A modern road following a Roman route near Edenbridge in Kent
The first roads traced the wanderings of early tribes, but in a sense these are not roads as we know them today. Roads are not trackways followed by tribes on walkabout; they are routes of two way communication between communities. Mankind is the great communicator and has a hugely developed capacity for language. Roads are a physical expression of our desire to communicate with our neighbours.
The first Roman road represents the first stretch of paved road of any length in the western world. In 312BC Appius Claudius persuaded the Senate to construct a road between Rome and the city of Capua which lay one hundred and fifty miles to the south. This was the Via Appia. Roads of comparable length and quality had been built at earlier dates, in the Persian Empire for example, but the Via Appia was different in one crucial respect: earlier roads were almost always for the sole use of royal messengers or soldiers, while the Via Appia was available to merchants and civilians unconnected with state business. Communication widened. Each time you drive down a road today, your journey started in a sense on the Via Appia.
Britain had roads before the Romans arrived, in the sense that there were well defined routes linking communities. These ancient routes generally followed the crest of chalk ridges in southern England. But roads of this kind were not paved. When the Romans arrived in Britain they immediately started building sophisticated paved roads to consolidate their conquest. The oldest British Roman road of all, Watling Street, now followed by the A2 and A5, began at Richborough on what was then the Kent coast. This is where Roman troops waded ashore in 43AD. Visiting Richborough today you can still see the route of Britain's first Roman road heading out over the fields towards London. A grand arch was built at Richborough through which people arriving in Britannia would walk. Watling Street began at this arch. In the photo here you are looking through what was once the arch out along the former course of Watling Street. Other routes from the south coast towards London followed. There are a number of clues to the former existence of a Roman road in a modern route. Look out for the word "Street" in a road name. Street derives from a Latin word strata, meaning paved. Watling Street, and Stone Street near Canterbury in Kent are examples. Also the form of the road will give tell tale signs of a Roman past. Modern routes will often follow the straight line of a Roman road, and then turn away, leaving the former route to continue on, sometimes as a track, or a smaller road. The B2026, runs through Edenbridge in Kent and follows the line of a Roman road. Just south of Edenbridge the B2026 turns away, leaving the Roman route to continue on its straight course across the countryside as a smaller lane. Sometimes a Roman road is revealed by the survival of a raised bank called an Aggar, on which roads were built to make them easier to defend. The Great North Road near Doncaster follows a Roman route for much of its course. Just before the fork at Burnsdale Bar the Roman road can be seen just to the west of the present road as a huge aggar, thirty six feet wide and between five and six feet high.
Soon after the 43AD invasion, Londinium was founded on a major Roman crossing point at the lowest navigable point on the Thames, now known as London Bridge. Modern routes in London itself continue to follow some of the first Roman roads laid out when Londinium was founded. Oxford Street, Edgeware Road and the Strand are examples. Oxford Street was once on the Roman route between Hampshire and Colchester. The first street laid out by the Romans when they founded the city of Londinium, around AD50, is still followed by the eastern part of Lombard Street and the western part of Fenchurch Street. Halfway between it and the river a second street was laid out, and its course is now followed by the eastern part of Canon Street, and by Eastcheap. The city grew and some time between AD190 and 225 a defensive wall was built. Modern main roads entering what was once the walled City still enter at the former gates in this wall, at Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate. In the area of the Guildhall Londinium's amphitheatre once stood. The amphitheatre's oval shape is still apparent in the curving course of Aldermanbury, Gresham Street and Basinghall Street. In the Cripplgate area a fort was built as a strong hold in the north west corner of the City walls. Streets in Cripplegate continue to show the fort's influence in their layout.
Remains of an original Roman road at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire
An extensive road network then developed centred on London, which supported Roman Britain for four hundred years, until the final withdrawal of Roman troops around 410AD. In many ways Roman Britain then vanished from view, leaving remarkably little impact on the country that followed. But a strong echo of Roman Britain remains in the modern road network, which is focused on London in exactly the same way as it was in the Roman province of Britannia.
The best place to see a Roman road in its original form is at Blackstone Edge between Rochdale and Halifax. The remains of original Roman roads can also be seen on Ashdown Forest, in East Sussex - at the Roman Road car park - and at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire.