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This paper explores the possibility that the Roman road did indeed form a part of the Wansdyke scheme, and in a second part looks at one of the key areas where this theory can be proved or disproved - the east bank of the Avon, east of Bath and north of Braford-on-Avon. It is at this point where archaeological remnants of a connection should be looked for between West Wansdyke (which ends at the Horsecombe vale) and the Roman road, which rises from Bathford and crosses West Wiltshire towards the Avon south of Laycock and then meets East Wansdyke at Morgan's Hill.
Features in the landscape
North and east of the Avon between Bath and Bradford on Avon, there are a sequence of enigmatic earthworks and other archaeological features. What are they? Quite a few archaeologists have visited the features and I have had no strong suggestions. There are at least sixteen features which at this stage can only be described as a collection of linear and apparently unfinished earthworks, cross-dykes, enigmatic humps, small stockades and the probable remains of Roman features.
A - Features around
The feature from below, with pre-war defenses on top of the hill. Click the images to enlarge.
It would be very sensible to trench across the space between the stone alignments. As demonstrated in the photographs, these are massive deep-set stones which appear to form the outer sections of a wall (i.e., the remaining stones provide the edges of 80cm wide filled wall). The alignments can be linked to other features (as explained below).
The feature from above, with pre-war defenses on top of the hill. Click the images to enlarge.
I discovered an object that may be related to this linear feature. It is a corroded copper alloy clasp with an embossed, garlanded vase decoration. It was found about 6m away from the alignments in a ploughed field. Unfortunately, the object is difficult to date (it may be classical, ie late Roman, or neo-classical, ie early Georgian, in origin) and its' function remains unclear.
Valley - Sheephouse farm (ST 794640)
3) Bathford Hill
Rowbarrow Wood (ST 791657)
Ken Dark described this mound as a possible 'motte', certainly it is an unusual man-made feature which is in an interesting strategic position. The feature is shown by Albany Major, and to the east of the mound are 'scoped-out earthbanks' which were once believed to part of Wansdyke, before OGS Crawford discredited that interpretation. According to the current National Monuments Record description, "neither of the earthworks (the scoped out-out earthbanks) is of archaeological significance". Another archaeologist suggested that the mound could be the 'row barrow', which gave the wood its name, i.e. a multiple grave!
4) By Brook
valley Bathford (ST 799670)
Brook valley - Bathford (ST795666)
Brook valley Kingsdown (ST 814674)
B - Features
7) Avon valley
Limpley Stoke (ST 785627)
8) Avon valley
Limpley Stoke (ST 780627 to ST 790624)
Interestingly, it is followed by the County boundary. Note also the lost Bath to Poole Roman road at ST770595 converging on the valley track leading down to Widcombe.
The track eastwards is a footpath traced from ST 797622 to ST799621, and again from ST812616 to ST818613. The track as this stage is adjacent to the recently discovered villa (see below) at ST819614, and interestingly a large number of field boundaries on this plain follow the alignment of the track.
The probable route of the track can be traced through Bradford on Avon, following the contour to ST837609 where a similarly aligned track takes it past the earthwork at ST846605 (see 16, below) to the Avon. On the same alignment is Cold Harbour at ST899587 (which is commonly believed to denote a Roman/post-Roman structure associated with a road). Interestingly, this alignment would precisely link together Bath and Andover (a Roman garrison town).
9) Avon valley
Limpley Stoke (ST 781603)
The photo below shows the commanding view from this location down the Avon valley to Bradford on Avon. This location would also provide a position for signalling movement down the valley. As far as I know, this feature has not been identified or excavated.
10) Avon valley
Winsley (ST 793611)
11) Avon valley
Winsley (ST 805604)
valley Bradford-on-Avon (ST 823607)
My interest in the origins of Wirtgernesburg (which is probably an early-English rendering of Vortigern's burg) and Badon (which is probably an early-British name for Bath circa 550 AD, and the strong source for the identification of Bath as the probable location of the siege of Mount Badon) started as I attempted to identify the age and usage of a track close to the Budbury hillfort. It was very clear that the medieval development of Bradford on Avon centred upon this track, which again links to the earthwork in Great Bradford Wood (ST845605). The track followed the ridge of the north valley side, between the modern A3108 and the road from Bradford on Avon to Turley.
