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22.6 Miles


W. Yorks. HER Mon nos 3023(Ilkley), 3154 (Ilkley), 3155 (Middleton)

N. Yorks. HER Mon nos. 22044 (Middleton), 21994 (Middleton Moor), 28996 (Fewston), 28997 (Cragg Hall)

HE Pastscape Mon Nos - Middleton, Ilkley 1364062

Ilkley  Pastscape,  Roman Britain.org

Aldborough  Pastscape

West Riding of Yorkshire

The Roman road from the Roman fort and settlement at Ilkley to the Civitas capital of the Brigantes, Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough), is the north-eastern extension of the road from Blackstone Edge and the Halifax area (RR720a), traditionally thought to be originating in Manchester, although there is no firm evidence for that (see RR720a).

The road climbs out of Wharfedale northwards from Ilkley as far as the edge of Round Hill, where it makes a 48° turn to the east to head towards Aldborough, via Hampsthwaite, Ripley and Copgrove. Evidence that the general route of it remained in use during the medieval period is provided by a trackway that cuts the corner on Round Hill, along with at least two old milestones. The road is still in use today between Fewston and Kettlesing Head (A59) and other stretches survive as footpaths as far as Graystone Plain. Further evidence for its medieval use north east of the R. Nidd, where there is no direct route to Aldborough today, is possibly provided by a record from 1365 which states that wagons loaded with lead and drawn by ten oxen each were hauled from Greenhow to Boroughbridge before being shipped by water to York (Raistrick, 1973, pp 19-20).  

Percival Ross provided an excellent account of the route of the road between Ilkley and Hampsthwaite as he observed it in 1917 (Ross, 1920), and since some of what he saw has since been removed or destroyed by agricultural ‘improvement’, his description is invaluable and provides the background for much of the account of the road as far as Hampsthwaite.  From Hampsthwaite to Aldborough, things get far less clear-cut, and for this reason the road has been considered in two sections, Ilkley to Hampsthwaite and then Hampsthwaite to Aldborough.

Although not really relevant to an account of the road, it is still worth taking a quick look at the Roman name for Ikley. Traditionally, this was thought to be the Olicana of Ptolemy’s Geography (Olenaca in Ravenna, Olerica in the Notitia) because of the obvious similarity of name, as evidence by the Olicana Historical society, based in Ilkley. However, the inscription on a Roman altar from Ilkley (RIB 635) dedicated to Verbeia, almost certainly the goddess of the R. Wharfe, prompted Prof. Rivet to suggest that Ilkley probably took its name from the river and was therefore Verbeia (Rivet & Smith, 1979, p.493). It is certainly  true that many Roman sites were named after the river next to which they stood or incorporated the river name in their name but there are just as many which do not. For example, whilst Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent was Derventio, Ribchester sited on the R.Ribble, was Brenetenacum. Unfortunately, Rivet’s suggestion has now largely been accepted as fact and the name of Olenacum/Olecanum now applied to the fort at Elslack, for which there is no evidence other than Ptolemy’s placement of the name in the general vicinity of this part of the Pennines. The reality is that we cannot be sure about the name of either site, and must even consider that Olenacum could be somewhere else altogether.

Bogg, E. (1904); Higher Wharfedale: the Dale of Romance, From Ormscliffe to Cam Fell; J Sampson, York

Codrington, Thomas (1903); Roman Roads in Britain, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London

Drake, Francis (1736); Eboracum: or the History and Antiquities of the City of York, London.Kitson-Clark, Mary (1935); Roman Roads in East Yorkshire in Roman Malton & District Report No. 5

Ferraby, R. & Millett, M. (2016); Exploring the Roman Town of Isurium Brigantum; Current Archaeology issue 312, pp.20-25

Haken, M. S. (Forthcoming); Excavations on the Roman road in Hollybank Wood, Ripley, 2014

Lancaster University Archaeological Unit (2000); Nidderdale AONB North Yorkshire: Archaeological Survey Report. Available at http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-472-1/dissemination/pdf/NAAS_REPORT_TEXT.pdf accessed 21/1/18

