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High Street Roman Road, Margary 74

Tirril to Troutbeck (Nr. Windermere)

Certainly the most famous Roman road in Cumbria rising to almost 2700 feet. We shall follow it north to south.

Tirril, west of Brougham, is where the Ordnance Survey first mark the course of this road. The last point they mark is the descent to the Troutbeck valley, that's the Troutbeck north of Windermere. The assumption has always been that it connected the forts at Brougham to probably that at Ambleside or least to the road between Watercrook (Kendal) and Ambleside.

But is it really Roman? Popular folklore would say yes and no doubt the Lake District Tourist Board would like it to be Roman too. We shall look at the evidence and I will leave up to you to judge for yourself as to whether it really is Roman.

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Thanks are due to John Poulter for sharing his excellent Powerpoint presentation that was given to the Roman Roads Research Association's 2016 Conference in York. Many of the images here were taken by John in the 1960s - that is before thousands of Wainwright followers wore away old paths and blazed new ones over the tops of these fells. Many of the features spotted are also down to John. I am ashamed to say I didn't take any pictures (film days) when I walked High Street.

Needless to say the comments and opinions here are mine alone.

 


 

3D Lidar Image - Brougham fort looking west

There is the faintest of traces of a road leading out of the fort's east gate but then........nothing.

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3D Lidar Image - Tirril to Celleron

This is the first length shown on Modern OS maps as "Roman Road". Lidar fails to show anything supporting this line between the arrows.

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Lidar Image - Brougham to Celleron

I have shown a hypothetical route - the likely course if there were a Roman road to Brougham - but nothing is visible.

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Route Map - Brougham to Celleron

The lack of any evidence has resulted in some authors suggesting alternative routes to Brougham - but again nothing I can see in the Lidar data supports these.

 

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Track to Winder Hall

This where High Street really begins along this track to Winder Hall. The public highway ends here. Judging by the rocks they don't want you parking on the verge here to walk the road!

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Aerial Image and Route Map - Celleron to Cockpit

The Lidar coverage stops at Celleron so we have to rely on (Bing) aerial photographs.

The road up to Winder Hall is called Roman Road - is this a clue or optimism?

On the open fell we now have visible tracks. The track marked as Roman leads to the Cockpit on Moor Divock. The latter is covered with signs of pre-Roman activity and the Cockpit shows there was a lot going on up here long after the Romans as well. Peat cutting is also supposed to have been extensive. Today all is quiet here but don't be fooled - this spot was a hive of activity in the past.

At the Cockpit we are 1000 feet up.

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The Cockpit - looking north (NY483222)

Looking back to Tirril from near to the Cockpit. The road is seen coming up across the north slope of Heughscar Hill.

Photo: Chris Heaton

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Lidar + Aerial Image and Route Map - Cockpit to Loadpot Hill

To negotiate Loadpot Hill the road skirts around its western slopes.

 

 

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Warches - Road looking north-east from NY465203

We are looking back towards the Cockpit and Heughscar Hill. Cross Fell is in the far background.

The road is clear and straight here but very narrow. The track to the right heads for Helton Fell/Knotts.

 

Photo: David Purchase

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Lidar + Aerial Image and Route Map - Wether Hill to Knott

The route now is reasonably direct before it reaches Riggindale and has to swing westwards.

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Wether Hill - looking back to Loadpot Hill

Both Wether Hill and Loadpot Hill are over 2000 feet.

Only a meandering track (Packhorse trail?) is visible here.

Photo: John Poulter

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Raven Howe - looking north to Red Crag

There does seem at last to be traces of a curving road under the wall.

 

Photo: John Poulter

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High Raise - looking north to Red Crag

Just a track here - nothing significant visible but there is a shallow cutting north of this spot, just over the crest. The wall in the previous picture can be seen in the distance.

 

Photo: John Poulter

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High Raise - looking south to Kidsty Pike

Clearly a man made road zig-zagging up towards Kidsty Pike.

Is it a built up agger in the Roman style or a hollow-way track with side banks?

Photo: John Poulter

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Lidar + Aerial Image and Route Map - The Knott across High Street to Hagg Gill/Troutbeck Valley

The highest point of the road reaches is around 817 metres or 2680 feet.

After High Street then the descent to the Troutbeck Valley valley begins - this is via the very steep Scot Rake. So steep some, including Hindle (1984), have suggested it could have kept to the tops via Froswick, Ill Bell and Yoke heading to the Garburn Pass.

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From The Knott across the Straits of Riggindale looking towards High Street

Probably the most famous and most photographed section of the road where it climbs up from Riggindale towards High Street, the mountain.

Normally the road is quite subtle but in snow it is remarkably evident.

The alignment of three straights is typical of Roman engineering.

