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Watling Street is the name given to an ancient trackway in Englandmarker and Walesmarker that was first used by the Britons mainly between the modern cities of Canterburymarker and St Albansmarker. The Romans later paved the route, part of which is identified on the Antonine Itinerary as Iter III: "Item a Londinio ad portum Dubris" - from London to the port of Dover. The name derives from the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt, which has come to be understood as the A2 road from Dover to London, and then the A5 road from London to Wroxetermarker. Originally the word "street" simply meant a paved road (Latin: "via strata"), and did not have the modern association with populated areas.



The Roman road followed the broad, grassy trackway already used by the Britons for many hundreds of years, although the newer road was made to follow a more direct course. It led from Richboroughmarker in the south-east by way of a ford of the Thames at present-day Westminstermarker to near Wroxetermarker, where one section went on to Holyheadmarker and another, by way of Chestermarker, on towards Scotland.


Roman Britain, with the route of Watling Street in red
A Roman road recorded in the Antonine Itinerary as "Iter III" linked London and Dover. The last section of the long Iter II route from Hadrian's Wallmarker travelled through Viroconiummarker (now Wroxeter in Shropshiremarker), past Letocetummarker (modern day Wallmarker) in Staffordshire, Manduessedummarker (modern day Mancettermarker - possible site of Boudica's last battle), Venonismarker (modern day High Crossmarker) in Leicestershire, Bannaventamarker near Norton in modern-day Northamptonshire, Lactodorum (modern day Towcestermarker - near another possible site of Boudica's last battle), then through Stony Stratfordmarker and Magiovinium (Fenny Stratfordmarker) in modern-day Milton Keynesmarker, Durocobrivis (modern day Dunstablemarker) in Bedfordshire (where it crosses the even older Icknield Waymarker), Verulamiummarker (near modern-day St Albansmarker in Hertfordshiremarker) and London (by way of the ford at Thorney Island until London Bridgemarker was finished, and the line of the modern Old Kent Roadmarker) to Rutupiaemarker (now Richboroughmarker in Kentmarker) on the southeast coast of Englandmarker. While another section of Iter II linked Wroxeter to Chester, and other roads were built into north Walesmarker and central Wales, these are not generally considered to be part of Watling Street. Thus the Roman routes which comprise Watling Street are all of Iter III and the middle-southern section of Iter II.

Main section

The main section of the road is that from Dover to Wroxeter. It was named Wæcelinga Stræt by the Anglo-Saxons, meaning "the paved road pertaining to the people of Wæcel". Wæcel could, possibly, be a variation of the Old English word for 'foreigner' which was applied to the Celtic people inhabiting what is now Wales. This place-name element also gave us the name for Wæclingacaester (the early English name for Verulamium) and it seems likely that the road-name was originally applied first to the section between that town and London before being applied to the entire road.

A number of ancient names that contain the Old English element stræt testify to the ancient route of Watling Street: Boughton Streetmarker, Kent; Colney Streetmarker, Hertfordshire; Fenny Stratfordmarker, Stony Stratfordmarker and Old Stratfordmarker, all in Buckinghamshire; Stretton under Fossemarker, Warwickshire; Church Strettonmarker and Little Strettonmarker, both in Shropshire; Stretton Sugwasmarker, Herefordshire.

Subsidiary routes

Stone Street ran south for some 12 miles from Watling Street at Canterburymarker (the Roman Durovernum) to Lympnemarker (Lemanis) at the western edge of the Romney Marsh. Most of it is now the current B2068 road that runs from the M20 motorway to Canterburymarker.

Another Stone Street from Magnismarker (Kenchester) in modern Herefordshiremarker to Caerleonmarker, Isca Augustamarker and the main Roman legionary base in the south of Roman Wales.

Battle of Watling Street

Part of the route was the site of the Roman victory at the Battle of Watling Street in 61 AD between the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and the Briton leader Boudica.


In the 9th century, Watling Street was used as the demarcation line between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish-ruled parts of England. The Treaty of Wedmore required the defeated Danes to withdraw to an area north and east of Watling Street, thus establishing the Danelawmarker.

Chaucer's Pilgrims

Like most of the Roman road network, the Roman paving fell into disrepair when the Romans left Britain, although the route continued to be used for centuries afterwards. It is likely that Chaucer's pilgrims used Watling Street to travel from Southwarkmarker to Canterburymarker in his Canterbury Tales.


The road north of London became a Turnpike firstly in 1707 when the section from Fourne hill north of Hockliffemarker to Stony Stratfordmarker was paved following an Act of Parliament on March 4th 1707.

