History of Wheeldale Roman Road

The linear monument on Wheeldale Moor is first recorded as ‘Wade’s Causeway – a Roman Way’ on a map of 1720. It then features in most antiquarian accounts of the area as part of a Roman road, traced for various distances along a route from Amotherby, near Malton, in the south towards the coast north of Whitby, a distance of some 33 to 35 miles. More recent work, however, has suggested that it could be medieval, or that it might not be a road at all, but a much modified Neolithic or early Bronze Age boundary feature.

Wheeldale monument aerial view looking west

The visible section of the Wheeldale monument seen from the air, looking west

The visible section of ‘road’ has been in state guardianship since 1912. As it is now seen, it was uncovered between 1912 and 1920, following initial clearance of some areas in the 1890s.[1] 

The name Wade’s Causeway, as the site is also known, derives from a local legend that the ‘road’ linked the home of a giant called Wade who lived at Mulgrave Castle with that of his wife, Bel, who lived at Pickering Castle.[2]

          

A Roman Road?

The most comprehensive published study of the site as a Roman road[3] traces the southern part of the suggested route in a series of alignments, largely through plotting findspots of Roman material in association with the topography within what would have been the extensive wetlands of the Vale of Pickering. Not surprisingly, Roman and other finds are recorded on islands of higher ground. Similarly, to the north of the visible section Roman finds have been plotted to create a possible route to the southern edge of the Esk valley.

Various theories have been put forward to explain the purpose of this road. The key suggested associations are the Roman military complex at Cawthorn Camps on the south side of the moors,[4] the Roman fort at Malton, the Roman fort on Lease Rigg between the valleys of the rivers Esk and Murk Esk,[5] a putative early Roman fort near or north of Whitby, and the late 4th-century ‘signal stations’ on the Yorkshire coast.[6]

 

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Possible Southern Route

Controversy surrounds the suggested route of the road near Cawthorn Camps. A long-held view[7] is that it traversed the part of the Cawthorn complex know as ‘Camp’ D (in fact a Roman fort) and then descended from the escarpment on which the Roman earthworks sit to the valley of the Sutherland Beck. An alternative line would have the road descending the scarp about half a mile to the west, on the line of the modern access to Sutherland Lodge.

The possible route from Cawthorn to the visible monument is conjectural, although antiquarians again claim to have had sight of it.[8] The doyen of Roman road studies, ID Margary, writing in the 1950s, stated unequivocally that near Key Beck House ‘traces of a very faint agger (mound on which the road would have been built) 27 feet (8.2m) wide’ could be seen.[9] 

View of part of the visible section of Wheeldale Roman Road

Part of the visible section of the Wheeldale monument, looking south

Possible Northern Route

To the north, the course of the visible stretch of the monument points towards the Roman fort at Lease Rigg, although the line traditionally suggested for the route of the road there cuts obliquely south-west to north-east across the fort.

Beyond Lease Rigg the possible course is debated. Various suggestions have been made: that the road descended into the Esk valley to head towards Whitby,[10] which was probably a port; that it crossed the valley to head for the coast, close to Dunsley,[11] which has been suggested as possibly the site of an early fort, or Goldsborough, where we know of the late 4th-century ‘signal station’;[12] or that it crossed the valley and turned north-west towards Guisborough, which has been suggested as a locally important Roman site.[13] 

It has also been claimed that the line of the road was visible on the north side of the Esk valley during the excavations at Lease Rigg Roman fort in the 1970s.[14] 

Other Possible Origins

It is quite possible that the road, if that is what it was, is medieval in date or at least was used in the medieval period. The religious houses of the region are known to have exploited the mineral resources of the North York Moors and the road may have been designed to provide access to them.[15] There is little evidence, however, to support this proposal.

The suggestion that the feature represents a Neolithic or early Bronze Age boundary, and not a road at all, has been aired publicly on several occasions. The arguments are persuasive, but formal publication is awaited.[16]


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About the Author

Pete Wilson PhD, FSA, FSA Scot, MIfA has published extensively on the Roman period in Britain.

Footnotes

1. RH Hayes and JG Rutter, Wade’s Causeway: A Roman Road in North-East Yorkshire, Scarborough and District Archaeological Society Research Report 4 (Scarborough, 1964), 50.
2. Ibid, 16.
3Hayes and Rutter, op cit.
4. P Wilson, ‘Cawthorn Camps – 70 years after Richmond’, in Limes XVIII: Proceedings of the XVIIIth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies held in Amman, Jordan, ed P Freeman, J Bennett, ZT Fiema and B Hoffman, British Archaeological Reports International Series 1084 (Oxford, 2002), vol 2, 859–66.
5. RL Fitts, ‘Lease Rigg Roman Fort: the excavations of 1976–80’, in SS Frere and RL Fitts, Excavations at Bowes and Lease Rigg Roman Fort, Yorkshire Archaeological Report 6 (Leeds, 2009), 205–84.
6. P Wilson, ‘Aspects of the Yorkshire signal stations’, in Roman Frontier Studies 1989: Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, ed VA Maxfield and MJ Dobson (Exeter, 1991), 142–7.
7. F Drake, Eboracum: or the History and Antiquities of the City of York (London, 1736) [accessed 29 Aug 2012]; G Young, History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey (Whitby, 1817) [accessed 29 Aug 2012].
8. For example T Codrington, Roman Roads in Britain (London, 1903), 164.
9. Road 81b: ID Margary, Roman Roads in Britain, 1st edn, vol 2 (London, 1957), 157.
10. Codrington, op cit, 162–7; F Elgee The Romans in Cleveland (York, 1923), 19; F Elgee and HW Elgee, The Archaeology of Yorkshire (London, 1933), 138.
11. Drake, op cit, 35; Young, op cit, 699–708.
12. JC Atkinson, Memorials of Old Whitby (London, 1894), 258 [accessed 29 Aug 2012].
13. R Inman, 1988, ‘Romano-British settlement in the south Tees basin’, in Recent Research in Roman Yorkshire: Studies in Honour of Mary Kitson Clark, ed J Price and PR Wilson, British Archaeological Reports British Series 193 (Oxford, 1988), 223.
14. Elizabeth Hartley, pers comm. However, the late BR Hartley, in a summary of his Lease Rigg excavations (in ‘Military activity’, in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire, ed DA Spratt, CBA Research Report 87, London, 1993, 160–65), only refers to the possibilities that the road terminated at Whitby, Dunsley Bay or Goldsborough–Runswick Bay (162).
15. Lorna Watts, pers comm; and see for example DA Spratt and BJD Harrison, The North York Moors Landscape Heritage (Newton Abbot, 1989), 106–10.
16B Vyner, ‘Wade’s Causeway and the Wheeldale Moor linear monument: the end of the Roman road?’ (in prep).

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