Preston’s Roman roads

Roman roads around Preston are being plotted with ever-increasing accuracy by archaeologists using lidar scanning technology. The results north of Preston have been especially impressive. South of Preston, industrial development at Cuerden has uncovered the Roman road, helping to establish its exact route north and south. Where previously there was only speculation there is now certainty, which has often proved the previous speculation to be mistaken.

All these developments have been carefully recorded on David Ratledge’s Roman Roads in Lancashire web pages. He himself used lidar to discover 17km of a ‘lost’ Roman road from Ribchester to Lancaster. The map below is taken from his website. The numbers are Margary numbers, named for Ivan Margary, the historian who first categorised Roman roads in Britain: main routes were given single-digit numbers, principal branches two digits and minor branches three, and letters were added to distinguish different sections of the roads. David’s discovery is shown as Road 704aa on the map .

David Ratledge's map showing Romanroads in Lancashire

While the routes of many of the Roman roads around Preston are established, those through the town remain speculative. Little has been added to the suggestions made by the Preston historian Charles Hardwick in the first chapter of his 1857 History of Preston. 1 Hardwick was the first to investigate and document the Roman site at Walton-le-Dale. He also traced a possible route north through the town (70c on the above map), heading along the present St Paul’s Road (marked by two fields named Great Pathway Field and Causeway Meadow) to meet a route west from Ribchester passing through Grimsargh and along the present Watling Street Road to Kirkham (703 on the map).

The problem I have with this mapping of the Roman roads in the Preston area is that they do not provide a logical route between Walton-le-Dale and Ribchester. I have lived within a few hundred yards of the Roman station at Walton-le-Dale for more than 25 years, and in that time have walked and cycled between my home and Grimsargh hundreds of times. Never have I taken the route suggested by the above map.

Given that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I thought I’d consider alternative routes north of the Ribble to link Walton-le-Dale with Ribchester. Another alternative, which I think the archaeologist David Shotter, former professor of history at Lancaster University, suggested as a possibility, would have been a route south of the Ribble. It should be stressed that this is very much amateur speculation. David Ratledge reviewed the lidar maps of the area, and concluded that they show no evidence for an ‘undiscovered’ Roman road linking Walton-le-Dale and Ribchester. With due acknowledgment of David’s reservations, I still think the route is worth considering.

The first difficulty is that the course of the Ribble has shifted considerably since the Roman occupation, as is indicated by the wide horseshoes the river traces as shown on the map below. It is thought that the river has washed away a third of the Roman fort at Ribchester and a long section of the Roman road near Hothersall. More recent evidence of the power of the Ribble to carve its way through the landscape can be found at Red Scar on the border between Brockholes and Grimsargh townships. The following description of that site is from one of the town’s 19th-century historians:

The Ribble in its course from Ribchester to Preston, takes, at Samlesbury Lower Hall, a sweep to the north-west for nearly three-quarters of a mile; then washing the base of a well wooded hill or scar it makes a graceful sweep to the south-east forming in its course the shape, somewhat elongated, of a horse-shoe. The peninsula thus formed is a tract of something like 173 statute acres of rich land, the greatest portion of which, in times past, has been in turns the bed of the river and has become suitable for the operation of the scythe and the sickle as the river’s encroachments have gone on. Indeed, all the ingenuity of the owner of the scar is unable to prevent further encroachments on the hill side, while ‘land’ is still being ‘made’ on the opposite bank. We have heard of old people who have sat under the thorn yonder, which is now, at least, a hundred and fifty yards from the nearest part of the stream, and fished in the river. 2

The map below shows possible routes between Walton-le-Dale and Grimsargh that could have served the Romano-British community during the hundreds of years of its existence:

Map of possible Roman roads around Preston
Established and suggested Roman routes have been superimposed on the 6in OS map of the 1840s, as it best shows field boundaries before later development. Map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

In fact, there is some evidence for a possible Roman road provided by the historian Charles Hardwick, who wrote in his History:

From Ribbleton-moor to the edge of Red Scar, is a perfectly straight road called ‘Pope-lane,’ with about three feet of its breadth paved with boulders. A similar pavement is likewise yet in existence beyond the ‘scar.’ It passes through the wood by ‘Tunbrook.’ This road is doubtless very ancient. Some regard it as a Roman vicinal way, which led to the mineral springs of Boilton. This is, however, by no means certain. It would be difficult to determine where it communicated with the ‘Watling-street,’ as the two roads are rather parallel than otherwise. The term ‘Pope lane’ is a modern designation, derived from a comparatively recent occupant of a farm in the neighbourhood. On Lang’s map of Preston, surveyed in 1774, there is a plot of land marked ‘Causeway field,’ which strengthens the impression that a vicinal way may have existed, which passed from the great Roman road at Preston over Ribbleton-moor to a villa at or near Red Scar.’ 3

His fellow historian William Dobson wrote:

Having crossed the [Ribbleton] Moor, we enter an old, unevenly paved, and almost disused road. In days of yore this road may have continued past Red Scar, above the banks of the river, and maybe on to Ribchester, or across the river to Mellor, but the encroachments of the stream have washed away much of the Scar, and so destroyed the communication, if any existed. It is now grass gown, and serves merely as an occupation road to a few farms …

And added, ‘… Pope Lane, that ancient way, doubtless, to Ribchester, when the Romans were there …’ 4

Fields in Preston showing possible route of Roman road
Higher Causeway Field, Lower Padway Field and Higher Padway Field on Lang’s 1774 map of Preston (Lancashire Archives DDK/1549/6a). Reproduced with permission of Lancashire Archives.

