STANE STREET
The Roman road through Epsom and Ewell


Stane Street was one of six hard-surfaced roads built by the Romans from London. It ran south-west through Ewell and south of what later became Epsom, to the military and naval supply base at Chichester. It was 56 miles long and archaeological evidence suggests the road was brought into use between 50 and 70AD.

It is not known what the Romans called the road, but the present name comes from the Old English for 'stone' (stān) and referred to the road surface. The name is first recorded as Stanstrete in 1279 according to Place-Names of Surrey (1934).

It was initially built as a military road but was later used for the transport to London of pottery (from Farnham), quern-stones (from Lodsworth), and pig iron and timber (from the Weald). Tiles from Ashtead may also have been taken on this route. The return traffic from London included oil, wine, seafood, and high class pottery such as samian ware.

Road Building
Roman Road Building
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Construction

Until the Romans came, roads in Britain were no more than muddy tracks. Roman roads were well regarded and built to a greater level of sophistication; a raised embankment of up to 5 feet, known as an agger, was built up between two ditches approximately 24 feet apart. Stane Street was 3 feet wider than the average Roman road in Britain. A top layer of gravel or flints was added to improve drainage. This resulted in a far more substantial surface and heavy loads could then be conveyed, regardless of weather. Oxen provided the haulage since horses were only used for riding and carriages.

The methods the Romans used for road construction depended on the area and the materials available. For example a road going up and down hills would have to be made differently from one going along the flat on firm dry ground area, and one going along the side of a hill would be very different from one going across soft marshy land.

Almost all roman roads were made of a number of layers of different materials and/or sizes. We think that in parts of our area the road was made as follows:

Cross Section of a Roman Road

The line of the road was cleared of trees and brushwood. This clearance extended to the sides of the road as this reduced the problem of fallen leaves, branches etc and reduced the risk of a surprise attack.

A drainage ditch on each side of the road was ploughed and a shallow trench (say 10cm deep) dug between the ditches.

The trench was probably filled with sandy soil and loose gravel.

Embedded into the sand and gravel were large flints and rocks. Some of the flints were 30cm across and this large stone layer could be up to 50 cm deep. Between the large stones would be soil, probably dug out from the ploughed ditch, mixed with smaller pebbles and gravels and flints. (This would mean that the ditches were deeper and so help to drain the road better, and the large stones were more stable.) This layer would be compacted by pounding with heavy weights to make a firm, rounded (i.e. higher in the middle than the sides of the road) but slightly uneven surface.

A thin top layer of fine flints and/or gravel was then spread over the large rock layer and compacted to act as a sort of grout between the rocks and to help even out the road surface.

The rounding of the road (the camber) helped water quickly run off the road surface. Water could also drain quickly through the top layer of fine stones and through the large rock area. This drainage made a considerable difference during wet and wintry weather.

The surveying techniques used for laying out the road can be reconstructed from what we know of its course. Classical texts give instructions on how to survey land using a groma - a pole of up to 6 feet in height, one end of which would be inserted into the ground. At the top was a cross from which five weighted plumb lines (one in the centre, one at each end of the cross) would descend. One of the arms would be pointed in the direction required and the surveyor's assistant would stride off counting approximately 125 paces and inserting marker poles into the ground; provided these lined up with the front, middle and back plumb lines, they knew the line would be straight. The two side plumb lines would be used for right-angles.

A Surveyor using a Groma
A Surveyor using a Groma
Image source Topitocurioso.com

The groma was used by land surveyors (agrimensores) to survey fields by constructing a square grid; it was not capable of measuring or laying out angles. However, the route of Stane Street was laid out in angled sections which were planned in advance to avoid natural obstacles. This suggests that military surveyors had access to a different technology, similar to the early modern plane table which enabled them to take sightings on landmarks.

