At first glance this looks like a muddy field with an Australian contract lawyer walking away into the middle distance. Look again, though, and you’ll notice something strange. Why is there no substantial vegetation in a big straight swath through this field?
The answer is that it’s a Roman road. Only a few inches below the soil are the original stones laid down 2,000 years ago when this was the Roman province of Britannia. This is one of many Roman roads crisscrossing the land from its southern shore all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall on the border with Scotland.
This photo shows a portion of the Roman Way, a 174-mile walk along three Roman roads in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire. We walked the 22.5-mile (36-kilometer) stretch between Dorchester and Alchester.
I had visited Dorchester and its medieval abbey three years ago while hiking along the Thames Path and was happy to revisit the rare medieval wall paintings and the historic High Street lined with 17th century coaching inns. This main road running through town is actually part of the Roman road.
We followed it north and were soon out into the countryside, passing through fields and between hedgerows that were bringing forth delicious blackberries. In many spots the Roman road is clearly visible as a bank raised slightly above the surrounding land. Like in Dorchester, at times it’s still used as a road and we had to detour to keep on trails.
%Gallery-164134%The landscape is dotted with little villages. One of the first we came to as we headed north towards Oxford was Toot Baldon, where a Norman church and its overgrown graveyard of mouldering stones provides a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Shadows of clouds made dark blots on patchwork fields while a murder of crows circled above a distant hedgerow.
We came upon another church, built in the 12th century, a couple of villages further on at Horspath. The sun shone through the brilliant stained glass to illuminate the interior with a kaleidoscope of colors. Not far beyond, we walked up onto a wooded ridge called Shotover. This was a forest in Saxon times and later became a royal hunting ground.
At the crest of the ridge we followed a clearly visible road, but it wasn’t the Roman one. Instead it was the London-Oxford coaching road and was considered a dangerous stretch. The thickets on either side of the road were infested with highwaymen who would relieve travelers of their hard-earned shillings and guineas. The highwaymen were a polite bunch and generally bid their victims a pleasant good night before riding off with their money.
From Shotover we got another fine view, this time to the north and west, where we saw the fringes of southern Oxford and a pair of hills called Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, named after a lady of the local manor from the 17th century. Heading down the slope at the far end of Shotover, we entered the C.S. Lewis Nature reserve, a bit of wild land with a pond that are said to have inspired the famous author to invent Narnia. His house is nearby.
Within a few minutes we were at Oxford Park and Ride, mainly used for commuters but also a good starting-off point for both legs of this hike. Heading north from there ran the second part of our trail. For a time it skirted the eastern edge of town but soon we were walking through fields and past centuries-old thatched farmhouses. After a long stretch we came to Beckley, where we took shelter from a sudden downpour in the Abingdon Arms, a local pub. A pint later, we ventured out to visit the local church, yet another Norman structure. This one rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries and decorated inside with paintings of Biblical scenes.
Beyond Beckley lies Otmoor, a large fenland and nature reserve. A nearby Ministry of Defense shooting range keeps anyone from thinking of building on it! There was no shooting the day we went and ll wee heard was birdsong back by deep silence. There are several blinds scattered about for people interested in birdwatching. The rain made this part of the hike very squishy. Anyone hiking in the UK should definitely wear good water-resistant boots.
Not far from here some locals discovered the wooden pilings of a Roman bridge, and we saw more Roman remains stuck in the wall of the church at Merton, where the builders mixed local stone with Roman tiles scavenged from the nearby Roman fort of Alchester. The church is dedicated to St. Swithun, whose remains were moved here from the cathedral at Winchester in 971. His spirit disapproved of the move and caused it to rain for 40 days.
Some more plodding through mud and rain (thankfully not of the 40-day kind) brought us to Bicester, once a Roman town and now engulfed in a shopping center. This jarring intrusion of the modern world into a historical hike killed the atmosphere and we quickly caught a bus back to Oxford where we could enjoy a celebratory whiskey.
For a guidebook we used “The Roman Way” by Elaine Steane. The directions are clear and are aided by strips of Ordnance Survey maps for the areas the path passes through. There are also some notes on the history and nature of the region, although you’ll probably want to do some more background reading before heading out. To include everything of interest would have required a book that would be too heavy to carry!