Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Main Content Area

Guest Author Essay: Roman Roads in the Golden Valley

Author: Mike Brown* (2004)

The Golden Valley area of Herefordshire is particularly interesting for its evident military importance during the Roman advance into Wales around AD 50, when their army moved on two axes, from Wroxeter and Gloucester. The southern thrust from Gloucester moved westwards, more or less along the line of the present A40 road. However, the flanks of the invasion route, serving as their supply line, would be open to attack (interdiction is the technical term) by tribal forces coming from the North. The Romans therefore used the Black Mountains as a blocking position, holding their open northern flank by the well-known temporary vexillation fortress at Boatside Farm, opposite Hay-on-Wye. But such blocking positions need surveillance to ensure that attackers cannot slip through; over the Black Mountains in this case. Roman military doctrine was quite clear in such cases; mount frequent cavalry patrols to observe any signs of enemy movement threatening to penetrate the block. The problem with regular cavalry patrols is that they are very vulnerable to being ambushed by enemy forces lying in wait.

The Roman army's answer to this problem was to establish a double patrol route consisting of two parallel tracks, intervisible from each other and separated by at least half a mile or so, and linked at intervals by cross paths; the whole layout rather resembling a ladder. The cavalry patrols would then weave from one track to the other in an irregular pattern, not repeated from one day to the next, to minimise the risk of being surprised by an enemy lying in wait. Since the alternative tracks were intervisible, there would be a good chance that the patrol could spot the frustrated ambushing forces and, being forewarned, avoid or perhaps attack them. The Roman cavalry patrol route through the Golden Valley is quite easily traced between Dorstone and Pontrilas. Its eastern arm uses a line occupied by the present B4348 road from Dorstone to Vowchurch, extended southwards along the B4347 and thence by footpaths to Kenderchurch near Pontrilas sawmills on the A465 road.

Roughly parallel to this line, and intervisible with it, the western arm of the patrol route runs on the opposite bank of the River Dore; through Ewyas Harold and Abbey Dore, the grounds of Bacton Stud, Turnastone, and the back road between Fairfield School and Dorstone. No fewer than 17 crossing points over the River Dore either remain in use or their sites are clearly visible on the map. Some at least of these crossings will represent the cross paths of the Roman cavalry patrol route.

After the invasion period the Golden Valley area seems to have developed economically; the known Roman Road between Kenchester and Madley being clearly visible as far as the B4348 and thence with more difficulty towards Bacton and Longtown. At Longtown the medieval castle sits in a massive earthwork that looks to be of Roman military origin. Indeed, the military logic for building the medieval castle would be identical to the reasons that would have led the Roman army to the same spot.

Tracing the possible routes of Roman roads makes a pleasant indoor pastime for winter evenings and can provide the inspiration for outdoor excursions for summer days. The obvious and well-known clues are the Roman preference for straight routes wherever possible. For those roads that remained in use throughout the Roman period, the accumulation of some 300 years of repairs and re-surfacing resulted in an extremely hard foundation and very durable surface that enabled them to remain in use for light traffic for a very long time after the end of Roman government in AD 410.

In medieval times the feeble agricultural tools then available were inadequately powerful to remove disused Roman roads, which accordingly became the field boundaries, footpaths, woodland edges, etc. whose alignments across the countryside we can still observe today. Bridges would probably be the first victims of lack of maintenance during the Anglo-Saxon period. No doubt medieval fords bypassed the broken Roman bridges, allowing the roads themselves to continue in use.

Mere straightness is not the sole criterion for attributing a Roman origin to a piece of road, since there are many straight sections of ancient trackways, or indeed modern roads across suitably flat terrain. Roman roads have an additional identifying characteristic due to the method used by the Roman army surveyors to lay out the route for the construction gangs to follow; they established straight sightlines from one crestline to the next (occasionally also from crest to the bottom of a river valley where a bridge or ford was to be built). Where a change of direction was required the adjustment in direction would be made at a crestline in an abrupt turn. Thus, if we plot an elevation cross-section of a conjectured Roman road and observe that the turning points lie on crestlines, then the conjecture is strengthened. Native trackways, generally being unsurveyed, do not tend to exhibit such a strong correlation between the terrain cross-section and turning points. Conversely, many Roman roads are not noticeably straight at all; the routeing of the cavalry patrol tracks in the Golden Valley being a case in point. Roman army tactical roads are characterised by their routeing in relation to the so-called "military crestline" which is located at the highest line in "dead ground" that cannot be observed by the supposed enemy from his side of the hill.

Native trackways, on the other hand, tended to follow the highest line, which ancient custom apparently regarded as neutral ground that could be used by passing travellers without their presence implying hostile intent. You can look at the line of the ridgeway running along the top of the hills between the Wye and Golden Valleys as an example.

© Mike Brown, 2004 

* Mike Brown is a retired RAF pilot and engineer who lived in Peterchurch from 1991 to 2001, but now lives in Peterborough. He has had a close interest in the Roman roads of Britain ever since he started his flying training in 1954 and noticed long alignments of features in the countryside that did not correspond with the Roman roads shown on the Ordnance Survey maps.