A Trip Along Watling Street, The Longest Roman Road in Britain 

When the Romans landed on Britain’s shores in the first century and launched campaigns to conquer the landmass, they also brought with them practices and technology developed in Rome.

One of these was the expansion of sophisticated road networks linking settlements, trade routes and military paths over vast distances. 

Roman roads had such a profound impact on the British countryside that the original routes of many of these ancient roads still exist today, the longest of which is Watling Street.


Stretching over 200 miles, Watling Street reaches from the Kentish Ports all the way to Wroxeter, located near Shrewsbury in the county of Shropshire. The road connected major towns, cities, military strongholds, and landmarks across Britain including London and Canterbury. 

Watling Street
 Map of the Saxon Watling Street overlaid on the Roman road network

However, Watling was not the only Roman road that crossed historic England. It is estimated that 2000 miles of paved roads were constructed and maintained during the Roman era. These networks provided a key military purpose, allowing  troops and supplies to be easily transported across the country.

Read More: How Were Roman Roads Built?

While they served a military purpose, the creation of these roads also naturally facilitated better trade and infrastructure for the transportation of goods and service. Some of the routes Roman roads followed are still in use today and form part of the modern British road network.

Watling Street and the Invasion

Up until the creation of the Ministry of Transport in the twentieth century, the network of  roads during the Roman era had been the only nationally managed highway system in UK history. 

While Watling Street is categorised as a Roman road and was extensively developed by the Romans, the route was in use prior to the Roman invasion. The pathway had been used by the Britons for possibly centuries before the Romans developed it as a formal road; the pathway, however, was more of a grassy path, lacking paving or other infrastructure.

Under Roman rule, Watling Street, served as a vital route for the transport of troops, supplies, and trade goods across Roman Britain.

At this time, the road at Wroxeter split rather than ended. One part of the road continued to Holyhead in the west, while the other ran north into Pictish lands in Scotland.  When the Romans came to Britain, they saw the value of this established pathway, linking key areas of the UK.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

The London portion of Watling Street is thought to have been developed by the Romans by the winter of AD48, only a few years after Rome began its initial invasion of Britain. Rome’s occupation of Britain, much of the original Watling Street route would be paved and developed for use by the Roman armies, and it would become a major transportation route in Roman Britain.

Making and Maintaining Roman Roads 

Unlike the dirt tracks that passageways consisted of across much of the ancient world, Roman roads were sophisticated in their construction.

Roads were constructed between two ditches, with a centre passageway often ranging from five metres to up to just over eleven metres in width. The most common road width was seven metres, while Watling Street was just over ten metres wide. 

Remains of a Roman Road near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Remains of a Roman Road near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

The carriageway was constructed on a raised mound, known as an agger, built with materials such as sand or gravel. Roman roads were built with both animal-drawn vehicles and foot pedestrians in mind. The central raised area of the carriageway was intended for use by carts, carriages and chariots, while the areas on either side of the agger were intended to be used by foot traffic. 

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Ditches on either side of the road were constructed to provide drainage, keeping roads still usable and well maintained in wet weather conditions. Roads, such as Watling Street, often had further enhancements to make them easier to use for travellers and for the Roman military.

These roads consisted of two distinct layers. Road foundations were created with medium and large stones, combined and compacted with gravel and small flint. This provided a somewhat paved effect that varied from ten centimetres to up to four metres in depth. 

Iron Age hillfort
Eggardon Iron Age Hillfort, a Roman road and an early Bronze Age burial mound

In rarer cases, the sites of some Roman road excavations in Britain have also shown evidence of the use of limestone mortar used in production. 

The repair and upkeep of most roads in the Roman era was the responsibility of designated imperial officials. The maintenance of roads was so important to the Roman government that there are even cases in which ancient roads would be resurfaced or rebuilt entirely. However, after Rome left Britain in 410, the maintenance of these roads began to become sporadic and poorly organised.

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Many roads began to fall into disrepair and an organised implementation of paved highways in Britain did not commence again for over a thousand years, until the introduction of the first turnpikes.

