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30 Miles


Virosidum (Bainbridge) Yorkshire Dales HER


West Riding of Yorkshire, North Riding of Yorkshire

Fig. 1 Lidar image showing the supposed roads described by Collingwood & Villy, ascending from Wensleydale and past Addlebrough

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Margary's Roman Roads in Britain, road 730

In 1925 and 1926, the Roman fort at Bainbridge was excavated by John Kirk and R. G. Collingwood. During the excavations, a “Roman road” was observed leading due south (Collingwood, 1928, p.264), although it did not come directly from the fort, rather it was thought to branch from the road known to head eastwards from the fort through the annexe, about 400m east of the fort itself. Its course was followed up the steep side of the fell by Kirk and O.G.S. Crawford, accompanied by a Rev. Romans., who traced it straight up the side of the valley where it climbs a maximum gradient of 1:4. Such a gradient might sound unlikely, but would such eminent archaeologists as Collingwood and Crawford have got it wrong? According to Collingwood, Mrs Collingwood (ibid.) traced what she took to be the road about a mile and a half further on, south of Addlebrough, along a very straight parish boundary which runs south west to Stake Moss. The boundary is marked by a stone wall, clearly associated with regularly laid out enclosures of the 18th or 19th century, although Mrs Collingwood observed that in places the wall stood atop a low embankment, which she took to be the Roman road. O’Neill took the line of the ‘road’ from the edge of Addlebrough, and extended it south to Carpley Green, where he suggested that Busk Lane then represented as far as the point where the lane swings westwards, the Roman .line continuing straight on to meet the modern parish boundary, then heading south west along Mrs. Collingwood’s suggested line (O’Neil, 1932). Unfortunately, O’Neil’s account was  misinterpreted by the Ordnance Survey as suggesting that the Roman road followed Carpley Green Road all the way from Bainbridge, an error repeated in Margary’s description (Margary, 1974, p.384).

The route was already being doubted almost as soon as it was discovered, being regarded as “impractical” by E. M. Christie as early as 1926 (Ordnance Survey c.1983), because of its steep climb and traverse of long lengths of bog once up on the moor. Indeed, it is not even certain that the straight feature crossing the moor is the same feature that climbs up the steep side of Addlebrough, or is even a road at all. Not only that, but it does not utilise the topography in the way that Roman surveyors were so skilled in doing, rather it ignores it and appears to go straight up a steep slope in exactly the way that Roman roads do not do.and it seems highly unlikely that the  was a Roman road in the usual sense. It seems most likely that the steep Bainbridge to Addlebrough section of this proposed route was a track intended for downhill travel only, a route to bring down either stone or turf off the moor on sledges, thus explaining why it appears to defy the topography in a way that Roman roads simply do not do. Lidar shows the feature clearly, and shows that the initial ascent has been eased at three points by zigzags (fig. 1). There are two other similarly straight trackways parallel to it, tending to support this theory, although unfortunately there is simply no way of determining a date for any of these features.

The seed of the idea of there being a road had however been firmly sown, and Francis Villy soon came up with an alternative route (Villy, 1936). He identified parts of an old road which runs from the foot of the terraceway leading from the southern gate of Bainbridge fort, at first parallel ot Carpley Green Road but down slope of it, and then cutting across to Blear Lane, skirting around the eastern slope of Raydale on Stake Lane and then along High Lane. Where High Lane turns due east, an old road continues straight on at Shaw Gate, still showing in places as a cambered ridge about 6m across, continuing to meet Collingwood and O’Neil’s line at Stake Moss (fig. 2). Villy’s road has the raised agger, flanking ditches and construction in short straight lengths that we would expect in a Roman road in this terrain, but there is a problem - it is too narrow. Roman roads in Britain are generally thought to generally be at least 5m wide, and whilst Villy’s road is about 6m wide at Shaw Gate, by the time it reaches the summit at Stake Moss it is less than 4m between the ditches, with a road width of under 3m. We know for certain that there was a road along this general route in 1666, as a journey along it is recorded in the Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (Williamson, 1922, p.319), and this road certainly predates all the field walls on the moor, many of which are built across it (fig. 3). If this is the road used by Lady Anne, then either the generally held belief that no well surveyed and engineered roads were built between the end of the Roman period and the start of the Turnpike roads in the 18th century is wrong, or the road must be of Roman origin.  It is worth mentioning at this point that there is another road running south from Stanhope in Weardale, Co. Durham (RR821), which looks remarkably similar to this one. To the author, they both seem just too perfect in their condition to be two millennia old, but this is just a subjective opinion.

