Otherwise known to modern travellers pre-motorways as the A 34 trunk road.
by Mervyn Benford
The motorway qualification stands because their introduction brought the foolish decision by the relevant officials in government to re-number sections of roads like this, even assigning completely new numbers transferred from other roads sometimes. Winchester and Manchester were pre-Roman urban settlements that suited development by the invaders, becoming important bases astride key routes.
The success of the Roman Empire was due to many factors, not least a disciplined army, but armies had to move and needed resources while settled territories developed trade. A particularly significant feature of the Roman world therefore, were its roads and it developed a strong and influential road network wherever it arrived. This was no different in Britannia and they did such a fine job that evidence of their practical wisdom and skill survives very visibly on land as well as on maps.
Watling Street, Stane Street, Akeman Street, Ermine Street and of course The Fosse Way are well-known survivors as names and routes today, with their relevant modern numbering of course. Many Roman routes depended naturally on convenient junctions with other roads and the journey to Manchester from Winchester would have seen several such intersections but the broad thrust of the route can be traced still today.
Winchester is just 12 miles from Southampton, an obvious place for port services and the likely start and end point for goods and people travelling via Winchester. I remember being impressed by its fine mediaeval northern gate. A route to Portsmouth would have been far more complex whereas as can be seen on OS maps the surviving road from Southampton to Winchester has long straight sections and a general straight line typical of Roman construction criteria.
A problem with early OS maps, for example I have the one-inch for Portsmouth and Southampton dated full revision 1913, minor corrections and railways 1925, is that road numbers are not given. My Oxford and Swindon also full revision 1913 but road and other corrections 1931 also still shows no road numbers. So anywhere in this text where I find problems knowing if a piece of road was the A34 or not will take me only to my post-war maps of the 1960s.
A good straight start sees it reach the 1960s city limits. It has a few gentle curves as it swings gently towards Eastleigh and Chandlers Ford and this is not uncommon as one factors in the impact of later human history with its pressure of increasing urbanisation. The Fosse, as the A429, went awry as the Midland clump around Coventry, Warwick and Leamington took traffic precedence under modern developments. Railway enthusiasts have found Eastleigh’s extensive railway yards and tracks interesting. Today it is not too far from Southampton Airport.
The 1959 OS map marks another straight stretch leading from Compton village into the city centre as “Roman Road.” This seems likely to have been the A33 until the by-pass which then took that number over. From Winchester a road heads out slightly north-east to re-join the A33 near Kingsworthy from where another dead straight section is also labelled “Roman Road.”
The southern section of the truncated A33 as far as Compton was then given the A34 numbering. It is clear the Romans went south of Winchester so maybe this study should not assume the A34 itself to mark a Roman route between the two Roman towns as such but the main part of a route through to Southampton.
Original route numbering started the A34 in Winchester city centre as a north westward branch from the original A33 heading towards Newbury. As a student-teacher at King Alfred’s College in Winchester, itself now Winchester University, I first met the road through history society visits to some fine Iron Age hill-forts and bronze age barrows either side of it south of Newbury. It was single-carriageway in the early 1960s.
A good straight section through today’s suburbs took travellers for 3 miles before the Newbury route required a slight eastward shift. But the original road out of Winchester at that point continued still absolutely straight as a B road, the B3420, heading towards Andover. The modern dual-carriageway route south at this point in recent decades gained a much-needed short extension to join the A33 by-pass, itself complicated by the proximity of the M3 heading even more directly for Southampton.
I was once told that re-numbering was necessary to reflect the lower maintenance responsibility on trunk routes that had lost traffic to motorways but sadly it hides incisive evidence of centuries of UK travel. Typical of the sabotage of history this short stretch of new dual-carriageway link road was given the A34 number, the original section out of Winchester was given the B3420 number which had taken the route towards Andover but which itself had become the A271, de facto up-graded…….only as far as its crossing the A30 because north of that point the original B number returns.
A very useful set of slim, pocket-sized books appeared in the early days of motoring under the title “The Contour Road Book of England.” The series is beautifully described as “A series of Elevation Plans of the Roads, with Measurements and Descriptive Letterpress.” They were published by region, using sections ( Western Division, Northern Division, and South Eastern Division.) The same author, Harry Inglis, began with a Scottish edition with 500 maps and plans. In those days the books were principally aimed at cyclists but later editions clearly were of interest to motorists. They gave useful plans of key towns, lighting-up times, railways facilities and costs, general background information but essentially they described actual routes using a total numbering system, eventually reaching 1000.
Individual volumes in the index came eventually to list them all, at least that existed at the time of each re-print. The first seems to have been the northern edition, published 1897. It lists just those routes. The 1909 northern edition reports in its index the full route coverage including 100 added for Wales. Routes 1 – 354 are northern division, 338-694 in the south-eastern, while the western covers 675 – 1100 (which includes the 100 Welsh examples.)
Each section has a contoured diagram to show gradient (and whether dangerous,) lists places through which the route passed and the distances between, places or objects of interest, and sometimes mentions at least the measuring points for milestones. Perhaps the absence of this latter information indicates little mile marking evidence on that route- some of which can be quite short stretches of road.
Southampton to Winchester is Number 512. To Newbury is 651. Newbury to Oxford is 491 and relevant routes from Oxford in the same range except that 940 treats Birmingham to Oxford which was for the most part the eventual A34 route via Stratford-on-Avon to the Midlands (Wallsall) and surviving intact until the M40 brought more nonsensical re-numbering to Oxfordshire roads.