Despite this lack of maintenance, many Roman roads, including Watling Street, remained well used and important transportation routes across Britain throughout the Middle Ages, and even into more recent history.

A Border to Fight Over 

Due to its significance as a main transport artery across the British countryside, Watling Street has appeared as a boundary to agreed lands, and as the site of historic battles. It has been posited that the final battle between the Roman forces and the Celtic Britons led by the famed Iceni warrior-queen, Boudicca, happened along a portion of Watling Street.

The statue Boadicea and Her Daughters near Westminster Pier, London (the over the top Victorian interpretation)

While the accuracy of the exact location of Boudiccca’s final battle has been left to speculation, many historians share the belief that it likely occurred along an area of Watling Street between London and Wroxeter, cities known by the Romans as Londominium and Viroconium. 

Watling Street has been referred to in historical treaties and agreements, notably between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum, a Viking ruler from East Anglia. The ninth century peace agreement indicates Watling Street as the south west boundary of Danelaw.

Read More: Rising from the Ashes: Britain After the Black Death

This historic agreement may have even eventually developed to form part of the border between modern day Leicestershire and Warwickshire. Even today, Watling Street is used as a border, it forms part of the boundary between the London Boroughs of Harrow, Brent, Camden, and Barnet and has been referred to as the boundary between North and West London. 

Why is it Called Watling Street?

Watling Street wasn’t always known by such a name, in fact, the original name for the route during Celtic times is unknown. The Roman name is also lost to history, and instead the modern name is a variation of the Old English Wæcelinga Stræt.

Watling Street
It originated as a trackway during prehistoric times, when it was likely used by ancient Britons for trade, communication, and travel.

Interestingly, during these times, the word street simply referred to a paved road and had no particular connotation with urban areas. Watling, a corruption of the word Wæcelinga referred to a tribe in the Early Medieval period known as the Waecla. 

Read More: Meare Heath Trackway: A Bronze Age Structure

It is also quite possible that not all of Watling Street was consistently considered one road. On a list from the 2nd century made by the Romans, parts of Watling Street were assigned on separate itineraries.

Similarly, during the Anglo-Saxon era, the section of Watling Street between London and Canterbury was often referred to as Key Street. 

Turnpike Trusts and Nineteenth Century Paving 

An Act of Parliament in 1707 led to the first turnpike trust in England being established on Watling Street northwest of London. This was set up as a means to create a return on investment after significant funding was spent to repave the road. By 1709, a section of Watling Street between Stony Stratfield and Fourne Hill was paved.

Watling Street Today

It is still possible to travel along parts of the  historic route of Watling Street today. Between Dover and London, the A2 runs parallel to Watling Street. A section of the original route also still exists in London near Mansion House Tube Station.

Watling Street
Modern Watling Street in Canterbury

The A5, running between London and Shrewsbury, also closely follows the path of Watling Street, however, this modern day road does divert from the original route at points to avoid towns and cities.

Read More: What are Prehistoric Barrows? You Have Passed Many

The name Watling Street is even still used along some places of the route, notably in Canterbury, Bexleyheath, and Dartford. 

A Roman Road to the A2

Stretching for hundreds of miles, Watling Street has been an important avenue for trade, transport and military endeavours across the history of Britain. Taking advantage of this established path, the Romans developed the route into a well maintained road that could be used as a means of transportation across Roman Britain.

Map of saxon england
England, 878

Using innovative techniques they paved the road, created effective drainage, and maintained it to a high standard. Even when the Romans left Britain’s shores, Watling Street remained an important transportation artery across England and a noteworthy border between kingdoms.

It denoted the border of Danelaw and is mentioned in historic agreements between Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum of the Vikings. It wasn’t until centuries later that Watling Street again was paved and developed, and was the site of the first turnpike in England. 

Today parts of Watling Street are still important transport routes across England, linking major cities and towns that have risen across the country throughout the generations. From a Roman road to a border that witnessed historic battles, to the major roads of the A2 today, travelling along Watling Street can feel like taking a trip through history.