Wigan to Warrington

This road (Margary 70b) connects Wigan with the Roman site at Wilderspool on the south bank of the River Mersey. It has been well documented by various writers and confirmed by fieldwork over the years but little sign of it can be seen of it at the present time. This is what Margary had to say:

‘… it appears that the river Mersey was crossed close to Warrington Parish Church,…. Its alignment runs slightly west of north through Hulme and the grounds of the Winwick Mental Hospital, beyond which it turns a little more to the north to pass just on the east side of the Vulcan Foundry buildings. It can be seen in places as a belt of stones across the fields under suitable conditions, but it is gererally invisible. Yet its remains were found to be quite substantial, consisting of a layer of irregular sandstone blocks with gravel surfacing, and the width was noted as being from 14 to 24 feet. It was in best condition to the north of Winwick, whereas to the south of this the sandstone was found to be soft and much perished while the gravel was less plentiful.
Continuing north through Wargrave, it next appears as a lane past the extensive school buildings at Earlestown, and then as Queen’s Drive. Just beyond this the main Warrington – Wigan road, which has been running upon a course 1/2 mile to the east, comes on to the line and a distinct relic of the agger can be seen as a broad swelling in the field beyond the houses of Earlestown as it crosses this to fall into the main road. This follows it very closely for the next 1 1/2 miles to Ashton in Makerfield, but for part of the way the Roman road lay just to the east of the present one, inside the frontage of Haydock Lodge, as the earlier writers noticed, and traces of it can indeed still be seen there although much disturbed by the modern drive and planting.

‘Ribbon development along the main road through the mining village with the unexpectedly Welsh name of Brynn has obliterated former traces, but part of the course north of this, which lay through fields east of the road, is still marked by a hollow and cart track, nearly down to the point where the side road called Land Gate is crossed. Half a mile farther on there were formerly traces of the road in the field opposite the Ben Jonson Inn and on to Marus Bridge near Wigan, but cultivation seems to have destroyed them for nothing can be seen there now although the land is still open. Then the present road represents the course into Wigan, where the Wall Gate leads it into the town, this course providing the easiest crossing of the river Douglas.’

A later study, commissioned Liverpool Museum Services, summed up much of what was known at that time. It was carried out by Rob Philpot with help from Ron Cowell. Here are extracts from their report entitled Observations on the Wilderspool to Wigan Roman Road in Newton-Le-Willows, Merseyside, 1985-1995

‘The line of the road between Wigan and Warrington has been well established since the 18th century. The earliest published account of the road dates to the late 18th century . (Whitaker 1771). Whitaker’s account was used by Revd Sibson in the following century in his detailed discussion of the road, published in 1836. At the time Sibson wrote, the road was still visible in fields through the adjacent townships of Haydock, Newton and Winwick. The evidence took the form either of construction materials, particularly gravel and/or red sandstone, ploughed up in the fields or the line of the road visible as a broad bank. Much of the route has now been built over in Newton and Haydock but further south in Winwick the course remains open land.

‘Watkin was the next antiquary to turn his attention to the road (1883, 62-66). He records how, within a relatively short period, ploughing and building operations were altering the road, rendering it much harder to see. He compares Whitaker’s account of 1771 with what was visible just over a century later in his own day in the stretch near Haydock Lodge; Whitaker could see a stretch of 600 yards but by Sibson’s time the visible portion extended for only 200 yards (1883, 64). However, in Newton and Winwick, Watkin follows Sibson’s account. The modern authority, Margary, derives his account of the road largely from earlier sources with some field observations of his own, but he adds nothing to the 19th century descriptions (Margary 1957, 99-100). The road alignment is first shown in detail on the Ordnance Survey six inch to one mile maps of 1849 (Sheets 101 and 108, 1849).

‘Previous archaeological work on the road
‘On several occasions during the present century, the line of the road has been examined in Newton-leWillows, and in Winwick, the neighbouring township to the south. A section was cut through the road to the east of the Vulcan Engineering Works by Captain Doggett in 1909. His photograph and section drawing show the layer of stones lying on a substratum of clay (Anon 1910). The central section of the road at this point is 22 feet wide (6.7 m) but rises gradually on either side to about 0.30 m below the surface.

‘Dunlop and Fairclough examined the road at a number of points between Newton Brook, which here formed the boundary of the historic townships of Winwick and Newton, and the area to the south of St Elphin’s Church, Warrington between 1928 and 1932. They succeeded in confirming or refining the earlier projected Ordnance Survey alignment of the road, and in examining the structure of the road at several points. Of most direct relevance is their observations of the road construction. Close to Newton Brook at SJ 5894 9374, the road was seen to consist of gravel laid over sandstone blocks (Dunlop and Fairclough 1935, 101 and Figure 7). The same construction was found fairly consistently in small pits dug along the road line further south in Winwick, but a complete section in a field north of Hollins Lane, Winwick, showed the overall stratigraphic sequence,

Despite the 19th century antiquarians describing the road leading into Wigan, nothing of it had every been seen in the Wigan area . The closest excavation took place in Bryn in 1993 carried out by the GMAU in advance of a housing development on the south side of Bryn Road. The HER 4226.1.2 (SD 5735 0051) report describes the excavation south of High Beeches Crescent as validating the Ordnance Survey map projected line of the Roman Road. The road ran north-west/south-east and had a gentle cambered profile, was a minimum of 5m wide, and was composed of irregular sandstone blocks bedded on sand and gravel.

The Society’s involvement over the years in searching for this road had been limited – a resistivity survey in the mid 80’s in the fields south Land Gate Farm produced nothing in particular. However in 2015 a huge housing development plan was proposed covering the whole of the area north of Bryn Road to the Land Gate valley. This prompted us  to take a closer look and we undertook a visit to the site in late 2016 (see Newsletter 199).

In 2017 trial pits  in advance of a much reduced development plan, followed by evaluation trenches by Oxford Archaeology North, revealed strong evidence that the road had survived. This prompted the GMAAS to request a full scale excavation of the site before construction could begin. Over a four week period earlier this year, archaeologists from Salford University with help from members of the Society were able to uncover a couple of large sections over a fifty metre stretch. It showed, however, that ploughing over the years had mostly removed the upper metalling but the road’s foundation layers had survived in the form of large irregular blocks of red and yellow sandstone (apparently red sandstone, known as the Sherwood Group, was quarried in Ashton in the 19th century in a place called Skitters Wood). The excavations showed the road to have been about seven metres wide, which is smaller than expected but matches the section of the road discovered in 1993 on the other side of Bryn Road.  A section through the alignment revealed the only example of a roadside ditch. This surprisingly produced sherds of pottery in the upper levels which turned out to be medieval in date. You can see more details of our activities here.