By virtue of Bath’s important location at the crossing point of the River Avon, it was always well connected by road. Before the Romans arrived and built their own infrastructure, there were a number of roads that already connected Bath to trade and commerce across ancient Britain and beyond. Trade and travel enriched Bath’s history and prosperity. It also helped get it’s name as a place of special significance to the Celts and later the Romans.
The Sweet Track
Thirty miles west of Bath are the Somerset Plains. Here, around 3838 BC, were built some of Europe’s earliest discovered wooden causeways. The Somerset levels are now drained wetlands but they would have been largely underwater. The causeways connected prehistoric lake dwellings with small islands and the mainland. Its construction is well engineered and designed to be constructed and maintained easily. The track itself is planks of oak, ash and lime. It has rails and pegs made of hazel and alder. The separate components were assembled on dry land then put in place. The rails (which were long poles) were laid end to end and fixed in place with cross placed pegs. The planks were then wedged into place on top of the pegs and the whole construction could then be manoeuvred into place. The prefabricated parts meant that miles of track could be constructed. Along the route there are finds of pots and the odd weapon which may have been offerings to the gods of the water (similar to those found in Bath’s spring).
Bath was connected by a ridge way track to the Jurassic Way, a major ancient route that runs between Stamford in Lincolnshire and Banbury in Oxfordshire. The ridge way track was later known as the Bath Herepath (military road) by the Saxons and it is named in a charter of Bath Abbey in 963 AD. The Jurassic Way predates the Saxons and the Romans but we can only speculate on how old it is. Perhaps it is contemporary with the Sweet Track?
The Western Trackway was another pre-Roman ancient road that ran from Carlisle in Cumbria to Gloucester. At Gloucester it split either side of the River Severn and ran through Sea Mills in Bristol (the Roman port of Abona/Abonae) ending in Exeter in Devon.
The Via Julia is a Roman road. It was an important military and trade route, running from Silchester (Calevero Atrebatum), an important military centre, westward through Bathford. Julian Road in Bath still references the Via Julia. It then runs past the Lansdown Roman camps, past Bitton and onward to Abone/Abonae (linking with the more ancient Western Trackway). It then passed across the Severn at Aust (known to the Romans as Traiectus Augustus) and on to the Roman headquarters in Wales at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), home of the second legion.
The Portway runs North of Bath and connects with Swainswick, the Hill fort at Hinton and past the later Roman camp at Sodbury up to Gloucester where the Severn crossing is. It’s antiquity can be seen through the large number of tumuli that follow it. There are many earthworks and barrows along its path. It marks the line along the Cotswolds that was a defensive and commercial route for many thousands of years. On the west side are the hill forts, ancient forests and uplands of the Cotswolds. On the east are the low lands, once marshy and impenetrable that lead to the River Severn and across to Wales.
This Roman road was very probably built on more ancient tracks that provided trade North to South. The Romans developed it to run along the Roman frontier from Exeter to Lincoln. It served as a military route but was always a rich trade route. Somerset and further west had lead, coal and other metals. Wales to the west had gold and silver. These would have always been traded up and down the Fosse Way and by boat. The name “Fosse” may have developed from the ditch that the Romans are said to have dug alongside it. From the south, the Fosse Way enters Bath via the Holloway and may have crossed the river were the old mediaeval bridge was. There were probably crossings at Clevedon Bridge in Bath and Bathhampton, all well guarded by the Romans. The road ran up through Walcot and out via Batheaston to proceed up Bannerdown, onwards to the left of the current airfield at Colerne and onwards.
The South Road to Poole It is known that Bath was already trading with Roman Gaul in 55 BC but the links to the south Coast around Poole were much older. There is clear evidence of Bronze Age trade with Europe. The worlds oldest seagoing boat was found at Dover on the south coast. There are many bronze age finds in Britain of material bought in from the continent and Bath’s roads are an important part of the infrastructure that existed and shaped Bath’s history, shape and purpose.