Where is the Roman Road in Marlow?

The received wisdom amongst archaeologists is that there was relatively little Roman settlement in and around Marlow. Certainly the finds to date have merely hinted at occupation near the vicinity of the modern town, with nothing found that has been conclusive. Various pottery finds, fragments of painted plaster and unearthed coins suggest some form of occupation in the north of the current town and there is the intriguing find of the remains of two individuals supposedly from the Romano-British period, again in the north area of modern day Marlow. But concrete evidence of Roman settlement remains elusive and these finds are incidental when set alongside the existence of the villas in Hambleden, High Wycombe and Maidenhead.

While this might at first seem rather dispiriting, we have for the last year or more examined, in some detail, the possibility of the existence of a Roman road (or roads) through and around modern-day Marlow. Our interest was sparked by two considerations. Firstly, there have been a number of suggestions put forward by local people interested in archaeology over a number of years now about Roman roads in the vicinity of the town – in particular Arthur Boarder kept detailed notes of his own observations over many years. In addition, the existence of so many notable villas in the vicinity of Marlow does beg the question of what form of communication links existed between them.

For these reasons, we set out to examine the available evidence to develop a number of our own hypotheses for the existence of a Roman road in the local area. We firstly undertook an extensive mapping exercise of all known Romano-British archaeological finds in the South Chiltern/Thames Valley area – roughly the area bordered by Henley, High Wycombe, Slough and Maidenhead. This is an area that is criss-crossed by a number of well-known Roman roads, and a number of roads whose existence has been surmised by archaeologists over time.

Most notable amongst these is the so-called Camlet Way, linking Verulamium (St Albans) with Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). This is widely supposed to have crossed the river Thames at Hedsor Wharf, although its route after that is not clear and has been the subject of much archaeological speculation and investigation over the years.

To the west of Marlow, a Roman road also ran from Dorchester to Henley, probably crossing the river somewhere near modern-day Phyllis Court, before following the course of the river to meet up with Camlet Way near Twyford.

The evidence for a Roman road near the villa on the Rye in High Wycombe is less clear cut, but it is generally supposed that one ran east-west close to the modern A40 from Uxbridge to at least Stokenchurch, and that this probably was only a few hundred metres or so from the villa.

What is intriguing is the absence to date of any evidence of a Roman road in the vicinity of the significant villa establishments at Hambleden and nearby Yewden (roughly modern day Mill End). It is possible that the river itself acted as a major form of communication and transport, and that is reinforced by evidence from other villas along the Thames. But it is equally unlikely that the villas would have operated successfully without some form of network of land-based communications and transport, no matter how rudimentary these roads might have been. We were further interested in the possibility of a north-south link from Maidenhead to High Wycombe that may have crossed the Thames near Marlow.

To date, we have conducted three fieldwalks to explore these possibilities. Our first venture was across the river in the vicinity of Bisham, to seek evidence of a north-south road connection that would have crossed the river near the modern-day bridge.

We have also explored further north of Marlow, walking the old footpath and track that runs alongside Burroughs Grove from Marlow Bottom to Ragmans Castle, close to the M40 junction.

Finally, we have undertaken some initial exploratory fieldwalking from Harleyford to Medmenham in search of a potential east-west road connection to the villas in the Hambleden valley.

The main distinguishing feature of Roman roads is not so much the commonly cited straight alignment but instead the existence of an “agger”. Most Roman roads were laid upon a well-constructed embankment of varying height, in order to give them a properly drained base. The material for the embankment was usually acquired from the excavation of a ditch alongside the road (see diagram).

With the passage of time, it is inevitable that much of the evidence of “aggers” becomes increasingly difficult to discern, particularly in fields subject to regular ploughing. It is, however, largely through this evidence that archaeologists have to date traced the possible existence of a Roman road from Uxbridge to Stokenchurch.

Sadly, on each of three occasions when we ventured forth, we were unable to identify any reliable evidence of “aggers” and so our investigations to date have drawn blanks. But we are a resolute lot and are determined to continue our investigations until we have fully exhausted every possible line of enquiry. Our current focus has shifted to potential evidence of a north-south road/track from the villa at Hambleden up the valley (see photo above). We are also looking into the finds evidence about Roman settlement in and around Little Marlow.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about our work or has something they would like to contribute towards it, please do contact Andy Ford via andyford.marlow@btinternet.com

By Andy Ford

Exploring the Archaeology and History of Marlow