Chester has always lain at the convergence of many roadways, both national and local, which have both reflected and reinforced its standing as a regional capital. Roman Chester was the focal point of Roman military roads in northwest Britain, several stretches of which are still in use. Crossings of rivers were also re-used over the centuries. In the Middle Ages political considerations made Chester an important staging post for north Wales and Ireland. The Gough Map of c. 1360 depicted the London-Chester-Caernarfon and the Bristol-Chester roads, the latter one of the few non-London roads shown. The most important local roads were the saltways connecting Chester with Northwich, Middlewich, and Nantwich. The main roads were improved and in some cases realigned under turnpike Acts passed between 1743 and 1787. They generally became the trunk and major roads of the 20th century, the busier ones being replaced by motorways or dual carriageways from the 1970s.
- 1 "Roads" before Rome
- 2 Roman Roads
- 3 Medieval
- 4 Civil War
- 5 Turnpike
- 6 Modern
- 7 Related Articles
- 8 Sources and Links
"Roads" before Rome
Prior to the Roman conquest of Britain, pre-Roman Britons mostly used unpaved trackways for travel. In some parts of the country, these routes, many of which had prehistoric origins, followed elevated ridge lines across hills, e.g. South Downs Way. Although most routes were unpaved tracks, some British tribes had begun engineering roads during the first century BC. Archaeologists working at a quarry in Shropshire have found a metalled and cambered road dated to the first century BC – around 100 years before the Roman invasion. However the majority of Iron Age roads were probably simple beaten tracks. Nevertheless, people still had to get around. Comodities such as flint and metals, and in particular tin, copper and salt, only available in certain places, but needed in others, were traded over long distances. Studies of remains such as that of the Amesbury Archer, found near Stonehenge, show that he grew up in the Lake District or North Wales. Chester and it's immediate surroundings are at what may well be an important cross-roads between the copper-producing areas of North Wales and the salt-producing areas to the east of Cheshire. The connection is particularly well illustrated by the discovery at Beeston Castle of archaeological remains associated with both copper and salt.
Shortly before the Roman invasion the Cornovii lived principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the Welsh county of Powys. Their "capital" in pre-Roman times was possibly a hill fort on The Wrekin, although they may have had a widely dispersed culture with no "capital" as such. Ptolemy's 2nd century "Geography" names two of their towns: which he calls Deva Victrix (Chester), and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter), the second of which became their capital under Roman rule. Their territory was bordered by the Brigantes to the North, the Corieltauvi to the East, the Dobunni to the South, and the Deceangli, and Ordovices to the West. The tribe developed no known coinage, but their control of the south-Cheshire salt-making industry and parts of its distribution network probably gave them a fair degree of wealth, multiplied by trading and cattle breeding. However, their economy was mainly a pastoral one. Since the early Iron Age they had had at least a partial network of paved and semi-paved roads good enough to transport their famous chariots.
The archeological period in which bronze was the hardest metal in widespread use is known as the Bronze Age - although some have suggested that the Bronze Age should begin with the use of copper as the first toolmaking metal. The beginning of the Bronze Age in India and western Eurasia is conventionally dated to the mid-4th millennium BC, and to the early 2nd millennium BC in China. An ancient civilization is defined to be in the Bronze Age either by producing bronze by smelting its own copper and alloying with tin, arsenic, or other metals, or by trading for bronze from production areas elsewhere. Bronze itself is harder and more durable than other materials available at the time (such as stone and copper), allowing Bronze Age civilizations to gain a technological advantage. In the Bronze Age, two forms of bronze were commonly used: "classic bronze", about 10% tin, was used in casting; and "mild bronze", about 6% tin, was hammered from ingots to make sheets. Bladed weapons were mostly cast from classic bronze, while helmets and armor were hammered from mild bronze. The fact that two different alloys were used for different purposes shows the degree of sophistication in metallurgy at the time. The specific make-up of the alloy can be used to link artifacts to their mine source. Early tin was produced from rich alluvial deposits of Cassiterite, mainly found in West Cornwall, as well as St. Austell and Bodmin. Tin is not known to occur in useful mineral sources in Wales, although it occurs in trace levels (max 0.001%) in rocks near Snowdon. Copper occurs together with tin in Cornwall, but there are separate deposits of copper ore elsewhere.
There is no complete consensus as to the beginning of "Bronze Age Britain". Copper objects (daggers, axes) first appeared in Britain around 2,400BC and were associated with people arriving from continental Europe. The first mining of copper in the UK may have been at Ross Island, Killarney. Large-scale human activity on the Great Orme began around 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, with the opening of several copper mines. The Great Orme is a peninsula made mostly of limestone and dolomite, formed during the Early Carboniferous part of the Earth's geological history. Most of the Great Orme's rocks are between 339 and 326 million years old. There are also rich seams of dolomite-hosted copper ore. The copper ore malachite was mined using stones and bone (antler) tools. It is estimated that up to 1,760 tonnes of copper was mined during the period. The mine was most productive in the period between 1700BC and 1400BC, after which most of the readily accessible copper had been extracted. The site was so productive that by 1600BC, there were no other copper mines left open in Britain because they could not compete with the Great Orme. Experts from the University of Liverpool now believe there was a bonanza, particularly from 1600-1400 BC, with artefacts (such as "Palstave Axes") found as far afield as Sweden, France and Germany - from Britanny to the Baltic. The mining operations at the Great Orme probably involved a full-time mining community of over 100. At the time it is thought the whole population of the whole UK numbered only in the hundreds of thousands.
The Celtic tribe inhabiting the area which included the Great Orme in pre-Roman times were the Deceangli. Their territory extended into west Cheshire, but how far is not clear. Metal extraction and working seems to have been a major industry for them: Roman mine workings of lead and silver are evident in the regions occupied by the Deceangli. Several sows of lead have been found in Chester, one (found in the River Dee) weighing 192 lbs bears the markings: IMP VESP AVGV T IMP III DECEANGI. Another, found near Tarvin Bridge, weighing 179 lbs is inscribed: IMP VESP V T IMP III COS DECEANGI and is dated to AD 74. Both are displayed in the Grosvenor Museum.
