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The Straightest Line

…within a few minutes a plan had formed. Route plotting was pretty simple. The Roman road is traced in its entirety on the Ordnance Survey maps. The Romans utilised their considerable engineering skills building this incredibly straight road almost 2000 years ago, ostensibly a direct line of communication between London and the military and naval bases at Chichester (Novimagus Reginorum back then) but also used by the Cursus Publicus, the postal service of Roman Britain. From the port at Chichester goods were transported back and forth to the capital as well as to and from towns along it’s length. There is no record of what the Romans called this road, Stane Street was recorded later, derived from an old spelling for stone (from Norse “steinn”).

Formed of four main sections: London Bridge to Ewell; Ewell to Mickleham Downs; South Holmwood to North Heath; Pulborough to Chichester. Each of these were joined by shorter parts avoiding steep crossings of the North Downs and Wealden Greensand ridge, but overall the 60 mile road never deviated more than six miles away from the ‘as the crow flies’ line between London and Chichester. It’s testament to their wayfinding and road building that the modern A24, A29, and A285 are built along the same route. In order for Cal and I to keep as true to the original way as possible we would need to connect these modern iterations with bridleways and a couple of footpaths.

We meet Peter at London Bridge Station and after a quick spin over London Bridge so we can start from the middle of the Thames we follow a bus along Borough High Street towards Clapham, forking left here to pick up A24 as far as Epsom. Through Balham and Tooting using Cycle Superhighway 7 along the A24 and then jumping onto the cyclepath on the bank of the River Wandle, straightening the line to Morden and North Cheam. The London streets quiet empty on a Sunday morning. Traffic seemed to be mostly buses and other cyclists. Condensed urbanity gives way to sprawling suburbs, gaps between buildings widen, terraces become semi-detached, a sign welcomes us to Surrey, a neon pink ROMANS sign. Less than 20km from London Bridge to Epsom but it has taken just over an hour due to catching every single red light… and there had been a great many of them.

Around the one-way system we hop a curb for a shortcut through a park, keeping the line straight, and out into the posher ‘burbs. Ignore a ‘Private Road – Residents Only’ sign until a gate blocks our straight line and we turn around. The houses are grand and the lawns so green they look fake. The scent of rhododendrons, the smell of Surrey, reminding me of childhood bike rides. Crossing the Olympic Road Race route on Headley Road we start the first of the bridleway sections, across Mickleham Downs to Dorking, part of the original road and preserved as a scheduled monument. Peter doesn’t fancy the rutted chalk that lies immediately ahead on his skinny slicks so opts to go around on the road. Cal and I say we’ll meet him on the other side of the Downs and disappear into a tunnel of trees. Crossing the M25 we slide and clank through mud and across damp chalk, carefully picking a line between flint and exposed roots.

Rejoining Peter we head into Dorking for coffee and to swap Peter for George. Peter is going to head back to Balham from Dorking, and George has ridden up from Brighton to meet me and Cal and ride with us to Chichester. Back when the Romans used Stane Street there probably would have been one of the posting stations, a “mansiones”, here, essentially a Roman motorway service station and motel, but all trace of the road and buildings has been obliterated by modern Dorking, apart from a residential street called Roman Road on the southern edge of the town that follows the correct orientation.

Stane Street is marked again on the map from North Holmwood through to Ockley, however it doesn’t follow any public rights of way so can’t be traced without difficulty – and probably a fair amount of trespassing. We have two options to get to Ockley, the A24 which at this point is a fast dual carriageway or Coldharbour Hill. The A24 is flatter and closer to the Roman’s intent by avoiding a hill, but Coldharbour Lane is a much nicer ride so we opted for that. Also Cal mentioned that the sausage rolls from Coldharbour Stores at the top “are legendary”. He wasn’t wrong having tried one and tucking the rest in my musette for later. We dropped off the back of the ridge on a narrow twisting lane, and turned down what was a footpath but also a wide farmtrack to try and find out way back onto Stane Street, only to be scuppered by another “Private Road – no public right of way” sign. We spotted another footpath sign that pointed roughly in the right direction and after checking the OS map realised it would loop us around to where we wanted to get to. Bumping along some field edges we’re not sure if we’re on a footpath or trespassing but eventually we turn onto an avenue of trees that line up with the dead straight A29 ahead. Back on Stane Street.

Three-up time trial for a couple of miles past Ockley and back to bridleways searching out the original road. Trees line a raised bank through woodland, a remnant of Roman engineering. Skidding down a bank we pop out by a roundabout on the junction of the A281 and A29, site of another mansio at Alfoldean. From here it’s the A29 all the way to Bury. Heads down, in the drops. An incident with a Volvo near Billingshurst. I’ve never seen George get so irate and shouty. It’s quite funny seeing as we aren’t in any danger, just some oncoming idiot stopping and flashing a lorry to pass us despite the fact we are freewheeling onto the back of a queue of traffic at roadworks. Not sure where it is supposed to go. Fortunately the lorry driver has the same thought as us. I think George is most irritated by the situation distracting him from his Coldharbour sausage roll whilst there’s a lull in the pace.

Right on cue the rain starts to fall just outside Pulborough; jackets on, lights on. Summer downpour alchemy turns the tarmac surface to standing water. I’m not sure if I’m getting wetter from the rain falling or the spray from Cal’s fat tyres. We pass the ends of many familiar lanes as we are now probably the closest to home. We turn off the long drag of the A29 at Bury following signposts for the Roman villa at Bignor. A chance to stop and look at the remains of the mosaic floors but also to maybe dry out and get a cup of tea. A crack of thunder as we trundle over the cattlegrid into the car park. We stand sopping wet dripping water on the tiled floor at the entrance. Drying out doesn’t seem likely. Also unfortunately the tea room inside is closed (COVID) but we can get drinks outside from the hatch in the wall. After looking at the mosaics and bits of bone and pottery we cower in the lee of the building, water dripping from the roof into our already watery hot chocolates. It doesn’t look like the rain is going to stop any time soon so we may as well crack on. One steep climb and then it’s downhill all the way to Chichester, only about 10 miles to go.

Mist is laced between the trees on the hillside ahead. Chalk stained water cascades down the lower part of the road up Bignor Hill, through the bends and gravel. Either it’s stopped raining or we’ve climbed into cloud, we can’t see the aerial when we reach the summit. A line of flattened grass ahead shows us the way. Through a gate, in and out of a dip and then another raised bank, the original Stane Street. Blue sky ahead. Another gate, a tunnel of trees along a raised section into along avenue through Eartham Woods. Through a car park, across a road, through a gap in the hedge. A footpath but it means we can maintain our direct line to Chichester. Ducking under low hanging branches and snagging on brambles it becomes clear this doesn’t get walked often. Over a gate onto the A285, briefly, into a layby and another gap in the hedge. This time signs saying CCTV and anyone using a vehicle other than foot is trespassing. Annoying but this last off road section maintains the straightest line on the map. We push our bikes along a field edge, through more brambles, past a vineyard, and into one final tunnel of trees before rejoining the A285. Only a few miles left to Chichester Cathedral and the end of the road. Our road at least. The original road may have gone as far as the Roman Palace at Fishbourne a few miles further but due to COVID19 it’s closed. So we went to the pub instead.

Route followed

Photos / medium format Kodak Tmax400 shot with a Holga 120 / out of date 35mm Kodak Tmax3200 shot with a Konica Pop Super and an Olympus Trip, both at 400asa and pulled one and two stops respectively during processing.

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