I’ve always had a fascination with maps. It seems I can’t just look at one quickly to find my way somewhere. I have to pour over it, spotting all sorts of places, names, and clues in the landscape. And I’m always particularly excited by finding a Roman road. I have no idea why they have always interested me so much, but ever since I was a child, and my father first pointed out these amazingly straight lines between towns and cities, I’ve had a fascination with them. I’ve climbed the fells to the north of Ullswater in the English Lake District several times, looking for the track of High Street, a Roman road that ran across the tops of the fells, but to no avail. It’s the only time I’ve been disappointed in a map – the Ordnance Survey actually seem to have got it wrong! Or maybe my map-reading skills aren’t all that good. Hmm, I wonder which is more likely 😉
Despite my dodgy navigation skills, researching The Salt Man is turning into a delight! The Fosse Way was a major Roman road that ran between Exeter in the south west to Lincoln in the north east. And it goes straight through Bath. It would have run right by the temple and baths being built there around 60 – 70 CE. Today its route is clearly visible, both on maps and on the ground. In fact, the modern A367 between Bath and Ilchester follows it fairly faithfully. But not completely. In some places the modern road wriggles off to one side or the other to accommodate access to later towns. But the route of the old road is still clear, striding its way through woodland on the Mendip hills
Crossroads have long been considered to be magical places. Places at boundaries; places where worlds meet. Some believe that supernatural spirits live at crossroads and strange things can happen there. They seem to represent interfaces; places that don’t really exist; places that are neither here nor there. So when I spotted a crossroads between the Fosse Way and another Roman road on the map, I just had to go and see it for myself. The road that crosses the Fosse Way at Beacon Hill is a much less famous route between Old Sarum (near modern Salisbury) and the Roman lead mines at Charterhouse on the top of the Mendip hills. Last Sunday we set off in search of the crossroads, and I managed to map-read well enough to guide my husband, who was driver for the day. Without too much difficulty, we found it. And it was magical. Not in the hocus-pocus sense, but in the sense of having a real presence – a place that, far from being neither here nor there, gave me a palpable sense of reality; a sense that real people had trodden these roads for centuries, making deals and trading their wares, or buying food or drink from roadside sellers.
This part of the Fosse Way is quiet now, a path in a leafy wood that crosses the lead mine road with no fuss or fanfare. But with magic and history.