512 in fact covers the entire journey from Southampton to London. From Southampton Bar the distance to The George in Winchester was just over 12 miles. Worth noting in the city were the cathedral, castle, where the eventual A33 was turned to by-pass the city and causing that original stretch into the centre to become the extended A34. The section from Southampton to just beyond Winchester was excellent condition, if a little up and down, with a good surface for cycling. A less hilly route via Eastleigh was nevertheless more loosely-surfaced. Milestone information is rather limited: “Continuation of those from London to Farnham, whence measured from London via Bagshot”. Two routes are offered from Alresford to Winchester.
As a student at King Alfred’s College (teacher training NOT the public school!), itself now Winchester University, I became aware of the fine cathedral in miniature, almost, that is the mediaeval St. Cross Hospital church on the south side of the road to Southampton, well into that afore-mentioned Roman-straight stretch from the city centre. The St. Cross Hospital was a substantial mediaeval support station at which was offered to travellers a portion of bread and mead known as “The Wayfarers’ Dole.”
Its description in “Wikipedia” describes “The Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty” as a mediaeval almshouse founded between 1133 and 1136 and the oldest charitable institution in the UK. It was founded by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, grandson of William the Conqueror, half brother to King Stephen of England. It was the oldest and largest such establishment in Britain, built on the scale of an Oxbridge College but older than either, and has been described as “England’s oldest and most perfect almshouse.”
It accommodates 25 “Brothers” and of course has a “Master.” The brothers are either of the order of St. Cross from 1832 or from the later Order of Noble Poverty founded in 1445. One has black robes, the other red. They must be male, single Or widowed /divorced) and over 60. Those in greatest need have priority for selection. All must wear their robes and attend service in the fine Norman era church that is part of the site. It is one of the most attractive ecclesiastical buildings I have ever met.
It remains open and in service. Mead changed to ale but bread remains bread! Started by St. Cluniac, the ‘dole’ can be sought still today. In terms of this text it was originally A33 but became A34 when the city by-pass opened. This by-pass, opening as a new section of the A33, was taken over by the M3. Both routes pass very close to the Iron Age hill-fort of St. Catherine’s Hill, well-known to Winchester folk looking for gentle walking into history.
Those two A 34 hill-forts mentioned earlier make worthwhile visits. Beacon Hill is still much visited today with direct access from the dual-carriageway A34 and a parking area. It is a straight steep climb to the top.
To reach Ladle Hill, opposite, and equally appealing as it also has barrows scattered around including some of the rarer bronze age types such as a disc barrow, was easy in single carriageway days as it was just a right turn from the south into a track leading after a short distance to an area where it was possible to park the staff cars in which we invariably travelled. It was then a mile walk gently uphill and affording fine views in the process. Because it is dual today a little careful planning is needed. Short sections of the original road survive, for example in the built-up areas as dualling became effectively their by-passes.
The A34, before dualling, having adjusted its line, went in 1960 rather straight to and through Sutton Scotney where it crossed the A30 before heading again in a largely straight direction northward towards Whitchurch, Highclere and arriving eventually in Newbury. As it passes through the Bullington villages and on over the A 303 the OS map indicates ruins of a Roman building, and all along the route tumuli are marked indicating the importance of those Iron Age hillforts and their preceding generations. Roman travellers would have needed to be watchful until the area was largely pacified by Roman-British cultural developments that were the basis of modern Winchester.
The Contour book route (my SE edition 1913/14) between Whitchurch and Post Office and Newbury Jubilee Clock notes only the inn in the village of Whitway as a significant place on the way. It refers to local pre-history for points of interest and states milestones were measured from Winchester Cross The first three miles (in fact the eventual access road after all the modernisation) had a good surface but it degenerated into “poor and hilly” all the way to Newbury. Inglis joined with Gall to develop a new series in similar style but not the same numbering. In the relevant book they cite a particularly dangerous hill at Whitchurch.
After Whitway the road wound through Burghclere until Newton, shortly after which the A 339 joins it for the final half mile or so into Newbury centre and the then relatively new Jubilee Clock. From just north of Whitway there is a straight section of road (B4640) direct into the town but I am not sure if this was original routing although its straightness would have pleased the Romans! It could have been since today’s route via Burghclere seems to have been more a winding rural route through to Old Burghclere and beyond.
By 1967 the OS shows the road still capable of continuing straight through Newbury centre but also the beginnings of the eventual surviving inner ring road that eventually took almost all through traffic. Newbury sits on the A4 and our road in its 1960s guise heading for Oxford would have to cross that (today a huge roundabout complex) before reaching Donnington village to start the next major section towards Oxford. Consulting maps of Roman roads will reveal where this particular route intersected with other Roman routes.
In addition to Sutton Scotney, Whitchurch and Whitway one other section of the road survives south of Newbury as about a mile into the village of Litchfield. It is a small, attractive village, especially the churchyard in spring, but 100 metres north of the church the road is now part of the Litchfield Estate and returned entirely to private ownership. At this very point, however, there happened to be a milestone surviving and one day I found it, hidden under deep vegetation, flat on its back, still with plate one of whose corners had at some stage been clipped, and looking very sad for itself. Every time I go to KAC for re-Union I check and it is still there despite my several attempts to interest local and society people in its restoration.
It is clearly of a type very likely to represent the very first such markers used on the route, or not long after. It was known to the OS in 1959, as were the next two which presumably may also still remain on the Litchfield Estate land before the further parts of original road mentioned above. At least one stone survives on this stretch to the junction with today’s B 4640.