I am not sure why Hardwick in the extract above should describe the Pope Lane route as ‘rather parallel’ to ‘Watling Street’. The map clearly shows that it roughly describes the hypotenuse to the straight sides of the road north from Walton-le-Dale and the road following the present Watling Street Road. I am always impressed by the transgressive actions of the general public in carving diagonal footpaths across urban grassland, ignoring the right angles dictated by planners. Would Roman pedestrians not have favoured the diagonal?

Also, when he mentions ‘Causeway Field’ on Lang’s 1774 map he omits two other relevant fields. There was a grouping of three fields on that map named Higher Causey Field (which suggests an earlier existence of a Lower Causey Field), Higher Padway Field and Lower Padway Field. In his suggestion for the route of the Roman road through the town Hardwick carefully delineates three fields on Lang’s map bordering the proposed route north to support his argument: Gt. Pathway Field, Causeway Meadow and Pathway Meadow.

One reservation to accepting Pope Lane as the course of a Roman road is the narrowness of paving, a breadth of three feet suggesting bridle way rather than Roman road. A similar reservation comes into play when Hardwick accepts as Roman a slightly wider boulder pavement found at Penwortham in the 1830s:

About forty years ago, a piece of boulder pavement was discovered near Penwortham hall. It was four feet in breadth, and was traced about one hundred yards. Mr. Baines says:—‘The road surveyor, feeling no sympathy with the antiquary, destroyed the road, and used the materials to repair the public highways! conceiving that, probably, to be the shortest way of solving the disputes which had arisen, whether this was a Roman, a Saxon, or a Norman causeway.’ There can be little doubt, however, that the road was a Roman vicinal way, communicating from the station at Walton with the specula at Penwortham. 5

Alan Crosby is not convinced:

Even contemporary enthusiasts were in some doubt about its Roman origins … conceding that ‘the pavement of boulders … can have been nothing more, from its narrowness, than an ancient bridle path, very common throughout the country’ This seems almost certain to have been the true origin of the road. 6

Stronger support for a Roman road at Ribbleton comes from the fact that the boulder pavement at Pope Lane formed part of the boundary between the manors of Ribbleton and Brockholes, manors which were established some time between the Norman Conquest and the 12th century. 7 Also, it ran parallel to the present Ribbleton Avenue and that road’s extension as Longridge Road. Ribbleton Avenue itself is an extension of Ribbleton Lane, which can be dated to the 13th century, and would have served as the medieval highway east from Preston, rendering Hardwick’s proposed Roman road redundant at that period, except as an access road and township boundary.

Map showing Pope Lane, Ribbleton, Preston - a possible Roman road
Extract from the 1840s 6 inch OS map showing Pope Lane and Red Scar. Map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

Did the lords of the manors of Ribbleton and Brockholes in settling the boundary between their lands select a surviving stretch of arrow-straight Roman road as a logical division in otherwise featureless moorland? And did that road continue beyond Red Scar to join the road from Kirkham where it crossed the Tun Brook?

Bing Earth map showing possible course of Roman road in preston
The surviving trace of Pope Lane, now cut by the M6, can be seen slightly north of the footbridge over the motorway. Image: Bing Earth.

Two possible routes suggest themselves to connect the road at Ribbleton with the Roman station at Walton-le-Dale (see map above). The first would continue the road through the Padway and Higher Causey Fields and then branch down over the Ribble escarpment to Walton-le-Dale. The second would continue to the present Watery Lane, which was in existence at the time of the Civil War battle at Ribbleton in the mid-17th century, descend the escarpment and progress to Walton-le-Dale. The first would shorten the route from Walton-le-Dale to Ribchester by 1.4 miles, the second by 1.6 miles.

Another suggestion for an alternative link between Walton-le-Dale and Ribchester is the Ribble itself. Earlier antiquarians considered the possibility that Ribchester could have been a river port, but most soon rejected the possibility of the river being navigable up to that point. One of their number, the Preston prison chaplain Rev John Clay, clung to the idea, going so far as to argue that an earthquake in Roman times had raised the bed of the Ribble by 20 feet at Ribchester, so that the fort could no longer serve as a port. Hardwick gently dismissed the idea. 8

It is, of course, possible that the Romans made use of the river to ferry heavy loads up river when the water level was high enough. This would not be possible when the water level was low, as I discovered shortly after moving to Walton-le-Dale, when my son and I attempted to paddle down the Ribble from Ribchester to Grimsargh in an inflatable dinghy. The water level was so low that we frequently had to get out and tow the dinghy through the shallows.

While all these alternatives are highly speculative, it surely can be argued that over the long course of Roman occupation in Lancashire there would have been far wider pattern of settlement around Walton-le-Dale and stretching up the valley of the Ribble than is conveyed by a skeleton Margary roads network, traces of which are possibly still waiting to be uncovered.


1 Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthington & Co, 1857).

2 William Dobson, Rambles by the Ribble, 2nd ed. (Preston: W. and J. Dobson, 1864), 56.

3 Hardwick, History of Preston, 520–21 footnote.

4 Dobson, Rambles by the Ribble, 62.

5 Dobson, 55.

6 Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past (Preston: Carnegie, 1988), 13.

7 William Farrer and J. Brownbill, eds., The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, vol. 7 (London: Constable, 1912), 105, 108.

8 Hardwick, History of Preston, 52–53.

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