Monday Mystery: High Street ‘Roman’ road

High Street is easily one of the most famous Roman roads in Cumbria – and quite possibly in the whole of the UK. So much so they called a whole mountain after it: the eponymous High Street in the far eastern fells, where the road reaches an impressive 2,700 feet above sea level. It was built to provide access between the Roman forts at Brocavum (Brougham) and Galava (Ambleside), and the easiest route between the two isn’t around the mountains, it’s up and over.

At least, that’s what we’ve always been told. And many people still accept this version – not least English Heritage, who use a picture of High Street (above) to illustrate their blog post explaining Roman roads. After all, what better example of the straight line approach taken by the Romans than a road that goes up a mountain?

But recent research suggests it may not be quite as straightforward as that. The Roman Roads Research Association uses lidar (a form of radar that uses lasers to penetrate the ground) to trace not just the routes but also the structure of supposedly Roman roads around the country. And when they came to look at High Street, there wasn’t much there.

The northern section, heading south from Brougham, doesn’t seem to exist at all, at least along the generally accepted route(s). And further south, where a track does show up, the construction doesn’t follow the usual Roman model of a platform-like road (agger) built up between two ditches.

Of course it’s possible that the road known as High Street followed a different route altogether, or made use of an earlier track. Cumbria had many prehistoric drove routes (paths used to herd animals through the mountains) and the Romans might well have adapted one of these. However, that would be pretty unusual – normally they shunned old, inefficient routes in favour of their own, newly-built “motorways” – and other high level routes in Cumbria that have been proven to be Roman favoured the usual agger construction.

So, is High Street a Roman road? Well, even the authors of the Roman Road Research Association’s website aren’t sure – and they’re the experts! What is certain is that this is an ancient route, and one that, unlike most other prehistoric tracks, follows a relatively straight line over the tops of the fells rather than sticking to the valleys. That in itself suggests some Roman influence; but the remaining evidence suggests otherwise. It’s a real conundrum, and one that may not be resolved, at least until/unless there’s a proper archaeological excavation of the road. In the meantime, why not head to High Street (the mountain) and have a look for yourself? The scenery more than makes up for any shortfall in the Roman road department.

Oh – and take care if you follow that link to the RRRA website. It’s quite addictive – so much so that people have been known to wander the pages for days!

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