The Great West Road

The highways in our Parishes do not in themselves visually affect the landscape in any major way, but roads are as intrinsic a part of our landscape as rivers and trees.  It is while travelling along them most people view their surroundings on a day to day basis and as a consequence they affect our perception of the landscape.  Some routes have developed slowly to link existing settlements and markets, others were purpose built for strategic reasons and themselves have shaped the development of settlements and lives of those along its way, one such dissects our Parishes, the Bath Road or A4.  Built for strategic reasons by the Romans wanting access from Londinium to the coal and ores around Bristol and the hot spring waters at Aquae Sulis (Bath).

 The Roman Road in the Upper Kennet Valley
by Gill Swanton

Linking the two small Roman towns of Verlucio (south west of Calne) and Cunetio (Mildenhall, east of Marlborough), the Roman road was probably constructed soon after the invasion in AD 43. In the normal Roman way, it was designed to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ in as straight a line as possible while avoiding wet land.

The stretch of the road between Silbury Hill and Fyfield illustrates some characteristics of Roman road engineering very well. Silbury Hill was used as a sighting point for setting out the road direction and here the road also crosses to the north side of the river. Travelling east, the road crosses the Ridgeway (which is unlikely to have existed as such at the time) north of the large Bronze Age barrows on the north side of the current A4. East of the Ridgeway the agger ( the built up road structure ) survived well until it was unfortunately ploughed in the 1960s. The road then runs down the slope towards North Farm and through another Barrow cemetery. The latter and the road have all been ploughed out but the course of the road has been traced using geophysics. The road passes through both of the barrow cemeteries without slighting any of the older monuments.

At the SW corner of North Farm garden the Roman Road ‘joins’ the current A4. The straight stretch of A4 running east is on the original Roman causeway, built up to cut off a meander of the river and keep the road above areas prone to flooding. At the east end of the straight stretch there is a slight direction change, followed for a short distance by both roads. Where the A4 turns east again, the Roman road continues on its path and crosses the water meadow south of Piggledene. In this field the agger survives, although it has had two MoD pipelines and a drainage channel dug through it. In 1997/8 excavation showed that flooding had probably been a problem and that a second phase moved the road slightly north. Like the causeway to the west, the road was riveted with sarsens and there was excellent survival of the road structure and surfacing. To help prevent flooding the river was canalised to direct it south and away from the road.

The road then seems to climb up the steep slope to the east (now marked by the ‘ride’ through the tree planting). The parish boundary follows the line of the road for a short distance as it runs downhill to the river in Lower Fyfield where it crosses carefully engineered to be just above the permanent springs and as far as can be ascertained remains on the south side of the river until it joins other roads coming up from the south in Savernake Forest. Geophysics in Fyfield have indicated that there might be buildings alongside the course of the road.

This is not a long stretch of road but it does illustrate some of the strategies and techniques adopted including moving a great deal of material which were employed to achieve the most direct links between settlements.

The Mediaeval Highway
After the Romans left (around 450 AD) traffic ebbed away, it was probably only used if it was convenient for locals, such as the crossing of the river Kennet in Fyfield. By the 10th Century the Saxons were using a route known as Green Street or the Herepath, from Marlborough to Avebury, which crossed Fyfield and Overton Downs, with travellers also turning south along the Ridgeway to join the old Roman road on Overton Hill. This continued during the 13th and 14th Centuries, for the transport of sheep wool and cloth to markets as far a field as London and Bristol. Complaints about infringements and neglect of the road through Wiltshire were recorded in 1281 and 1392. However, the valley road appears on a map (Gough) in the mid 14th Century. In 1668 Samuel Pepys wrote while travelling the downland route a shepherd’s life could only be pleasant in fair weather.