The wealth generated by the Great Orme mine may have been responsible for the creation of the Mold cape, a solid sheet-gold object dating from about 1900–1600 BC in the European Bronze Age. It was found at Mold in Flintshire, in 1833. The cape is considered to be one of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working yet discovered. An estimated 200–300 amber beads, in rows, were on the cape originally, but only a single bead survives at the British Museum. However the presence of these amber beads further supports the view that the makers were engaged in long-distance trade. Amber is found in quantity at some places on the North Sea coast and in the Baltic.
Though bronze is generally harder than wrought iron, with Vickers hardness of 60–258 vs. 30–80, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age after a serious disruption of the tin trade: the population migrations of around 1200–1100 BC reduced the shipping of tin around the Mediterranean and from Britain, limiting supplies and raising prices. As the art of working in iron improved, iron became cheaper and improved in quality. The actual details of the end of the Bronze Age, known as the "Bronze Age Collapse" are not well understood. In Britain the change is evident around 1200 BC. The upland regions, which had been intensively occupied during the climatic optimum of the Earlier Bronze Age, were now abandoned. Burials virtually disappear from the archaeological record, having been the most common form of Earlier Bronze Age site. Small hilltop enclosures are found, consisting of a double ring of ditches. Larger hilltop enclosures (generally known as hillforts) were also occupied in this period. The site at Beeston Castle is one of the very few such sites that can be shown to have been constructed before about 1000 BC.
Salt and "Cheshire Very Coarse Pottery"
While the people living to the west of Chester had wealth in terms of Copper and Bronze, those to the east of the River Dee had equally portable and valuable salt.
Rock salt was laid down in Cheshire some 220 million years ago, during the Triassic period. Seawater moved inland from an open sea, creating a chain of shallow salt marshes across what is today the Cheshire basin. As the marshes evaporated, deep deposits of rock salt were formed. Until the late 20th century the inland pre-Roman salt industry of North West England was almost completely invisible archaeologically. No production site had been excavated and there was no evidence for a specific type of pottery or other paraphenalia for salt-makinh known as "salt briquetage" from this period. The Cheshire Roman Salt industry was first identified by W T Watkin in the 1850s (Thompson 1965; Watkin 1886, 291-3), yet it was not until the mid-1980s that the existence of an Iron Age precursor was finally confirmed.
The type of pottery in question is known as Cheshire VCP which is an abbreviation for Very Coarse Pottery. It has also been found in North Wales and the northern and central Welsh Marches area and dates from approximately 500 BC to the middle of the first century AD. Salt production has been a way of life in Cheshire since the Iron Age and these vessels served as crude containers for the final drying and transportation of salt from brine spring sources to settlements in the area - many have been found at Poulton near Pulford. The distribution of salt suggests an extensive exchange network in the second half of the first millennium BC across North Wales, north west England and northern Midlands. The salt was used for preservation such as salting meat, for making cheese and preserving hides. The pots are handmade, generally orange in colour and fired at a low temperature. They are described as ‘coarse’ because within the clay there are pieces of quartz and rock. Unfortunately we don’t know exactly where the vessels were made but scientific analysis of the clays suggest they were manufactured in the Nantwich – Middlewich area. The small bases and flaring conical rims make them suitable as evaporation containers for drying out the salt. There are no soot or food deposits found on them as would be expected on cooking pots and jars – which are usually a shape suited to reducing evaporation during cooking and usually grey, black or brown in colour.
Sandstone Ridge - Conduit or Barrier?
Alternative theories have been put forward as to why there is a string of forts along the Sandstone Ridge. One group of theories believes that there was prehistoric commerce along a "ridgeway" which followed the high ground (rather like the Sandstone Trail) and that the forts provided safe trading and stopping places for commerce moving along the ridge. Another cluster of theories asserts that the forts were there to defend the "choke points" around the north and south ends of the ridge and through the passes/gaps. Some of these explanations appear to assume that the whole string of forts was occupied at the same time and that may have not been the case. It has been suggested that the increasing use of iron led to social changes in prehistoric Britain: deposits of iron ore were located in different places to the tin and copper ore necessary to make bronze. As a result trading patterns shifted and the old elites lost their economic and social status: as power passed into the hands of a new group of people and this social unrest led to the construction of defensive sites. It has also been argued that the hillforts could have been military sites constructed in response to invasion from continental Europe, sites built by invaders, or a military reaction to social tensions caused by an increasing population and consequent pressure on agriculture. Yet another theory is that the hill-forts first sprang-up as ritual enclosures in the stone-age (6000 years ago) but were re-purposed when bronze was introduced (and possibly, given thst burial customs changed there was probsbly also social change) or that they were fortified as the climate deteriorated during the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (some 3000 years ago) - putting pressure on society. Some evidence supports the idea that many ‘hillforts’ were abandoned as society changed in the middle to late Iron Age (after 400 BC). Whether the hill-forts plsyed any part in the regulation of the transport of salt across the Sandstone Ridge is undecided, although they do appear to be arranged to do this: fragments of pottery vessels of a kind believed to have been used to extract and transport salt (the Cheshire VCP) have been found at some of them, but they could have been the property of users of salt rather than evidence of a through-trade.
If, as seems the case, the bronze and the salt were controlled by two different tribes (Deceangli and Cornovii), then there would have to be a border between them. Just where this border and it's main crossings were is not clear. It could have been on the River Dee, the Gowy or the Weaver. To complicate matters, a vein of copper occurs along the eastern edge of the Bickerton Hills. As yet, there is no evidence of prehistoric mining. But it’s possible that the prehistoric hillforts that dot the sandstone ridge may be linked to early copper mining, smelting and metalworking. Clear evidence of Bronze Age metalworking has been found on Beeston Crag (the site of present day Beeston Castle) and it’s conceivable that the copper was mined locally. Copper was mined on and off beneath the Bickerton Hills from the 17th century onwards, but with a notable lack of real success. A Grade II listed engine house chimney is all that remains of the original mine buildings, which were demolished in the 1930s. Close to Gallantry Bank, the chimney can still be visited today.
