route travels through modern day Westminster and can be followed via the A2 and A5 roads.

Those dreaming of exploring this ancient thoroughfare from start to finish can look forward to marvelling at the coastal town of Dover. Its breath-taking white cliffs have acted as a symbol of arrival in Britain for many centuries, while the imposing 12th century Dover Castle has helped to shape history since its construction, having fended off invaders in medieval times and having played a pivotal role in both World Wars.

The Roman road then leads to the historic cathedral city and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Canterbury. The city offers a plethora of attractions that span the centuries; from the splendour of Canterbury Cathedral to the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the Roman Museum.

Once in London, explorers can seek out a section of the road that still exists, close to Mansion House Underground station, and visit London’s Roman Amphitheatre. Visitors can close their eyes and visualise the capital as Londinium, a major commercial hub during the Roman era.

Formerly the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, Wroxeter traditionally marks the end of this historic route. And never is the Romano-British era easier to imagine than when exploring Wroxeter Roman City, where visitors can walk through the remains of a Roman bathhouse and experience a reconstructed town house from 2,000 years ago.

A spur route of Watling Street continued to the walled city of Chester, where visitors can dream of retracing Roman footsteps under the Eastgate and Eastgate Clock, which stands on the original entrance to what was the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix. Other unmissable historic places to plan into a Roman-themed itinerary include the family-friendly Dewa Roman Experience, Chester Cathedral and the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain.

Ermin Way – Gloucester to Silchester

Gloucester Cathedral

Those wishing to tick off a shorter Roman adventure can take a road trip along Ermin Way. Although the official road begins in Gloucester, around an hour away by car is the fortress and baths of Caerleon, the only permanent Roman base in Wales. Itineraries could also include a trip to see the impressive remains of Romano-British homes, markets and temples at Caerwent Roman Town.

The next stop along this well-trodden path is the town of Cirencester, often referred to as the capital of the Cotswolds. Once a bustling Romano-British settlement, it later featured in the Domesday Book and is home to an authentic ancient amphitheatre, as well as a sea of fascinating Roman artefacts housed in the Corinium Museum.

This route then comes to the Hampshire village of Silchester, where history buffs can explore original Roman city walls, as well as the nearby amphitheatre.

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