What is also clear in snow is that the road is sunken i.e. a hollow-way with higher side banks. This is not typical of Roman engineering. Other high Roman roads in Cumbria i.e. Maiden Way and north-south road over Crosby Ravensworth Fell have distinct built up aggers with side ditches.

Photo: Simon Connell

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Across the slopes of High Street

The road is at is highest across the west side of High Street, just below the summit. No one would doubt that it is man-made and that it is indeed a road.

High Street was formerly known as Racecourse Hill and fairs were held up there.

Photo: John Poulter

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View from Thornthwaite Crag looking South

This is the spot (arrow) investigated and excavated by Greenlane Archaeology - taken long before this area had become so damaged by walkers that it needed repair.

The road they examined is clear and it is this feature, according to the Lidar, that finally turns for a descent down Scot Rake.

The suggested alternative high level route via Froswick and Ill Bell doesn't look too inviting but It does now have a brand new path courtesy of the LDNP. The story is they even had a mechanical digger up here to construct it.

Photo: John Poulter

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Lidar + Overlay of Greenlane Archaeology Investigation 2006

Amazingly the only fragment of Lidar data for High Street itself is exactly where Greenlane Archaeology (Samuel Whitehead & Daniel Elsworth) carried out an investigation/excavation in 2006. It was commissioned by Lake District National Park before repairs to the footpaths were carried out - those Wainwright walkers have a lot to answer for. This is the first excavation of the road in modern times.

For a full description of what was found see CWAAS 2008.

In summary, they found was "not what might be described as typical for the Roman period". What they did find was a road surface, once with a (gravel filled) ditch but more generally with large side banks. But because Haverfield (1898) had reported (he didn't do the excavation) finding the road with side banks at the northern end, they concluded it was therefore like a known Roman period road. It does seem a circular argument to infer that what they found could be Roman because it matched another Roman road - unfortunately the same road.

They also were very doubtful of the Scot Lane descent being Roman preferring the Froswick/Ill bell route suggested by Hindle. They did mention that south of their investigation area the road feature they examined continued on supporting that hypothesis. What is visible in the Lidar data is that the feature does indeed continue on beyond the modern path down for a short length but it then clearly makes a turn to the west to descend to the Troutbeck valley. A modern path is also visible heading off in the direction of Froswick but the feature - Roman or otherwise - didn't head that way.

So what do we get from all this? Well, the road appears to be typically sunken with large side banks. The road almost certainly turns for a steep descent via Scot Rake.

 

 

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Looking down Scot Rake to Hagg Gill and Trout Beck

There was grass on the descent in the 1960s! It is extremely steep - no wonder Paul Hindle and Greenlane Archaeology had their doubts and I would agree with them. Does it really look like a Roman road?

Photo: John Poulter

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Scot Rake from Hagg Gill - looking north

The zig-zags were very clear in the 1960s but they are fainter nowadays. Thousands of hill walkers have straight-lined the route and bypassed them, as has occurred elsewhere in the Lakes.

Zig-zags like these were very typical of the Lakeland passes - usually dating from the packhorse era.

Photo: John Poulter

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Scot Rake from the Kirkstone Pass Road

The Scot Rake route looks unlikely but so does the suggestion by Paul Hindle for it heading across Frostwick. In reality there is no easy way off High Street.

Photo: DR

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Lidar Image and Route Map - Hagg Gill & Troutbeck Valley

Modern farm tracks can complete the route down to join the Kirkstone Pass main road (A592). If Ambleside were the destination this route on the west bank of Hagg Gill would make most sense.

Others have suggested a possible route on the east bank of Hagg Gill & Trout Beck which would better suit Watercrook.

The Scot Rake - Troutbeck valley descent was apparently the route used by packhorses bringing peat down to the Windermere area.

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Discussion

We have now completed our journey along the most famous Roman road in the north-west.

But is it Roman?

Arguments for it:

  • It is certainly old - boundary references in 12th century charters (Ragg 1910) mention a Brethstrett/Bredestrete - almost certainly High Street.
  • Who else but the Romans could have built an ancient road up there?
  • It is remarkably direct given the difficult terrain.

Arguments against it:

  • It is unlike any other Roman road - it is often sunken with upstanding side banks.
  • No connection to a known Roman site has ever been made.
  • Many sections look like a packhorse track - particularly in the north and Scot Rake.

What has become apparent in recent times is how fragile the top surfaces of these mountains are. With the surge in walkers their paths have quickly worn down through the surface exposing the underlying gravel and fractured rock - witness many repairs having had to be carried out. The surface exposed can look like the remnants of a road, one that is sunken and below the general surface level. If it can happen now it could well have happened in the past when, as we have seen, these fells were a hive of activity.

 


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Last update January 2020

© David Ratledge