The British Iron Age is generally taken to have ended with the arrival of the Romans. This is a political transition rather than a technological one as tools and weapons continued to be made of iron
Beginning in 43 AD, the Romans quickly created a national road network. Engineers from the Roman Army - in most cases - surveyed and built them, often from scratch. Key locations, both strategic and administrative, were connected by the most direct routes possible. Main roads were gravel or paved, had bridges constructed in stone or wood, and manned waypoints where travellers or military units could stop and rest. The roads' impermeable design permitted travel in all seasons and weather. Roman roads were constructed from stones, tiles and flint with a cement and aggregate binding. Typically they had kerbs and drains to prevent the edges breaking-up and, although they provided a surface for all weathers and were capable of carrying slow moving wheeled traffic, although most traffic was on foot or pack animals. Traffic weights remained light as wheeled vehicles were hauled by dray animals wearing yokes. The halter, or horse collar, which allowed greater speed and traction, was not invented until much later, and only spread to Europe c920. The Scandinavians were among the first to utilize a horse collar that did not constrain the breathing passages of the horses. Prior to this development, oxen still remained the primary choice of animal for farm labor, as all the previous harnesses and collars could only be worn by them without physical penalty. Additionally, the yoke used to harness oxen were made exclusive to each individual animal.
The precise course of Roman Roads leading to Chester has been the subject of considerable debate. The routes which lead in the four principal directions are discussed below:
Watling Street (Margary 6a and Margary 6aa)
- "Higden, the Monk of Chester, though he describes the course of Watling Street with considerable fulness, does not say that it led to Chester. Horsley had been informed that Watling Street, or a branch of it, went by Newport and Whitchurch from Wall to Chester, and that it appeared in several places. It would seem, however, that the road struck northward from Watling Street at the boundary between the counties of Stafford and Shropshire, close to where Uxacona must have been. At one mile west of Eston-under‑Lizard the Newport road is followed by a parish boundary for •three-quarters of a mile from Watling Street, which is here a parish and county boundary, and three and a quarter miles further on the road bears the name of Pave Lane, and is marked on the new Ordnance map as a Roman road, leading through Chetwynd Aston to Newport, three miles north of which the modern road, pointing straight to Newport, is followed for a mile by parish boundaries. At Standford Bridge, over the river Meese, a road called the Long Ford is entered upon, which continues for eight miles by Hinstock to Bletchley, parish boundaries following it for most of the way. Beyond Bletchley the course is lost, but it seems to have gone through Whitchurch to Malpas, whence the modern road, followed for two miles by parish boundaries, runs on straight to Tilston. A mile further on is Stretton, where Horsley placed Bovium, and then there is no trace for five miles. The line is picked up at Aldford, where a paved causeway is said to be visible at the river Dee at low water. Between the Dee and Chester, Stukeley observed the remains of the Roman road. It runs straight for four miles to Chester through Eaton Park, where it is still to be traced, and along the Eccleston Road, where the pavement was broken through in 1884 for a considerable distance. The road appears to have crossed the Dee between Dee Bridge and Chester Castle, in the direction of Bridge Street." (Codrington, 1903)
Watling Street began as an ancient trackway first used by the Britons, mainly between the areas of modern Canterbury and St Albans using a natural ford near Westminster. The Romans later paved the route, which then connected the Kentish ports of Dubris (Dover), Rutupiae (Richborough), Lemanis (Lympne), and Regulbium (Reculver) to their bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest through Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Viroconium (Wroxeter). The Romans considered the continuation on to Blatobulgium (Birrens) beyond Hadrian's Wall to be part of the same route. The modern name instead derives from the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt, from a time when "street" (Latin: via strata) referred to any paved road and had no particular association with urban thoroughfares. The Waeclingas ("people of Waecla") were a tribe in the St Albans area in the early medieval period with an early name of the city being "Waetlingacaester", which would translate into modern English as "Watlingchester".
The Roman road left the south gate of the fortress at Roman Chester and crossed the River Dee at approximately the same point as the Old Dee Bridge. It then runs south of same line as the present Eaton Road. At Heronbridge the Roman road runs slightly east of present road. The road appears to have changed direction slightly c.1.6 km south of the centre of Eccleston. Alignment continued through Eaton Hall Park, where it crosses the Dee to the north of Aldford Church, by a ford. South of the river it is marked by a track between two rows of old thorn trees up to the south side of the castle motte close to the church. The road appears as a terrace just south and independent of the motte's earthworks and then as a large agger running up to the churchyard. At the church a change of alignment is made to SSE, marked by a line of hedgerows with old oaks and with traces of the agger and then by a green lane continued by more hedgerows with clear remains of an agger 24ft wide and 1 ft high. This can be seen where Edgerley Lane crosses it (SJ43055675 - see map on left below). To the south the agger lies mainly to the east of the hedge. The hedgerow line continues nearly to the Farndon-Barton Road and a parish boundary follows it. The road then proceeds through Barton to Stretton, then after another turn to the SE, the course is taken up for 5 miles by the road through Tilston and Malpas. At Kidnall Hill the old road is sunken and rough. Just beyond Malpas the straight road ends.
..to Wirral (Margary 670)
Is this really a Roman road? There is less than 3 km of possible road at Street Hey, near Willaston. No one has found a convincing route back to Chester and even Lidar has not really helped. In the other direction it is a similar story with suggested destinations of Meols and/or Birkenhead also producing no likely road. Watkin (Roman Cheshire) records a very substantial bridge at Birkenhead: so massive and old that he concluded it must have been built by the Romans.