It was at Whitchurch that Outram in his splendid classic “Coaching Days and Coaching Ways” 1888, reported the coaches from London to Salisbury and Oxford to Winchester had earlier cross. The White Hart Inn did good business in those days but by the time he wrote the book he lamented Whitchurch as no longer the bustling place it used to be. Stage coaches had gradually become the means for more and more people to travel and considerable competition developed in the 19th. century for custom using claims about speed, distance and comfort. London to Salisbury, today’s A30, was part of ”The Exeter Road” and travel became keyed into particular routes even if other journeys and rivals introduced shorter or variant routes. The Oxford-Winchester journey would surely have followed our route via Newbury, today’s A34.
Modern atlases indicate Sandham Memorial Chapel in the area, as well as the Tothill Services area serving the present A34 dual carriageway. Highclere, always west of the route, has its well-known Castle. The service area is a reminder of the huge controversy when the dual road was extended to meet the M4, effectively a much-needed Newbury by-pass. The building of this section was notorious for the environmental and other protests it drew. Extensive steps were taken by protesters to prevent the work and equally extensive, and ultimately effective, actions were taken by the authorities to ensure construction went ahead. It brought new territory for the road numbered A34 as it continued to Oxford.
Thus today one can reach just north of Oxford from Southampton on continuous dual-carriageway or motorway without entering Winchester, Newbury or Oxford- which is to miss a lot of things visitors usually enjoy! There is another penalty. Being just two-lane dual except for the M3 section, serving significant commercial areas such as Didcot, the Culham/Harwell nuclear science and fusion bases, as well as Winchester, Abingdon, Oxford and Newbury, and with a junction with both the M4 and M3, and the holiday significant A30 and A303 traffic can be heavy, accidents regular and delays frequent. As with so many examples it was short of a lane from the outset.
My 1959 and 1960/67 OS maps indicate survival of a good number of milestones between Southampton and Oxford along the line of the original route, but with gaps. From Donnington north of Newbury the road runs still more or less straight but with gentle shifts of direction left and right now and again. It appears consciously to by-pass the village of Chieveley which today has a new lease of life as a nearby alternative to the massive service area using its name at the junction of motorway, dual carriageway and the old A34 into Newbury now the B4494. The minor road does not directly serve the service area but connects.
The Contour book route 491 deals very briefly with the road to Oxford. It was regarded as Class III, with a fine surface to Steventon, but poor and hilly from thereon. They recommended using Pangbourne instead. Milestones were measured fropm Folly Bridge in Oxford to Chilton, thereafter from Speenhamland, Newbury. Only two intermediate places were mentioned, East Ilsley’s “Swan Inn” and County Hall, Abingdon. However the gradient maps give more detail. Donnington, Downend and Beedon Hill are shown before East Ilsley.
From modern road atlases the A34 passes Chieveley village by some 500 metres to the east but the OS map gives at least a hint that at one time there was a direct route in now just a bridleway. Turnpike Trust history has many instances where for greater efficiency and improved timing some villages did lose their post-coach visits and in Surrey a letter survives from a vicar begging the trustees not to do that to his village because of the severe loss of business entailed- motorways still create these crisis situations in terms of accommodation, sustenance and horsepower.
Was Chieveley such a victim in turnpike days or only more recently? A road east from the centre re-joins the A34 after a mere 400 metres. A road leaves the village northwards and today still heads indeed via Downend (which the Contour book cites) almost directly for the A34 at the intriguingly named hamlet of Worlds End. The A34 is mentioned in a Google extract as quartering the parish, its line “having moved several times.” Chieveley village offers travellers its own brands of rest and comfort. Maypole Cottage marks the site of an earlier Maypole. The “Red Lion” according to Wikipedia, has its own resident monk who stayed overnight on his way to Canterbury but never moved on, earning his living in arm-wrestling matches at the big service area.
By 1967 the road by-passed East Ilsley, a delightful Berkshire village but tight for the heavy volumes of traffic always using this direct route to the Midlands. My 1913 (revised 1931) OS map shows it went through the village originally, as Inglis’ book states. The later Gall and Inglis book described the road as dangerous and hilly with a dangerous hill in East Ilsley. In this part of the route, as throughout so far, some very steep inclines were involved and several sections would have lent themselves to the post-era practice of renting extra horses for a certain distance- to markers, usually stones, where the hired horses had to be taken off. No doubt they could be used for extra braking downhill. These take-off stones survive but at the handful level.
In the Inglis book Chilton and Milton Hill are included on the journey through Rowstock to Steventon today by-passed. A milestone is marked by the OS for this village, two miles from the previous one just south of the crossing of the A 417 Wantage to Reading Road at Rowstock. Rowstock is fortunate also to have a stone from this road according to the OS in 1967. They continued then every mile into Abingdon where the road arrives in the west of the town and does a longish dog’s-leg stretch before turning back towards Kennington and Oxford. When our data-base founder, Alan Rosevear lived in the area he took it on himself to work closely with the local Vale of White Horse District Council in a milestone restoration and re-painting project which saw many Wantage area stones so treated. The Rowstock pair would have been his achievement assuming they survived the years since 1967.
Today the dual carriageway by-passes all north of Steventon. But that same OS map shows the road passing close to Drayton and Sutton Wick and entering Abingdon from the west as described earlier. Today the road out of Abingdon centre quickly branches into a direct re-connection with the A34 dual carriageway but the route originally passed the west edge of Radley Park (Radley as a place is not even mentioned on the pre-war map) and through Bagley Wood missing Kennington itself. Inglis takes the road into Abingdon through Drayton and out via Radley Park as later indications affirm.
