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Ipswich Icons: What did the Romans do for us? Any roads?

PUBLISHED: 19:00 30 July 2017 | UPDATED: 19:48 30 July 2017

The heavy showers of June 2, 1953, did not deter crowds from the Coronation Day parade through Ipswich. This photograph was taken in Westgate  Street. Picture: DAVE KINDRED

The heavy showers of June 2, 1953, did not deter crowds from the Coronation Day parade through Ipswich. This photograph was taken in Westgate Street. Picture: DAVE KINDRED

Dave Kindred

John Norman investigates ‘Roman roads’ around Ipswich and looks for evidence of their existence

Carr Street 2016 - Tavern Street and Westgate street in 1992. Picture: JANICE POULSON Carr Street 2016 - Tavern Street and Westgate street in 1992. Picture: JANICE POULSON

There is sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest the Romans passed through Ipswich and that there was a scattered settlement taking advantage of the south-facing slope of the valley.

There was a Roman camp at Combretovium, a Roman villa at Castle Hill and a farm at Boss Hall (Sproughton Road).

But there is no hard evidence of actual roads. No foundations have been found that we can be sure are Roman, says Keith Wade, county archaeologist 1974 to 2012.

Keith does, however, allow us to speculate, and accepted that other historians have suggested some of today’s roads are of Roman origin.

Carr Street 2016 - Tavern Street and Westgate street in  1992. Picture: JANICE POULSON Carr Street 2016 - Tavern Street and Westgate street in 1992. Picture: JANICE POULSON

For example, the line of Carr Street, Tavern Street and Westgate Street is suggested by some (including Norman Scarfe) to be a Roman road running from Walton Castle (off the Dip at Felixstowe) to Combretovium, a garrison and river crossing at Coddenham.

There are two snippets of evidence here. Urns, apparently Roman, were unearthed alongside the line of this road when the then new offices for the EADT were being built on the corner of Little Colman Street and Carr Street.

Keith argues that the discovery of Roman artefacts, if indeed they were Roman, doesn’t prove this was a Roman road. Secondly, during the excavation of the basement for the new Debenham’s store in 1978 a “corduroy road” was exposed under Westgate Street.

This could have been Roman but the technique of laying logs across the line of a road, close together, and then covering them with hardcore (stones) was a typical method of crossing soft ground, and Debenham’s basement excavation certainly exposed extensive ground water.

The technique was, however, used not only by the Romans but by subsequent road-builders up until the railway building boom of the 19th Century.

A sample from one of the logs, sent away for carbon dating, was lost and the rest was reburied under the store and the restored shopping street.

The continuation of the road, today Norwich Road, is straight (building straight roads wasn’t exclusively Roman); it passes close to the Roman villa at Castle Hill and a further section of corduroy road was found. All pointers, but not conclusive.

Wherstead Road, the route into Ipswich from Colchester (Camulodunum), is also straight, not only along the length of Wherstead Road but also along its northern continuation: Great Whip Street – the river crossing (ford) – Foundry Lane – Foundation Street. John Fairclough argues there is sufficient evidence to confirm this road is of Roman origin.

Roman kilns were found by Suffolk Archaeological Service close to Bourne Hill, but was the ford at the top of Great Whip Street of Roman origin?

In Foundation Street – on the site of Tooley’s house (demolished, originally, because it was on the line of the proposed inner ring road but the site was later used for the NCP car park) – evidence of a possible Roman road with ditch was found. Additionally, there was evidence of Roman activity on the east side of Foundation Street (in Shire Hall Yard).

There is less hard evidence, but some speculation, that the road from Colchester entered Ipswich down Crane Hill but then skirted the west of the town to become Norwich Road, the only Roman settlement being a scattering of farmsteads, including the villa at Castle Hill. Certainly Ipswich doesn’t feature as a notable Roman town. Colchester, as we know, did – and thus provided the garrison, the port and the entertainment (circus). Ipswich, less than 20 miles away, simply didn’t feature in their strategic plans.

There has been speculation of a river crossing (ford) between the Strand and Pond Hall Farm (which could also have Roman origins) on the opposite side of the river. Today, a ford at this point would be impossible, not least because the channel has been dredged to allow sizeable boats into Ipswich.

Two thousand years ago, sea levels were substantially lower. Some claim to have seen a “hard”, perhaps cobbles, in the shallow water. It is more likely what they have seen is an outcrop of septaria stone on the bed of the river.

Vast quantities of grit, dirt and very small stones are washed off Ipswich’s roads and carried away with the rainwater to finish up in the river as silt, primarily just below the Anglian Water outfall at Cliff Quay, creating a muddy shore along the Strand.

It doesn’t look as if we could cross the river here, but it wasn’t always so.

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