Route

Although Roman roads were known for being straight overall - Stane Street does not deviate more than 6 miles as the crow flies - the route was actually formed of four sections known as 'limbs'. London Bridge to Ewell was the first limb, built on the direct course for Chichester. It followed the route of the current London Underground Northern Line as far as Colliers Wood and continued along the course of the A24, entering Ewell in the north-east.

Ewell to Mickleham Downs was the second limb, one which required a slight easterly deviation allowing the road to follow the chalk soil rather than traverse the wet and wooded clay areas. Although the actual route through Ewell itself has yet to be confirmed by excavation, it is clear that there were two turning points in the area of the village. It continued on the line of London Road until, crossing the present Church Street near Holman Court, it deviated 20 degrees to the east. This line continued through the village of Ewell until, at a point near Windmill Lane, it turned westwards again, and ran parallel but offset to its previous course. The road then continued past the site of St. Martin's Church before crossing Ashley Road, the Durdans and Woodcote Park to Headley Road near Chalk Pit Road, and then continued east of Ashtead.

Click on the following map thumbnail to see the route; as with all Google Maps you have the option of zooming in, panning, switching to a map format and street view:

Click to open the map in a new window

Posting stations known as mansiones were set up along Roman roads. These were places where animals could be changed and accommodation provided. In unoccupied areas they took the form of small stockades, preserved today as characteristic earthworks, but in towns and villages the mansio was more like an eighteenth-century inn, and is not so easily recognised in the archaeology. The first mansion for travellers leaving London was probably at Ewell, which is the right distance along the road and has the advantages of the springs where horses could be watered.

The effect on the local area

Although Ewell existed before the Romans, there was no village as such, rather a collection of farms. The area had many natural advantages; the spring provided fresh water and other tracks crossed over the dry ground about the head of the river. The road had a significant effect as it attracted new building and a market for local produce. Houses were built on both sides of the road beginning from the site of the old Organ Inn to the upper end of Epsom Road. By the end of the 1st century AD the community had many of the features which distinguished urban culture from country living: there was a regular use of currency, widespread literacy, and expensive imports.

The road also brought people to the area, whether they were merchants, pilgrims or travelling craftsmen. It provided a living to those renting horses, oxen and carts. Blacksmiths and wheelwrights were needed, as were inns and eating places. Local peasants would sell produce by the roadside. Only the wealthy could afford a carriage - the rest had to walk.

Ewell expanded east as far as the current bypass and west along the line of West Street. Latin was acquired as a second language. It is possible the village was redeveloped at least once in this time; boundary ditches were laid out at right angles to the road, some of them later disused, as if new plots were being surveyed.

Development in Epsom, however, didn't take place until much later. The existing settlement appears to date to the time of the Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century, and although there may have been dispersed farms before then, none of the obvious markers of Roman culture - coins or pottery - have been found. Stane Street therefore passed through open country until development began on a route leading uphill to the downs - the present Church Street.

Excavation Work
Excavation work taking place at Ewell
Image Courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Since then

Much of Stane Street in the county of Surrey was abandoned or saw eventual use as a bridleway; the section from Ashtead to Mickleham Downs is now a Scheduled Monument. The section between London Bridge and the outskirts of Ewell has remained in continuous use, but the medieval village and fields of Ewell developed along a grid pattern based on the present crossroads of High Street, West Street and Church Street, which disregards the course of the Roman road.

The medieval name 'Stane Street' was revived in the 17th century, when the road was recognised as a Roman antiquity and not just a succession of pathways. It has continued to be an important marker of local identity ever since. There was a Staneway House on Reigate Road which was demolished when the Ewell Bypass was widened and on the old Fair Field south of Ewell Village, where Anthony Lowther uncovered the road shortly before development in 1933, the name of Staneway (later Stane Way) was given to the street which zigzags across the route.

Beyond Surrey much of the route is now used by modern roads, specifically parts of the A24, A29 and A285.

Thanks to Jeremy Harte, Curator, Bourne Hall Museum

Nick Winfield and Peter Reed
September 2013
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