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© Mike Haken & RRRA, 2018
Nostell Priory Roman Settlement
West Riding of Yorkshire
The notion that there may have been a Roman road from Bradford to Elslack was first proposed by Francis Villy a hundred years ago (Villy, 1921 [also earlier paper, now unknown]). Ivan Margary was sufficiently convinced to include it in the first edition of Roman Roads in Britain (Margary, 1957, p.138). More recently, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, much work was carried out by Bradford Grammar School Archaeology Society, led by Donald Haigh. Haigh proposed a slightly different route, and excavated fifteen sections in different locations along the length of his putative road (West Yorks. HER, 2014).
Haigh also suggested that the road did not start in Bradford at all and in fact passed through Wakefield, probably branching from RR28b near Adwick Le Street. He based this on the observation that there were a long string of suggestive 'street' place names, with the first two along the A638 (ibid.). The Roman Settlement at Nostell Priory, not discovered at that time, is also on the A638, but is not of course direct evidence of a Roman road, but certainly raises the possibility of one in the vicinity. There are four more 'street' names along the A650 between Wakefield and the Drighlington area of Bradford, and the A650 itself is known as Tong Street leading into Bradford. Tong Street is also quite straight, a fact noted in the early 19th century by John James (James, 1841, pp. 26-
The supposed route leaves Bradford in a north westerly direction on the line of what is now Westgate (Kinges Hye Strete in 1613 (Haigh, Undated.) continuing straight until bearing slightly west near Toller Lane, Heaton, near a Street Close recorded in 1692 (ibid.), towards Noon Nick, Cottingley Moor. The route (followed by the township boundary) is assumed to kink slightly to accommodate the steep slopes, then roughly follows Lee Lane in a straight alignment until just before Harden Lane, where a zig zag is proposed to cross the Wilsden and Harden Becks. Here Villy's and Haigh's proposed routes diverge, coming together again on Harden Moor to incorporate the short ridge which both thought to be the agger of a Roman Road (as did Margary, although he thought it to be a spur of the Manchester to Ilkley road leading to a possible signal station (Margary, 1957, p.136).
The route then crosses RR720a from Manchester to Ilkley, before dropping down to Keighley. From Keighley, the route then follows Hollins Lane on a straight course to Steeton, although it must be pointed out that Hollins Lane was part of the Keighley to Kendal Turnpike in the mid 18th Century. The Villy and Haigh routes diverge again at Steeton, though both bear west, and meet for a short time on Skipton Road, Eastburn, a stretch known as Wood Street in the 19th century (Haigh, undated). They diverge again taking different routes through Crosshills, where part of Skipton Rd was known as High Street in 1642 (ibid.). Haigh's route taking a rather counter-
If we accept the traditional association of 'street' with Roman roads, then despite the disagreement between Villy's and Haigh's respective routes, such a long list of 'street' place names would at first glance seem to lend great weight to the presence of a Roman road. As John James wrote in 1841:
Frere, S. S. (1977); Roman Britain in 1976; Britannia vol 8., pp. 355-
Goodburn, R. (1978); Roman Britain in 1977; Britannia Vol.9. 1978 pp.403-
Goodburn, R. (1979); Roman Britain in 1978; Britannia vol.10 1979 pp. 267-
Grew, F. O. (1980); Roman Britain in 1979; Britannia vol.11 1980 pp. 345-
Haigh, D. (undated); various papers and maps in the RR721 file.West Yorkshire Historic Environment Record, West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, Wakefield
James, J. (1841); The History and Topography of Bradford (in the County of York) with Topographical Notices of its Parish ; London & Bradford
Jones, D. (1981); The Yorkshire Archaeological Register: 1980; Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 53, pp. 137-
Margary, I. D. (1957); Roman Roads in Britain, Vol. 2, Phoenix House Ltd, London
Ordnance Survey (c. 1985); unpublished Linear file RR721; Historic England Archive, Swindon
Rancov, N. B. (1982); Roman Britain in 1981, Britannia Vol.13. 1982 pp. 327-
Ross, P. (1915); unpublished letter to the Ordnance Survey in Ordnance Survey record, RR721; Historic England Archive, Swindon
Toller, H. S. (2014); pers. Comms.
Villy, F. (1921) The Slag-
Bradford Antiquary Vol 6 1921 pp 117-
Bradford Antiquary Vol 6 1921 pp 13, 14, 17 ???
Council for British Archaeology Group 4 Yorkshire Archaeological Register 1980 p3
Wilson, D. R. (1975); Roman Britain in 1974; Britannia. Vol6 p238
The road from Bradford to Wakefield, after reaching Dudley-
John James, 1841
Not everyone shared Villy's enthusiasm for the idea of a Roman road from Bradford to Elslack. As early as 1915 Percival Ross, (Assistant Surveyor to Bradford Corporation), in letters to the Ordnance Survey, essentially accused Villy of seeing only what he wanted to see, maintaining that even the length of apparent Roman agger on Harden Moor couldn't be Roman because it cut through the Haworth to Bingley packhorse road. Not only that, but Ross claimed that the 'agger' was in fact an unused section of the Halifax to Keighley turnpike road, built before a change of route to an easier course through Cullingworth made it obsolete (Ross, 1915).