The Bath Road � the Rise of Stagecoaches
The first advertisement for stagecoaches on the Bath Road appeared in 1657. In1675 a map by Ogilby shows the road along the valley as the main route and the downland way used largely by pedestrians. The flow of traffic increased mainly due to the commercial growth of Bristol as a port facing the New World, but also as the popularity of Bath grew. Along with the farming and trade wagons, coaches decorated with the coats of arms of the rich and famous passed en route to take the waters. The road was turn-piked in 1742, the prosperous turn pike companies by-passed the hills, planted milestones and made good previous neglect. By 1755 there were 6 stagecoaches passing each way per week. Land enclosure in 1814 saw the clearing of scrub and ensured the demise of highway men giving greater comfort for travellers. It was stipulated at this time that the ancient track called ‘Old London Way’ (Green Street) to be used at all times as a Public Bridleway and as a private carriage road only for the use of the inhabitants of Overton, Lockeridge, Fyfield and Clatford  so the locals did not have to pay their tolls! By the end of the 18th Century the Bath Road was described as ‘one of the finest roads in England’ and the busiest passing through Wiltshire with 124 stagecoaches travelling along our stretch each week. In 1811 the fast and reliable coach service enabled the Mail to leave London at 8.00 pm and arrive at Marlborough by 7.00 am the following morning! However, Dickens describes our stretch of road in Pickwick Papers as a miry and sloppy road a pelting fall of heavy rain and a wind that: would come rushing over the hill tops, and sweeping along the plain, gathering sound and strength as it drew nearer, until it dashed with a heavy gust against horse and man, driving sharp rain into their ears, and its cold damp breath into their very bones. At its busiest in 1839, amongst the other traffic, 286 stagecoaches passed through Fyfield and Overton every week. Each coach was pulled by four horses (more were used for going up hills) they were replaced every ten miles, so upwards of 140 fresh horses needed to be available in Marlborough each day.

The tide turned dramatically in 1841 when the Great Western Railway was completed, the mail was transferred to rail in 1843 and Bath fell out of fashion. Within the space of three years coach traffic dropped to a mere 36 per week (see maps). This lead to the downfall of the Turnpike Trusts and their abolition in 1864 and responsibility for the road was left to the ratepayers. Our stretch became a quiet rural highway with only short distance traffic consisting of utilitarian gigs, dog carts, farm and carrier’s wagons.

The Great West Road 
A slow revival began in 1870 with the advent of the bicycle and improved road surfaces invented by Telford and Macadam, by 1890 there were many enthusiastic cyclists and first motor cars appeared, which were not popular being seen as carriers of the rich and very dusty to boot. By 1908 the Bath Road was one of the first roads to be spray tarred and the motorbus took the place of the short distance stagecoach and carrier’s carts.
The 1920s and 1930s saw many ‘improvements’ including the widening of the road in Fyfield and by 1936 it was classified as a major trunk road leading to the West. Post World War II the traffic almost ceased to flow, there being so much, it clogged towns and villages along its route and made access on to the road from our villages impossible.

The M4 was completed in 1971, for the first time in nearly two thousand years our parish was not on the main arterial route for London traffic travelling west to Bristol. Locally, the ebb brought a temporary peace and for a while the A4 returned to being a rural road for local short distance traffic and enjoyed by less speed conscious travellers.

Now the traffic flows again due to the increase in car ownership, the need to travel out of the parish for all shopping, health care, leisure activities and employment, its popularity with the motor cycling fraternity and the huge increase in goods carried by road, has made our Roman Road busy, noisy and dangerous once more. However . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Strong and true on its western stages,
Girt by downland and tree-clad hill,
Strong and true, as in by-gone ages,
The old Bath Road fares onward still .”

From ‘The Old Bath Road’ b
The original Bath Mail Coach 1784y Charles L. F. Boughey (written in the 1920s

The maps depict, the weekly number of stagecoaches (including mail coaches) travelling in one direction, with the number of coaches depicted by the thickness of the lines. Note the effect of the completion of the railway between London and Bristol in 1841.