What is the oldest road you can cycle on in Britain? Oldest actual surface, that is, not just general route. People have been trudging across the Ridgeway for instance, across England’s billowing chalky south, for many thousands of years. But the specific lines taken varied from year to year, even journey to journey.
What we’re looking for is an ancient road-top itself. Something which a local of the time, magically restored to life, might recognise, borrow your bike to ride, and once again get caught in that damn pothole they always forgot about by the junction.
The world’s oldest known road surface – and presumably the earliest roadworks, traffic jam and lost no-claims bonus – is in Somerset. It’s in a museum though, so you can’t cycle on it. The Sweet Track, a two-kilometre length of wooden planks, was laid across a marsh in spring 3807BC, when Britain was still joined to Europe. We know the exact date thanks to someone spending a very long time counting tree-rings. (You can see a reconstruction in the Peat Moors Visitor Centre in the Somerset Levels near Street, though it doesn’t say anything about Woad Rage.)
So what about Roman Roads? After the Romans left around the end of the fourth century, their extensive road system gradually fell into overgrown disrepair. Paving stones were looted to build houses and walls. But in a few remote places, sections of Roman Road have survived pretty much intact.
There are three candidates for ‘original surfaces’: Blackpool Bridge, in the Forest of Dean; Wade’s Causeway, in the North York Moors; and Blackstone Edge, in the Pennines. But none is satisfactory. Each is slippery, goes nowhere, and promises more than it delivers. British voters know the problem.
We’ve picked out Blackpool Bridge as the least worst of a second-rate bunch. It’s as useless as the rest, but is accessible and the nicest to look at. British voters know the problem.
‘Blackpool Bridge’ is a spot near a T-junction in a shady part of the Forest of Dean, just by a disused railway bridge. For a couple of hundred metres alongside a narrow country lane there’s a stretch of rough cobblestones forming what looks like a footpath. A sign cautiously refers to it as being ‘An ancient paved road known locally as The Roman Road’. Many sources say it probably is Roman, despite its being about half the width you’d expect: that’s apparently because it’s not a via but an actus, a kind of Roman B-road. It would have been a smoother walk back then, with a layer of gravel on top of the cobbles.
Follow the course of the road north. Just before the stream, where the surviving surface ends, there’s the remains of a junction – said to be the only surviving Roman example in Britain. The left fork curves off across the stream via the old Roman ford, and disappears beyond into bramble thickets. The right fork goes under the present road and crosses the stream as yer actual Blackpool Bridge.
There isn’t a sign saying No Cycling on the Roman Road, probably because there’s no good reason to do so, and you’ll fall off if you try.