Margary, Ivan D. (1973); Roman Roads in Britain, John Baker, London

Ogilby, J. (1675); Britannia, Volume the First, or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales; London

Raistrick, A. (1973); Lead Mining in the Mid-Pennines, The Mines of Nidderdale, Wharfedale, Airedale, Ribblesdale and Bowland; D. Bradford Barton Ltd., Truro

Ross, P. (1921); The Roman Road from Ilkley to Aldborough as far as the River Nidd.; Bradford Ant 6 NS 4 1921 pp. 287-295

Rivet, A.L.F. & Smith, Colin. (1979), The Place Names of Roman Britain, B.T.Batsford, London

WYAS (1990); Roman Remains in Ilkley. Archaeological Investigations in 1990; Unpublished report

Fig. 1st edition six inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map, showing course of  RR720b north from Ilkley

Click Images to enlarge

Fig. 2 The agger of RR720b shows extremely well on this lidar and aerial image, as it returns to its alignment having deviated slightly to the south to negotiate a steep bank

RRRA Forum for RR720b

Fig.6  The road cutting in Hollybank Wood, Ripley, in 2013, looking northeast.

Fig. 3  Aerial photo showing parchmarks revealing the course of RR720b on Round Hill, Blubberhouses moor. A mark suggesting the possible extension of the Kettlesing alignment WSW can be clearly seen.


Historic Counties:

Roman Sites on Route:

Local Historic Environment Records, HE Pastscape and other online records

Margary's Roman Roads in Britain, road 720b

Fig. 4  Looking west along the agger, Blubberhouses Moor.

Introduction & Overview

Ilkley to Hampsthwaite

Hampsthwaite to Aldborough


RR720a comes off Rombalds Moor down into modern Ilkley along Cunliffe Road where it was found during redevelopment in 1990 (WYAS, 1990), crosses Skipton Road and then descends to the River Wharf, passing along the western defences of the Roman fort at Ilkley close to the line of Bridge Lane . In the 19th century there was a ford across the river on this line which Percival Ross assumed was the location of a Roman Ford, and that there would be a paved ford buried in the riverbed although it is much more likely that there would have been a bridge. On the north of the river, RR720b leaves Ilkley and heads towards the Roman town of Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough).

The course of the road for its first three quarters of a mile north from the R. Wharfe as far as Hardings Lane is uncertain, although Ross believed he had traced it just to the west of Low Hall, where it will probably be destroyed by modern housing. It probably just clipped the edge of Coppice Wood (now Coppy Wood) keeping quite straight and meeting Hardings Lane at about SE 11334911. From here it was marked on the 1st edition 6 inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map as being mainly an extant earthwork (fig. 1) when it was surveyed in 1847 - 50. It now heads almost due north until Parks Lane joins it at about SE 1136 5019, although Ross records that it was dug up in this area in the early 20th century (Ross, 1920). From what is now the junction with Hunger Hill Road, it seems that an alignment was set out for almost two miles to a point on the eastern side of Round Hill, on Blubberhouses Moor (SE 1277 5217), above. The Roman surveyors picked out a very sensible route to work around sudden undulations and steep banks, deviating at first south east of the alignment before rejoining it at the top of a steep bank (fig. 2) to the west of March Haigh Reservoir. Contrary to the statement made in an archaeological report for the Nidderdale AONB (Lancaster University, 2000, p.17), the road is not truncated here and survives very well as indicated on LiDAR imagery (fig.2), although it is hard to spot on the ground due to growth of vegetation. On its way to Round Hill, it deviated slightly from its alignment twice more on its way to the top of the hill.

