Wigan to Manchester

(Margary 702). With no specific epigraphic evidence, Wigan’s claim for Coccium relies to a large extent on the existence of this road. As a consequence in recent years the society has spent quite some time investigating it.  The Rev Edmund Sibson traced its route in the early 19th century and wrote a detailed account for the Board of Ordinance (published in 1846 in the Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester). It eventually appeared on the revised version of the 6 inch OS map which came out in the1860s.  Despite this, however, precious little evidence for the road has been seen in recent times. Most of the route has been disturbed by industrial activity or housing development; however in some areas we believe the road may still survive.

The map below shows the road passing through the Wigan Borough (in green) as described by Sibson and marked on the 6 inch OS map.  Also shown are sites that have been investigated by our Society (in blue) and other groups (see Colour Key) over the years. As can be seen the road follows the A577 fairly closely but rarely coincides.

Sites investigated by the Society over the years include:

Other investigations by the professionals and other groups include:

  • Park Road East – a section was found here lying just over a metre under the surface described as 8.2 metres wide and 20 cms thick. The excavations were carried out by University of Manchester Archaeology Unit (UMAU) in 1995 in advance of a housing development.
  • Gadbury Fold  – this turned out to be a large medieval settlement but some evidence of the Roman Road had survived underneath it. The excavations were carried out in 2003 once again by the UMAU in advance of a housing development.
  • Lomax site –  the Greater Manchester Archaeology Unit investigated here when the site was redeveloped in 1991. However they failed to find any evidence of the road.
  • Sheep Lane – the road was reportedly discovered here in 1957 under this farm track by Frank and Elsie Mullineux, Herbert Clegg and Arnold Day. Their excavated  section was recorded as being constructed of 3 layers of rough sandstone fragments and gravel. It had a slight camber but was reported as being only 13 feet wide which on the small side for this road. The exact location on the track isn’t stated but photos of the excavation seem to show it somewhere along the east-west section (south of the railway line). It also shows the track to be a hollow way, different to how the track is now and has been in recent years i.e. a ramp leading to what used to be a bridge over the railway. This is because at the time of the excavation the track went under the railway not over it (therefore no need for a ramp).
    In 2018 Heritage Archaeology dug 3 trenches across the line of the road in advance of a housing development covering the west part of Sheep Lane and the Parr Bridge Works to the west of it (Newsletter247). Although nothing was found the archaeologists suggested that this could have been due to past landscaping activity in the area.

All these sites are within the Wigan Borough. However in 2005 the Society had chance to help out with an investigation of site at Ellesmere Park in Eccles where a good section of road was found (see below).

Smith’s Farm
Sibson says the road passed just to the south of the Orchard here, but where was the orchard? – the 1849 map shows two. We visited the site in March 2003 with our resistivity meter, we decided to scan a broad area right across the field. Our survey produced two anomalies but further investigations revealed the more southerly anomaly corresponded with a sandstone outcrop mark on a geological map. The northerly one however was more promising but at the time we were unable to get permission to dig.

Amberswood Common
It is probably the most visibly represented sections of the road appearing on the 6 inch OS map of 1849,  showing the road across Amberswood Common in an area now occupied by Walmsley Park in Higher Ince. In the 1830’s Sibson describes the Road here as
..still very visible …  In many places it is fourteen yards in breadth: the ridge of the Road is broad and round: the grass on the line.. is paler green; and, wherever this.. is cut into, bright gravel of the Road is found in abundance. At the north end of Amberswood Common, near Common Nook, the high ridge of the Road, and its thick coat of gravel, are very prominent.”
About 30 years after this account was written the line of the road was cut in two by the L & Y Railway.  The land to the southeast became the site of a colliery and in the 1920’s a portion of it was opencast (and now covered by landfill).  Our only hope therefore, rested on the northwest side of the railway but, as this was converted into a public park, our chances of excavating here seemed remote.

Our chance came, however, in the summer of 2003 with Channel 4’s Big Dig project. Announced the previous year, it gave us the impetus to approach the council for permission to dig in the park which, as Time Team were involved, was duly granted. When we began surveying, we soon realised that the line went straight through a large fishpond created next to the railway when the park was landscaped at the end of the 19th century. However, a spur of wooded land between this and the Common Nook housing development on the edge of the park gave us some hope for success.As part the Big Dig schedule (including a two and a half minute slot on Time Team’s live programme) test pits were duly dug along the suspected line. Our test pits revealed deposits of bright gravely clay covering the suspected area with a possible ditch on the south side (Newsletter65).  This was a surprise to us as a geological map of the area had indicated a spread of pit waste had been deposited before the park was created.

