Roman Ewell and modern technology: a follow-up
Further reflection on the outcome of the computer project on Roman Ewell at the Institute of Archaeology (discussed at the NAS meeting on June 1998; see Isobel Cross’s report in NAS Newsletter 1998/4) has suggested that the recorded observations of Roman roads in Ewell are not compatible with a single route (i.e. Stane Street) through Ewell en route from London to Chichester (Noviomagus). That led me to think that maybe there are two (or even more) Roman routes through Ewell. Where might another route go? Examination of the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain shows that a straight line from Ewell to Winchester (Venta) passes through the small Roman town of Neatham, near Alton in Hampshire. Extensive excavations in Neatham in the 1970s (Millett and Graham, 1986) showed the existence of two Roman roads, one running approximately SSE – NNW from Chichester to Silchester (Calleva) and the other running WSW – ENE from Winchester to London. The latter route was traced at the time from west of Alton to about Bentley, midway between Alton and Farnham.
I here put forward the hypothesis that this route continued to Ewell, and thence to London along Stane Street. I am not claiming that the direct route was followed exactly; the known part lies south of it to the west of Alton, and north of it to the east of Neatham, presumably to avoid unnecessary crossings of the upper Wey. This is in accord with what we know of Roman surveying practices: a straight-line route would have been established between the two end points, and then local deviations created to take account of topographical features (Hargreaves, 1990). This practice can be well seen on Stane Street, where the first 15 miles from London to Ewell are aligned exactly on Chichester, but south of Ewell there are considerable deviations to take the route across the North and South Downs.
The missing part of this hypothetical route, if it exists, is most likely to have passed north of Farnham (possibly through Farnham Park) north of the Hog’s Back and north of Guildford (with some deviation to achieve a suitable crossing of the Wey), then perhaps via Cobham on to Ewell. It would have opened up the rich agricultural area of the dip slope of the North Downs, and provided convenient transport from the potteries at Alice Holt and at Farnham, as well as the tileworks at Ashtead, to London, which must have been one of their main markets. One might further suggest that locational analysis could predict the existence of a Roman settlement roughly north west of Guildford, perhaps in the Broadstreet area (Winchester to Neatham = 18 miles, Neatham to Broadstreet = 16 miles, Broadstreet to Ewell = 17 miles). The detail of the route into Ewell is unknown: the Purberry Shot road (Lowther, 1949) seems to be aligned too far to the south, but Tayles Hill (Anon, 1950, xiii) may be a suitable candidate.
I must re-emphasise that I am simply flying a kite here, in the hope of inspiring more research. Bird (1987, 168) has suggested the existence of a direct route from London to Winchester (i.e. not via Silchester), but east of Neatham he left open a choice of three routes, via either Staines, Brentford or Ewell. It seems strange that this route, which seems well documented in Hampshire, is apparently unknown in Surrey. But perhaps the evidence is already present in the record, and just needs bringing together?
I am grateful to David Bird and to David Graham for commenting on an earlier draft of this note.
Anon, 1950, ‘Report of the Council for the year ending 31st December 1948’, Surrey Archaeological Collections 51, vii–xix.
Bird, D.G., 1987, ‘The Romano-British period in Surrey’, 165–196 in Bird, J and Bird, D.G., The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540 (Surrey Archaeological Society).
Hargreaves, G.H., 1990, ‘Road planning operations of Roman surveyors’, unpublished BA dissertation, University College London Institute of Archaeology.
Lowther, A.W.G., 1949, ‘Excavations at Purberry Shot, Ewell, Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections 50, 9–46.
Millett, M., and D. Graham, 1986, Excavations on the Romano-British Small Town at Neatham, Hampshire, 1969–1979 (Hampshire Field Club Monograph 3).