A Roman road

In this part of the West Country you are never far from things left by the Romans. Our school is beside a Roman road where it climbs a hill on its way south; and the spot was an ancient settlement. One of the boarding houses—the furthest from the road—is on the site of a vanished priory, where venerable yew trees, some far older than any of the buildings, suggest that the settlement was one of those founded in the days of St Augustine, for he was instructed by Gregory the Great to site his churches on the old Celtic sacred places.

If you go out of our gate on to the Roman road and walk up the hill, you find at the top that it gives up being a modern road and becomes a narrow alleyway between Georgian houses. You can see why if you follow it, for soon it begins to drop steeply into the next valley, at the bottom of which it crosses the river: but there the exact course of it is lost—often the case where the land has been forested. Roman roads tend to betray their presence where they run across what has always been pastureland, but woodland can take away even the signs.

At some point beyond the river, the road climbs dizzily upwards on to another hill, where there is a rare sight: a huge but elegant water tower serving the surrounding villages. Beneath this the road runs along, aiming directly towards Poole Harbour, which is its destination, having started from Bath—that city beautifully furbished by the Romans when they decided to subsume the healing waters of the Celtic goddess Sulis into a cult of Minerva.

“Do we know the Roman name for the road?” asked a student.

No. We do not know the names of any of them. We do not even know for sure the name they gave to Hadrian’s Wall, though the inscription on the Moorlands Pan, a cup found in Staffordshire in 2003, suggests that it may have been Vallum Aelium. Hadrian’s family was of the Gens Aelia.

How many roads were built during the 300-year occupation—dozens of them—becomes clear from the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain (recommended).