What have the Romans done for us? As the revolutionaries in Monty Python’s Life of Brian pointed out, not much — apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order.
For Elaine Steane, their influence seeps out of every inch of Oxfordshire’s landscape. She has spent the past six years developing a 174-mile footpath re-tracing the Romans’ footsteps between the settlements of Alchester (Bicester), Silchester, near Reading and Corinium (Cheltenham).
It’s not the first route she has created. Her first venture, The Seven Shires Way, a walk along the Oxfordshire county boundary which she launched in 2002, has been chosen by Girlguiding Oxfordshire for its 2010 centenary Big Walk Challenge.
The Guides who complete all 234 miles will join the hundreds of people who have done the walk, including Oxford Fieldpaths Society, as well as the Ramblers. Charity walkers have included a six-year-old black Labrador, Branson — named after Sir Richard — and his deaf owner, Antony Sabin, who raised £10,000 for the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.
She hopes her new route — called The Roman Way and developed into a definitive guidebook after a long process of trial and error — will be equally successful in opening people’s eyes to the history hidden in everyday sights.
The idea came from Robin Harrison, one of a group of Oxfordshire ramblers who completed the first circuit and helped map out the route.
To the casual observer, there seems one major flaw in the plan — there are very few visible Roman remains on the route, apart from obvious places like Cirencester. It is easy to conjure up a picture of life in 50AD from a visit to the Roman villa at North Leigh, or from seeing the five-metre Roman wall and ampitheatre at Silchester, but how can you do this on a walk through the Oxfordshire countryside?
She says there are plenty of opportunities to conjure up a sense of history.
“A single legion was 4,000 to 5,000 infantrymen, so there was a whole lot of horses. When we were in the middle of the forest in Berkshire, it was all quiet and someone stopped us and said, ‘imagine what the noise was like when the soldiers were walking along’. You could see the mound where the road went, and just imagine the clatter.”
Mrs Steane has vivid memories of their first day’s walk, in November 2003, along the Romans’ Akeman Street from Chesterton, where the walk starts.
“It was a dreadful day — it was raining — and we soon decided that walking beside the road was not a good idea. Many Roman roads are now major trunk routes and we decided it would be better to have a Roman theme and use nearby public rights of way instead. It was much more beautiful and you could still see the Roman artefacts.”
As one of her friends pointed out, this is the way the Saxons would have travelled after the invasion, staying out of sight in the undergrowth, taking a winding route while the Romans marched straight up and down on their way. “Better to take the quiet route,” she said.
Her book The Seven Shires Way was an object lesson in how to educate people who think they are just reading directions for a walk. The titbits of information enable walkers to learn to spot the county boundary by its plants, old oaks and hedgerows, and her new book is equally educational, in the easiest possible way.
Eight miles into the walk, you should be able to spot an ‘agger’, the bank of limestone and clay which Roman conscripts or prisoners built as the foundations for the roads.
On the way, you will also have met mauve scabious and nodding thistle, white yarrow, hedge bedstraw and bladder campion; learned which farm weeds are best for butterflies; seen Operation Bumblebee, where red clover and white deadnettle are grown as rich food sources for bumblebees; marvelled at the Palladian architecture of Kirtlington House; and passed Weston-on-the-Green’s airfield, where the airsock is horizontal if the windspeed is more than 15 knots.
An environmental conservationist, Mrs Steane freely admits that much of the expertise in the book is not her own. Her husband, John, is an archaeologist and expert in historic buildings, and more help came from John Eyre, Brian and Jean Hackett and Judy Westgate.
The daughter of cartographer and geographer Harold Fullard, Mrs Steane grew up with an enduring love of mapping, and her decision to reprint parts of Ordnance Survey maps in the book is a tribute to her father, whose work helped the D-Day landings.
The book is dedicated to her mother, a keen botanist whose interests she has inherited.
Her enthusiasm bubbles over as she describes the discoveries she made.
“There was the roadside temple at Sansom’s Platt, near Sturdy’s Castle. Learning new things is one of the joys of doing this sort of thing. It’s a discipline — I learned so much. The first dinosaur was found at Stonesfield — I didn’t know that. And visiting Corinium Museum in Cirencester, I found a garden reconstructed with Roman plants. They introduced dog rose into Britain because they believed the root cured rabies.”
Other discoveries were made by simply talking to people en route.
“Local people were very helpful. A farmer in Asthall was very knowledgeable about the Roman remains on his land, and another said he could see the Roman road when it was dry in summer.”
The Adam and Eve fire engines at Aldsworth were pointed out by a villager, and another farmer told them he had one third of all UK species on his land.
At Signet, near Burford, a resident told them that Job’s Lane, where they were walking, had been used by the bread van until the 1950s. This information is woven into an information panel, which continues: “As we left Signet, we saw a stoat ferrying its young across the track, waiting until its babies had all crossed. Stoats like to live in the dry spaces of stone walls. In September, there were dozens of red admiral butterflies and hoverflies feeding on the late-flowering ivy, starlings feeding on the elderberries and long-tailed tits feeding on the insects and larvae.”
On the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ route, we are told about dykes, tumuli and burial chambers, and there is plenty of later history as well. Ufton Court in Berkshire, for example, was built in the shape of an E to demonstrate loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. Mrs Steane was excited to discover one of the oldest barns in England, the grave of the man who made Fox’s umbrellas, and the meaning of the place name Ready Token (a pub requiring real money).
“It makes you look at things differently if you walk past places and know these little things,” she said. “We took the walk in a very leisurely fashion. What we are trying to do is to encourage people to look around them rather than count up the miles.”
The venture reflects her belief that in future, everyone will have to explore their own neighbourhood rather than travel the world. A keen environmentalist, she has not flown for five years.
The group managed a few adventures, ending up one day in icy cold water, carrying their boots strung around their necks to get through floods near the Kennet and Avon Canal.
“It was very bonding — we were a good group of friends. Sometimes we got lost, but we are pretty confident we have ironed out all the difficulties.”
As hundreds of Girl Guides are about to discover, once you catch the walking bug, you are hooked.
Walking the Seven Shires Way made me see my neighbouring countryside with new eyes, and now I’m itching to take up The Roman Way challenge.
- The Roman Way is published by Reardon Publishing at £9.99. See also theromanway.co.uk Oxford Ramblers are walking one section per month starting on Saturday, January 23, (Day 9 on the North Wessex Downs near the Roman road Ermin Way). For details and more dates, see www.ramblers-oxon-org.uk.