The post-war OS map shows a T junction connection with what was then part of the developing Oxford southern ring-road where the A423 from Wallingford ran in. At this point, still in 1967, it turns left and runs directly through South and North Hinksey as the start of the present western Oxford by-pass reaching Botley and then on to Wolvercote and the big Pear Tree junction north of Oxford where the Woodstock road also exits. The 1913 (revised 1931) map shows the road making a T connection with the minor road to Oxford from Wootton just south of South Hinksey and it is at this point that I suspect the ring-road began, as it is met today, both western and southern sections. Crossing the railway line and a river section instead it then did a sharp 90 degree left turn to run almost straight into Oxford along what would even then have been known as the Abingdon road. Inglis includes a reference to passing through “New Hinksey.”
Travellers heading to the Midlands today via Stratford now leave Oxford on the A4144, the Woodstock road. The SE Contour book regards the road indeed as it is again today, namely to Worcester, but it also in its western edition has a route direct to Birmingham from Oxford but detailed only from Enstone. The section from Oxford to Enstone seems even in 1913/14 to have been more regarded as the Worcester road so perhaps as today’s A44 the system has it right after all. At some stage the system clearly preferred to have the road as a natural extension to the Midlands of the A34, at least from the big Pear Tree roundabout over which it now newly extends to the M40.
So from Pear Treetoday it is the A44 again and the Worcester road. The A44 originally was a branch from the A34 at and through Chipping Norton towards Evesham and Worcester. Now the A34 resumes only after Chipping Norton and then in the reduced maintenance numbering of A3400. However, later pages add to this part of the story.
At this point I introduce John Ogilby. Ogilby was a dynamic, radical, classical Branson-style entrepreneur of the 17th. century. Among many rather intriguing activities he won royal endorsement from Charles II for a major mapping of British roads in the early 1670s, the first such exercise ever and incorporating the then far from new and still not commonly adopted legal statute mile of 1760 yards. His maps and the resulting amazing atlases are worth a chapter in themselves. They gave a significant impetus to interest in travel which expanded progressively more rapidly from there on. The 100 series starts with the London-Aberystwyth route in his typically rich and detailed way as it was in those early days of travel. The A34 used a short section of this very old route.
He shows the branch at Wheatley and the spur to Oxford via Shotover, later replaced by the present route through Headington. He shows the junction with the Woodstock Road route to Stratford and Birmingham at Kiddington. Later atlases showing mileages on both roads indicate that the cross-country route was a mile shorter than doing the same journey via Oxford and so after Kiddington their given distances had to be adjusted to combine.
Ogilby’s 100 principal routes faithfully reflected much of what survived of the Roman network. On the other hand if Roman roads went from Southampton to Newbury there is little evidence of it in his 100 maps. From Southampton the initial straight section of his route to London shows but the route then veers off well east of Winchester heading for Alresford and the route via Alton, today’s A31, into Surrey. Roads branch to Winchester and Basingstoke but that is all.
Winchester gets a mention on the London to Poole route but again reached via Alresford and then going off to Romsey and Ringwood. However, St. Cross gets a mention as a left turn off this road, which would fit. Northerly travel from Winchester seems more towards Andover, perhaps because it was an important place adjacent to the westerly routes now A30 and A303. Abingdon is mentioned only on the London to St. David’s route via Henley and Dorchester-on-Thames where a toll booth and milestone still stand.
The Romans would have liked the straight run into and out of Oxford that was available until modern pedestrianisation. The road from Abingdon arrives dead straight into the city centre and continues dead straight along Cornmarket, passing Carfax, the site of the present covered market, St. Michael’s Saxon church, the St. Giles Martyrs’ memorial and to a point 100 metres further where the road then gently divided left and right respectively to Woodstock and Banbury, with the Banbury Road more straight in Roman character perhaps with Roman Bicester as a destination.
At this point I have long had an interesting debate with myself. I have supposed this entire stretch came in as the A34 and continued out along Woodstock Road until modern by-passes upset the numbering system. Traffic now reaches the torment of the Wolvercote and Pear Tree roundabouts on the A4144 which briefly cuts the A40 bypass also arriving at this heavily congested northern interchange. The survival of an early milestone in style and shape similar to those on both the A40 and its cross-country by-pass route via Islip and Bletchingdon complicates any assumptions.
Earlier Road Numbering
I now need to complicate the story somewhat. My copy of a 1923 official Ministry of Transport map covering Swindon and Oxford produced for it by the Ordnance Survey did have a road numbering system. It was based on the 1902-03 full revision but what looks like a specially added footnote around the 1923 issue date for this version of that map, tells us “THE CLASS I and CLASS II ROADS SHOWN IN THIS MAP ARE IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CLASSIFICATION FOR THE YEAR 1922-23”
Alongside the roads on standard OS maps of the period no road numbers are given but on this MOT map orange and green numbers are used to indicate first and second class roads respectively. There are no letters yet, except that on the inside back cover with just six road signs (Level Crossing, School, Steep Hill, Crossroads, Corner and Double Corner, are two drawings of finger posts one showing a number with A, the other with B. The road signs are all under the traditional triangle, i.e. warning not yet obligatory. I suspect these are early days for numbering and other signage but there could have been an earlier series.
The majority of numbers correspond to what we know today and have been familiar with, both A and B examples, but not all and not our particular road. Our road came in as number 34 but went out as number 42 and was that number till the road went off the map just south of Shipston. At some time it was obviously re-numbered back to the A34 of modern times. As the original 42 and then the restored 34 it has of course, as described earlier, now become the A44. The A42 had arrived in Oxford as the west of Thames route to Reading via Dorchester and Wallingford, being therefore the last section into Oxford of Ogilby’s route from London via Henley.
