Hurtwood - in search of a Roman Road........

On Saturday 31 May 2003 a small unit of friends visited the Hurtwood in Surrey to investigate a track which follows a straight alignment across country between Winterfold (TQ 0664 4325) and Holmbury St Mary (TQ 1020 4404). After several apologies for non-availability, attendees were limited to (Sir) Mark and Ron, who enjoyed a gentle stroll through the Surrey countryside in the warm summer sunshine. The trip began at Winterfold Cottage (TQ 0637 4309) which is adjacent to the course of the Roman road which branches off Stane Street at Rowhook and heads for the temple on Farley Heath. Early OS maps show that the trackway we were investigating extended this far west in the 1870s, but there is now no sign on the ground of this extension. The cottage, which is now hidden behind high hedges and fences (and has been extended at its north end), occupies a substantial area of levelled ground, a rarity in these parts. The 1871 6 inch OS map shows the site of the cottage as a clearing in the forest but no buildings. We made our way to the point on the alignment where it is occupied by modern tracks.

Forest Road

Wide footpath

The first part is a forest road but this soon curves away to the right and the track on the alignment becomes a wide footpath which dips into and out of a shallow valley.

dipping into valley

dipping out of valley

At the top it merges into another forest road which curves in from the right, but very soon they part company and a footpath continues straight ahead into a 30 metre deep valley.

modern track

climbing the slope At the bottom it crosses a modern track and then heads up over the spur of a hill, before descending into another valley.

In the bottom of this second valley it leaves what was until recent years Forestry Commission property and climbs the slope as simply a footpath, but at the top of the slope, while remaining legally a footpath it changes form.

Here (TQ 076 435), on a short stretch leading to a road, there is a clear impression of a rounded agger with a metalled surface, with side ditches. The width between the outer faces of the ditches is 7.40 metres and the metalled surface about 5m.

ditches are initially less pronounced

slight kink to avoid a patch which is damp On the far side of the road this form of construction continues, although the ditches are initially less pronounced . It makes a slight kink to avoid a patch which is damp even in summer (possibly a spring) , then runs straight for 500m in this form .

runs straight for 500m in this form

a stream has cut through the track

In the middle of this stretch a stream has cut through the track to a depth of 30cm or maybe a channel has been cut to allow water to escape. Near the far end of the stretch the width between the outer faces of the ditches is 8.0 metres. Across the road the track once more becomes a footpath as it descends into another 30m deep valley and then re-emerges onto a forest road at the top on the other side.

track once more becomes a footpath

agger effect is much less pronounced here The agger effect is much less pronounced here, which may be due to recent forestry work, but the ditches are still apparent. Beyond this point the track becomes a footpath once more as it starts its descent into a steeplysided 50 metre deep valley. In places the path has been cut deep by running water

the track becomes a footpath once more

path has been cut deep by running water Here it leaves the alignment and cuts across the slope to reach the road at Gasson Farm. The reason for this divergence is to allow the steeper slope on the far side of the valley to be climbed more easily. Even with this device the gradient is still substantial .

At the top of the climb the track crosses a road and rejoins precisely the same alignment as before Once again, the agger-like form with prominent side ditches is apparent .

same alignment as before

prominent side ditches is apparent At this point the track leaves the alignment. It heads NNE for 200 metres, then takes up a line parallel to its previous alignment. By doing this, it avoids an unnecessary climb over a spur of high ground and instead follows a line which would have passed through the centre of what is now Holmbury St Mary .

Here the track and the alignment come to an end, and we retired to a local hostelry for badlyneeded refreshment. On the way back we decided to visit Holmbury Iron Age hillfort, its banks and ditches still prominent We then continued over the neighbouring hilltop of Pitch Hill and returned to Winterfold past Ewhurst windmill , pausing to explore the spot where the Rowhook to Farley Heath Roman road emerges onto Winterfold Heath

Roman road emerges onto Winterfold Heath

We also explored a substantial terraceway which descends the western scarp slope of Winterfold, leading down into the valley of the Bramley Wey.

Is the trackway we followed a Roman road?
Well, we concluded that (1) substantial parts of it display the characteristic shape of an agger with side ditches; (2) it follows a remarkably straight alignment across very rough and deeply valleyed countryside; (3) there appears to be no other purpose or function for which a straight track is needed in this area, nor any indication of any sensible way in which it might have been used; (4) the resumption of the alignment on the far side of a 50 metre deep, steeply-sided valley is especially noteworthy. An interesting day.

report and photos by Ron Strutt
 

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