Monday, 8 April 2013

The Stratford Lane Roman Road

Back in 1906, a Roman origin for the 3-4 mile long Stratford Lane which ran down the northern slopes of the Mendips to the River Chew was postulated by Haverfield due to the road’s “straightness, its coincidence with the parish boundary between Compton Martin and West Harptree and by the name Stratford Bridge”. He also felt that the road continued south westwards on to the Mendip plateau until it met the Charterhouse to Old Sarum Roman Road thus linking to the ancient lead and silver mines.

Possibly influenced by the discovery of the lead ingots in central Bristol and the presumed trajectus at Bitton, Ordnance Survey maps of Roman Britain produced in the 1920’s showed the Stratford Lane Roman Road continuing north east via Pensford to Keynsham (the presumed southern terminus of the Bitton trajectus.

However, an early 1950’s examination of the Stratford Lane Roman Road by Rahtz and Greenfield cast doubt on the proposed road link to Keynsham.  Their findings were that the road was well attested between the Charterhouse-Old Sarum road and the River Chew at Stratford Mill, and that there was a continuation (although less substantial) passing close to the Chew Park Roman villa (now under Chew Valley Lake) beyond Hollow Brook and on to the Roman site at Gold’s Cross, however they found no evidence for any further extension of the Roman Road beyond Gold’s Cross.

Rahtz and Greenfield also suggested that the Stratford Lane Roman Road served a dual purpose. One was to carry produce from the valley farms up to the Mendips  for the use of the miners and, in the opposite direction, to carry lead the short distance to the River Chew for transportation downstream to the Avon at Keynsham and then on to Bath or to Sea Mills.

With no evidence of the Stratford Lane Roman Road continuing beyond Gold’s Cross, is the suggestion that barges were loaded at or near Stratford Mill near where the road reached the Chew tenable?

In a 1992 article for the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society on the Stratford Lane Roman Road, R G J Williams highlighted the considerable drop of the Chew – in the 16km from Stratford Bridge to the Avon at Keynsham the Chew drops 43m. This can be compared to the Avon which in the 22km between Keynsham and Sea Mills (Abona) only drops 9m. 

Williams considers that as a result of this relatively steep drop in height, the discharge rate of the water would have made the Chew very shallow and without manmade structures to maintain a suitable depth of water it would be unsuitable for transporting barges laden down with lead and/or silver.

To date no evidence for such Roman era structures have been found. This, combined with the large variance in the flow of water (from 3 million gallons per day in Summer up to 250 million gallons per day after heavy rain) as well as the tortuous course of the river itself (it has been suggested that the name Chew means “winding water”) leads Williams to suggest that the Chew was not used to transport lead ingots from the Mendips to the river Avon.

Thus lead ingots from the Roman mines near Charterhouse were transported by road down the northern slopes of the Mendips into the Chew Valley but the river was did not provide a viable means of transportation.

With no signs of the Stratford Lane Roman Road continuing on from the Chew onto Keynsham beyond Gold’s Cross, and with the river itself not suitable for carrying lead laden barges from the Stratford Lane Roman Road down to the Avon, we now need to look for alternative transport routes from the Chew Valley to the River Avon.

The Chew Park Villa Estate and Tratman’s Roman Road.

In 1963 Edgar Tratman proposed the theory that there must have been transport links between Roman settlements and the main Roman road system via a network of minor roads in the Bristol and North Somerset areas.

In 1926 Tratman had recorded the final destruction of “a major Roman building, probably a villa” on Bedminster Down.  At the same time the “remarkable straightness” of the road that led from Bedminster through Bishopsworth to the top of Dundry Hill was remarked upon.

Using this as his starting point, Tratman went on to identify a Roman road leading from Dundry Hill to Chew Hill, then across the River Chew to Bishop Sutton, Hinton Blewitt and Farrington Gurney before joining up with the strategically important Fosse Way Roman Road near Radstock.

After leaving Hinton Blewitt, the proposed Roman road enters the Chew Magna area and runs past White Cross at the eastern end of Burledge Hill.  Burledge Iron Age Fort lies at the western edge of the hill and excavations have shown evidence of occupation and iron smelting up to the first century BC.