Other surprises are worth mentioning as historical background. Road 40 is today’s A40 and indeed crosses Magdalen Bridge and runs up The High but then heads straight out to Botley and over Swinford Toll bridge to Eynsham where it only then meets the present A40. Thus the last section of the Swindon-Oxford A420 was on that map number 40. The Banbury road was 423, obviously a continuation of the road from Wallingford, but before that road became its later A 423. The Banbury route lost its number possibly with the M40 arriving but it recovers it for the section to Southam and Coventry. Two miles out of Banbury is the new stone, with original plate, restored in 2012 by the Oxford branch of the society and the only surviving evidence of mile marking between Banbury and Coventry. A real curiosity is to see the route from Marlow to Reading through Henley as road 32.
I have an AA map of 1935 based on OS surveying showing central Birmingham on one side and on the other to quarter inch scale what it calls throughways through Birmingham. I refer to this later in terms of the main story but on this map our road is the A34 so the change came between 1923 and 1935 However, from this point on I adhere to the A34 numbering but ask readers to remember it once had been the A42 and today has in part become the A3400 and the A44.
Resuming the journey, the A34- as it was- soon reached Woodstock, a present-day tourist trap with Wellington, Waterloo, Churchill associations well-known to many of us. It by-passed the bulk of the estate, traditional high walls preventing prying eyes in stage coaches and cars alike. As the A 4144, one milestone survives in Woodstock Road, a type akin to those that survive on the A40 spur into Oxford from Wheatley to the south-east and the main London-Aberystwyth original route from London which went off at Wheatley via Islip, Bletchingdon, Wootton and Glympton villages to a junction in Kiddington with the A34 Oxford-Birmingham route.
Inglis has travellers noting “The Marlborough Arms” as a route point and then Enstone before the shift west into Chipping Norton for the Town Hall. From Wolvercote to Woodstock and on to Kiddington milestones survive almost but not completely every two miles but a different type in style and shape and obviously different information. Most are badly eroded but original large-scale OS maps usually faithfully recorded what was inscribed on stones at least at the time of those maps. They would also have shown how the Oxford-Birmingham canal ran nearby and today at villages like Thrupp off the Banbury road some charming rural waterside scenes can be observed and refreshment taken in company within truly slow travellers. One delightful little café, with intriguing paintings on its walls by an artist it sponsors, offers special prices to pensioners on Wednesdays!
The Canal roughly parallels the Cherwell, one of the Tame/Isis tributaries that in effect becomes today’s Thames at Oxford, crossed by the Abingdon Road from today’s Kennington direction. From Woodstock the road hits countryside by-passing most villages until it, too, reaches Kiddington, where that original Aberystwyth route joins it. At this point it is useful to bring John Ogilby into the story.
Ogilby has more to say north and west of Oxford as he records the London-Aberystwyth route in four maps, the first as far as Oxford and Islip, the second from Islip as far as Bromyard in Herefordshire. This direct cross-country route avoiding Oxford met the route from Oxford to Stratford at Kiddington as already mentioned, the distance from London via Oxford being a mile further.
Inglis notes Ditchley as worth attention under Enstone and the “Rollrich Stones” (plural but not the right spelling) under Chipping Norton. Beyond Kiddington the A34 remained mainly rural, passing only through Enstone but Enstone was a far more important place than it is today. It was also reached by the east-west Bicester road to Witney and Faringdon’ It was also the postal town for Charlbury whose letters were invariably addressed “Charlbury near Enstone.” In the mid-19th. Century Charlbury had a postmistress (echoes of Lark Rise?) from whose salary of 5s a week she paid an old shoemaker 1s. 6d a week to deliver them using his dog-cart. The post-mistress gave a quarter of her time to postal business, the shoemaker an eighth. There were six deliveries a week. No uniforms existed and delivery could be haphazard, even given to children for onward movement. Postmen could not read so recognised names from the shape of the words on the envelopes.
Enstone on the main road had been a key stopping place for coaches. “Coaching Days and Coaching Ways” noted in 1888 that of three varied routes for the important Holyhead Road- important because it enabled England to reach Ireland then sovereign territory, one indeed ran this midland section on the Oxford to Birmingham road through Woodstock, Chapel House, Shipston, Stratford-on-Avon,and Henley-ion-Arden to Birmingham.
Chapel House is mentioned by Inglis in the Contour Road Book account of the journey in 1909. By 1850 Enstone’s bare windows told how severe the loss of trade had been since the railways had arrived, replacing not just goods as well understood today, but also passengers. Yet just ten years earlier it was a flourishing place and was used by Charlbury for mail service because it was so effective. The 1850s many-windowed but sightless “Lichfield Arms” had been regularly advertised in coaching’s heyday and people could remember bands playing beside the famous fountains and in all six inns not a bedroom ever to spare.
As the A34 continued north a road ran in to Chipping Norton at Southcoombe in effect being where the original A44 began and one would have assumed a natural route for traffic to Evesham, Worcester and Aberystwyth ultimately via Moreton-in-Marsh. The A34- in effect the Ogilby 1675 road- itself by-passed this town, much as Oxford had then been bypassed. It went straight ahead about a mile before angling slightly left along what is today a country lane towards Over Norton village. Crossing the B road from Chipping Norton to Great Rollright it then joined another narrow country lane from Over Norton and ran on past the dead-end road to Little Rollright before it hit the cross-country Banbury to Stow and Moreton road at what is the border with Warwickshire.