This initial climb north on to Blubberhouses Moor does at first seem a little peculiar, given that the eventual direction of the road towards Aldborough is actually  closer to east-north-east. In fact, by heading north first, the road avoids having to negotiate the Bow Beck Gill and other steep sided and awkward stream valleys by simply going around them. This did mean that quite a sudden change of alignment occurs on Blubberhouses Moor, with a new straight alignment set out for over 6 miles past Kettlesing to Grayston Plain, a line the road followed rigidly. This sharp alignment change has caused some researchers to suspect that this was a junction. Francis Villy thought that the road from Ilkley carried straight on as part of a direct road from Ilkley to Catterick, but no evidence for that has ever been found. He also investigated the possibility of a road from here to Bolton Bridge and Skipton to join the road from Ilkley to Ribchester (RR72a), effectively by-passing Ilkley. This has generally been discounted. However a recent Bing aerial photograph (fig. 3) does suggest that the road along the new Kettlesing alignment which can sometimes be seen as paler mark amongst the vegetation, may actually continue westwards beyond the point where the road from Ilkley meets it. The dense heather cover at this point makes it impossible to see even when stood right on top of it, and it is hoped that the a new lidar survey due to be conducted by the Environment Agency before 2020 might indicate whether the apparent line west is actually the remains of an agger.

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There is a local tradition in Hampsthwaite that the cobbled trackway, which leads south west from the west wall of the churchyard is on the line of the Roman road. It was even officially named “Roman Road” in the mid 20th century, despite the tradition being almost certainly baseless. By the time Percival Ross was writing in the early 20th century, it was generally held that the Roman line was followed by Hamspthwaite High Street, and that the High Street continued on the Roman line which was supposed to swing north past the church and cross the R. Nidd at or close to the current bridging point. Ross, recognising that this was a very un-Roman layout, suggested that the Roman road might simply continue along its alignment, crossing the R. Nidd some distance downstream. Unfortunately, the Ordnance Survey stuck with the route past the church, marked the road as represented by Station Lane north of the bridge as the lane swings east, and keeping straight on in a north easterly direction when Clint Bank Lane swings northwards up the steep hill (fig. 6) The supposed course is then marked by the old lane, still clearly showing remains of post medieval surfacing in the form of flagstones and cobbles as far as Hollybank Wood, then turning east with Hollybank Lane as far as Ripley. William Grainge described the route, albeit in the opposite direction from Ripley, as follows:

Passing by way of Ripley; in the wood to the west of which the strata can yet be distinctly seen, about ten feet in breadth, formed of native boulders. It next entered the township of Clint, across a corner of which it passed, fording the river Nidd near Hampsthwaite Chruch; thence up that village, not far from the track of the present road.

William Grainge, 1873, p.32

One look at the map should have told the Ordnance Survey field investigators that this route has no Roman characteristics whatsover. The track branching from Station Lane and Grainge’s supposed Roman “strata” on Hollybank Lane consisting of large stone slabs and cobbles is anything but straight and appears to be, at the very earliest, late medieval. At about 3m wide it is far too narrow to be Roman (N.B. the stones on Hollybank Lane were covered with a modern tarmac surface in 2014). In fact, this was once the course of the main coach road from York to Lancaster, and is marked as such on John Ogilby’s map of the road (Ogilby, 1675, plate 21).

We can now be reasonably certain that Ross’s suggestion was correct and that the road through Hampsthwaite continued to follow its alignment, crossing the R. Nidd 320m downstream of the the current bridge. The first hint of evidence came from Hugh Toller’s discovery on a LiDAR image of  a substantial cutting in the southwest corner of Hollybank Wood, on precisely the same alignment as the Roman road approaching Hampsthwaite from the south west. The cutting, which eases the climb up a steep bank from the floodplain of the R. Nidd, was confirmed as Roman in origin when it was excavated by a team of volunteers led by Paul Boothroyd in 2014 (Haken forthcoming). The road within the cutting had been destroyed by flash flooding and rebuilt on several occasions, but sufficient road material remained to ascertain a Roman origin with later Medieval surfaces above. A small stone cist was also discovered just 2m from the road edge, and contemporary with the road (fig. 8). Ironically, the only Roman road surface to survive were stones that had been rammed into a pot hole as a repair, the small pebbles and gravel around them having eroded away (fig. 9).

