It is almost forty years ago now that I remember some speaker coming to my school and enthusing about Roman roads - how marvelous they were, what a wonderful achievement they were. I couldn't understand what the fellow was driving at. They were just straight - that was all there was to them. And a lot of the time it would have been much better had they not being straight and gone round hills instead of over them. Last month, however, several decades afterwards, it dawned on me what the fellow was trying to say - and it took a lot of pedaling for that realisation to happen.
The pedaling involved my cycling from Coventry down to the county of Dorset. I'd even thought of beginning the journey from Cumbria, but cheated by getting the train to Coventry in the Midlands: Coventry being the place, I say with little pride, where I first saw the light of day.
When cycling the last place you want to be on, in England at least, is a main road. So, for a good hour before I set off from Coventry, I pored over a map to plan my route. It seemed to me the best option would be to take the Fosse Way. the course of which the Romans set out almost two millennia ago. What familiarity I had with it was mostly gained by looking at the "One Inch" Ordnance Survey map for the Coventry area - it was the first "One Inch" map I bought. (The term "One Inch" refers to the map's scale not its size - a map that was only an inch broad would be neither use nor ornament, of course - one inch measured on the map represented one mile in reality.) There were actually two Roman roads on this map: Watling Street and the Fosse Way - they intersected some ten miles north-east of Coventry.
It was the Fosse Way though that looked the more interesting of the two. Watling Street was the A5 - a major trunk road and thus was represented on the map with a brutal red line. In the early sixties it was still a main highway - the main route from London to North Wales. Only in the later half of this century, with the advent of motorways, has it lost the importance it had as a highway for more than one and half thousand years. The Fosse Way on the other hand had long lost its importance - at least in north Warwickshire it had - no doubt because it doesn't emanate from London but cuts across the country from the southwest to northeast. On the map it was represented as a narrow country lane - under 14 foot wide according to the map's legend - a delicate yellow line sneaking across the map. In places it wasn't a road at all but just a trackway. I loved tracing the line of it . The Fosse Way was a vestige of the past, remote almost forgotten - which is how it should be. My father tells me when he cycled it with his father more than sixty years ago there were still gates across it.
Only once can I remember ever using it. It was when I was about 18. I was strolling along a country lane near to home when a sports car pulled up besides me. Inside was an old school chum that I hadn't seen for a good year or more. I was astounded to find him driving a car - let alone a sports car. In the early sixties the majority of adults didn't have cars let alone youngsters. He offered to take me for a ride and that's how for the first time in my life I came to journey along the Fosse Way. I remember it being a very open road, unenclosed and very elevated - but there were certainly no gates across it then. The old school chum was called Tony Smart and that was the last time I ever saw him, and it was the last time I traveled the Fosse Way until I set out on my bike ride last month.
I met with a terrible shock. The Fosse Way had been upgraded. It was now a B road. For the amount of traffic on it though it might as well have been an A road. What could have been a perfect artery for cycling, quiet and direct, has been sacrificed to the car. Putting a dome on Stonehenge would be not worse a sacrilege. It was not at all like the dim memory I had of it save for its elevation - not really all that much, but enough to give a view to vistas stretching a good score of miles and more.
The traffic on the Fosse Way was too much. Consequently I had to weave my own way southwards following a chain of small lanes and byways. It was a wonderful experience. In doing so I discovered a remarkably tranquil England with maybe a car passing me only once every quarter of the hour. I fancy things were quieter for me as a traveler than they would have been in the last century as there is so little local traffic on these lanes anymore. Only once in a four day journey did I see someone walking along the road in a manner that suggested he was doing so in order to get from A to B rather than just doing it for exercise. I'm sure in the not so distant past one would have come across a sojourner on foot at least once in every mile of the way.
It was in the evening of my second day's cycling that I struck on a road that took a surprisingly direct line to my day's final destination - although it did go up hill and dale quite a bit. Along the way I passed a farm with the name Fosse Farm - and it was then I realised that I was once more on the Fosse Way.
It was then it dawned on me just how amazing these Romans roads were. Just how was it, without the aid of maps worthy of the name, Roman legions were able to take a line from the south coast of England to Lincoln (then Lindium), almost straight as a die, two hundred miles away. I had traveled a third of that distance and without the aid of a map I would have no idea how to set my own line. I'm now looking for a book that will tell me how the Romans actually did it.