Hen Ffordd -The Old Road

Road

An important pre-Roman east-west route known as the Hen Ffordd (= Welsh; ‘The old Road’), linked Greensforge with LEVOBRINTA (Forden Gaer), crossing the Watling Street West at Craven Arms near the Iron Age hillfort at Norton Camp. The ancient trail then passes close by several Iron-Age hillforts to the west of the Roman road; Wart Hill, Billing’s Ring, The Roveries and Castle Ring.

The only information I have concerning the Hen Ffordd is second hand from Graham Webster’s The Cornovii, which quotes an essay by Dr. A.W.J. Houghton entitled “The Roman road from Greensforge through the Central Welsh March”, published in Trans. Shrops. Archaeol. Soc. LVI, 223 (1960).

[I have not yet managed to locate a copy of this original article. The search goes on. ]

Greensforge to Craven Arms

Of the route taken by the Hen Ffordd between Greensforge and Craven Arms, nothing is mentioned by Webster other than an obscure reference to a possible Roman auxiliary fort sited at, or near, Monkhopton in Shropshire. This is no doubt inspired by the location of the small Roman marching camp at Quatt (SO738890), which overlooks the site of an old crossing of the River Severn about a mile (1.5km) to the north at Quatford. We may deduce therefore, that the Hen Fford travelled almost due west from Greensforge to cross the Severn at Quatford.

On the western bank of the River Severn, the road then headed north-west, following the Mor Brook upstream along its north-eastern bank, through Eardington and Cross Houses to Morville. This route is now delineated by a reasonably straight modern minor road.

At Morville the old road crossed the Mor Brook and then headed due west past Morville Hall, to pick up the line now taken by the modern B4368 through Aston Eyre, to the site of Webster’s postulated auxiliary fort at Monkhopton. From here the old road probably followed much the same course as the modern B4368, through Weston to Shipton and then down the valley of the River Corve through Munslow to Norton Camp and Craven Arms, running between the Corve and Wenlock Edge.

A bit of Speculation

Regarding the conspicuous place-name ‘Highgate’ (SO8389) just north-west of Greensforge. Could this name mean ‘The High Path’? The modern English word ‘gate’ is derived from Old Norse gata, meaning road, street or path. I wonder whether the ancient meaning of the word ‘gate’ applies to this place-name – the local topography certainly substantiates this conclusion – thus implying an early road in this area?

The exact route taken by the old road between Greensforge and Quatford is not completely known, but probably left along the line of the modern road leading west-north-west from the crossing of the Smestow Brook at Greensforge, over Highgate Common and past Highgate Farm to the south of Halfpenny Green Aerodrome then over the fields to Bobbington. From here, the road to the Severn crossing at Quatford ran due west, through ‘Gatacre’ and passing just south of Burf Castle hillfort.

Craven Arms to Forden Gaer

The locations of the five hillforts quoted by Webster by which the Hen Ffordd passed are tabulated below.

Norton Camp SO447819 1.5km SE of Craven Arms.
Wart Hill SO401848 3km NW of Craven Arms.
Billing’s Ring SO370879 4.5km E of Bishop’s Castle, 8km NW of Craven Arms.
The Roveries SO324926 4km due N of Bishop’s Castle.
Castle Ring SJ315006? Location currently uncertain (see below).

Of these five ancient iron-age camps I can only find references to two in any of my gazetteers on Iron-Age hillforts, The Roveries and Norton Camp. Of the remaining three camps, Wart Hill and Billings Ring are easily found on OS Landranger Map #137, lying between the previously mentioned two. The last remaining hillfort named in Webster only as ‘Castle Ring’, presents a bit of a problem as there are three hillforts in the area bearing that name. The reference in the above table is that of the most likely site.

Which ‘Castle Ring’?

When plotted, the first four of the hillforts in the table are remarkably aligned very nearly in a straight line running from south-west to north-east. The fifth fort, ‘Castle Ring’, whichever of the three it turns out to be, would represent a marked deviation off this line.

  1. SO405978: A hillfort lying 1km north of Ratlinghope near the headwaters of the River East Onny, is situated some 9km to the north-east of The Roveries, and represents a deviation of more than 90° off the original line. This candidate should be ruled-out.
  2. SJ373011: Situated on a high ridge between the modern settlements of Stiperstones and Snailbeach, between the headwaters of the East and West Onny Rivers. This ‘Castle Ring’ lies 10km north-north-east of The Roveries along the valley of the River West Onny, but anomalously on the opposite bank, the other four hillforts delineating the old road being situated to the south-east of the river. Verdict; unlikely.
  3. SJ315006: A hillfort lying some 5km due west of Stiperstones, between Shelve and Marton, 8km due north of The Roveries and on the same side of the River West Onny. The route from The Roveries to this fort would have passed close by the Mitchell’s Fold stone circle and the neolithic axe factory on Corndon Hill. This is the winner of the ‘Castle Ring’ title in my estimate.

The first ‘Castle Ring’ in the above table can be found on OS map LR#137 with the other undisputable hillforts, while the most likely site and the other contender can be found lying close to the bottom edge of OS map LR#126.

The Roman Route

Close inspection of the above mentioned OS maps shows that the Hen Ffordd must have crossed the River Onny just south of the confluence of the Quinny Brook, north of Craven Arms. The old road ran up the valley of the Onny to the north-west, following a course parallel to the modern A489 on the opposite bank, and passing by Wart Hill and Billing’s Ring before reaching the shoulder of land between the River West Onny and the headwaters of the Camlad near Lydham, 2km NE of Bishop’s Castle.

From Lydham the Hen Ffordd changes alignment and heads almost due north keeping parallel with the West Onny, following the course of the modern A488 and marking the border between England and Wales. From Castle Ring, the eventual destination of the old road is unclear, though it may have routed through Welshpool on the River Severn. The Roman route from Lydham, however, would have pursued the original north-western heading, down the valley of the Camlad towards Forden Gaer, via the fort and marching camps at Brompton.

The existence of a Roman route between Craven Arms and Forden Gaer is substantiated by the finding of a large Romano-British building at Linley (SO3492), just 2km north-east of Lydham.

Greensforge to Metchley?

A Bit More Speculation

I am intrigued by the possibility of an eastward extension of the Hen Ffordd linking Greensforge with Metchley, but looking at the modern Landranger map of Birmingham (#139) offers no clues, the lie of the land being obscured by urban features due to the dense population of the area under consideration. An old Bartholomew map of the Vale of Severn (May 1947 half-inch series, No.18) clearly shows that the main streets of Brierly Hill and Blackheath run almost exactly east-west, and even more remarkably, are in almost perfect alignment. Both of which facts are not readily apparent on the modern map.

If we extrapolate the line through the centres of these two towns to the west, we find that this alignment meets-up with the known Roman road between Greensforge and SALINAE DOBVNNORVM (Droitwich Spa), just one mile south of the Greensforge complex. There is also a conspicuously-named ‘Mount Pleasant’ on the Bartholomew map, north of Wordsley, to the west of the A491. This name is often associated with old Roman roads, and is another piece of the jigsaw revealed on the 1947 map that is not detailed on the latest Landranger.

When the line is extended eastwards, we find that it passes along the Chad Valley only 1½ miles to the north of the known Roman fort at Metchley. This lies very close to the point where the two southerly Roman roads from Droitwich and Alcester converge, possibly to make use of a ford over the Chad Brook.

I wonder, could Brierly Hill and Blackheath have origins reaching back to Roman times? Could these two Black-Country towns have begun as settlements beside a Roman road running from east to west between Metchley and Greensforge?