- "From Deva Iter XI of Antonine goes by Varae and Conovium to Segontium. The road appears to have branches from the road leading to Chester from the south after it had crossed the river Dee near Aldford, thus avoiding the Saltney Marshes on the south and west of Chester. The course according to Mr. Shrubsole is along the present road by Poulton Hall, Pulford, and Dodleston to Hawarden, where a road branched to Bala. The pavement has been found in a few places, and at Hawarden the course can be traced for several hundred yards, passing near the castle, by the church, and through the p88 vicarage grounds. Mr. Shrubsole continues it by Kesterton to Greenfield and Flint, and thence to Caerwys, where he places Varae, 32 M.P. from Deva, and 29½ miles from Chester by the course followed. Camden, probably led by sound, placed Varae at Bodfari, where there are no traces of Roman occupation; and Gale altered the Itinerary distance to 22 M.P. to suit a direct course from Chester. Conovium is placed at Caerhun on the river Conway, where the site of a Roman camp could formerly be traced, and from which in 1846 a raised turf road was traced, by Bwlch-y‑Ddwyfarn, and along the hillside above Llydiart-y‑Mynydd towards Aber. This road is shown on the Ordnance map for four miles to Maes-y‑gaer near Aber, a large camp apparently not Roman. Traces of the road are lost on reaching the enclosed ground, and the name Henffordd (old road) near Aber seems to be the only indication of the course to Segontium, near the mouth of the river Seiont at Carnarvon, where the Roman station is plainly traceable." (Codrington, 1903)
The Roman roads into north Wales left the London road some way south of the fortress at Chester in order to avoid the marshes around Saltney. The more southerly of the two routes, to Caer Gai, is largely marked by modern roads. The more northerly ran parallel to the north Wales coast from Balderton to Holywell, then turned west across the mountains to Caernarfon.
..to Wilderspool (Margary 701)
- "A Roman road is supposed to have left Chester by the north gate, now represented by "The Street" or "Back Street" from Hoole, in the direction of Helsby Hill; and to be traceable towards the ford at Bridge Trafford. It is continued on by Denham, Frodsham, and Preston-on‑the‑Hill, beyond which the present road carries on the line for three miles towards Wilderspool. p90 It would there have crossed the Mersey with Kind Street to Wigan and the north." (Codrington, 1903)
Parts of this road have since been incorporated into the modern road system as the A56, whereas other parts have developed into mimor roads. Coming out of Roman Chester, there is some debate about the initial route of the Roman Road. As noted above, Codrington has it come down modern day George Street then link up with Hoole Road. This makes sense if the road was used for goods rather than for military purposes. A Roman Army would have superstitions about the "Porta Decumana" (which derives from it being close to the billets of the tenth wing of the Legion). It was from this gate that soldiers convicted of serious crimes, such as desertion, were led out from the camp to be executed. No Roman Legion would willingly march off to war through the Northgate. Supplies were supposed to come in through it and so it was also called, descriptively, the "Porta Quaestoria" (Quartermaster's gate), which fits with the suggested status as a supply road rather than a part of the major road system.
Roman activity at Wilderspool was first identified in 1770, when finds were recovered during the excavation of the Bridgewater Canal through Stockton Heath (Thompson 1965, 68). However, it was during the cutting of the Old Quay Canal in 1801-3 that the first significant structural remains of Roman Wilderspool were discovered (Watkin 1886, 261). Later work has revealed that Wilderspool was a major Roman industrial site.
..to Manchester (Margary 7a)
- "The Roman road from Chester to Northwich and Manchester, called Watling Street, was on the line of the present road for four miles to Stamford Bridge, and then along a highway with a parish boundary for another mile, pointing straight to Edisbury Hill (460′‑550′) in Delamere Forest. After an interval of a mile, a road with a parish boundary along it for three-quarters of a mile east of Salter's Brook takes up the line. Mr. Robson traced the road through Delamere Forest before it was effaced by deforesting operations. At the west of the forest he describes the ridge as being more or less distinctly marked for half-a‑mile, nine or ten yards across, with a well-marked crown, and shallow ditches and traces of mounds beyond them on each side. There was a thickness of 18 inches of solid gravel. Traces appeared after a mile and a half in the same course. At Edisbury Hill there is a slight turn, and the line is taken by a lane, and where that joins the road to Delamere railway-station the Roman road was cut through two feet beneath the surface in laying the Vyrnwy water-main. It is visible on the east of the road, and in about a mile and a half the Northwich road rejoins it for a short distance, and the ridge is traceable onwards on the north of the road to Sandiway, from which onwards the present road seems to follow very nearly the course of the Roman road on to Northwich, where remains have been found in several places." (Codrington, 1903)
The Romans exploited the reserves of salt in Cheshire. A settlement, Condate, was built during Roman times at the current location of Northwich. It is believed that the Romans built this settlement due to the strategic river crossing of the Weaver and the presence of the brine springs. The Romans used lead salt pans to extract the salt from the brine. Salt pans and first-century brine kilns have both been found around the Roman fort. Middlewich was named Salinae by the Romans on account of the salt deposits around it, as it was one of their major sites of salt production. During this time the Romans built a fort at Harbutts Field, to the north of the town and recent excavations to the south of the fort have found evidence of further Roman activity including a well and part of a preserved Roman road. Roman Middlewich was a junction between seven major Roman roads, and it has been known as "Medius Vicus" (the town at the junction of the roads) in the past - possibly the origins of the modern name.
During the Middle Ages, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were driven from the western areas of Wales as far as the Midland towns of England and even as far as London and Kent. Distances were covered slowly to allow the cattle to graze along the way. To save the feet and hooves of the animals' shoes were applied by blacksmiths along the way. Even geese had their webbed feet coated with tar and crushed oyster shell to reduce the wear and tear. Pigs had the luxury of woollen socks with leather soles. The drovers became providers of trade to farmers who set up rest places on their lands for overnight stops to rest the animals and provide shelter for the cattlemen. On regular routes inns were established, supplying food and drink to travellers. Scots pine trees were planted at these stopping points to guide the oncoming herds. A common charge for overnight grazing was 1/2d per animal; fields and places today still bear the name "half-penny field".
There appears to have been no effective management of the main road system after the Romans left, although, prior to the reign of Edward I, individual householders were supposed to repair the street next to their property. Towards the end of the 13th century town councils started to take over highway responsibilities but the standards of construction and repair were generally poor with new material often simply dumped on top of old.
The traveller from the north crossed the Mersey at Warrington, the Weaver at Frodsham, and passed along the low-lying plain into Chester. From the north-east and east, he came along the Watling Street, crossing the Weaver at Northwich, passing through the narrow gap at Kelsall, leaving the Roman road for two or three miles near Tarvin, but rejoining it at Stamford Bridge, and thence to Chester. Several routes from the south converge on Nantwich, whence the road ran through the “passage” of Tarporley1 to Chester. A fourth road crossed the Dee at Holt and passed along the right bank of the river through Aldford into Chester. On the western side of the Dee the road from Chester branched out to Flint, Rhuddlan, Conway and Anglesey, to Mold and Denbigh and to Central Wales. One important highway passed through the county without touching Chester. The road from Lancashire to London crossed Warrington bridge and then proceeded via Northwich and Middlewich to Newcastle-under-Lyme, while another—though less important—road, skirting the Pennine uplands, passed from Macclesfield through Congleton to Newcastle-under-Lyme.