Immediately at the junction was a tollhouse and twenty metres south of it was a milestone in the same style and vogue as all those on the original London-Kiddington route, not like those between Pear Tree roundabout and the Southcoombe turn to Chipping Norton. Effectively it was the last marker in Oxfordshire of the section passing through the county of the London-Aberystwyth road of Ogilby’s era. It has survived perhaps because the more rational route west through Chipping Norton took over and the post-era route became just little used country lanes.
A further change came when a more direct route for the A34 to Long Compton was created still used today and with its own milestone a more modern design- interestingly its detail chiselled out suggesting the route was in use by 1939. Both my 1913 (revised 1931) OS map and the 1923 MOT version of virtually the same map and period show the Ogilby route as definitely a good if second class road for traffic but the new road also in use and of first class grading. When this new road was built remains to be determined but Inglis’ road contour route 940 Oxford to Birmingham not only well describes the steep ascent and descent involved but adds “OLD ROAD” and so the present road must have existed in 1909 but perhaps not in routine use yet.
Our A34 route may not only have served the Aberystwyth route of 1675 and subsequently but at that final milestone of Oxfordshire A40 type and the border with Warwickshire a tollhouse stood which still exists. The route to Moreton avoiding Chipping Norton would have meant the coaches turning immediately left and using the still today convenient Banbury-Stow route as far as the present Moreton A44 road out of Chipping Norton. At this point the A436 to Stow began and traffic for Stow from Banbury went straight across- today a dog’s-leg for safety. There is also long-established inn at the junction which may argue the Ogilby route did come that way. From the tollhouse remained in Oxfordshire.
However, at the tollhouse it could have crossed straight over and 60 metres further turned left to use a cross-country route no worse than what it had just been using to reach Little Compton before picking up what is today’s A436 to Moreton. It is outside this text but the minor roads from that tollhouse across into Warwickshire clearly were reasonable quality in the 1930s and if one turned right instead of left one reached Long Compton.
Most maps then and now show a more direct track from the crossing toward that road, in effect cutting the corner and that could have been more shallow for coaches and horses. I am suggesting that before today’s route, i.e back in turnpike days, the Birmingham road from Southampton this text describes passed this tollhouse and used the Aberystwyth road from Kiddington to Warwickshire. There is a route from Chipping Norton to Over Norton which turns towards this older route and that may have been used by town traffic towards Long Compton/Shipston/Stratford. Today travelling those narrow lanes brings fascinating echoes of past journeys and past travel conditions.
The Contour book western division book gives full detail of route 940 between Oxford and Birmingham. It takes the story only from Enstone though acknowledging that the road came from Oxford via Woodstock. It refers to route 495 detailing the journey to Enstone. Enstone has several routes using it but all in the south-eastern division book. Route 917, Worcester to Oxford nevertheless stops at Chipping Norton in its gradient diagrams and text which again seems to suppose onward travellers were expected to use 940 to Enstone and then 495 to Oxford.
Route 940 from Enstone takes travellers through Chalford Oaks to Chapel House, as today, which was at the junction of today’s A3400 and the Chipping Norton Banbury A361, once an early Little Chef roundabout restaurant. In coaching days this was a refreshment house typical of the best. Outram quotes Johnson saying:
“There is no private house, there is no place at which people can enjoy themselves as well as at a capital tavern like this.” It was in the Old Chapel House Inn in Oxfordshire on the Birmingham Road that those words, and more as he expanded his description, were spoken.
Inglis’ route 940 then continues, describing as noted earlier use of the old road (the Ogilby route) to that tollhouse on the Warwickshire border. This argues that as late as 1909 cyclists and other traffic still reached Long Compton via that no longer functioning tollhouse.
Back at the tollhouse and milestone junction with the Banbury-Stow road along the border, immediately to the right on the Oxfordshire side are the famous Rollright Stones, which the Road Contour route book called Rollerich Stone (singular). They are far smaller than Avebury but still in the top ten such circles in the country and would have been bigger today had they not been made of local limestone and eroded by 3000 years of weathering. On a misty morning looking downwards and southwards as the sun is fighting through there is a wonderful atmosphere. I can imagine that if a change of horses were involved, which might have been the case for coaches avoiding Chipping Norton and entering a new county whose turnpike era mile markers happened to be very different from any others known, the travellers’ attention would have been drawn to a rather remarkable piece of ancient history – early tourism maybe!
Travellers to Moreton, whom Ogilby shows definitely did reach Little Compton, would a few miles further on have passed, and maybe stopped at the famous Four Shire Stone where Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire all once met until later land rationalisation. Ogilby knew of it in 1675 and marked it. It begs the question when the present route through Chipping Norton first became preferred. Might it have waited until the arrival of the railways and the subsequent effect on passenger traffic? Inglis of course mentions it. He also puts his “Rollerich Stone” as a Long Compton feature. It is nearer by the older route than the newer one.
From Long Compton to beyond Shipston distance markers were a rare type almost resembling street lamps except that instead of lights there were metal frames that contained boards with distance information on them. A handful survive and society branches are involved with local groups to restore them all. This will, represent a truly remarkable preservation exercise as nothing like these exists elsewhere. One was found hidden in undergrowth literally where it had just fallen- who knows when!
From Long Compton to Shipston also has the feel of a route deliberately avoiding the adjacent villages, or is this a more recent alignment for modern convenience? Did the original A 34 visit any of the villages as it clearly did once through Tidmington, just before Shipston? Burmington would similarly have been feasible. Little Wolford maybe? The Contour book writes that the route went through Little Wolford as well as Tidmington. It is possible the references to villages implied no more than that travellers might find them near enough to visit even if the main road just missed them. On the other hand Burmington, similarly adjacent to the route, is not mentioned.
