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What did the Romans do for the Midlands?

By Mark Andrews | Lichfield | Features | Published:

A few miles from the M54 is the spot Dan Jones describes as The End Of The Earth. Or at least it was as far as the Romans were concerned.

Dan Jones at the end of Watling Street, in the Roman town of Viroconium, now Wroxeter in Shropshire.

"In a sense, Great Britain literally was the end of the world for the Romans, it was as far west as you could go, and this is where the roads came to an end."

The End Of The Earth is the Roman city of Viroconium, today known as Wroxeter, and marks the end of Watling Street, the first road built by the Romans following their invasion in 43AD.

Jones begins his new television series Britain's Lost Roman Roads on Wednesday by looking at how the construction changed the face of Britain forever. Running from Dubris, or Dover in the south-east, it wound its way through Britain as the Roman troops swiftly marched through the island nation, building new cities and changing local cultures along the way. Watling Street was the heart of the new Roman city of Londinium, or London as we call it today,

The Roman city of Viroconium, now Wroxeter in Shropshire

"Watling Street was the trunk road that allowed the Romans to push their conquest along the length and breadth of the land," says Jones.

But the roads that helped the Romans conquer Britain also proved to be their undoing when the occupying forces fell fell foul of Boudica, Queen of Anglia. Her husband, King Prasutagus, thought he had secured his independence by leaving his lands jointly to his daughters and to the Roman emperor, Nero, in his will.

But when he died, sometime around 61AD, the Romans ignored the will, seized his lands, and then had Boudica flogged and their daughters raped.

Thirsting for revenge, Boudica joined forces with other native tribes, and using roads built by the Romans, staged an uprising. Having decimated Roman forces at Colchester, she had Londinium burned to the ground, before chasing the Romans north to Verilamium, or St Albans.

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The Roman city of Viroconium, now Wroxeter in Shropshire

Realising he was hopelessly outnumbered, Roman governor Gaius Suetonias Paulinus retreated and regrouped, before carefully choosing his battleground for the decisive fight. The precise location is not known, but it would have been somewhere in the Midlands, possibly at Mancetter, near Atherstone, in Warwickshire.

"Boudica's army was much bigger than that of Paulinus, so he had to seize the advantage," says Jones. "He did it by forcing the battle to take place in an area that was hemmed in by forest. This meant the Britons couldn't outflank or overwhelm the Romans, so they were forced to take them head on. And there was no-one better at fighting in formation than the Roman legions."

Boudica's army was slaughtered, the Queen died, and the uprising was over.

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Watling Street, of course also runs through Lichfield and Cannock, being constructed about 70AD. Although not featured in the programme, it runs through the Roman settlement of Letocetum in what is now Wall. Now managed by English Heritage, visitor can see the remains of a Roman inn for travellers and the public baths, with its sequence of cold, warm and hot rooms.

Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire

But while parts of Roman Britain have been preserved, the vast majority of Watling Street is little different from the rest of Britain. Jones says in a later episode he visits a tattoo parlour which has a piece of Roman road in its basement.

"I think there's a bit if pathos about it really," he says. "For all the might of the Roman Empire, it can end up underneath a car showroom, a tattoo shop or a nail bar."

But Jones says it would be wrong to underestimate the role Watling Street has played in the shaping of modern Britain.

"This is the route by which the Roman Army conquered and civilised Britain," he says.

Wroxeter Roman City

"What started out as a Roman invasion in 42AD, resulted in a new kind of civilisation, one in which the Romans and the Britons were living side by side."

Which brings us back to Wroxeter, the final stage along Watling Street, now sitting close to Shrewsbury.

During the filming of the programme, Jones spoke to the site's curator, Cameron Moffett, who explained to him how the site began as a Roman fortress, evolved to become a sort of ancient spa retreat before being handed over to the natives to create their own city.

Standing next to the huge archway of the exercise hall, Jones learns how after working up a sweat in the exercise halls, visitors would then retreat to the baths behind, where they could relax in the warm rooms and cool rooms, just as people might today in a sauna. Local traders might offer snacks to guests, or style their hair, with the added luxury of underfloor heating.

The Roman city of Viroconium, now Wroxeter near Shrewsbury

"Those enterprising locals weren't averse to grabbing a bit of Roman luxury themselves," Jones says.

"This wasn't just about rest and relaxation for Roman soldiers struggling through a harsh British winter, this was built by and for the local British population enjoying all the comforts of Roman civilisation.

"The road that was built for invasion and conquest, whose story is littered with bloody battles with native Britons, eventually reached its end in a town where the Romans and the Britons were forced to live in harmony, and share cultures, and even bathtubs."

Tattooed and wearing a beanie hat, 38-year-old Jones is not the stereotypical history buff. He says his interest was sparked at school.

"I had a very good teacher, Mr Green, who brought the subject to life," he says. "That is so important, good teachers can shape lives." He had another good teacher at Cambridge, where he was taught by colourful and sometimes controversial Professor David Starkey.

Dan Jones with Wroxeter Roman City site curator Cameron Moffett

"He is an amazing, incredibly kind and generous, very different from the pantomime villain he sometimes comes across as," he says. "I still go to him for advice."

Jones hopes that through his TV programmes he can bring history to life in a similar way to his own mentors.

He also hopes it will make people realise it is not necessary to travel the world to see examples of Roman architecture, and that people will have greater appreciation of sites such as Wroxeter.

"Wroxeter is better than almost anywhere else in Britain in Roman terms," he says.

"A lot of people think you have to go Rome or Pompeii to see this kind of stuff, but it's here in this country.

"It serves as a reminder that you can still these sort of things while on staycation – which might be the only sort of holiday we will be able to go on this year."

* Walking Britain’s Roman Roads launches on Wednesday on 5Select

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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