The roads already mentioned may be considered the main arteries of traffic in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were of sufficient importance to have bridges where they crossed the larger rivers. Bridges, however, were few, and many of the less important roads crossed both streams and rivers at fords. The Dee, for example, could be crossed at several points, though, according to Higden, it was believed that the fords frequently changed.
"Offa Dike" cuts accross the communication routes into Wales and presents no end of issues as regards its date and purpose. In terms of structure, it has a ditch on the Welsh side and a bank on the English side, which seems to suggest that it is an English built structure. Beyond that things get a lot more murky. The association with Offa (a noted Mercian ruler) comes from Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great who wrote:
- "a certain vigorous king called Offa ... had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea"
However, "Ofer" means "border" or "edge" in Old English, giving rise to the possibility of alternative derivations, and there are sugestions from archaeology that the dyke is somewhat older than the reign of Offa. At one extreme it could be a "hard border", or on the other hand a permiable boundary with "customs" posts.
Travel by roadwas not entirely safe. Large parts of the county became at times unsafe for peaceful trading. A letter patent of 20 Edward II to the justice of Chester, refers to "the large number of banished and outlawed persons now congregated in the woods, passes and other places of those parts," and to "the crimes committed by them and the confederacies whereby they escape arrest." A proclamation of 1362 states that "bodies of armed men travelled the country (of Cheshire), committing felonies and trespasses," while in the reign of Richard II, commission after commission was appointed to arrest "disturbers of the peace", and "malefactors" who "wandered about the county to the terror of the inhabitants".
The Roman road to London left Chester by the south gate of the fortress, bridged the Dee just next to the Old Dee Bridge, passed through a small Roman settlement at Heronbridge, and recrossed the river at Aldford. A direct line took it to Wroxeter (Salop.) on Watling Street via Tilston and Malpas, and thus on to London. Watling Street was used as a boundary in the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum and it is often inferred that this made the road the SW boundary of the Danelaw. It is still the boundary of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, and this may be a legacy of the treaty between Alfred and the Danes. In Cheshire the few lengths followed by modern roads include that between Handbridge and Eaton park. By 1315 the main Whitchurch road bypassed Aldford altogether, following a line through Boughton and Christleton and then east of the modern main road to No Man's Heath. The Roman road was disused by the later 14th century, when the London road went instead over the Gowy at Stamford Bridge to Nantwich, Woore (Salop.), and Stone (Staffs.), where it converged with the road from Carlisle and the North to become one of the main national thoroughfares.
In the Middle Ages the Northwich-Chester section, diverted through Kelsall and Tarvin, was a saltway also known as 'Lynstrete', 'the road to the Lyme'. In the late 16th century it was regarded as the way not only to Manchester but to cross the Pennines. Its condition may have been poor, since by the late 17th century the preferred route to Manchester went instead through Frodsham, Warrington, and Salford. The road via Northwich and Altrincham was turnpiked in stages between 1753 and 1769 and thereafter the two routes were probably regarded as alternatives. In the 1370s the road to Manchester through Frodsham and Warrington left Chester by the Northgate and turned right along Bag Lane (later George Street), but later the route went from the Eastgate along Cow Lane, a road which in the 19th century was successively renamed Warrington Street and Frodsham Street. Beyond Flookersbrook bridge the original course was along the line later taken by Kilmorey Park, Newton Hollows, Mannings Lane, and the Street as far as Trafford Bridge.
The ruined Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis lies near the confluence of the Eglwyseg and the Dee north of Llangollen, and was founded by Madog ap Gruffydd on 28th January 1201 as a colony of Strata Marcella near Welshpool. The now ruined abbey buildings are typical of many Cistercian foundations, lying in a secluded river valley surrounded by farmland. The Pillar of Eliseg, the base of a stone "cross" prominently sited in the Eglwyseg valley, was (according to its inscription) erected in the first half of the 9th century by Cyngen ap Cadell in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg (who was probably known as Elisedd ap Gwylog). In 1696 the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded the original inscription, before it had deteriorated to its now largely illegible state. The inscription traced the perhaps part legendary descent of the royal house of Powys from the early 5th-century king Gwrtheyrn ("Vortigern"), the late 4th century Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), and a religious blessing from St Germanus of Auxerre, thus laying down political and territorial claims reaching back to the late Roman world - see the Dark Ages article on the Romano-British for more. According to tradition, Magnus married Elen Luyddog - "Elen of the Hosts", who is associated with the building of many "Roman Roads" in Wales (some of which are prehistoric trackways - such as the "Ffordd Gam Elin" which runs from the earthworks at Caer Bont further up the Dee to the cairn/circle on the summit of Cader Bronwen). Elen and Magnus Maximus turn up in a garbled form in the Nativity Play of the Chester Mystery Cycle. The pillar was knocked down during the Civil War and was re-erected in 1779 by Trevor Lloyd of Trevor Hall. At that time the area was carefully examined, thinking that it might be Eliseg's final resting place. The remains of a very tall man and a silver coin were supposedly found there but his identity remains a mystery. A witness said the skeleton's bones 'broke like gingerbread' when exhumed.
By the 14th century the North Welsh route followed the coast to Flint, Rhuddlan (Flints.), Conwy (Caern.), and Bangor (Caern.). In the later 16th century it took a long inland detour from Flint to Denbigh and back to the coast at Conwy. By the 1670s the road left Chester by the Dee Bridge and Hough Green, crossed Saltney heath to Bretton (Flints.) and proceeded thence through Hawarden across Halkyn mountain to Denbigh. From there it followed what in the 20th century were minor and mostly unclassified roads, heading north-west to Bettws-yn-Rhos (Denb.), and then west to the Conwy ferry and eventually Holyhead.
