Radley Farm

Project Number: BAS2021_P04

A program of work to understand better the route taken by the Roman Road to Bath from its last known locations at Radley Farm, and then eastwards toward Ermin Street. 

This first work package on Radley Farm will seek to understand better the fabric of the Roman Road to Bath at known locations, check for any earlier routes up the slope from Radley Bottom and document the characteristic signature of the Roman road’s remains beneath various modern agricultural landscapes as a reference for later work

September 2021 – March 2022

As part of the ongoing project to find the most easterly section of the Roman road to Bath (Margary 53) and its intersection with Ermin Street (Margary 41) fieldwork was carried out between September 2021 and March 2022 at Radley Farm near Hungerford Newtown, West Berkshire. Here earthworks believed to be the most easterly visible surviving remains of Margary 53 can be found in Stibbs Wood and Three Gate Copse. 

In his 2013 paper, Toller describes the route of Margary 53 eastwards from Bath to its intersection with Margary 41 near Wickham, West Berkshire. This route first follows the straight and well attested section from Bath to Fyfield; Toller then presents evidence for the route from Fyfield where the road crosses to the north bank of the River Kennet near Stitchcombe (east of Mildenhall) and continues eastwards via Ramsbury to Peaked Lot; and then from Peaked Lot to its intersection with Ermin Street of which the last 2km is uncertain as can be seen in Figures 1 and 2. 

Figure 1. Toller’s projected route of Margary 53 from Radley Bottom to Openham Farm (Toller, 2013) 
Figure 2. Toller’s projected route of Margary 53 from Openham Farm to Ermin Street (Toller, 2013) 

In Figure 2 the route of Margary 53 projected by Toller can be seen to continue on a nearly straight projection eastwards passing to the south of Wormstall House, through Wormstall Wood, and intersecting with Ermin Street near Benham Burslot. 

Geophysics surveys carried out on the Wormstall Estate to the southeast of Wickham by BAS from April to July 2021 failed to find any evidence of Margary 53 along the route projected by Toller. During the same period BAS also carried out topological surveys across the Wormstall Estate which revealed a line of natural springs to the north of the estate along the escarpment leading to the natural ridge used by the modern B4000. These springs would have presented a considerable challenge for Margary 53’s construction and there is no visible evidence of a ramp, or other such engineering works having been constructed to traverse them. This new evidence suggests that at some point to the east of Three Gate Copse Margary 53 either took a more northerly course (possibly along Church Hill) to join Ermin Street in the vicinity of Wickham, or it turned to the south to join Ermin street near Lip Lane or even further to the south towards Stockcross. 

The above gave rise to the question of what route Margary 53 from Bath actually took for its last 2km eastwards to its intersection with Ermin Street, and led to the instigation of the fieldwork at Radley Farm with the following objectives: 

  • Carry out gradiometer and earth resistance geophysics surveys in the fields to the west, south and east of Stibbs Wood and in fields to the west and south of Three Gate Copse to capture the characteristic “signature” of anomalies close to the known location of Margary 53. Carry out earth resistance surveys in areas within Stibbs Wood and Three Gate Copse where earthworks of Margary 53 best survive. 
  • Carry out gradiometer and earth resistance geophysics surveys in the fields/pastures between Stibbs Wood and Three Gate Copse to assess the level of deterioration in Margary 53’s “signature” anomalies as it passes across a varied modern agricultural landscape in order to evaluate the feasibility of using this method to trace its lost section to the east of Three Gate Copse. 
  • Carry out wider gradiometer and earth resistance geophysics surveys to check for evidence of any earlier phases of the route taken by Margary 53 up the slope from Radley Bottom to Three Gate Copse, and also look for evidence of settlement in this area associated with the road. 

Parts of Radley Farm were divided into distinct areas A to G based on differing topology or usage (see Figure 3) within which a number of surveys were taken initially using a Bartington 601 gradiometer and then a Frobisher TAR3 earth resistance meter to further investigate the gradiometer anomalies revealed 

Figure 3. Assigned areas of interest to be surveyed on Radley Farm (Ordnance Survey 2022) 

The best-preserved remains of Margary 53 were revealed within the ancient woodland of Three Gate Copse and Stibbs Wood where surviving earthworks are visible. The earth resistance survey of Three Gate Copse showed that the 8.5m wide agger and parallel ditches either side survive well (see Figure 4). 

The HER shows an excavation of Margary 53 in Three Gate Copse carried out in the 1960s, but the report from this excavation was never published and had been presumed lost. However, with the help of the landowner the project team tracked down a surviving copy of the transcript of this excavation, undertaken by a teacher and some boys from a school in Reading in 1968. The report confirms the geophysics survey results that the agger is 8.5m wide and well preserved in this location having been constructed to a high standard using compacted flint, with a ditch running on each side of the agger. But the measurements of the section cut through Margary 53 and the photographs taken then have yet to be located. 

Surviving earthworks of Margary 53 were also found on the steep slope to Radley Bottom (Area B) and within Stibbs Wood, which were also surveyed. The results in Stibb’s Wood were less conclusive as it was also identified that this route was used as the main route of entry to the farm until the early 19th century, and as such it is likely the features of Margary 53 may have been much modified and repaired since their initial construction. However, there is good evidence to suggest that the oblique terrace cut into the slope down Radley Bottom was the route taken by Margary 53 which then continued east through Stibbs Wood where the earthworks survive. 

In Area E, East of Stibbs Wood, no trace of Margary 53 was found using geophysics surveys. This is attributed to a combination of the shallow depth of the topsoil over the chalk bedrock, to the effects of clearing woodland and the many years of deep ploughing of the heavy chalk-with-flint topsoil which is thought to have taken place and which most likely removed any remains of Margary 53. In Area F, to the East of Area E, the pasture had been heavily drained, with many ditches and sumps being dug over the years across the projected route of Margary 53, and no trace of it was detected. 

However, in the the field southeast of Three Gate Copse (Area G) traces of Margary 53’s parallel ditches were detected over a 50m stretch using the gradiometer, together with what appears to be a 10m long area of surviving agger between the parallel ditches. This result demonstrates that remains of Margary 53 have indeed survived in some areas of the modern landscape outside of ancient woodland, and that they are detectable using modern geophysics survey methods. However, it must be concluded that the remains of Margary 53 are only detectable for less than 10% of the route due a combination of local geology, topology, and extensive 19th century deep ploughing. 

Figure 4. Earth Resistance anomalies observed within Three Gate Copse (Area C) 

No evidence of occupation was found close to Margary 53. Neither was any evidence found of earlier phases of its construction using a different route to cross Radley Farm along its alignment seen to the West of Radley Bottom. 

Figure 5. BAS project team surveying Area D on Radley Farm 

During this project a lot of experience was gained in to how this interaction of local geology, topology and historical agricultural practices can impact the likelihood of survival of a Roman Road, and on the geophysics methods best used to detect them. As a result of this a further BAS project is now being mobilised to undertake a series of geophysics surveys across land to the east of Radley Farm towards Wickham to track the route of Margary 53 to its intersection with Ermin Street. 

Download the report here:

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire