There’s a quiet stretch of Roman road in Cumbria’s Eden Valley which we often walk, part of the greater Roman road that crosses the Pennines through the Stainmore Gap – in its day one of the most important highways in the Roman Empire.
This stretch of just a few miles runs from Appleby in Westmorland, starting at Fair Hill, where the Gypsies camp at the famous horse fair. Fair Hill now, but it was once Gallows Hill where victims of the Appleby courtroom where sent to be hanged. The farm nearby has the sinister name of Hangingshaw, but whether that comes from public executions or takes the title from its geographical position I’m not sure.
When I say walking the Roman road, we are of course only following the line, the original surface must be a foot or two lower down, hence my frustration in never finding the odd Roman coin lost by some careless centurion.
But walking the Roman road, you do at least get a feeling of what it must have been like to march with the legions across our countryside.
This section of the Roman road is in two distinct portions. Nearer to Fair Hill it is a clear and wide stretch of highway, mostly I suspect because the farmer uses it as access to his fields. But as you travel on, the Roman road becomes overgrown, hidden and mysterious, with secret places haunted by deer and pheasants.
A place to linger.
A place to consider the mighty Roman Empire which stamped its mark on our landscape, and which, like all historical empires, went away – those who seek and support dominant societies and countries today might perhaps recognise the transient nature of their ambitions.
One day everything they supported and fought for will be just a page or two in the history books – maybe just a footnote at the bottom of the page.
There’s a popular belief that there were no highways in Britain until the Romans came. Bunkum of course. There were tracks across Britain for thousands of years before the Roman arrived. It’s true that the Romans put down a few new stretches of highway, but for the most part they “improved” existing what was already there.
So when you walk a Roman road, don’t just think of the Romans, but the generations of earlier Britons who forged the first highways.