The Salters Way
In an enquiry of 1339 (cited in Hanshall 1817) into the boundaries of Hoole Heath, the old saltersway of Kingswood Lane Saughall is described in 1339-40 as:
- "the king’s highway near Chester to lede the hooste of our Sovereign Lord the King in tyme of warre unto Shotwyk Ford".
This was not the only royal visit to Shotwick with what appears to be an army in train. In 1245 Henry III and his Queen came to Chester with a great army and almost all the nobles of England. After a week's stay, perhaps at Shotwick, the King set out for Wales and conducted an ineffective campaign against the Welsh. At the end of October he was back at Chester, and before he left on November 3rd it is recorded upon the patent rolls that on November ist he assigned to Owen, son of Griffin, "the houses of Shotwick," for the reception of him and his during pleasure. This was accompanied by a mandate to John de Grey, just appointed justiciar of Chester in place of Le Strange, to deliver the houses up.
Thus a description of a road ending at Shotwick is found in relation to the "refuge" on Hoole Heath, where those fleeing from outside the Palatinate could set up a shelter. The road seems to have been used not only for the transport of salt but also for troops. Why take the risk of crossing the estuary? Coward suggests that Edward I, or indeed the other king could not risk taking their armies and baggage train across the narrow and wooden Old Dee Bridge. Legend says that when King Edward I crossed over the then wooden bridge during his Welsh wars, he decreed that if a stone bridge was not constructed he would sack the city of Chester. He was clearly unhappy with the state of the bridge. A diversion around the south of the city would not have been possible as the City Walls came down to the River Dee. Passing through the City would have slowed an army considerably and provided a host of distractions. Taking an army around the north of the city and across the Dee sands would enable the army to arrive on the Welsh shore on a broad front.
The exact route of this "royal road" has not yet been determined. However it is possible to conjecture a route: a Salters Lane comes off The Street in Hoole due west of Mickle Trafford. This leads to Picton Gorse and if continues that line would lead to Acre's Lane, passing through Upton. At the end of Acres Lane is found the modern zoo, but older maps show the lane continuing to the head of "The Dale" near the Dale Camp. Even taking the alternative route through Upton one arrives (via Upton Hall) at a track leading down to the modern day canal. Once again the land has been much altered (by land-rasing and a golf course) but the track appears to have led to Mollington and from there down Fiddler's Lane and Lodge lane into Shotwick Park.
The road network of Cheshire played an important part in the Civil War. Geographically Cheshire lies between the Pennines and the Welsh hills and so whoever controlled Cheshire controlled the north – south corridor. For Parliament the control of Cheshire would mean separating the King's northern supporters from the King and his army at Oxford. It would also stop the King bringing in reinforcements from his "Irish army" through the port of Chester. Parliamentary commander Brereton's task was the capture Chester. To this end he placed troops on the principal roads leading to the city. The roads from the south were watched by the Nantwich forces, who captured and occupied Beeston Castle (20th Feb 1643). On the north Warrington Bridge was seized to prevent help coming from Lancashire or from Scotland, which remained loyal to Charles. Norton Priory and the Norman castle of Halton, already in ruins, were fortified and held by the Roundheads. A strong force was posted at Northwich which commanded the main road through Delamere Forest, thus completing a chain of garrisons along the valley of the Weaver from Nantwich to the Mersey. On the Welsh side the border castles of Holt on the Dee and Hawarden in the county of Flint were attacked and occupied by the Parliamentarians, who thus prevented the arrival of reinforcements from the west.
In effect, this made use of the ancient road network linking the salt-wiches and the Roman route into North Wales to form a ring around Chester around which troops could be moved as needed.
By the 1580s regular carriers by waggon and packhorse plied between Chester and London, then an eight-day journey. In the 1710s mail carriers ran from Chester to Liverpool, Manchester, Kendal (Westmld.), St. Asaph (Flints.), Oswestry (Salop.), and Oxford, among other places. By the 1790s there were three main depots for long-distance waggons, the Wool Hall in Northgate Street and two inns in Foregate Street, the Blossoms and the Hop Pole. Between them they sent goods daily to London, Birmingham, and Liverpool; thrice weekly to Wrexham, Whitchurch (Salop.), Warrington, Manchester, and Middlewich; and weekly to Oswestry and Shrewsbury. There was also a dense network of carrying services throughout north Wales, running weekly or less frequently to market towns as far distant as Beaumaris (Ang.), Caernarfon, Pwllheli (Caern.), Bala (Merion.), and Welshpool (Mont.). They used a different set of inns, especially the King's Head in Whitefriars and the White Bear and the Falcon in Lower Bridge Street.
Celia Fiennes worked up her notes of her trip to Chester into a travel memoir in 1702, which she never published, intending it for family reading. It provides a vivid portrait of a still largely unenclosed countryside with few and primitive roads, although signposts:
- "posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to"
.. were appearing. In the 1690's England and Wales had a population of about five million, and when the internal economy was still largely based on agricultural work and production, the British economy was already distinctive in the extent to which the proportion of the employed population primarily dependent on agriculture had declined.
Turnpike Trusts developed mainly in the eighteenth century, because the system of road maintenance, based on the Highway Act of 1555 2 and 3 Philip and Mary, c.8, and subsequent Acts which placed responsibility for road maintenance on individual parishes, had broken down. Turnpike Trusts were established to assume responsibility for a specific stretch of road. Each Trust was empowered by its own Act of Parliament to erect gates and toll houses, and to charge tolls for certain kinds of traffic. Laws were also passed (in 1744 and 1766) to make milestones compulsory, and later laws provided for the errection of signs (as noted by Fiennes) showing the distances to the nearest towns. The powers of Turnpike Trusts were generally granted for twenty one years, and could be renewed by the granting of a new Act. Payment did not always mean that the money was spent on the road: Celia Fiennes noted the following, but not of Cheshire where the first turnpike was not authorised until 1705:
- "... the road on the Causey was in many places full of holes, tho' it is served by a barr at which passengers pay a penny a horse in order to the mending of the way."