It has been suggested that Burledge formed the focus for Iron Age communities along the River Chew in this area during the late Iron Age such as that at Herriot’s Bridge. 

The Iron Age occupation phases at Burledge were also found at the Chew Park Villa site where occupation continued into the Roman period with a rectangular building replacing Iron Age circular houses.  Both sites also show signs of planned drainage systems bringing more land under cultivation.

Between Bishop Sutton and the River Chew, Tratman’s proposed Roman road passes over Hollow Brook and near this point it forms a junction with the Stratford Lane Roman Road which runs past the Chew Park Villa site.  There also appears to be a short extension north to the Gold’s Cross Roman settlement site which may include a smaller villa.  

From Hollow Brook, the projected Roman road ran along the west side of Knowle Hill where there was a Roman settlement and then along Pitt’s Lane where signs of another Roman settlement were found by Rahtz.

After crossing the ford on the River Chew at the end of Pitt’s Lane, the road appears to have continued up Battle Lane onto Chew Hill and then on up to Dundry Hill with its Roman quarries providing oolitic freestone for building.

As well as the junction with the Stratford lane Roman Road, Tratman has also identified possible routes linking up with the Roman temple site at Pagan’s Hill, and also with the important Roman site at Gatcombe.

In the same way that there was a Ubley-Harptree estate running from the Mendips down to the river Chew and centred on a Roman road, the Chew Magna area appears to be similar estate to the east of the river Chew and also centred on a Roman road. 

This projected estate may well have been managed from the Chew Park Roman Villa site with a subsidiary role for the smaller villa at Gold’s Cross.  There is evidence of lead-smelting at the Chew Park site and also at Herriot’s Bridge near Burledge Fort along with evidence of de-silvering.

As well as smelting of lead, and quarrying of building stone, the Chew Estate also appears to have seen pewter-ware production, leather-working, corn production, soft fruit cultivation, cattle grazing and horse breaking.

Some of the activities on the “Chew Estate” may have been in support of the mineworking operations on the Mendips, and thus continuing the farming tradition from the Iron Age of lowland cultivation of corn and other foodstuffs that needed to be transported to uplands which were restricted to sheep and cattle grazing with no cultivated land to grow crops. 

Following the collapse of the Roman economic system, it is likely that the Chew Estate’s value as a key element in the transport network declined as the post-Roman economy moved into an era which required greater self-sufficiency.  The leadworking industry for example appears to have seen a considerable decline and the villa at Chew Park was abandoned in the 4th century as the Roman economic system and the trade and landowning structures associated with it collapsed.

Nevertheless, the Chew Estate appears to have remained important, and under the Anglo-Saxons, it formed the core of the Chew Hundred, one of the major subdivisions of the Anglo-Saxon system of local government.

This Hundredal status was recorded in Domesday where the settlement of Chiwe (later called Chew Episcopi or Bishop Chew to reflect its ownership by the Bishops of Wells, before adopting its present name of Chew Magna) was quite clearly the centre of an important administrative area in Anglo-Saxon times with a number of subsidiary settlements named in relation to it.

In Domesday, Chiwe itself was assessed at 30 hides of land, whilst the larger hundred which also included Chew Stoke, Norton Malreward, Timsbury and Clutton was more than double this amount.

We thus have another ancient estate, with probable links back not only to the Roman era but also into the Iron Age.  Like the Ubley-Harptree estate, Chew was also centred on a probable Roman road providing the means for the transportation of vitally important lead ingots from the Mendips into the wider Roman period economy.

Lead ingots duly inscribed with the mark of the appropriate emperor, have been transported from the lead mines above the Ubley-Harptree estate along the Stratford Lane Roman Road and over the river into the Chew Estate.  They have now made their way north along Tratman’s Roman Road where they have now reached the top of the great hill or “mai-dun” which the Anglo-Saxons knew as Dundry.

As the road passes its highest point and begins its descent, the men driving the wagon with its load of lead ingots may well take the opportunity to give their draught animals water from the nearby well to refresh them after the climb up from the Chew valley floor almost 500 feet below.

As the oxen drink, the drivers might look north into the valley below in anticipation of the last leg of the journey to come - across the Roman villa estate that we know today as Bedminster.

Part Three - Roman and Saxon Bedminster can be found here;

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