Shipston sits on the Stour river, an Avon tributary, and the town has some pretty buildings. The Contour book mentions Tredington first out of Shipston and then crossing what it calls its Route 927 – Warwick to Stow (today A429) and de facto the original line of the Fosse Way to Cirencester. Half a mile east of this junction in Halford is an individual cast iron milestone of an unusual type, low in the ground, recently repaired by local endeavour after a lorry hit it. Inglis mentions the Roman road as a place of interest. His 940 description so far has recorded reasonable road conditions, if anything improving between Long Compton and Stratford.
From the Fosse today’s A3400 soon reaches the village of Newbold-on-Stour has an intriguing stone memorial on which a poem provides the distances to Shipston and Stratford clearly regarding the latter as the more significant place because of Shakespeare. This is one of the more unusual distance markers in the national record. Inglis does not mention it either as mile marker or a stone object. He lists Alderminster ( and the present route is a rather recent new by-pass) and then Atherstone-on-Stour, which is somewhat to the west of the present road though its edges are touched. The road would probably have always favoured the west bank of the river but cyclists or motorist could visit the village easily if they wished.
It is not without interest. The neighbouring large house, Alscot Park is grade 1 listed and what is now a cluster of warehouses was once an R.A.F. airfield. In November 2007 a very large fire at a vegetable warehouse in the village allegedly was the cause of the death of three Warwickshire firemen and in 2011 three senior fire officers faced manslaughter by gross negligence charges.
The road arrives in Stratford over a newly extended southern by-pass that closely followed the line of the former Stratford-on-Avon & Midland Junction Railway from a branching off the Midland line between Northampton and Bedford. Like the ring road it needed to cross the line before winding its way to Stratford station. Today the station is a dead end, trains only northwards, but track exists to the south sufficient to enable locomotives of steam specials from Tyseley to detach and run back on the spare track to join up for the return journeys.
Looking down that extra track one can hear the echoes not just of the Midland route but also the onward direct services to Evesham and Cheltenham. In Toddington village is a major steam preservation centre running a short section first to Winchcombe and now onto Cheltenham racecourse but not into Cheltenham itself. Plans have long been laid and hopes at times raised of restoration northward back to Stratford.
Just before the ring-road roundabout is now a brand new, air conditioned Waitrose supermarket that no doubt cyclists on a hot day would have welcomed in 1909. After this roundabout Stratford is soon entered, the road passing over the Avon on an old stone bridge with a now disused tollhouse that controlled earlier traffic. Clopton Bridge was built in 1480 replacing a timber structure. It has 14 pointed spans, two of which were re-built in 1524. Floods in 1588 saw new repairs and one arch was destroyed to prevent Cromwell’s armies advancing in 1642. The Edge Hill battle ground is not too far away. The bridge was widened to the north in 1811 and in 1814 a ten-sided tollhouse tower added. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument under constant environmental stress from heavy traffic flows.
Adjacent is an early tramway, now a convenient pedestrian thoroughfare. It connected Stratford to Moreton-in-Marsh, a 16-mile waggonway intended to carry coal to rural south Warwickshire via the Stratford canal basin, as well as limestone and agricultural produce. A branch to Shipston was added in 1836. Initially horse-drawn it did not prosper and in 1859 the southern section between Moreton and Shipston because a proper steam railway following negotiations with the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway.
The section from Shipston to Stratford continued horse-drawn for limestone until falling into disuse in the 1880s, not long before Inglis was describing the road journey between the two places.
Stratford is Stratford and no more need be said. Inglis naturally refers to the Shakespearean interest. The A3400 passes through the centre today by a slightly wide of centre routing to avoid the very centre. It then heads off towards Henley-in Arden, Solihull and Birmingham.
On the way it passes under the Stratford-Tyseley-Solihull-Birmingham railway route and just before Wootton Wawen far more unusually under the Stratford-Birmingham canal. The road then passes over a bridge above watercourses serving what was clearly once a large manorial estate, the house now a large Conference Centre. On the east side of the bridge is a stone panel dated 1898 on which are inscribed some distance measurements- another intriguing form of mile marker. Even more intriguing it showed not only that Stratford was 6, Henley-in-Arden 2 and Birmingham 16 but that London was a straight 100. Milestone enthusiasts like those with the century recorded.
In Henley-in Arden itself our road is the High Street. This is Shakespeare and Tudor personified, visually rich but for the parked cars and heavy through traffic. On the right-hand side before reaching the centre one of the cottages by an archway has a milestone recess cut into a stone wall of the particular cottage giving distances just two different from those just cited, but in Roman numerals. Recently restored by a local heritage group one wonders if this cottage, which has a small but typical archway next to it through which a small coach and horse might have travelled, was a tollhouse. In Redruth in Cornwall there is a house by an original milestone of the period and just in a long terrace of such houses, from which one day the then owner came out to tell me it had once been the local tollhouse.
The road continues today still as A3400 and over two motorways in quick succession, first the M40 and then the M42 before converting to dual carriageway the short distance to Solihull and for a shorter distance a few miles further on, through Hall Green and Sparkbrook before hitting the centre and moving out towards Walsall. Happily for my sensibilities, the road, once over the M42, seems restored to top maintenance status since it is allowed today to revert to its original numbering. So despite the best efforts of Oxfordshire it arrives in the second capital as the A34 proper…..except that my 1935 AA map shows that when it is joined by the A41 at Sparkhill’s “Mermaid” public house the larger number takes precedence. It has after all come all the way from Marble Arch and the Edgware Road!