By the beginning of the nineteenth century Turnpike Trusts had become semi permanent local authorities, and an attempt was made to rationalise turnpike legislation by the General Turnpike Road Act of 1822 3 Geo. IV, c.126. The Trustees of the Chester and Whitchurch Road lost their powers within the city boundaries in 1845 with the passing of the Chester Improvement Act 8 and 9 Vict. c.15. Section 9 of this Act required Chester to appoint a surveyor to assume responsibility for roads within the city boundaries, and section 52 expressly forbade Turnpike Trustees from collecting tolls or repairing roads in Chester. In 1871 the Chester and Whitchurch Turnpike Trust amalgamated with the Farndon and Worthenbury Turnpike Trust, and the combined trust was dissolved in 1877.
Long-distance coaching was destroyed by the railways, but horse-drawn omnibuses continued to ply local routes not served by rail. In 1855 there were daily services for passengers to Mold, Ruthin, Flint, and Holywell (Flints.); Tarvin, Northwich, Knutsford, and Manchester; and Malpas and Whitchurch, all setting out from the Eastgate Inn. Tarporley, Tarvin, and Kelsall still had horse omnibuses from Chester twice a week in 1880.
Packhorse transport was used well into the 19th century. In Cheshire, it was used to transport salt, as many of the roads were too poor for wagons. A network of track-ways linked the salt producing towns of central Cheshire to towns across the Pennines in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. After the introduction of toll roads, some traders would use the remote routes to avoid paying the tolls. Only with the introduction of canals and rail travel did packhorse transport become redundant.
In 1676 and 1780 carts set out via Stamford Bridge but riders used an alternative 'horse road' through Christleton, crossing the Gowy further south at the bridge called Hockenhull Platts before rejoining the main road at Duddon heath. That remained the route in later centuries, heavily used by traffic for Shrewsbury and London.
Although the Hockenhull bridges are in England, they are not far from the Welsh border and it is likely that their name is derived from a combination of English and Welsh roots. "Platt" is an Old English word for "bridge" and is associated with "plank". "Hock" may come from the Welsh "hocan" which means to peddle or to sell abroad. "Hen" is Welsh for "old" and "hoel" (as in Hoole) means a paved way or road. It is therefore possible that Hockenhull Platts means "the bridges on the old peddlars' way". In the alternative the bridges may be named after a local family, or the family after the bridges, ther are arguments all ways (the same is true of Platts).
In 1353 when Edward, the Black Prince, crossed the bridges, he ordered that 20 shillings should be spent on their repair. In the 17th century the surface of the road was disintegrating so badly that posts were set into the road to prevent the passage of carts, and it could be used only by pedestrians and horses. As noted above carts took a different route. Goods were carried by convoys of packhorses led by a driver (or jagger) walking in front. The pioneer female traveller Celia Fiennes crossed the bridges in 1698, as did Thomas Pennant in 1780. The present bridges probably date from the latter part of the 18th century. In 1824 Cheshire County Council proposed to divert the road from Nantwich to Chester and make it pass along Platts Lane, which would have led to the destruction of the bridges. However the land on which they stood belonged to the Marquess of Westminster, and he refused permission for the road to be diverted. Today (2020), Hockenhull Platts consists of three humpback bridges which are approached and connected by causeways. The bridges are constructed from tooled blocks of red sandstone. The parapets are plain and are surmounted by chamfered coping stones which are joined by iron ties. The carriageway is formed from a mixture of stone setts and cobbles.
At Duddon, the road passes the site of the "Headless Woman", a pub now gone. There are at least two different local legends about this. In the first the woman was called Dorothy and accidentally decapitated by her father while he was trying to save her from the Roundheads. In the other the woman is called Grace, and, during the Civil War, when the Parliamentarians were getting close, the Hockenhulls (a Royalist family) left Grace the maid in charge of their house and treasure. Despite torture, she refused to say where it was hidden and had her head taken off as a result: i.e. they chopped the head off the only person who could tell them where the treasure was. Of course, her ghost wanders round with her head in her hands, haunting the area to this very day. There used to be a headless woman figure standing in the pub car park many years ago: a ship's figurehead modified with a saw and some red paint. One day it disappeared - stolen. Now the pub has gone too, having been converted into residential use in 2018. There are a host of variants on the same story and numerous other hauntings were associated with the pub.
The London road was turnpiked from Staffordshire southwards by the 1720s, and from Chester to the Staffordshire border in 1743. The Cheshire portion came under a separate turnpike trust in 1755. The Acts of 1743 and 1755 prevented the trustees from building a tollgate anywhere between Nantwich and Chester, severely restricting the trust's income. As a result the condition of the road, which was heavily used, remained poor until an Act of 1769 empowered the trust to make further improvements. In 1782 Thomas Pennant published his "Journey from Chester to London", in which he travels by Tarvin, Nantwich, Stone and Stafford to Lichfield and then on through Coventry and St Albans. The road was disturnpiked in 1883.
In the turnpike era the mountainous stretches beyond Denbigh were abandoned by most traffic in favour of a more northerly route to Conwy through St. Asaph and Abergele (Denb.). The stretch from Chester via Northop to Holywell and beyond was turnpiked in 1756, and the Chester-Northop road came under a separate district in 1828. As a whole the Chester-Holyhead road was described in 1822 as 'very imperfect': poorly surfaced, hilly, and under the divided management of seven turnpike trusts. Responsibility for its maintenance remained divided, and the Chester district was disturnpiked in 1883. The road to Bangor, later designated a trunk road, the A55, was improved in stages from the late 1960s.
Even before Thomas Telford's improvement of the Holyhead road through mid Wales there was an alternative to the London-Chester-Holyhead road via Shrewsbury, Llangollen, Llanrwst (both Denb.), and Bangor, described in 1778 as 'a hard, smooth, level road . . . 27 miles nearer than by Chester', and by 1789 passable in all weather. Further improvement by the Holyhead Road Commissioners and Telford had by 1822 made the London-Chester-Holyhead route superfluous, though local traffic from Chester still used it. Chester's significance as a centre for road traffic was thereby very much reduced. Partly to counter this the Grosvenor Bridge was constructed over the River Dee.
The Streets category will open the way to most of the present city center streets and their interesting history.
