Having looked at a pre-historic thoroughfare last month I thought it opportune to look at some of the roads imposed upon the landscape by the Romans.
The Romans, of course, are famous for the straightness of their roads, and much ink has been spilt on the surveying methods used to achieve this. Essentially, sightings were made from one high point to another, and the points joined in as direct a manner as possible, although detours and links were often necessary as the relief – slopes, streams and declivities demanded.
Ryknield Street was the road from the north-east to the south west, ultimately from York (Eburacum) via Templeborough and Chesterfield to Gloucester (Glevum) in the south-west via Wall-by-Lichfield (Letocetum), Droitwich (Salinae) and Worcester (Vertis). It crossed the Derwent at its lowest possible bridging point to join another road that ran south-east towards Ermine Street (the modern A1) and west to Chesterton (Staffs.). Within a very few years of the Roman arrival, a fort had been constructed on the ridge overlooking this crossing (footings of the bridge were discovered through the efforts of a local sub-aqua club in the late 1980s) and, by the AD 80s, this fort had been replaced by a more ambitious one beside the crossing itself, which rapidly developed into a small town called Derventio, today’s Little Chester.
The ancient name for this NE to SW Roman road, which went from Gloucester (Glevum) in the SW to Doncaster (Danum) in the NE. via Derventio was Rykneild Street. William Woolley, writing in around 1713 added that,
‘. . . it is plainly seen in the meadows from this place [Little Chester] at the latter end of Summer.’
It was named as Ricning Street on William Stukeley’s map of Little Chester from his Itinerarium Curiosum of 1721. In c. 1200 it was rendered Ykenild, and the name is of post-Conquest origin. The alignment from Little Chester northwards was excavated in 1926 by Deputy Borough Surveyor, C. B. Sherwin. As Rykneild Street the road was first named as we now have it with an ‘r’ in front of Ykenild in Ralph Higdon’s Polychronicon of 1344, but the origin of the name is a puzzle, even the late Professor Eilert Ekwall writing that the ‘. . . etymology. . . has not been found’ followed by Professor Cameron who suspects the name was borrowed from the Ickneild Way, in the home Counties. One might think it more likely that they developed in parallel from a similar (or the same) source.
The course of the road south from Little Chester is not wholly understood as it passes through the built-up part of Derby, but from Little Chester the route seems to have crossed the river about a quarter of a mile below the Roman small town, where there was a bridge, all vestiges of which have been destroyed by water erosion and distinct from the original crossing noted above, to which we will return on a future occasion. The road probably followed the alignment of the lower portion of Belper Road where it approaches Five Lamps, then down West Avenue (or on an alignment very close to it, then along a modern housing estate pedestrian path called Nuns’ Green and then along Nuns’ Street, Brick Street and across the Friar Gate-Ashbourne Road intersection into Uttoxeter Old Road.
The oldest known borough boundary also followed the line here and, in the absence of archaeological data, it is the course of this early boundary that seems also to determine the course of the road. Unfortunately, by the time Lt. Creighton drew his map of Derby c. 1823 (which I have included, with the course of Ryneild Street shown in red) the Improvement Commissioners had expanded the boundary well to the north, although in the SW part of the borough, it still followed the Roman alignment from what is now Rowditch to Rowditch Gate.
From Uttoxeter Old Road, the alignment ran to Rowditch, but was slewed in 1876 to accommodate a long bridge over the newly built Great Northern Railway, the line surviving in the hedge line which now marks the NW ends of the gardens/yards of the cottages along the later alignment.
The road crossed the new turnpike Uttoxeter Road and ran more or less up the drive to Bemrose school, proceeding under the school itself to meet Constable Lane, Littleover at a boundary called Rowditch Gate, where once stood a toll cottage and the borough boundary veered sharply to the SE..
Today Constable Lane after about 450 yards straight, turns sharply left, but here the Roman road proceeded straight on its course marked by a bosky thoroughfare with a few individual houses on it called Owler’s Lane. After a while, the relief demanded a change of direction and the alignment went left, up the slope and onto a new alignment which took it along the old southern boundary of the City Hospital.
When the present Royal Hospital was mooted, I was still at the Museum. Knowing the agger of the road (the raised hump which often marks the course of Roman Roads over flattish ground) was still visible there, we tried to have English Heritage (as it then was) declared a scheduled ancient monument, but to little avail. Hospitals outrank antiquities, especially when they are the pet project of a group of councilors supporting the government of the day! Needless to say it was soon ploughed out.
From thence it rose up the hill further to cross Chain Lane and join the surviving alignment near the bottom of Pastures Hill. What used to be thought of as a well-preserved piece of agger beside the old Crest Motel turned out, on excavation, to have been a medieval baulked headland surviving from Littleover’s three field ridge and furrow. The actual road was slightly further to the north.
Although the complexities of the junction of the old Burton Road with the new A38, which has obliterated part of the alignment, the modern A38 follows the Roman alignment right up to the crossing of the Dove where it enters Staffordshire. Interestingly, it forms the NW boundary of the parish of Findern high on its agger.
Now the name Findern (Findre in Domesday Book, 1086) seems to have baffled Professor Kenneth Cameron in his magisterial three volume Place Names of Derbyshire of 1959. He wrote: ‘an obscure name, still not satisfactorily explained’. Dr. Mills goes for a derivation from Old English fīn + renn = ‘house for wood’ which seems unsatisfactory. The latest research suggests that the name contains the British element ffin = boundary, which is supported by this distinctive stretch of Ryknield Street forming a substantial part of the parish boundary.
Indeed, the road divided also divided Findern from Etwall, Burnaston (part of Etwall parish) and Mickleover from a very early date, raised up upon its agger due to the flood plain of the Trent. Parish boundaries are accepted to be of considerable antiquity. In which case we can see the second element dre = British/modern Welsh ‘home’, thus the more convincing ‘house by the boundary’. Note that a pre-Roman settlement with a 1,000 yard long double-banked cursus was excavated here (and in Willington parish adjacent) 1970-1972 and a bronze age and later settlement a few years before.
Thus the more southerly section of the most important of the Roman Roads in the County, but not one that provides the lover of fresh air with any pleasant walking or tracing old routes, down sequestered sunken lanes and over moors. But for anyone wanting an excuse for an eclectic walk through largely unfamiliar parts of Derby, it presents distinct possibilities!
Ryknield can be spelled in many ways. In this article we have followed the authors spelling. Editor