The Secret of the Fosse Way (1915)

Author(s): Joce. T. J. Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): Roman roads Year published: 1915
Location(s): Pages: 299-305
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BY T. J. Joce. (Read at Exeter, 22nd July, 1915.)

A TWELFTH-century chronicler, probably making use of a still earlier writer, describes the four chief highways of Britain, and states that the Fosse Way extended from the beginning of Cornwall to the end of Scotland, scilicet a principio Cornugalliae in finem Scottiae. This Roman work is thus written of by Henry of Huntingdon, and is also mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Robert of Gloucester, and the famous topographers Leland and Camden, also by various later writers.

That a through-route existed which communicated with the mineral districts of the Cornish peninsula may most certainly be received, but the idea of a Roman road penetrating to the far north of Scotland we may leave to those who like to believe it. So far from constructing a way in finem Scottiae, the Romans at the Wall on the Border appear to have had quite enough to do to prevent the dwellers in Scotland from coming south.

The great road, known as the Fosse, extending from Lincoln, through Newark, to Leicester, crossing Watling Street at High Cross, passing through Cirencester, Bath, Shepton Mallet and Ilchester, is one of the most notable features of the map of Roman Britain, and, is even more marked than Watling Street. The question of its southern ending has for centuries attracted the attention of antiquaries, among them some of the highest eminence, and various routes have been suggested. Some have stated that the Fosse ended at Axminster or at the mouth of the Axe, a port which, even making allowance for the accumulation there of shingle in recent years, could never have been anything but a doubtful harbour. It would seem to be but a feeble and unpractical terminus to a military road which crosses England with so bold a stride.

Others have held that the Fosse ended at Exeter, others that it went by way of Ugbrook and Chudleigh over Dartmoor, others that it passed through Totnes and Avonwick into Cornwall. There appears no reason to doubt that the broad straight way which leads from Exeter southwards and ends in bridge and causeway at Teignbridge is a Roman work, and it is the writer’s opinion that in the scheme of roads it was to be continued to the mouth of the Dart, not more than sixteen miles away, and the conquering power would thus have had unhindered access to a fine natural haven, superior to the estuaries of Axe or Exe.

The various routes suggested, continuing into the S.W., have remained suggestions, and the famous old way has never been really traced so as to be satisfactorily shown as a part of the known system of its time.

An important factor in the investigation is the physical geography of the district, and the suitable ground over which the roads from E. and N. could enter the two south-westerly counties is found to be narrowed to a few miles, and it is not generally realised how peninsula-like were those two counties in days gone by, for the marshlands of the Parret basin extended from the Severn Channel far inland, and only at Langport did the drier lands draw sufficiently near for a passage of the river to be made, and there are tracts of land twenty-five miles from the sea which are yet but a few feet above tide-level, and all this region was one vast morass. And, since the swampland is more of a barrier than water, it can easily be understood how this condition of the district, coupled with the difficult, hilly ground of the Devon and Dorset border, aided in keeping the two south-westerly counties so distinctly apart from the rest of England.

Now, in our search for a great through-route, we may feel sure it is not likely to be entirely lost. We may not expect a mathematically straight course where deep and tortuous valleys so frequently occur, as that would soon bring about impossible situations. Yet it would be moderately direct. It would not have the permanent difficulty, amounting almost to an obstruction, of having to climb and pass an extensive moorland plateau, which a Dartmoor course would certainly impose. It would be likely to adapt for its use existing British roads, as that is known to have been the Roman practice. Such a route would not be found to lead us about from one Saxon village to another, and it must form a complete main line, convincing to the judgment and fulfilling every reasonable condition.

Starting then on our quest on the southern part of the Parret marshland where the Fosse, straight as an arrow, leads S.W. from Ilchester, and crossing the river at Petherton Bridge, we pass shortly a British way going eastward to Hamdon and westward by Oldway and Broadway up to the great entrenchment of Castle Neroche, and which is the ridge or watershed track on the northern edge of the Blackdowns, round to westward between Tone and Culm. With this track, though without doubt of early date, we are not further concerned. At a distance of four miles from Petherton Bridge the Fosse forks, the village of Dinnington being the southern end of the long straight line. The southerly branch leads up on to the ridge of Windwhistle, passing obliquely into the British track there, on to Axminster, and perhaps to the Axe estuary.

The western branch is the one we propose to follow, and our road has at once to take rising ground to avoid the watery tract where flow the small streams, more than twenty in number, which unite to form the Isle (or Ile). Doing this, we pass up a slope by Steepbere to Crock Street and Sticklepath, our way a boundary for more than two miles. At Street Ash the road and boundary lead on a gentle curve to the westward, a Roman villa lying a mile and a half to the south. Our road passes (still a boundary) the steep-sided valley of the Yarty, at a very convenient fording-place, and we follow the road to the Otter ford, accompanied by county as well as by parish boundary. That valley, as steep as the Yarty, passed at an easy point, we keep to our line and are on the level tableland of the Blackdown range. Our road, the course of which lay here on open heath, is shown on the old Ordnance Survey. It is a watershed line, avoiding the steep escarpments to N. and S. Neroche Castle guarded the northern curve. Hembury lies two miles S. We descend by Orway, a long boundary with us, through a deep lane with many indications of antiquity. On the plateau and on Kentisbeare Moor great enclosures were made, and Orway was diverted into the turnpike road from Honiton to Cullompton, but at about a mile and a half from the latter town there are stretches of the old untutored way still to be seen in the original width and precisely in Orway direction.

We are being led towards the Culm, and should find a fording-place awaiting us. This we have at Stoneyford, a name which, since all fords are more or less stony, must surely indicate one formerly paved. And now, in the town of Cullompton, its principal street lying N. and S., we are at a loss for the first time, but transversely under that main street, at a depth of about eighteen inches, lies the actual pavement of our way, a well-compacted roadbed in sound condition, lying in a course unrelated to Cullompton Street, unconformable to any alignment.* It was cut into at that depth at the end of Tiverton Lane, obliquely under it, but the paving, of which there must be more to be discovered, is precisely in our line. It may be mentioned that the Cullompton tradition of an earlier church on St. Andrew’s Hill is in agreement with the line of this road, as the existing church is related to the present main road.

(*) For the information about the old pavement I have to acknowledge my indebtedness to our fellow-member, Mr. Murray T. Foster, of Cullompton.

The line of the buried pavement leads by a deep lane to the westward, and a short portion of its original width is to be seen near Bunnerford’s Cross, where we have a boundary line, then, continuing our way, we cross the Old Exeter and Tiverton road on Pound Down, shown by Ogilby in his map of the Dartmouth and Minehead road, and in the middle of the seventeenth century he marks this crossway thus – eastward, Cullompton, – westward, Crediton; a clear and satisfactory indication for us. The region is now far from lines of traffic; a most unvisited part of the country. Continuing our course, encouraged by Ogilby, we cross the Burn stream at Dorweek, and, though passing quite near to Bickleigh, our road does not lead through that village, but makes for a ford on the Exe near Bickleigh Court. The modern N. and S. turnpike crosses our line near the river.

On the right bank of the Exe the steepness of the hills made the ascent difficult and there were two ways up from the ford to our road which, for a short distance a boundary, leads us by the hill fort of Cadbury. Our course is now south-westerly, by the villages of Cadbury and Stokeleigh Pomeroy, each at a little distance from our line. As we approach the Creedy we have an important fact in our favour, for, ancient as is the settlement of Crediton, our road does not enter the town at all, showing itself of still earlier date. It is taken as the parish boundary on the north side, and carries a boundary for three miles, passing on high ground to the west at Barnstaple Cross, towards Coleford, again a boundary, in the parish of Colebrooke, where Roman tiles are visible in the east wall of the church. It is very probable that the road which leads past the venerable stone memorial of Celtic Christianity, known as Coplestone Cross, forms a loop on the way we are traversing. It is a boundary, and the entrenchment at Clannaborough overlooked the two roads. There are many evidences that our road had a stately width of which it has been deprived, for strips have been taken into fields adjoining, and houses and gardens occupy other strips. We are led on to Bow, very distinctly a through-route settlement, not gathered irregularly in a cluster of church and village, for it is indeed a great distance from its parish church, but resembling such roadtowns as Ilchester and Honiton. The alignments of houses and gardens are related to the road in as defined a manner as are the platforms at a railway station. The wide, paved side-walks all point to an early-defined road-line. At Bow we have a boundary, and from the Yeo to the Taw the way is on well-chosen ground, free from marsh, and then it takes to a ridge line near Sampford Beacon, curving southward, avoiding a tract of sodden clayland, consisting of many thousand acres, most of which, till recent years, was wild, open moor, unpeopled, impassable save in dry weather. We rise steadily on a watershed line to pass over a shoulder of Dartmoor. Crossing first the Exeter and Okehampton road, a rough-paved track with boundary leads to Fatherford (or Fartherford) on the East Ockment. A camp, very rare on the Moor, is just above the track, which it commands for many miles. The pavement has been destroyed to form newtake walls, but, after crossing the road to the Artillery Camp, it is found in better condition, till, near Meldon, the paving is preserved entire under the turf. Its width is from ten to twelve feet, a low bank on either side. Unfortunately its course towards the West Ockment was cut into by the construction of the L.S.W.R., and the great quarrying operations at Meldon devour each year more of the old paving. But there is enough to show how skilfully the road led down from the hill in a direct line with the way into Cornwall.

On the open moor a narrow pavement was all that was needed, but in the densely wooded country a wide track was cut and maintained, and at many places the original bounds of the road can be seen, though strips of more than half a mile in length have been enclosed and added to private lands. At Bridestowe we have, so far, only the second village which may be said to lie on the way. A camp is above the road at Combebow and a boundary is with us, as also from Lew Down nearly to Portgate, where, from the name, and from the tradition, we know there was a road market. The down which carries this famous great western road is known as Old Street Down, and the original width can be seen here as well as anywhere. The skilful manner in which it takes the country and holds so purposeful a course marks it as much a Roman work as Watling Street.

After Lifton the Tamar and its tributaries have to be crossed, and modern alterations have taken place, but we are led direct to the notable hill-fort of Dunheved, known to us as Launceston, one of the few hill-forts which, like Shaftesbury, have retained an unbroken history as man’s dwelling-place. Launceston stands strategically in such a commanding position at the head of the peninsula that it may surely claim to be the gateway into Cornwall, and to lie on the great through-route from N. to extreme S.W., a route composed of adapted British trackway and Roman construction. Of the whole line we have traversed, a distance of seventy miles, it may here be pointed out that not less than twenty-four miles are in use as parish or as county boundary, and at least ten camps are within a short distance of the way.

The question may naturally arise – How did it happen that this traditional through-route was lost? Undoubtedly in the first place we may put the increasing importance of Exeter, as shown by the removal thither of the Bishopstool in 1050 from Crediton. The growth of ecclesiastical and military power in the city by the Exe, together with its predominating influence as the capital of the county, would naturally tend to divert traffic to this centre. The more fertile lands of the south, the greater population, and the trade with the harbours along the coast would bring Exeter still more wealth and encourage the use of the southern lines of communication with Cornwall. But for this, it seems clear that, instead of a small borough of four or five thousand people, there would have been a hill-city of great importance, controlling an extensive district, the centre of many roads, abounding in trade, the finely placed town of Launceston.