diamond geezer

 Monday, August 17, 2020

The seminal moment in the history of Bow, you may remember, came when Queen Matilda's royal entourage got very wet attempting to cross the river Lea and she decided to build a bridge downstream instead. This arched bridge gave its name to the village that grew up alongside and the old ford became a backwater called Old Ford. Most importantly her new bridge shifted the main route between London and Essex half a mile to the south, and suddenly the old Roman road wasn't needed any more.

I have long assumed that Roman Road in Bow follows the line of the old Roman road between London and Colchester. It even lines up perfectly. Stand at the far end by the shuttered Percy Ingle bakery and the Gherkin appears slap bang in the centre of the road. But it turns out I was wrong, and all because I'd never stopped to consider precisely where the old ford was.

The old ford was here.

This is a bend in the Lea just south of the point where the Northern Outfall Sewer crosses the river, which is how I was able to stand on the Greenway and take a photo from above. If you've ever walked the Capital Ring, this is the precise point where the route stops following the river and climbs a ramp to follow the Greenway instead. This is also the place where the long-lost Hackney Brook once entered the Lea. The existence of shallows where the two rivers met is believed to be what made it possible for early Britons to ford the river here in the first place.

I know this is the correct location because it used to be marked on old Ordnance Survey maps as 'Old Ford (site of)', despite no longer being connected to road or pathway on either side. On the east bank the sewer and a railway siding cover what would have been the continuation of the road into Essex, while a wharf marks the departure point on the Middlesex side. It's worth pointing out that the Lea has been rechannelled and canalised around here more than once, so the precise shape of the banks doesn't match the medieval river, but this is still the crossing point through the marshes where Matilda would have taken her tumble.

The wharf on the Tower Hamlets side has been demolished and covered with flats, these being some of the first built around here before the Olympics. 417 and 419 Wick Lane are large spiky apartment blocks, with a short stubby access road inbetween which runs down towards the river along what would once have been the line of access to the ford. At the top of the slope it bears off from a sharp bend in Wick Lane, a bend which turns out to be significant. This part of Wick Lane was originally called Old Ford Road, which in the 18th century meandered for miles through fields from Bethnal Green to Bow with a dogleg precisely here... because all roads lead to Old Ford.

It's believed that two Roman roads met at Old Ford, crossed the river and continued as one towards Colchester. One came direct from Aldgate, the eastern exit from Londinium, while the other skirted the northern edge of the city acting as a convenient bypass for legions marching from the west. This second road started at Tyburn on Watling Street, crossed Ermine Street roughly where Shoreditch Church is today and continued through what's now Bethnal Green. I like the idea that modern Oxford Street may owe its alignment to being on the direct marching route from Tyburn to Old Ford.

After Queen Matilda built Bow bridge there was no longer any need to travel via Old Ford. Some horsemen continued to prefer the cross country route, but the vast majority of traffic followed the new, safe, bridged causeway across the Bow marshes which has since become Stratford High Street. The Roman roads thus faded into disuse and centuries of rural life erased them from the map, so that when Bow became a residential neighbourhood in the 19th century the new main streets could never be more than rough approximations.

In the 1970s archaeologists were given a rare opportunity to try to uncover these Roman roads on a triangle of land between Lefevre Road and the North London railway. At one end of the site they discovered a 60 foot length of road aligned with Aldgate and Old Ford, consisting of a compact layer of small and irregular pebbles rammed hard onto a cambered clay bank. Three further layers of sandy gravel were found on top, mixed with grit and dirt from regular usage, while a three foot ditch ran along the side. Pottery fragments suggested a construction date in the 1st century... and abandonment in the 4th. You can read a 4-page contemporary account of the excavation here.

The archaeologists also found evidence of a small settlement near the road, including building tiles, animal bones and 88 bronze coins. Several stone sarcophagi had been unearthed in the local area during the late 18th century while the first houses were being built, and in 1868 a significant burial was discovered on the site of Old Ford Goods Depot.

The 2012 Olympic Games provided a prime opportunity for archaeologists to try to locate the line of the original Roman road between Old Ford and Stratford. It should have run just to the south of the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre, assuming it was heading directly towards Romford Road, so several trenches were dug along possible alignments. Not a trace was found, alas. The Olympic Park covers former marshland where deposits would have been hard to preserve, the experts concluded, which when covered by heavy industry in later years made detection all but impossible. Reading back the official archaeological reports, for the road and for the wider Olympic site, the subtext is of wasted effort and abject disappointment.

Standing beside the river at Old Ford today it's amazing to think that the Emperor Claudius and Queen Boadicea must have passed this way, along with a millennium'sworth of other travellers. But all it took was a later queen's anger at getting wet to shift the main road further south, setting in train a completely new baseline for the geography of east London. Neither of the original Roman roads survive today, either as lines on the map or as undisturbed deposits waiting to be discovered. And Roman Road alas earned its name because of Roman remains unearthed close by, not because it ever was one.

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