This was the first Turnpike Trust and showed how financially hazardous the undertaking could be.

The Fourne hill to Stony Stratford case provides more evidence that Parliament would void undertakers’ rights if they were negligent.
The trustees for the Fourne hill to Stony Stratford road borrowed more than 7000 pounds in 1707 and 1708 to improve the road.
The creditors, however, claim to have been misinformed regarding the expected revenues from the tolls, and requested in 1709 that a new act extend the term and increase the tolls.
A new act was passed in 1709 extending the term, but the tolls were not increased.
It also included a provision that the creditors could take receivership of the tolls if the trustees had not repaid their debts by 1711.

Apparently, the trustees were unable to borrow and the creditors took over the tolls. In 1716,Parliament tried to clarify the situation by passing an act that vested authority in the trustees from the 1709 act and another group appointed by the Justices of the Peace for Buckinghamshire.

The 1716 act was not amended for its entire term of 23 years, but once it was set to expire,Parliament decided that it would not renew the rights of the existing trustees for the Fourne hill to Stony Stratford road. In 1736, the trustees submitted a petition for an extension of their rights, but it failed to pass and in 1739 their authority ended. In 1740, a new act was passed naming a replacement body of trustees. In the petition for the new bill, the inhabitants of Buckinghamshire described the road as being ‘ruined.’ This sentiment was affirmed by theMember heading the committee for the bill.

The road was re-paved in the early 19th century by Thomas Telford who brought it back into use as a turnpike road for use by mail coaches bringing mail to and from Irelandmarker, his road being extended to the port of Holyheadmarker on the Isle of Angleseymarker in Walesmarker. At this time the section south of London became known as the Great Dover Road. The toll system ended in 1875.

Modern road

Most of the road is still in use today apart from a few sections where it has been diverted. The stretch of the road between London and Dover is today known as the A2, and the stretch between London and Shrewsburymarker is today known as the A5 (which now continues to Holyheadmarker). The sections of the road which pass through Central London are known by a variety of names, including Edgware Roadmarker and Maida Valemarker. At Blackheathmarker the Roman road's exact path is uncertain: either diverting towards Deptford Bridge like the modern A2, or staying on a straight line through Greenwichmarker to cross the mouth of Deptford Creek. Through Milton Keynesmarker, the A5 is diverted onto a new dual-carriageway and Watling Street forms part of the new town's grid system and carries the additional designation V4.

Continued use of the name along the ancient road

The use of the street name is retained along the ancient road in many places: for instance, to the south east of Roman London and on into Kentmarker (including the towns of Canterburymarker, Gillinghammarker, Rochestermarker, Gravesendmarker, Dartfordmarker, and Bexleyheathmarker). Within London, a major road joining the A5 in north west London is called Watling Avenue. North of London, the name Watling Street still occurs in Hertfordshiremarker (including St Albansmarker), Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire (including Milton Keynesmarker), Northamptonshiremarker (including Towcestermarker), Leicestershiremarker, Warwickshiremarker (including Nuneatonmarker), Staffordshire (including Cannockmarker, Wallmarker and Lichfieldmarker), Shropshiremarker (including in Church Strettonmarker as the residential Watling St North and South) and Gwyneddmarker.

Other Watling Streets

A Watling Street still exists in the City of Londonmarker, close to Mansion House underground stationmarker, though this is unlikely to be on the route of the original Roman road which traversed the River Thames via the first London Bridgemarker. In Lancashire, Watling Street is the Roman Road through Affetsidemarker which leads from Manchester to Ribchestermarker.

The Roman Road from Cataractonium (now Catterickmarker, North Yorkshire) to Corstopitum (now Corbridgemarker, Northumberlandmarker) and onto the Antonine Wallmarker (also known as Grym's Dyke or Graham's Dyke, from Grim, a name of Woden) also came to be known as Watling Street, with perhaps a similar Old English etymology owing to its path into the foreign land of Scotlandmarker. This route is also known as Dere Street. This may also be the case for another Watling Street between Manchestermarker (Mamuciummarker) and Ribchestermarker (Bremetennacummarker) which ultimately led to another 'foreign land' in Saxon times, that of Cumbriamarker.

A Watling Street Road exists to this day in the city of Prestonmarker, Lancashiremarker. It connects the districts of Ribbleton and Fulwoodmarker and passes the site of Sharoe Green Hospital.

See also


Further reading

O. Roucoux, The Roman Watling Street: from London to High Cross, Dunstable Museum Trust, 1984, ISBN 0-9508406-2-9.

External links

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