title

The Fen Causeway

Margary Number: 25 & 38

Distance: 22 miles (County Boundary to the Icknield Way at Narford)

A road of 2 halves. The first half across the Fens i.e. the Fen Causeway is well established at least as far as Denver. East of here then its route and destination has been the subject of much speculation. Margary and the Norfolk HER suggested it continued via Billingford & Brampton and on to Smallburgh. This was dismissed by Albone and the latest information would suggest its target was not Smallburgh - or at least not directly.

We will treat it in 2 sections - first to Denver and second east of Denver, the dry land part

Although the Fen Causeway (across the Fens) is well researched and located it is a complex structure comprising a canal and, at least in some places, two roads one on either side of the canal (ref. Wallis). The southern road would appear to be the main road and that is what is depicted in Route Maps 1 & 2. The two roads and the canal are plotted on an additional map for Nordelph - these are based on Wallis's map with a few minor adjustments based on the Lidar data.

Ref: Roman Routeways across the Fens, Heather Wallis, EAA Occasional Paper 10 (2002)

HER 2796

 

 

Historic Counties: Norfolk

Current Counties: Norfolk

HER: Norfolk

 

routemap

mini map


Lidar Image - Full Route

When you look at the full extent it is remarkably direct given it had to cross the fens and even on when on dry land it had to follow ground above the low lying marshy areas.

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full route

Section 1 - Across the Fens to Denver

Lidar Image - Route Upwell to Denver

The Fens stretch of the road and canal (shown in blue). At Denver it is on dry land and using the name The Fen Causeway seems a bit in appropriate.

The causeway enters the county in Upwell Parish crossing the Old Croft River. The actual course it follows is un-Roman like taking a very sinuous course along old roddons (old natural watercourses). Having said that, it does manage to keep reasonably direct.

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lidar-fens

Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Fen Causeway across the Fens

Why would you follow an old river course? Amazingly old river courses end up as higher ground when the peat based land around them sinks lower. Draining the fens only makes this worse.

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3D lidar

Lidar Image and Route Map 1 (Southern Road)

The southern road (ie the one south side of the canal) is depicted here as this appears to be the final continuous through route. See later for the canal and northern route.

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map1

Lot's Bridge, Upwell

We are looking down the line of the Canal and Roman road(s) but where have they gone? They passed to the left of the white house approximately on the line of the little tree but nothing is obvious today.

Image: Google

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lots bridge

Nordelph - Northern Road, Canal and Southern Road

The routes are based on Helen Wallis's map for the Nordelph area. Just a few minor adjustments where the lidar indicates the road might have actually been on a slightly different alignment.

Wallis dates the northern road to be the earlier one. It surely made more sense for the road to be located on the inland more protected side and so the southern road is most likely the final route.

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nordelph

Southern Road Cross Section (Heather Wallis Figure 9)

A section through the southern road was excavated in 1992. This was at site reference 2796 (TL523 990). The road had a graveled surface with ditches both sides. However, it was multi-phased with a later dump of material forming a new higher gravelled surface.

From: Roman Routeways across the Fens, Heather Wallis, EAA Occasional Paper 10 (2002)

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cross section

Southern Road - Nordelph Farm

At Nordelph Farm this modern track follows the line of the southern road. The bridge crosses a later ditch cut through the Roman canal and roads.

Image: Google

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nordelphfarm

Lidar Image and Route Map 2 (Southern Road)

Again just the southern road is depicted here. The canal and northern road have been omitted for clarity.

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map2

Section 2 - Denver Eastwards

Lidar Image - Route Map Denver to the Icknield Way (and perhaps Peddars Way)

It starts to make sense when viewed relative to the topography revealed in this lidar plot. The target appears to be Narford on the Icknield Way and it skillfully manages to follow dry ground to get there.

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lidar-section2

Lidar Image and Route Map 3

We are now literally on firmer ground but for this section the route is not as obvious now.

Lidar would indicate that the Ordnance Survey line shown at Denver Sluice is wrong. It is clearly further north and aligned with Sluice Road.

The direct line shown is based on the 3D Lidar view below.

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map3

Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Denver

Just the faintest of suspicions that the Roman alignment was north of the modern road through Denver. I would put this in the probable category rather than definite but it is typical of a Roman alignment so those faint traces in the Lidar data might just be real.

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lidar denver

Lidar Image and Route Map 4

A little dog-leg up the little valley looks likely. Beyond this there are more definite Lidar traces so we can be confident in this stretch.

