The Fen Causeway

Margary Number: 38

Distance: 18.5 miles (to the Icknield Way)

A road of 2 halves. The first half across the Fens i.e. the Fen Causeway is well established at least as far as Denver. East of here then its route and destination has been the subject of much speculation. However, a reasonable case can be made for it extending as far as the Icknield Way. Margary and the Norfolk HER suggested it even continued further east via Billingford & Brampton and on to Smallburgh. This was doubted by Albone and I would tend to agree having found nothing convincing connecting this road to Billingford.

Although the Fen Causeway is well researched and located it is a complex structure comprising a canal and, at least in some places, two roads one on either side of the canal (ref. Wallis). The southern road would appear to be the main road and that is what is depicted in Route Maps 1 & 2. The two roads and the canal are plotted on an additional map for Nordelph - these are based on Wallis's map with a few minor adjustments based on the Lidar data.

Ref: Roman Routeways across the Fens, Heather Wallis, EAA Occasional Paper 10 (2002)

HER 2796



Historic Counties: Norfolk

Current Counties: Norfolk

HER: Norfolk



mini map

Section 1 - Upwell to Denver

Lidar/Aerial Image - Full Route

The alignment all the way to the Icknield Way does look obvious and typical of a Roman road alignment but east of Denver then evidence is hard to come by.

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full route

Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Fen Causeway Section 1

The causeway enters the county in Upwell Parish crossing the Old Croft River. The actual course it follows is un-Roman like taking a very sinuous course along old roddons (old natural watercourses). Having said that, it does manage to keep reasonably direct.

Why would you follow an old river course? Amazingly old river courses end up as higher ground when the peat based land around them settles lower. Draining the fens only makes this worse.

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3D lidar

Lidar Image and Route Map 1 (Southern Road)

The southern road is depicted here as this appears to be the final continuous through route. See later for the canal and northern route.

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Lot's Bridge, Upwell

We are looking down the line of the Canal and Roman road(s) but where have they gone? They passed to the left of the white house approximately on the line of the little tree but nothing is obvious today.

Image: Google

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lots bridge

Nordelph - Northern Road, Canal and Southern Road

The routes are based on Helen Wallis's map for the Nordelph area. Just a few minor adjustments where the lidar indicates the road might have actually been on a slightly different alignment.

Wallis dates the northern road to be the earlier one. It surely made more sense for the road to be located on the inland more protected side and so the southern road is most likely the final route.

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Southern Road Cross Section (Heather Wallis Figure 9)

A section through the southern road was excavated in 1992. This was at site reference 2796 (TL523 990). The road had a graveled surface with ditches both sides. However, it was multi-phased with a later dump of material forming a new higher gravelled surface.

From: Roman Routeways across the Fens, Heather Wallis, EAA Occasional Paper 10 (2002)

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cross section

Southern Road - Nordelph Farm

At Nordelph Farm this modern track follows the line of the southern road. The bridge crosses a later ditch cut through the Roman canal and roads.

Image: Google

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Lidar Image and Route Map 2 (Southern Road)

Again just the southern road is depicted here. The canal and northern road have been omitted for clarity.

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Section 2 - Denver to the Icknield Way(?)


Lidar/Aerial Image - Section 2

We are now literally on firmer ground but for this section the route is perhaps less certain, certainly this is the case in terms of its destination.

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Lidar Image and Route Map 3

Lidar would indicate that the Ordnance Survey line shown at Denver Sluice is wrong. It is clearly further north and aligned with Sluice Road.

The direct line shown is based on the 3D Lidar view below.

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Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Denver

Just the faintest of suspicions that the Roman alignment was north of the modern road through Denver. I would put this in the probable category rather than definite but it is typical of a Roman alignment so those faint traces in the Lidar data might just be real.

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lidar denver

Lidar/Aerial Image and Route Map 4

A little dog-leg up the little valley looks likely. Beyond this there are more definite Lidar traces but the coverage then annoyingly runs out.

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Aerial Image and Route Map 5

A case of interpolation here to join up with the modern road Downham Road heading for Stradsett - a big clue in that name though - see below.

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A1122 - Stradsett (Looking East)

The significance of the name Stradsett has been explained by James Albone (quoting Watts): "The place-name Stradsett, which is recorded in the Domesday survey as Strateseta meaning ‘the place on the Roman road’ (Watts 2004, 584), provides firm evidence for a Roman road passing somewhere through the parish."

There can be little doubt that the road that its name derives from is the Fen Causeway, today approximated by the A1122.

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a1122 stradsett

Aerial/Lidar Image and Route Map 6

The A1122 beyond Fincham does look like a Roman alignment (and is shown as such by the OS) but research by Albone found that this is a Turnpike road with no apparent predecessor. However, Ficham seems a very unlikely dead-end to the Fen Causeway, which surely must have connected into the Roman road system somehow.

There are instances elsewhere in the country where a Roman road has gone out of use for centuries but its agger has been re-adopted as a foundation for a later modern road. Is this the case here - an abandoned Roman road being re-instated? It would not be the first time. In addition, as we shall see below, approaching the Icknield Way there does indeed appear to be a predecessor to the turnpike.

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A1122 - Fincham (Looking East)

Heading out of Fincham it is a very straight and a Roman-like alignment. Was this a turnpike built on top of an abandoined Roman agger?

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Lidar Image and Route Map 7

The airfield has destroyed any trace of the assumed change of alignment here so the OS first edition mapping was consulted (see next image). The route shown is based on the line of the road pre the airfield.

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First Edition Ordnance Survey Map

When consulting the OS first edition map for the original line of the road prior to the airfield, it was noticed that approaching the Icknield Way there was a former parish boundary running parallel to modern road on its south side. This boundary ends abruptly at the Icknield Way. Lidar also gives some credence to this being the original (pre-turnpike) line of the road here plus it does align better with the turn of the road at the airfield.

The significance of this is that, here at least, there was a pre-existing fore-runner to the turnpike. The fact that the parish boundary follows what appears to be an original road puts it back at least as far the medieval period when parish boundaries were generally established.


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old map

Lidar Image and Route Map 8


It is suggested therefore that the modern road marked as "Roman Road" on modern OS mapping at this point is not actually the true Roman line but a much later turnpike.

The Norfolk HER and the Ordnance Survey continue our road (Fen Causeway) along Fincham Drove (position marked on First Edition map above). This road/track doesn't seem to connect directly to our road and appears to have the important Norman centre of Castle Acre as its destination.

As I have been unable to find any indications of a connection onward to Billingford I have assumed the Fen Causeway ended here.

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From the Icknield Way (Looking West)

This is where the Fen Causeway could meet the Icknield Way, just south of the A1122 (turnpike). The former is supposedly a pre-Roman iron-age track running parallel to the Peddars Way but is much less direct than a typical Roman road. It does seem to have been used by the Romans as there are several Roman sites alongside it. The Fen Causway line, based on that old parish boundary, would be somewhere near this track through the woods.

Image: DR

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Last update: January 2020

© David Ratledge