Both roads at this junction are also tram-lined, the A34 since the “Robin Hood” pub on Shirley Road, Hall Green. The two roads arrive in Digbeth, then into Bull Ring and a two-way stretch of High Street into New Street before turning into Corporation Street to head out with the A38 from which it branches as Lancaster Street, to become in succession Newtown Row, another High Street, Birchfield Road and finally Walsall Road. In Perry Barr the tramline ends. The AA tells one this is the road for The Lakes, Scotland, Liverpool, Preston, Stoke among other places and of course not forgetting Manchester. Taking no chances it also said the A38 led to these locations!
My 1909 western division Road Contour book gave detail of the journey to the centre at Birmingham Exchange but its gradient map mentions Sparkbrook and Hall Green, then Shirley, followed by Monkspath Street, Box Trees, Nuthurst and Hockley Heath before Henley. Milestones were then measured from Bordesley to Hockley Heath, after that from Stratford and before that Oxford. Between Stratford and Shirley the road was excellent in 1909 but the last section into the city was rather bumpy.
I have little knowledge of present road routes and numbers. Motorways considerably change through routings by design. The M6 has been around a long time, likewise the M5 and even the M42. My Northern Road Contour book does not help me until Newcastle under Lyme so at this point the story is modern evidence of routing and places of interest. Suffice it to say that the A34 is itself again and on the way to Walsall passed the Cathedral in the centre and went close to Aston Villa Football Stadium, Villa Park, on its way out. It crossed the Tame Valley Canal in 1935 and the new M6 of course later. Somewhere in the centre survives a miles marker Birmingham 1- always welcome to find the first from a town or city and usually long disappeared as a result of many construction changes. The A41 itself continued out and reached a pub called Three Mile Oak but nothing so helpful to our readers can be found on the way to Walsall.
From Walsall the A34 it has unimpeded progress to Cannock, Stafford, Stone and reaching Stoke still mostly in a straight direction but with consistent slight meanderings left and right that betoken the impact of the industrial age on settlement and traffic patterns. Before the M6 and its modern toll road the A34 would have carried large volumes of traffic and it is still a busy route. Before Cannock it crossed another great Roman road, Watling Street, numbered the A5 still today, stretches of which featured significantly as stage coach travel accelerated with longer distances and faster times. I also suspect that inadvertently in the late 1950s I may have brushed with our road incidentally because it passes through Cannock Chase and I did my military service initial training at R.A.F. Hednesford and the Chase was used for outdoor training exercises.
In Stafford travellers met a major developing railway service, today’s west coast route to Glasgow from London. Express services tended to by-pass Birmingham and save time as a result. Services then ran on to Crewe and Manchester. In Stone the A34 ran not far from part of the present M6 and it has access to it there. So our old road, if not so dead straight, seems to affirm the Romans new the right directions when themselves heading north. In reaching Newcastle-under-Lyme it brought travellers to the Potteries, well developed by the 18th. Century under the influence of such as Josiah Wedgwood.
Through Kidsgrove, Congleton, Alderley Edge, Wilmslow it then immerses itself in Manchester city territory, enduring numerous slow-moving stretches as it passes particularly still directly through those urban centres. Several short stretches of dualling have relieved the pressure somewhat. Inglis’ route 940, happily in my western division 1909 version, gives some early detail of travel along the route north of Newcastle-upon Lyme.
From here the A34 hits the only further stretch (north of Oxford) above 500 feet as it passes through High Carr and Coalpit Hill (which speaks for itself of course!) Descending to Red Bull it has reached the county border to enter Cheshire. Hall Green, Scholar Green, Brownlow Heath and Astbury take it into Congleton through what will seem from those names distinctly rural landscapes. Beyond Congleton came the Wagon and Horses inn which has a sense of transport significance, possibly a change of horses for the post-coach services and even an overnight for the passengers and crew.
Alderley and its Edge was a today tourist significant place, reached then via Martan, Bank, Siddington and Monks Heath. Wilmslow followed Alderley and led then to Handforth, Moseley Park and Cheadle. Manchester proper starts to emerge as the road reaches Didsbury but still Inglis shows the traveller passing through Withington, Fallowfield, Busholme and Chorlton-on-Medlock before finishing its journey in Manchester centre. Milestones were measured from St. Anne’s in Manchester and after Wilmslow from Stone. Alderley Edge Park, Reeds Mere, Mow Cop, Trentham Hall and Park and Keele Hall are mentioned as points of interest in 1909 and maybe still today. Keele has a relatively recent university as well as a motorway service area nearby.
The best part of the road for condition was between Congleton and Wilmslow but there was a dangerous bend and steep hill north of Congleton that needed care ascending or descending. The poorest section was from Newcastle. The rest was mostly good. The last ten miles through Cheadle into Manchester was paved.
So the story ends through which the Roman route between Winchester and Manchester is traced largely through the one route, the A34. The Romans set the pattern. John Ogilby gave us the late 17th. Century record and Inglis a view from the turn of the 20th.., Century. In posting days coaches used the road and no doubt those very busy routes The Holyhead Road, The Chester Road, The Manchester Road all would have crossed our road and, as noted at Whitchurch, perhaps spent time together in local inns at such key junctions. I have tried of course to relate it all to how it is today, adding newer points of possible interest. The internet has provided some of the history and I am sure would embellish in some way or other almost all the places named on the route. There may be many things to report even more dramatic than Warwickshire firemen dying or pubs with monks!