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William Stukeley's investigations along the Fosse Way
In 1724 the pioneer antiquarian William Stukeley travelled along the Fosse Way from Newark on Trent towards Leicester. We join him just south of Newark.
Spelling has been modernised and corrected place-names are shown in square parentheses as Stukeley mistakenly describes Vernemetum as Margidunum and Ratae as Vernemetum.
The Roman station upon the Fosse I found to be called Boroughfield, west of the road. Here a spring arises under the hedge called Oldwork Spring, very quick, running over a fine gravel, the only one hereabouts that falls eastward, not directly into the neighbouring Trent, towards newton. Hereabouts I saw the Roman foundations of walls and floors of houses, composed after the manner before spoken, of stones set edgeways in clay, and liquid mortar run upon them. There are likewise short oaken posts or piles at proper intervals, some whereof I pulled up with my own hands. . . . House stood all along the Fosse, whose foundations have been dug up, and carried to neighbouring villages. They told us too of a most famous pavement near the Fosse Way.
Close by in a pasture [called] Castle Hill Close [i.e. Margidunum] has been a great building, which they say was carried all to Newark. John Green of Bridgford, aged 80, told me that he has taken up large foundations there, much ancient coin and small earthen pipes for water. His father, aged near 100, took up many pipes [eighty] yards off the castle and much fine free stone, some well cut and carved. There have been found many urns, pots and Roman bricks, but the people preserved none of them. Some that had coins would by no means let us see them, for fear we were come from the lord of the manor.
About a mile further is a tumulus upon an eminence of the road beyond Bingham lane, a fine prospect to Belvoir Castle, Grantham, Nottingham, the Trent, etc. whence I took a small sketch of the road we had passed, regretting the oblivion of some many famous antiquities.
In my journey forwards, upon the declension of a stiff clayey hill, near the lodge upon the wolds, an inn under a great wood; the pavement upon the road is very magnificent, of great blue flag stones laid edgewise very carefully. The quarries whence they took them are by the side of the hill. This pavement is 100 feet broad or more. But all the way thence it has been entirely paved with red flints, seemingly brought from the sea coast. These are laid with the smoothest face upon a bed of gravel over the clayey marl, which reaches beyond [Vernemetum] . . .
This pavement is very broad and visible where not covered with dirt, and especially in the frequent breaches thereof. They preserve a report still that it was thus paved all the way from Newark to Leicester and that the Fosse Way went through Leicester shambles. The yard of the lodge in the wold is paved with these same stones plundered from the road.
Willoughby brook is the next water. When arrived over against Willoughby on the Wolds on the right Upper and Nether Broughton on the left, you find a tumulus on [the] Willoughby side of the road, famous among the country people. It is called Crosshill. Upon this they have an anniversary festival. The road parts the two lordships, but the name of Broughton set me to work to find the Roman town, among the people getting in harvest.
After some time I perceived I was upon the spot, being a field called Henings, by which I suppose is meant the ancient meadows. This is upon the brow of the hill overlooking Willoughby, rising between [Old] Dalby lordship and playing in pretty meanders along a valley between cornfields, with a moderate water unless raised by rains. Here they said had been an old city called Long Billington [Vernemetum]. It is often called the black field in common discourse, from the colour and excellent richness of the soil, so that they never lay any manure upon it. Here is a place called Thieves and on the other side of the valley a place called Wells near where now a barn stands, and all this length the said city reached. There was a church on the top of Wells but the city was mostly on Willoughby side, for the land on the other side in Broughton lordship is poor, whilst this is luxuriant to the last degree. So that they affirm a farmer once happening to set his sheep-fold here, it rotted the corn upon the spot, and often he ha been forced to mow the blade before it spindled (in their way of talking).
The soil is perfectly black, though all the circumjacent land be red, especially north of the valley upon the edge of the hill, and where most antiquities are found; which certainly was the true place, whence the Roman name signifying a marly hill.
Richard Cooper, aged 72, has found many brass and silver coins here; there have been some of gold. They have a notion of great riches being under ground, and a vulgar report that one balk or mere (i.e. a division between the ploughed fields) has as much money under it as would purchase the whole lordship. But people have been frightened from digging it by spirits, and several pleasant stories are told thereupon.
They have likewise a tradition that the city was destroyed by thieves, perhaps from the place so called. Many mosaic pavements have been dug up. My landlord Gee of Willoughby says he has upon ploughing met with such for five yards together, as likewise coins, pot hooks, fire shovels and the like utensils, and many large brass coins which they took for weights, ounces and half-ounces, but upon trial found them somewhat less. Broad stones and foundations are frequent upon the side of the Fosse. Several found at Wells. The ground naturally is so stiff a marl that at Willoughby town they pave their yards with stones, fetched from the Fosse Way even to the slopes of their pits for the cattle to drink at.
At Over and Nether Broughton and Willoughby too the coins are so frequent that you hear of them all the country round. There is a fine prospect from Wells Hill every way. Whence I drew a little view of the place. In Willoughby town is a handsome cross of one stone, five yards long. In the time of the reforming rebellion the soldiers had tied ropes about it to pull it down but the vicar persuaded them to commute for some strong beer, having made a harangue to show the innocence thereof. . .
In passing forwards towards Leicester between here and the river Wreake I found the Fosse road began to be very obscure, not only where it had been ploughed up in some places, but where it goes over a grassy common. The reason is, travellers have quite worn it away, because of the badness of the roads, and the negligence of the people. So far from repairing it, they take away the materials. Moreover you are oft in danger of losing it through the many intersections of cross roads. Sometimes it is enclosed with pastures, or passes under the sides of a wood. Therefore upon every hill tip I made an observation of some remarkable object on the opposite high ground, which continued the right line, so that by going straight forwards I never failed of meeting it again.
I observed too that at such a time of day exactly, the sun was perpendicular to the road, for it continue the same bearing throughout. This I tried by the compass soon after.
Stukeley next describes Shipley Hill, near the River Wreake, which he mistakenly identifies as a man-made barrow. His journey then took him on to the iron age earthworks known as Ratae, which he confusingly calls 'Vernemetum'. He then describes the town of Leicester and a number of Roman antiquities before describing High Cross at the junction with Watling Street.
Originally published in the WHO Newsletter 2001.
Copyright Bob Trubshaw.