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ROMAN AND SAXON ROADS AND TRANSPORT

THE FIRST ROADS

Prior to the coming of the Romans there were no proper roads in Britain. Prehistoric people used trackways between settlements. These green ways which often followed natural contours in the landscape had evolved over time as animals were driven from place to place, and pedestrians walked to and from neighbouring settlements.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the Roman conquerors was the construction of proper roads which could be used by military patrols, as a means of communication between established settlements, and as supply routes to provide the garrison forts with essential food and equipment. As one historian has commented "Transport and communications were at the heart of the Roman phenomenon of order, form and stability".

Later on routes were opened up for trade and to link newly built farms and villa estates with markets in local towns. These farm to market roads differed from the long-distance military roads in appearance and alignment. Military roads like the one which passed through the centre of Roman Dartford tended to follow long straight alignments. Civil routes tended to follow the natural contours of the country. Roman road builders sometimes also included ancient British trackways within the new network of roads. Although the routes of these ancient trackways were little altered, the standard of the track surface would be upgraded to meet Roman standards.

 

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DARTFORD AND THE ROMAN ROAD

Dartford was sited on one of the first Roman roads to be built in Britain; this road was later named Watling Street. This road ran from London (Londinium), the Roman capital, to Canterbury (Durovernum), the tribal capital of Kent. From Canterbury, a radial network of roads connected with each of the principal Roman ports at Reculver (Regulbium), Richborough (Rutupiae), Dover (Dubris) and Lympne. The stretch of road from London to Canterbury followed an amazingly direct course, particularly the 11 mile stretch between Shooter’s Hill, through Dartford to Swanscombe Woods (the course of the present A2), and from thence to Springhead (Vagniacae), Rochester, Sittingbourne and Canterbury.

In 1897, at the foot of East Hill in Dartford, the paved surface of the old Roman road was found several feet below the present roadway, consisting of large round pebbles set on end. The exact course of the Roman road through the centre of Dartford is not known. One theory proposes that the original road may have followed a course directly beneath the tower of Holy Trinity church, and then almost parallel to and slightly north of the present Dartford High Street.

The River Darent would have been much wider in Roman times than it is today. Members of the Dartford District Archaeological Group have discovered that the Romans constructed a metalled (paved) ford across the River Darent to facilitate the passage of pedestrians, wagons, and animals. It is likely that other less significant trackways led off the main Roman highway. An archaeological excavation at St. Saviour’s Avenue, revealed a portion of Roman metalled road surface which may originally have formed part of a subsidiary Roman trackway.

Hasted, Kent’s historian, mentions the remains of the Roman road being clearly visible on Bexley Heath. Remains discovered on common land (possibly The Brent) east of Dartford in Victorian times, suggest that the Roman road which passed through Dartford was approximately 24 feet wide set on a raised platform 2-3 feet high. A slight bulge in the surface of Bullace Lane in Dartford’s town centre may represent the course of the old Roman road as it approached the ford across the Darent. Traffic on this important road would have been quite heavy. Passing carts, wagons and columns of Roman troops would have been a familiar sight to the inhabitants of Roman Dartford.

 

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FEATURES OF THE ROMAN ROAD: SURVEYORS AND ROAD BUILDING

Roman military surveyors plotted the course of the road from one high point to the next. After the surveyors had determined and marked-out the course of the road, the ground had to be cleared of brushwood, trees, and any other obstacles. The next stage was the excavation of boundary trenches, which defined the area of the road, acted as a defensive feature and assisted drainage. This work was supervised by military engineers.

Another prominent feature of the Roman road was the bank or platform, sometimes 4-5 feet high and 50 feet wide, that carried the road high above the countryside. This platform was usually built-up from the soil excavated from the    drainage ditches on either side. Sometimes it was carefully constructed of stones which assisted drainage. The width of the road varied considerably according to the amount and type of traffic it had to carry. Gravel was used as the surface material when available, but flint, small broken stones, squared blocks or stone slabs were used as a substitute when gravel was in short supply.

 

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ROADS IN SAXON TIMES

Very little is known of the fate of Watling Street during Saxon times. Roman government in the province was officially ended in 410 A.D. and the high standard of Roman road maintenance would have ceased. It is likely that the self-contained and rather insular Saxon settlements which emerged between the 5th and 7th centuries would have made use of such parts of Roman roads as remained in a passable condition. By this time, long stretches of the old military highways would have been overgrown and useless; others would still be usable as rough trackways.

The road through Dartford was known in Saxon times by the name Casingc or Key Street. Key Street, a small hamlet on the road near Sittingbourne is named after the road. Most commentators suggest that the road through Dartford remained in use throughout the Saxon period. By medieval times, this road was described as the King’s Highway.

 

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USE OF THE RIVER DARENT AS A ROUTEWAY

One of the greatest mysteries regarding Roman Dartford is whether or not the Romans made use of the River Darent as a routeway for shipping goods and produce up and down the Darent Valley. It is known that some of the local villas, most notably Darenth Roman Villa, were producing large quantities of corn, which would be useful for supplying the population of Londinium. Haulage of such cargoes overland by cart would be a long and cumbersome process, particularly along minor trackways, which were not designed to accommodate heavy or bulky vehicles.

It is just possible that the Romans used flat-bottomed boats to convey produce along the River Darent as far as Dartford ford, assuming that the river was considerably wider and deeper in Roman times than it is today. The remains of a flat-bottomed boat 55 feet in length were found in 1961 at Blackfriars in London so we know the Romans had access this kind of river-craft. One can only speculate that the boats would have to be unloaded in central Dartford and the produce conveyed by cart to larger vessels moored on the tidal part of the Darent, for shipment along the Darent and the Thames to Londinium.

 

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ROMAN AND SAXON TRANSPORT

The Romans used various kinds of vehicles and modes of transport. There was the lectica, or litter, similar to an eighteenth century sedan chair, which enabled the rich to be carried by slaves through the streets of a town. A four-wheeled waggon known as a raeda was used when a number of people needed to travel together or when luggage or good had to be carried. A fine bronze axlecap (from a Roman cart) in the form of a lion's head was excavated from the site of Lullingstone Roman villa. Moving goods around Roman Britain was a slow business.

The Romans did not have harness suitable for draught horses, so heavy wagons were usually pulled by oxen, or occasionally by mules. The lightest vehicles in general use were two-wheeled mule carts with a pair of seats perched high up. Heavy loads were hauled by oxen in four-wheeled low-sided wagons. Late in the second century, Roman traffic laws banned most heavy vehicles from the streets during the hours of daylight. Heavy loads were generally moved at night.

Wagons and carts remained important as a means of transport throughout the Saxon period.

 

 

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