As the road climbs out of the cutting and onto a slight rise, no trace of it could be found and it is assumed that successive centuries of disturbance by tree planting have destroyed it. At some point, it must change alignment to head directly for Aldborough, the Roman town of Isurium Brigantum, and this is probably just south of Hollybank Lane, at about SE 2741 5992. This would make sense if the new alignment was laid out from Aldborough as it is the point where the valley and the opposite valley side first come into clear view. The alignment seems to originate not from the town itself, since Aldborough did not exist in its final planned form when the road was laid out. Rather, it seems to have originated from the point where Dere Street, RR8a, turns west to enter the east gate of the Roman town. Why this point should be so significant is unclear.

Following the probable alignment from Hollybank wood, the road would have had to negotiate the Ripley Beck. Neither side is particularly steep, and there is no reason to suspect that the road didn’t simply follow the alignment. Indeed, precisely on the presumed line, there is a linear feature climbing up from the beck visible on both Lidar (fig. 9) and on aerial photographs, reaching the top pf the slope just north of the public toilets in Ripley car park. There is no trace of it across the next three fields, although it probably crossed the Newton Beck at the same point as the modern farm track does. Further east on land belonging to Birchwood Farm, still maintaining the same alignment, a short section of agger appears to survive in a hedgebank at SE29416085 it’s gentle mound rising to about 50cm above the surrounding fields being clearly visible from nearby Nidd Lane (fig. 10). The alignment now crosses Nidd Lane and across two fields without any trace, passing through the garden to the south of the Old Vicarage at Nidd, and then Brearton Lane runs alongside it to the south, before bearing away to the east. The road then heads across country without any visible sign for another mile and a half, until at Rigg Moor (a highly suggestive name), on one of a only a handful of field to have escaped the plough, a very pronounced terraceway lies upon the alignment (fig. 11). There are other earthworks on the site, giving the impression of an iron age origin, although the terraceway is absolutely straight, well engineered, and about 5m wide. It is recorded as probably representing the Roman road on the Ordnance Survey linear file for RR720b.

After the terraceway at Rigg Moor the road is lost again and there is very little evidence for the road for over five miles between Rigg Moor and Aldborough. A little to the east, approaching Copgrove, the Ordnance survey record the road deviating slightly to the south and following a terraceway to the south of Robert Beck in Dark Walk Wood, but it looks far from convincingly Roman and there is no obvious topographic reason for the road to have left its alignment.

If the road maintained its course along the alignment all the way to Aldborough it would have joined Dere Street at about SE 4100 6630, where the modern Dunsforth Road turns sharply south east. Recent geophysical survey conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, led by Prof. Martin Millett and Dr. Rose Ferraby, has revealed a level of detail of the Roman town that was previously unknown and totally unexpected (Ferraby & Millett, 2016). To the east of the town (fig. 12) the allotments and enclosures either side of Dunsforth road confirm that this was the line of the Roman road from Green Hammerton and York. Most relevant here is the appearance of a pair of parallel ditches, possibly a road. The feature is truncated by the defences of the town, which presumably it pre-dates. It is tempting to wonder if this might be the original line of RR720b although it appears to be deviating slightly to the south of the alignment. There is no indication on the geophysics plot of it emerging beyond the southern defences, although that is not evidence that it was never there.

It is certainly fair to say that, after the planned Roman town of Isurium was built, the road from Ilkley appears to have approached towards the west gate, as has been illustrated by the Cambridge University survey (fig 13.). This would certainly have meant deviating northwards from the alignment and therefore it is likely that some rerouting of the road took place in the later second century, when it is thought the planned town was set out. (fig. 14). There are a few aerial photographs which show linear features, possibly the road, passing close to Newlands Farm where a half mile of farm track might be on the Roman line. If so, the road must have passed very close to Waingates Farm, waingate meaning literally “Wagon road” and yet there is no road there today, or on any surviving old maps. The possible re-aligned road would rejoin the original alignment just east of Copgrove.

