John Kirkbride takes a brief (and slightly personal) look at the road built between the Roman forts of Manchester and Castleshaw in AD 79 – 84
THE first real linking of Rome to Britain took place in 55 and 54BC when our isolated and uncharted island was invaded by Julius Caesar.
The conquest, however, was a gradual process, which began with the landing of Claudius along with around 40,000 men in 43AD.In 79 – 84AD Agricola campaigned in the north of the country and in Scotland, and the famous general left his mark on northern Britain in the form of more than 60 forts, along with the 1,300 miles of road needed to supply them.
One of those roads was the route between the forts at Manchester and Castleshaw, which passed through Saddleworth, and where evidence of it can still be seen to this day.
When my mother and father made the decision to move to Highmoor in the early 1960s, I’m not sure if they were aware of just how close our former farm is to the Roman road. The truth is, if it was any closer it would be on top of it.
I can still remember the excitement I felt when my father pointed across the field at the side of the farmhouse and explained that the elongated hump with the shallow ditches on either side was an ancient road built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
I could vividly imagine the Roman cohorts marching along it all those centuries ago, and, given everything we’d been taught in school about what Roman soldiers looked like, I couldn’t help thinking those poor Italians must have been freezing in their sandals and skirts.
Just for the record, it’s thought many of the troops deployed to man the forts in the north were from areas such as Belgium and northern France – and the Vindolanda Tablets discovered in Northumberland in the 70s revealed they also wore underpants!
Planning the route
When the Romans made their preliminary survey of the region, they came up with a plan for a straight line from Chester to York, with as many forts positioned along it as possible, two of which were those at Manchester and Castleshaw.
The road linking the forts was then laid out along the shortest feasible route, though this would have to take into account the local terrain, and as we well know, that can be a little on the hilly side in Saddleworth.
Because of this, the Roman surveyors decided to split the Manchester to Castleshaw stretch into two separate alignments, with the major sighting point being located at Highmoor, from where both of the forts would be visible. (Incidentally, this is believed to be conclusive evidence that the forts were built before the road).It would have been pretty straight forward for the road builders to follow the first alignment as it ran through fairly easy terrain for most of its 12 miles from Manchester.
Not surprisingly it was a different story for the Highmoor to Castleshaw stretch, where tricky bits included crossing the Tame Valley, traversing the steep slopes of Knott Hill and getting over the gully of Thurston Clough.
All in all, and given that it was almost 2,000 years ago, it has to be said the Roman surveyors and road builders did a quite remarkable job.
Through Failsworth and as far as Austerlands there are no visible remains of the Roman road as the area is almost entirely urban, and some parts were heavily industrialised in the past.
But as the route changes direction to sweep around the side of Highmoor and across Thurston Clough, evidence of the ancient road can still be seen.
Along the first stretch, just west of Doctor House on Doctor Lane, something known as an ‘agger’ is visible, which is a type of embankment associated with Roman road building.
A little further on in the field opposite Mason’s Row, there is a stretch of terraceway which merges into Thurston Clough Road for a short distance, before clearer evidence of the Roman road appears just east of New Inn Farm (i.e. our house).
The elongated hump I mentioned earlier is clearly visible across the fields next to the house as they slope down the hill, and viewed from the other end of the first field, its shape can be seen even more distinctly against the stone wall of a ruined outbuilding (as shown in the photograph).
Beyond our house the remains of the agger form a discernible line in the fields alongside Thurston Clough Road, which is visible both on the ground from the opposite hillside and even more clearly on aerial photographs.
It never ceases to amaze me that all these centuries later we can still see evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain, right here in Saddleworth.
Digging for history
In 1973 a series of surveys and excavations were carried out by the Saddleworth Workers’ Educational Association Archaeology Class in conjunction with Bradford Grammar School Archaeological Society – with a fair amount of unofficial ‘help’ from my father.In the field a few yards from the house an excavated section was cut across the line of the road, which revealed “a fine agger of rammed sandstones and gravel” supported on the downward side by a buttress of larger stones.
Above the agger there would originally have been smaller stones and gravel, forming the actual surface of the road on which those ancient cohorts of Roman soldiers once marched. The road was around 20ft wide and almost 2ft thick in the centre.
Generally when archaeologists have made an excavation on private land they fill it in again after they’ve recorded their observations and leave the site as they found it.
Here at New Inn, however, my father requested the excavation be left open so he could pursue his own investigations of the ancient road – which he proceeded to do for the next several summers.
During that time, whenever dinner was ready or he was wanted on the phone, my mother would know exactly where to find him, and the image of this sunburned figure in shorts, half submerged in the rapidly overgrowing ditch, is forever printed on my memory.
Indeed, should you happen to walk past the house today you will no doubt notice what looks a little like a forgotten trench from World War I at the edge of the adjacent field.
My only regret is that during all those summers of activity with metal detector, spade and trowel, the only thing he ever found was what he thought was a metal arrow head, but which turned out to be a decorative spike off a rusty old Victorian gate.
Nevertheless, I still get a kick out of being able to claim that we live on a Roman road… literally.