Undeterred, Villy went on to carry out several excavations along his claimed road and at Noon Nick, Shipley, he found a line of stone kerbstones against a supposed road 17ft wide, as far as could be excavated and at the Hollins, Steeton, he found a road 16ft wide with stone kerbs and having a camber of 18 inches. However, when Donald Haigh excavated at Noon Nick half a century later, he could find only fragmentary remains of a road and, whilst he did interpret it as Roman, the remains were probably insufficient to determine origin. Furthermore, when he excavated at The Hollins, he concluded that the "Roman" road Villy had found was in fact the Keighley to Kendal turnpike road, although he did suggest (without any justification) that a belt of sand beneath it may have been the robbed out remains of the Roman road (Jones, 1981, p.139).
When Haigh excavated the length of 'agger' on Harden Moor, he revealed a well cambered structure some 5.2m wide of cobbles set on larger stones between two substantial side kerbs (Rancov, 1982, p.351). The kerbs of this supposed agger, however, are partially dressed stones as clearly illustrated by Villy (Villy, 1921). Dressed kerbstones are not known on British Roman roads outside of settlements. To the Roman army, the time involved in dressing stone was simply an un-
Both Villy and Haigh excavated elsewhere, and in places did uncover evidence of roads or trackways. Unfortunately, these were often interpreted as being Roman on very scant evidence, such as Haigh's section on an accommodation road serving Street Head Farm on Cononley Moor which revealed only a belt of sand which he still interpreted as the robbed out remains of a Roman road (Grew, 1980, p.364) with not one shred of supporting evidence. Just one of Haigh's fifteen excavations found a road that fulfils two of the crucial criteria for Roman construction, namely a camber and side ditches. The site is near Lingsted Farm, west of Cross Hills (Jones, 1981, p.139), although the road was only 4.1m wide, narrower than the minimum 5m normally seen in upland areas. So, even allowing for the considerable variations in Roman roadbuilding techniques, it is fair to say that not one single section excavated by either Haigh or Villy showed a road that could be definitively stated as Roman but, with the exception of Harden Moor, it is impossible to state definitively that they are not Roman.
At least both routes are reasonably convincing from a point of view of typical Roman surveying, (with the exception of Haigh's loop at Cononley), tending to stick to high ground, often just below the horizon line making a marching army harder to spot and, when a valley crossing was necessary, returning to higher ground as quickly as practicable. However, without firm archaeological evidence to confirm road lines, the claims made by Haigh that the 'road' was set out in a series of alignments (Gooding 1979 p. 290 and Jones, 1981, p.139) cannot be tested.
Lidar, a modern technique not available Villy or Haigh, does not provide any evidence to support their ideas. Lidar data from the Environment Agency is patchy for this area, although whilst there are several gaps in coverage, we would expect an area of permanent pasture such as that between Bradford and Elslack to at least show some trace of the straight alignments of a Roman road, if it were present. Unfortunately, independent study by three experienced researchers (Hugh Toller, Bryn Gethin, and the author) could find nothing suggestive of a Roman road, nor was a single potential feature identified in the mainly arable land along the putative RRX134. The only bonus of this research was that Hugh Toller spotted a previously unrecognised late Roman fortlet, lying within the site of the known fort at Elslack.
Villy appears to have seen the 'agger' on Harden Moor, roughly in line with some Street place names northwest of Bradford and determined, wrongly, that it must be Roman, Haigh largely accepted Villy's conclusion, but took and even longer string of 'street' place-
It is clear that the published evidence is insufficient to support the idea of a Roman road along the supposed course of RR721 or RRX134. Villy's route for RR721, and Haigh’s RRX134 have therefore been disregarded. However, Donald Haigh only ever published short summaries of his excavations, rather than full accounts or reports making a true assessment of his work impossible without access to his notes. After his death in 2017, all his notes and photographs were left to the Halifax Antiquarian Society and have been lodged with the Calderdale Archive at Halifax library. They will soon be available for public access in their new building. It is to be hoped that greater analysis of his work will now be possible, which will better enable us to assess whether or not he did actually find evidence to support the idea of RR721. For this reason, rather than mark his route as disregarded as would be the normal course of action, it is marked on our mapping as putative, pending further analysis.
In recent years however, this traditional idea has been called into question (Toller, 2014), at least in northern Britain, although no study has yet been conducted. We can be fairly sure that in the Anglo-
Donald Haigh and the Bradford Grammar School Archaeological Society did attempt to find some tangible evidence, digging four trenches in 1978 on an extension of the line of Tong Street to the SE. They failed to reveal any evidence of a road, let alone a Roman one (Goodburn, 1979). When we consider, then, that there is no known tangible evidence SE of Bradford, the entire length of RRX134 begins to appear highly speculative. What's more, if we accept that "street" could mean a medieval road, then to the north west of Bradford, Kings Hye Street & Street Close could just as easily relate to a known medieval route to Bingley. Similarly, Wood Street, Steeton and High Street, Crosshills, could easily relate to the medieval road to Skipton which only leaves Street Head, Cononley and Street House in Elslack to suggest a possible Roman route.
Roman Sites on Route:
Historic Environment Records, HE Pastscape and other records
Entry compiled by Mike Haken. Last updated, 2 December 2018