The route of the track westwards can be traced as it emerges from Belcombe Court as a bank which crosses the 80m contour at ST813606, from here it probably follows the modern road through Turleigh, past 11, above, through to Murhill (again on the modern road), through Conkwell Wood and along the modern road to ST797636 where it follows the footpath to the important crossing point of Dry Arch (ST797644).
From this point ST750658, the track was marked with a sequence of upright stones (one of which remains). A similar marking stone was present at the Bradford on Avon end of the track (at ST821607) in the late 19th century. This indicated, perhaps, that the track was both ancient and significant.
From the point at ST795658, the path divides, one path veers to the right at a right angle. This was probably a path used by the Clunic monks to walk between the monastery at Monkton Farleigh and the Abbey in Bath. Another path falls down the valley side through Bathford, and connects with the Roman road at ST875671. A simple approach can then be made to Little Solsbury Hill (ST768680), following the track from ST 774675 to the hilltop through the hillfort gateway.
As Major and Burrow explain, this track marks the boundary between Wiltshire and Somerset, which gives the track a further strategic significance. It is also possible that the track forms a link between the Jurassic Way (thought to be an ancient track from Bath to Leicester used prior to the construction of the Fosse), and portions of the Ridgeway which reach down to Warminster. The eastern route of this link probably follows the line of the River Biss from its junction with the Avon, to the east of Bradford on Avon, and then following the line of the A350 which takes the high ground to Westbury/Warminster.
Another piece of evidence of the significance of the highland overlooking the Avon and By Brook valleys, is an early English military road identified by Grundy. He traces this 'military road' from very early Charters, as running from Kilmington Common (ST770360) via Mapperton Hill through Maiden Bradley, Horningsham and to Cley Hill (ST840450), then to Chapmanslade, then Beckington, then Rode, and then along the route of the modern B3109 to Bradford on Avon. After following the route of the modern A363 towards Bath, the military road veers off, at Farleigh Wick through Monkton Farleigh, following the northern road through the village as far as Kingsdown (ST811670). Here, the military road follows an odd loop along the contour of the ridge northwards to ST814680 where it turns sharply and runs in a south-easterly direction through Blue Vein at ST673830, to Fiveways at ST671839, and then along the route of the modern B3109 to Corsham, and finally through Biddestone ST86735 and ultimately to Malmesbury.
Interestingly, the road diverts away from the direct route between Bradford on Avon and Corsham (the modern B3109), but makes a very unusual sortie around Kingsdown which overlooks the confluence of the Avon and By Brook valleys and the city of Bath.
13) Avon valley
Bradford-on-Avon (ST 821614)
14) Avon valley
Bradford-on-Avon (ST 823609)
Id imagine this to be the site of Wirtgernesburg, i.e. the location of the battle described by William of Malmesbury (who dated it to 652AD). It would have been an important defensive position at any time when opposing factions held Wiltshire, the Cotswolds and Somerset. If there was civil war between Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus and the former (as Morris suggests) held the Cotswolds while the latter held Wiltshire (as tradition asserts), then Bradford on Avon would be the south eastern stronghold of the Cotswolds at the entrance to the Avon.
As explained above, the Saxon and Medieval development of Bradford on Avon can be traced along the route of the track described in 12) above, and it would be possible that Wirtgernesburg would survive as a separate and distinct name which distinguished the hillfort from the developing town! There may well have been strong connections between this site and 13) above.
15) Avon valley
Bradford-on-Avon (ST 842611)
16) Avon valley
Bradford-on-Avon (ST 845605)
There are similar defensive positions on either side of the river approaches to Malmesbury, and these may have been constructed in the 10th or 11th centuries, and there is a similar position to the west of Bradford on Avon at ST818606, which probably dates from this period.
Alcock observed thirty years ago, that, 'it is of course typical of our period (367 - 634AD) that one of its major archaeological monuments (Wansdyke) should defy attempts to date it, to set it in its political context, or to understand its tactical function'.
Robert Vermaat and Neil McDougall have independently pursued geographical approaches to address slightly different questions. Robert sought to identify connections between known sections of Wansdyke, whilst Neil was examining the geographical and historic connections between 'Dark Age' Bradford on Avon and Bath. These independent inquiries have reinforced the claim, that the segment of land to the south of the Roman road between Bathford and to the south of Laycock, and bounded by the curve of the Avon, with Bradford on Avon the south-eastern-most point, was one of the most strategically valuable pieces of land in South West Britain.