From Stake Moss southwards, O’Neil’s route and Villy’s route follow the same course, apparently arrived at independently (O’Neil, 1932), descending from Stake Moss along Gilbert Lane (fig. 4) and through a cutting, charmingly named Hell Gap (fig. 4), before entering Wharfedale. There is abundant braiding in the area, suggesting that Gilbert Lane is not actually the original route, and about 150m east of Hell Gap is what looks like the possible remains of an engineered cutting, the limestone being now heavily eroded due to a small stream having adopted its course (fig. 5). Both O’Neill and Villy then agreed that the road must have followed gilbert lane a little further to Causeway Moss, crossing the Cray Gill to then turn south along Buckden Rake to Buckden. The Causeway, incidentally, is a different road coming from Bishopdale.

For reasons now unfathomable, O’Neil then decided that the road turned westwards up Langstrothdale, soon turning south of west at Raisgill to head over the fell to Halton Gill, in Littondale; he never said why or presented any evidence. Villy, on the other hand, simply assumed that the modern road down Wharfedale pretty much represented the Roman road, heading towards the Roman fort at Ilkley. Arthur Raistrick did suggest a deviation from Villy’s route via Grassington, but as the Ordnance Survey’s Field Investigator E.C Waight commented, “Raistrick’s straighter alignment by way of Grassington is virtually impassable in places” (Ordnance Survey,c.1983). Waight also noted that neither route yielded any remains of a Roman road, or other acceptable traces of road construction, south of Buckden (ibid.). Lidar coverage is good in Wharfedale but there is no sign of any Roman road. In an area where most of the medieval ploughmarks still survive, both rig and furrow and lynchets, it seems highly improbable that not one single length of straight Roman road is visible cutting the corners of the extremely sinuous modern road. Absence of evidence is not, of course, evidence of absence, as the late Paul Boothroyd was very fond of reminding the author. In this case, however,  the lack of any extant feature when other roads in similar terrain survive extremely well (e.g. RR732(x)) must cast doubt on the credibility of any claim for a road down Wharfedale.

In summary then, the evidence for this supposed road is all at the northern end, in the form of the old road identified by Villy at Stake Edge, the low embankment mainly beneath the stone wall on Stake Moss, and the straight line of a trackway leading up from Bainbridge to Addlebrough. Villy’s route via Shaw gate is certainly more Roman in character, although somehow not totally convincing, but none of the three features have ever been excavated. Excavation at these three sites is clearly needed to determine if there is actually a Roman road at all, and only if excavation confirmed such a road should we concern ourselves with where the road goes next, be it Wharfedale or a different currently unknown objective.

Entry prepared by Mike Haken.  Last updated, 21 December 2017

Fig. 2 Old road identified by Francis Villy,  ascending from Bainbridge at Shaw Gate, displaying possible Roman characteristics

Fig. 3 Villy’s road at Stake Edge, having narrowed to less than 3m, as opposed to the usual minimum 5m for a Roman road in Britain.

Fig.5 A possible earlier course near Hell Gap, a probable engineered cutting now heavily eroded.

Fig. 4 Gilbert Lane descending through Hell Gap into Wharfedale

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

Collingwood, R. G. (1925); Excavations at Brough-by-Bainbridge in 1925  Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Soc., Literary and Historical Section, Vol. 1, (1928), 261-284

O’Neil, B. H. St. J. (1932) A Roman Road South of Bainbridge; Proceedings of Leeds Phil and Lit Soc. Vol. 3, pp.39 - 40

Ordnance Survey, (c.1983); RR730 Roman road file (unpublished); Historic England Archive, Swindon

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

Villy, F. (1936);

Williamson, G. C. (1922); Lady Anne Clifford, Her Life, Letters and Work; Titus Wilson & son., Kendal