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map4

Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Stradsett

No mistaking it here - typically Roman. The name Stradsett is another big clue - see later.

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3D stradsett

Lidar Image and Route Map 5

A very direct section - probably the straightest on the whole road.

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map5

A1122 - Stradsett (Looking East)

The significance of the name Stradsett has been explained by James Albone (quoting Watts): "The place-name Stradsett, which is recorded in the Domesday survey as Strateseta meaning ‘the place on the Roman road’ (Watts 2004, 584), provides firm evidence for a Roman road passing somewhere through the parish."

There can be little doubt that the road that its name derives from is the Fen Causeway, today approximated by the A1122.

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a1122 stradsett

Lidar Image - Possible Roads at Fincham

At Fincham there is the possibility that that there was a junction with a second more southerly route to the Icknield Way by Swaffham. This was very much dismissed by Albone. It is described at the bottom. We will continue here on the north-easterly route of Fen Causway towards Narford.

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map6

Oblique 3D Lidar Image - Marham Airfield

From Fincham the direct alignment we have been following through Stradsett changes slightly and from here to Narford, although reasonably direct, the road does start to wander a little. This is slightly worrying but perhaps it was based on a pre-Roman route?

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marham

Lidar Image and Route Map 6

At Fincham our road continues more or less straight on whereas the modern A1122 swings due east. The latter looks very Roman-like but is a turnpike road. Research by Albone found that the turnpike was a new road with no predecessor. The Ordnance Survey however do label it as Roman Road..

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map6

Vinegar Hill - Google Earth Image

The line of the road shows well in this Google Earth historical aerial photograph.

 

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vinegar-hill

Lidar Image and Route Map 7

The airfield has destroyed any trace of the assumed change of alignment here so we are reliant on interpolation here.

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map7

Tithebarn Lane

We cross the Narborough parish boundary at the bottom of Tithebarn Lane. Not a lot to see but at least there is not a red and white post marking an underground pipeline. Every Roman road hunter's nightmare!

 

 

 

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tithebarn-lane

Lidar Image and Route Map 8

The junction with the Icknield Way is a bit subjective. There a few faint traces on the line I show but the modern Narford Road could also be the line.

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map8

Nar Lane Bridge, Narford

Is this where the road was aiming for? The Nar crossing today is pretty insignificant but before drainage then this was probably a very important spot for both the Fen Causeway and the Icknield Way. Whether there was a connection from here to Kempstone and Billingford is yet to be resolved.

 

 

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nar-bridge

Possible Route from Fincham to the Icknield Way near Swaffham

The A1122 beyond Fincham does look like a Roman alignment (and is shown as such by the OS) but research by Albone found that this is a Turnpike road with no apparent predecessor. There are instances elsewhere in the country where a Roman road has gone out of use for centuries but its agger has been re-adopted as a foundation for a later modern road. Is this the case here - an abandoned Roman road being re-instated? It would not be the first time. In addition, as we shall see below, approaching the Icknield Way there does indeed appear to be a predecessor to the turnpike.

A1122 - Fincham (Looking East)

Heading out of Fincham it is a very straight and a Roman-like alignment. Was this a turnpike built on top of an abandoined Roman agger?

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fincham

Lidar Image and Route Map

The airfield has destroyed any trace of the assumed change of alignment here so the OS first edition mapping was consulted (see next image). The route shown is based on the line of the road pre the airfield.

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map7

First Edition Ordnance Survey Map

When consulting the OS first edition map for the original line of the road prior to the airfield, it was noticed that approaching the Icknield Way there was a former parish boundary running parallel to modern road on its south side. This boundary ends abruptly at the Icknield Way. Lidar also gives some credence to this being the original (pre-turnpike) line of the road here plus it does align better with the turn of the road at the airfield.

The significance of this is that, here at least, there was a pre-existing fore-runner to the turnpike. The fact that the parish boundary follows what appears to be an original road puts it back at least as far the medieval period when parish boundaries were generally established.

 

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old map

Lidar Image and Route Map

 

It is suggested therefore that the modern road marked as "Roman Road" on modern OS mapping at this point is not actually the true Roman line but a much later turnpike.

The Norfolk HER and the Ordnance Survey continue our road (Fen Causeway) along Fincham Drove (position marked on First Edition map above). This road/track doesn't seem to connect directly to our road and appears to have the important Norman centre of Castle Acre as its destination.

 

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map8

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Last update: November 2020

© David Ratledge