Fig. 11  Terraceway traversing the hillside, higher up the slope at Rigg Moor .

Fig. 7  Larger stones filling a pothole in the original Roman road structure, within the cutting in Hollybank Wood. Two possible kerbstones of a later Roman road make up can be seen on the left of the image.

Fig. 9  Lidar image showing three linear features leading east from Ripley Beck. The northernmost is possibly Roman.

Fig. 10  Remains of agger clearly visible in a hedgeline at Birchwood Farm, just off  Nidd Lane, Ripley .

Fig. 12  Geophysical survey showing the allotments either side of Dere Street  approaching Isurium from York,and the possible early road pre-dating the planned town.

© University of Cambridge 2017.

The course of this road is now very well understood, from Ilkley as far as Hollybank Wood, Ripley with the slight question mark over the exact course from the fort to the R.Wharfe north to Hardings Lane, which is unlikely ever to be found with certainty. There also remains the possible westward extension of the alignment from Horseman’s Well Farm to Round Hill which, if proven, would suggest a direct road past Beamsley Beacon and on to the fort at Elslack.

The biggest problem with this road is the one it has always had, a lack of definitive evidence between Ripley and Aldborough. If two instances of the road could be proven along the projected alignment then at least the general course would be established. As none of the sites at Ripley Beck, Birchwood Farm, or Rigg Moor have been excavated, or surveyed with any form of geophysics, there remains potential to introduce a little certainty. The road’s approach to Aldborough also needs clarification. It is certainly reasonable to expect a re-routing of the road after the 2nd century town was built, but from where to where needs clarification. The only way to establish this with any certainty would be further geophysical survey, following the lines of the definite road from the west gate, and the putative one that seems to have been truncated by the building of the town, and seeing where the evidence leads.

Fig.5  Looking west towards Blubberhouses Moor along the A59. The well worn track representing the course of the Rman road can be seen climbing the moor ins the distance.

There is no doubt about the line of the road east as it drops down from Blubberhouses Moor, and whilst a more sinuous well beaten modern path disguises its course in places, the straight agger is still clearly visible (fig. 4). As it approaches the lower pastures in the Washburn Valley, it has unfortunately been ploughed out in recent decades, although its line heading straight across the valley, and beneath what is now Fewston Reservoir is recorded on the 1st edition OS map, suggesting that agger may still survive beneath the water. It is no longer visible in the woodland north east of the reservoir, although between the reservoir and Crag Hall it continued to follow the alignment obliquely up the slope (Bogg, 1904, p.59). Ross recorded a deviation from the line at Crag Hall but that is almost certainly post Roman as the Roman line shows clearly a few yards further north east on recent aerial photographs just east of Busky Dike Lane, just before the A59 Skipton road joins it. The road maintains its line for the next two miles, passing the American communications base at RAF Menwith Hill. Until very recently, this part of the road was still known as Watling Street, one of several examples of the use of that name for a Roman road. At Kettlesing Head, the modern road bears away to the south east, but the Roman line maintains its straight alignment across the fields for another mile and a half, the line still marked in places by field boundaries and short lengths of footpath. The road itself has long since been removed over most of this stretch except for one short length of extant agger, some 16m wide, in a garden in Kettlesing.

The course of the road is approximately marked by the footpath heading east near Marston Hall (SE 2358 5701), and reaches the end of this long alignment at about SE24115723, when a new alignment begins heading beneath Horseman’s Well Farm and then Cote Syke. LiDAR coverage starts again here, and the remains of the agger are still visible heading down past Swincliffe until Hampsthwaite High Street takes up the alignment.

Fig. 8  Small cist set into clay bank on the edge of the Roman road cutting at Ripley

Fig. 13  Magnetometry survey showing the probable re-aligned RR720b approaching the west gate of Isurium Brigantum

Fig. 15  Map showing the layout of roads approaching Isurium Brigantum, and the possible original course of RR720b

Entry Prepared by Mike Haken, last updated, 12 January 2018