Volume 8 - Down the Roman Road to Edgware

R S Brown, 1976

pages 12, 13

Edgware Road
(Watling Street)

The Borough of Harrow is bordered to the north by the County of Hertfordshire; to the west by the London Borough of Hillingdon, to the south by the London Borough of Ealing and to the east by the Roman road from Marble Arch called Watling Street - now known as Edgware Road.

Edgware Road: - every motorist knows that this highway provides the straightest (if not the quickest) route out of central London to districts north west of the capital.  It also leads straight to Edgware - the one-time village which is the subject of this volume.  Edgware High Street (about which a separate narrative follows) is a section of the Edgware Road and both are on the route of the Roman-built Watling Street which links up with Brockley Hill, thought to be the Roman station called 'Sulloniacae', built some two thousand years ago.

Watling Street was one of the main lines of advance by the Roman armies as they pushed north and west across England.  During the first hundred years of Roman occupation, the Watling Street route was simply a track worn by the feet of marching men and wheeled vehicles.  When the Romans embarked upon their ambitious road-building programme, Watling Street was to become one of the four most important highways in England (the others being Ermine Street, Fosse Way and Icknield Way) extending north west from Rutupiae (Rich borough) - the port of entry on the Isle of Thanet - through Durovernum (Canterbury), Durobrivae (Rochester), Londinium (London) Verulamium (St Albans), Deva (Chester) and on to Viroconium (Wroxeter).

Roman supplies and equipment were moved either by sea or across land via tracks and lanes which penetrated forests ind surmounted hills.  But the latter method encouraged attacks by hostile tribes adopting guerilla tactics and the need to build proper, metalled roads with a suitable clearance away from the forests became more pressing.

The Roman central government planned and engineered the new highways but local authorities were obliged to provide materials, labour and subsequent maintenace.  The roads were usually constructed on causeways to prevent flooding and a surface of gravel, flint or local stone was supported by several layers of foundation material.  Drainage was achieved by ditching and banking on either side and the width extended to not less than 25 feet.  Tall cylindrical milestones were inserted at appropriate intervals along the cambered flanks.

All roads were built with military accessibilty in mind and the intention was to penetrate to the most forward areas: these enormous construction projects were vastly expensive, comparable to the building of 20th century motorways but without the advantage of modern machinery and technical knowledge.  Along the roads ran the government postal service with provision at twelve-mile intervals for horse-changing stations and rest areas for troops including food and fuel stores.  In addition a network of forts extended across occupied territory: these soon became sites for civilian settlements where trade developed to provide troops with food, drink and entertainment.

When Roman domination finally ended there were 5,000 miles of roads in Britain, mostly very straight since Roman surveyors believed in seeking the shortest route between two points.  The stretch of Watling Street (which incidentally is a Saxon name) from London to Wroxeter is still in use and is evidence of the excellent siting of the Roman road.

It was mentioned in the Preamble that Edgware may have developed in the form of a pool of employees for the Brockley Hill industries but alternatively it may have originally been a Roman highway station.  It is a considered view that the Roman XIV Legion advanced along the line of Watling Street; but had they been reincarnated nearly a thousand years on, a toll would have been demanded by the local authorities to help pay for repairs.  Turnpiking was introduced early in the 18th century to pay for resurfacing and pavage.   For six months of the year the road was impassable with nine inches of mud turning the highway into a quagmire.  The Duke of Chandos is thought to have instigated some major improvements to a section of the road to give suitable access to his huge mansion at Canons.

It seems likely that conditions had become more amenable by the end of the 18th century when three coaches (including a Stage) were travelling daily between Edgware and London and half a century later nine horse buses each day were operating along this route.   In 1872 the highway ceased to be a turnpike.

Seven hundred years ago the Anglo-Saxon vill extended as far as Aldenham and Bushey but by the end of the 19th century the village was concentrated in the area between the bridge over the brook (see earlier map) and the Parish church.  The nearest hamlets were Pipers Green, Edgwarebury and Little Stanmore.