This claim is partially dependent upon the case that one of the hilltops surrounding Bath is the most likely location of the siege of Mount Badon, circa 500AD, (and the Monkton Farleigh hilltop and the hillfort at Budbury are possible locations).
However, leaving aside the search for convincing evidence for the most important of all Arthurian battles, the Bath, Bradford on Avon and the Avon valley retained primary strategic and historical importance, from at least as early as 577 to 1013 AD.
The strategic value of Bath was demonstrated by the coronation of Edgar, in the city in 975 AD. This unified Mercia and Wessex under Edgar's brief, but successful kingship. Bath's symbolic value, on the Avon boundary between the previously separate and hostile kingdoms, was again reinforced by the surrender of the West Saxon Ealdormen to Swein Forkbeard, the Danish leader in 1013 AD. This triggered his final ascent to the English throne, after previously accomplishing the surrender of Oxford, Winchester and London.
Centuries earlier, the defeat of the British by the West Saxons at Dyrham in 577AD, a few miles north of Bath, broke the post-Badon dominance of the Romano-British in the South West. West Saxon settlement followed almost a century later, after they defeated what was probably an alliance of Mercian and British forces, at Bradford on Avon in 652 AD (the Wirtgernesburg battle noted by William of Malmesbury). A second battle of Badon occurred in 665 AD (recorded in the Welsh Annals), this was convincingly described by the Birkitts as a last ditch attempt by the British to regain territory to the south-east of the Severn and, they argue that it must have been in the vicinity of Bath and to the west of Bradford on Avon (which in the Birkitt's view adds further support to a Bath location for the siege of Mount Badon, circa 500AD.
Despite Wansdyke reaching the southern fringe of the Bath, there is so little evidence of the significance of the city during 'Arthur's Britain' (using Alcock's description for the period of our primary interest) that the Bath/Badon place name association has been denied strongly by Manco. This impasse is mirrored in Wansdyke studies as well. Thirty years have passed since Alcock wrote his tribute to the resilience of Wansdyke to yielding its enigmatic status. Despite advances in archaeological techniques, are we any closer to understanding the date, functions and geopolitical significance of the structures?
The observation of the Bath archaeologist, Peter Davenport, that we might be more successful in discovering clues and evidence of Bath's 'Dark Age' history by searching the city's rural hinterland, rather than expecting the fragments revealed in occasional rescue excavations in the city to answer deep and fundamental questions, is probably also true for Wansdyke. Understanding how the gap in Wansdyke worked defensively, might provide insights which help unravel the enigma.
Amongst the ancient tracks, the last vestiges of Roman occupation, the hillforts and the stockades that served to defend a stronghold that retained Vortigern's name for six centuries after his death, and a city venerated by the British for its hot springs and celebrated as a 'marvel of Britain', we should be able to prepare convincing archaeological hypotheses and the opportunity to test them to establish whether the features that we identify, and describe, are contemporary with Wansdyke and serve a common strategic purpose. Here also, we might uncover more of the archaeology of 'Dark Age' Bradford on Avon and Bath'.
 personal correspondence:
'looking at the map you sent I am struck by how many
earthworks there are in this part of the Avon valley
especially on the east bank. There are parallels
with the Test Valley in Hampshire. One could
postulate a series of territories centred on the Avon
each of which had its own earthwork. There seems to
be the potential for an extremely interesting
archaeological project that would aim to establish the
relative dates and functions of all the earthworks in the
Avon valley between Bradford on Avon and Bath, starting
in the late Bronze Age when territories seem to have been
first laid out, a procedure which might be accompanied by
the building of earthwork enclosures. The
fifth/sixth century would be one period one would expect
to find activity, and the late Saxon period is another
one of potential interest when Anglo-Saxon lords were
beginning to build ring worked manorial sites for
themselves. The program would probably require an
extensive field walking campaign and perhaps exploratory
excavation through test- pits.'
Features in an old Landscape is ©2001 Neil McDougall
Comments to: Neil McDougall
Wansdyke Project 21 are copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007.