But was this part of the Roman Road? The council’s offer of an excavator to open up larger trenches across the suspected area was great but as the site was wooded, the main problem was to get the machine in. Eventually we settle for one long trench and two smaller trenches running parallel at roughly ten metres apart.
The results did not exactly produce the classic Roman road section, however in each trench a bank of clay was exposed which could be interpreted as the foundation for the Road. It was particularly prominent in trench 1 where an indicative camber could be detected. The clay bank stretched for about 11 metres or so before giving way to the gravely sand, which seems to be the general underlying natural in this area.
A ditch was discovered on the south side which appeared in all three trenches but this turned out to be Victorian in date measuring about two metres wide by 75cm deep and had been deliberately backfilled with cider like material. On closer inspection we realised this ditch had cut into a much older ditch marked by a dark deposit. The indications were that the ditch had been open for some time and been allowed to fill naturally. The Victorian ditch was not straight, diverging to the south away form the older ditch before returning, indicating that it was probably not a re-cut of the older ditch, its position being just coincidental.  The older ditch alignment, however, appeared to be in a straight line and when we extend the line it appeared to go through a greenhouse (an excavation here however proved fruitless). In trench 1, at about a depth of 1 metre, an area of cobbling appeared which seemed to be associated with the older ditch.  The cobbles were quit large and seemed to be acting as revetment the clay bank on the north side.  The orangey clay in this area was as hard as concrete and contained dark coloured inclusions which seemed to be from some industrial process.
We searched for a defining ditch on the north side of the bank without success but a shallow depression in this area may be all that was left of the feature.  The clay bank was buried under a deep layer of sandy top-soil sandwiching a thick band of carbonised vegetation. This was sometimes convoluted, first impressions suggested perhaps a long period of undisturbed growth followed by some disturbance which maybe the result of the landscaping. A similar band of vegetation was discovered Ellesmere Park (see below) but this time quite definitely lying under the road surface. It could be, therefore, that the road surface at Amberswood had been removed leaving just the band of underlying vegetation (maybe pollen sampling or C14 dating would give a definite date).

Ince Green Lane
In 2007 and 2008 we got the opportunity to carry out a series of investigates in Higher Ince where the projected line of the road crossed Ince Green Lane and the Leaway Council estate. Using the 6 inch OS map with the distinctive section of road marked on it at Amberswood, we projected the line towards Wigan. It seemed to cross Ince Green Lane at a point where St Williams RC Church (on the east side of the Lane) is located and where its previous primary school used to be (the current primary school is on a site slightly to the north of this). The projected line crossed the current playing field which seems to have managed to avoided most of the 19th century industrial activity (apart from colliery lines which are shown crossing it on the early OS maps). Our hopes were raised when a resistivity survey, carried with the help of the school children, produced an anomaly coinciding with the projected line. Our subsequent excavations (carried out in January 2008 (Newsletter110) however proved fruitless – our anomaly turning out to be nothing more than demolition debris. In fact the whole area seemed to have been used as a landfill site in the 19th century, raising the ground level by about 2 metres with cinder and other furnace debris. This seemed also to be the situation on the west side of Ince Green lane where we had excavated the previous year (Newsletter107). The gardens of the Leaway Council estate were subject to remedial work due to the contamination from previous chemical works on the site.

The following months saw further work including a series of test pits (7 in all) along the line of the old school wall all the way up to the present reception block. Unfortunately all the pits produced a negative result. From ground level to the solid geology, the layers comprised of topsoil, red ash with light sand, red bricks and demolition rubbish with dark soil and dark ash. The poor result here and at Leaway forced us to consider that the line may have taken a different route. Therefore sites further north were looked at, particularly along the line of a series of tracks and hedgerows shown on the 1849 6″ OS map. These include George Street just north of St William’s school, the playing field of Ince CE Primary School and Anderton Street on the other side of Ince Green Lane.

Our investigations at Ince C of E Primary School once again involved school children to carry out a resistivity survey which did seem to produce a positive result roughly along the line of the track marked on the 1849 OS map. Our subsequent excavation one again produced industrial disturbance but this time the original ground level proved to be much higher with no sign of the cinder landfill. Our excitement also grew when we discovered what seemed to be a cobbled surface (Newsletter113). However further excavations showed it to be at a depth of about 1.2m below the original ground surface and our conclusion was therefore that this was a natural occurring geological feature (Newsletter114).

Later in the year further remediation work gave us an opportunity to excavate a garden off Heber Street and Bird Street (on the west side of Ince Green Lane). This was also on the line tracks and hedge rows north of the projected line from Amberswood Common and this time it produced a promising road surface with a ditch on the north side (Newsletter116). Whether this had a Roman origin is difficult to prove and pottery retrieved from the section showed that the current construction to be no earlier than the 18th or early 19th century .

In summary, despite all our efforts, no evidence for the Roman road could be found, either on the project line or north of the project line, on either side of Ince Green Lane.

Ellesmere Park
In 2005 we were approached by John Rabbitt of Ellesmere Park Residence Association, to see if we could help them with a project to discover this Roman road which could pass through their area. Our first visits included a series of resistivity surveys on three sites on the Ellesmere Park estate, which lie between the East Lancs Road and the M602 north of Eccles. The best result came from the Three Sisters site.We subsequently excavated this site with our help and also children from the local schools. The results were quite exciting with a good section of Road being exposed about six metres wide. This included, very satisfyingly, well defined ditches on both sides. Cobbling and compacted river gravel survived to a depth of about 3 or 4 centimetres and on the south,  clear evidence of a double ditch. The cross section also showed a layer of carbonised vegetation between the stones and the natural subsoil, suggesting a foundation of brush-wood to stabilise the road in this naturally boggy area.

As mentioned above, this was reminiscent of the section we had already uncovered at Amberswood Common in 2003 which we interpreted as later vegetation buried by landscaping. This gave us cause to re-asses or work on this site. In fact, the dark matter could well have been the base of the Roman road, but without the overlying cobbles, it would be difficult to confirm.