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Travelling Through History – Where Our Forebears Trod

Travelling Through History – Where Our Forebears Trod

One lesson archaeology has given us is that people have always moved around much more than we realise. Tales of ancient sages in deep rural England who had hardly ever been to the local market town and never to London were commonplace when I was young, but the astonishingly wide distribution of certain diagnostic types of artefact confirm that such static lives were by no means universal.

The proof also lies in the antiquity of our road network, for whilst some roads have long fallen into desuetude and become green lanes, hedgerows or crop marks, many ancient trackways are still in use.

When I first worked at Derby Museum I was always struck by the lack of a Roman road going due south from Derby’s Roman predecessor, Derventio (now Little Chester). There was Ryknield Street going from, NE to SW via Little Chester, Long Lane running due west, and a road running SE across Derby’s former racecourse towards Sawley and across the Trent to join the Fosse Way at Vernemetum (Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, Leicestershire).

But what if you wanted to go to London? It seemed to me absurd to go either via Letocetum (Lichfield) or Willoughby-on-the-Wolds. Looking through the finds records at the Museum (then held on index cards) during research we were doing jointly with the (now long defunct) County Museum Service on Swarkestone Bridge, it became apparent that this so-called Medieval causeway and 18th century bridge went back a lot further. Numerous finds of dropped low-value Roman coins had been noted along its course, for instance, along with Iron Age artefacts northwards along the road to Derby. Clearly the crossing at Swarkestrone had a much longer pedigree.

I risked publishing this idea in 1988, and notice it has entered archaeological orthodoxy now, thanks to a recent report of the archaeology of Derby’s western inner suburbs.

What we have is an Iron Age trackway which long pre-dated Derby to allow the inhabitants of the tribal area of the Corieltauvi (whose Roman period capital was Ratae (Leicester) to reach the Trent and follow the Derwent Valley north in the territory of the Brigantes. Iron Age it may have been, but artisans such as smiths and potters had to move around between groups to ply their trades. When the Romans came, they simply took the route over, probably made improvements and used it to connect Derventio to Ratae and thence the south and Londinium.

The crossing at Swarkestone would have been on a substantial bed of brushwood and withies, just like the tracks of the same vintage exposed on the Somerset Levels in the 1980s, with a ford over the wide part of the Trent, then positioned further south than today. There after the road probably ran as today, east then north to Chellaston, avoiding the Bronze Age burial site at Swarkestone Lowes, which would probably have been recognised as sacred even in the Iron Age.

This Iron Age or prehistoric trackway then entered Derby along the line of the Osmaston Road and ran right through the site of the present city long before anyone lived on its site, for the present city was only founded in around 921 as a Saxon burh or defended settlement, the only previous habitation being the seventh century minster church of St. Alkmund and the small enclave surrounding it.

If one climbs the 172 feet of the cathedral tower, and looks south one can see this ancient trackway quite clearly from the end of Queen Street to well beyond The Spot; it really is most impressive seen like that.

On the ground, one follows it down Osmaston Road (which has had some Victorian kinks put in along its course further out to accommodate a private estate and railway installations) to The Spot, where London Road, only instituted as a turnpike in the early 18th century, joins. Previous to its creation one reached London via Swarkestone Bridge as indeed Bonnie Prince Charlie planned to do in December 1745.

From The Spot (an 18th century name) one descends St. Peter’s Street on the alignment, which originally must have crossed the Markeaton Brook on a ford at the bottom, then along Corn Market (widened in the early Middle Ages to make room for the marketing of grains), up Rotten Row, the west edge of what later (c. 1100) became the Market Place, up Iron Gate and along Queen Street (part of King Street, renamed after 1760), King Street, Darley Lane and thence along Darley Grove. Its course across Darley Park (landscaped by William Emes 1777-78) shows up as a ridge or agger, beyond which it leaves the northern edge of Derby to follow the Derwent Valley. How much of it can be traced thence to the Peak is not really researched, but I am sure it will be done in time.

This route, being pre-Roman in origin, lacks the straightness of a course worked out by a Roman agrimensor (surveyor), but it does have directness, although even that was affected by later developments. When the minster church of St. Alkmund with its six canons was established, some time after the evangelisation of the Kingdom of Mercia which commenced after 655, the church and the canons’ houses and workshops which served it were placed on the line of the old trackway, which was without doubt in use then, for it was kinked around the tiny enclave to the west before regaining the old alignment and continuing northwards.

The section from Darley Lane fell out of use in the 1750s when the road to Manchester was a turnpike, and the modern Duffield Road was pitched as a result, hence Robert Holden was able to empark the land to the south of his seat at Darley Hall with impunity once the mood took him a couple of decades later.

Next time you wander down St. Peter’s Street, wondering at the sheer awfulness of Intu, or looking for post-Christmas bargains, remember that you are walking along a road that began life as a long-distance trackway more than two thousand years ago.


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