The idea of a tram service from the station to the town centre was promoted in 1877 by T. Lloyd, manager of the Liverpool tramways. A private limited company was formed under an Act of 1878 and laid standard-gauge tracks from the station to Saltney via City Road, Foregate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street, Grosvenor Street, Grosvenor Road, and Hough Green, with a depot near the station. Lloyd was the first manager, and horse-drawn services started in 1879. The company also ran horse buses to Bache, Christleton, and Hoole. The Act permitted Chester corporation to buy the undertaking after 21 years, and the city made plans to do so after it opened the electricity generating plant in 1896. Under an Act of 1901 the corporation bought the tramway company, electrified the system, and relaid the tracks at a gauge of 3ft. 6in. Horse buses were used while the work was under way but the corporation then disposed of them. Electric tram services from the High Cross to Saltney in one direction and the Chester Station in the other began in 1903, and were extended eastwards in 1906 as far as the city boundary in Tarvin and Christleton roads. The old tramway company's manager appointed in 1885, John Gardner, served the corporation in the same capacity until 1915. By the early 1920s the tracks needed replacing and although the trams ran at a profit, carrying 2 million passengers a year at the start of the decade and 4 million by the end, they were not recouping any of the capital outlay. The council replaced the tracks between the castle and Saltney in 1921 but accepted a report of 1928 that the cost of overhauling the whole system was too great and that it ought to abandon trams in favour of motor buses. A ballot of ratepayers supported the change, and the last tram ran in 1930.
The first motor bus service from Chester began in 1911 to Ellesmere Port, which was not served directly by rail. The service was operated by Crosville Motor Co., which had been founded in 1906 by George Crosland Taylor to build motor cars but quickly abandoned that enterprise. Passenger transport became the sole business, other routes were soon added, and the company expanded first by putting on workmen's services to munitions factories on Deeside during the First World War, and then hugely after 1918 by aggressive business tactics against its rivals in a largely unregulated market. By 1927 Crosville ran 48 routes from Chester, reaching throughout west Cheshire and north-east Wales. At first there were numerous other small bus operators from the city, mostly based in the villages around Chester, but Crosville gradually bought them up or forced them out of business, so that its only long-term local rival was the Wrexham & District Transport Co., which ran a few services into Wales. The city council normally refused to license rival operators on routes which already had a good bus service, reinforcing Crosville's near-monopoly, though the policy also protected small operators where they survived. Crosville started coach services to London in 1928, and in the 1930s began running many excursions and tours. The company was bought by the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway in 1929 and passed to Tilling-B.A.T., the national bus company, a year later.
By 1935 Crosville was one of the biggest bus operators in the country, with 47 depots and 1,000 vehicles carrying 100 million passengers on routes concentrated in north and mid Wales, Cheshire, and south-west Lancashire. The company had offices and engineering works at Crane Wharf (see: Portpool) and a depot at Liverpool Road. Booking offices were located in Lower Bridge Street and Northgate Street.
In the 20th century Chester was besieged by through traffic and a ring-road outside the city boundary was agreed upon as a necessity as early as 1922. Planning began in 1924 and a short section in Lache was opened in 1928 and named Circular Drive. A longer stretch between Moston and Long Lane east of the city was open by 1950. The completion of the road was impeded by protracted negotiations with neighbouring authorities, cuts in local government expenditure in 1931, the reduction of the central government grant for road-building in 1934, the outbreak of the Second World War, post-war lack of funds, and the failure of the Ministry of Transport to make it a priority in the 1960s. In the end the idea of a complete ring-road was given up in favour of a dual-carriageway southerly bypass, opened in 1977, which linked the eastern bypass with the improved A55 and other roads into north Wales. The eastern bypass was itself bypassed when the M53 was linked to the southern bypass in the early 1990s. At about the same time a partial western bypass was constructed linking Liverpool Road, Parkgate Road, and Sealand Road.
- Pulford (Poulton): may have been an important trade center in prehistoric times;
- Beeston Castle: copper and salt;
- Industrial Revolution: communications and industry;
- Geology of Chester: influence on transport;
- Cheshire Castles: protecting river crossings and other "choke points";
- Celia Fiennes: travelled the roads of Cheshire and wrote a description of her journey;
- Thomas Pennant: described his journey from Chester to London;
- Roger Whitley's diary comments on his "commute" between Chester and London;
- Newton Hollows;
Sources and Links
- Cheshire Past: (1993) - a much missed annual publication, covered many of the subjects discussed above;
- Travel in Wales:
- On the Cheshire Rock-salt District: Transactions of the Geological Society, 1st series, vol. 1
- Prehistoric Copper Mining on the Great Orme, Llandudno, Gwynedd;
- "Bronze Age discovery reveals surprising extent of Britain's trade with Europe 3,600 years ago";
- Salt Making in Cheshire. The Iron Age Background;
- Chester Amphitheatre Project Blog: Recent Find: Iron Age pottery: Cheshire VCP;
- The Later Bronze and Iron Ages in west Cheshire (c 1800 BC-AD c 60);
- The Celtic World;
- Beacons in the Landscape: The Hillforts of England and Wales;
- The Origins of Cheshire;
- New ideas on the exploitation of copper, tin, gold, and lead ores in Bronze Age Britain: The mining, smelting, and movement of metal;
- Conwy SSSI: for minerals in North Wales;
- Cornovii a Celtic people of Iron Age and Roman Britain;
- Roman Roads and Occupation in North Cheshire;
- Cheshire's Roman Road Web Pages;
- Roman Road to Wirral?;
- Chester Roman Roads;
- Roman Roads in Britain: by Thomas Codrington;
- Brine in Britannia: Recent Archaeological Work on the Roman Salt Industry in Cheshire;
- The Roman Road through Hoole: from the Hoole History Society;
- Roman Warrington;
- Notes on Roman Roads in Cheshire;
- The Roman Road in Wirral;
- Watling Street South of Aldford;
- Roman Road In Wirral (air survey);
- "Geodetective" on the River Gowy;;
- Communications and transport in mediaeval Cheshire;
- British Highway Development before Motorways: (from the RAC foundation);
- Turnpikes, Tollhouses & Coaches: On-line Resources for a Cheshire Researcher;
- Turnpike Roads Around Nantwich: a very complete study, Limited Edition of 20 copies printed in support of a exhibition at Nantwich Museum October & November 2014;