Wheeling back time

Wheeldale Road on the North York Moors is often called the ‘Roman Road’, but is it actually Roman in origin?

On a recent outing across the North York Moors, my companion and I opted for a quiet back road from Pickering, up through Newton-on-Rawcliffe towards Stape and beyond, which ultimately ends up in the village where my parents were married, Egton Bridge.

It is a road that is not for the faint-hearted because more or less all the way it is barely wider than a single track, so you have to be constantly on your guard for traffic coming in the other direction. There is an unwritten code among moorland drivers that, when faced with an oncoming vehicle, both of you slow down, and the one nearest to a suitable place to pull in does so to allow the other to pass. A flash of the headlights or a raised hand is always in order to thank the person who gave way, and they usually respond with friendly wave. Patience is the virtue of the North York Moors driver.

There are, of course, those that ignore that code, those who feel that they own the roads and everyone else should get out of their way. They simply refuse to pull in and head towards you with a stubborn pig-headedness that is selfish and irritating. We have a name for these kinds of drivers that I won’t repeat here!

The occasional bad driver did not detract from this gorgeous route though, which took us past the old Wheeldale Road, also known as Wade’s Causeway after the legend where the giant Wade builds a way for his wife Bel to more easily drive her flock of  sheep across the inhospitable landscape. It’s an ancient route that many refer to as the Roman Road, thanks to it appearing on a 1720 map, and in historical texts, with that name.

The thing is, it might not be Roman at all, as its constriction differs from other roads that are confirmed to be Roman in origin. Archaeologists debate to this day about who built it and when. There are characteristics which point away from the Italian invaders, such as the fact that its upper surface is made up of large stone slabs, whereas Roman roads were covered in gravel. Roman roads are also renowned for being dead straight, whereas the Wheeldale Road has a number of curves.

Although only a short section is visible today, some believe it linked Whitby with a Roman settlement at Amotherby near Malton, passing through the camp at Cawthorn near Pickering. Traces of an ancient road have been found in that direction, which adds weight to the theory. However, other archaeologists suggest it is much later and of mediaeval construction, while others think it dates from even earlier than the Romans, and attribute it to the Neolithic or Bronze ages.

Is it possible that it is a mish-mash of all those ideas? Perhaps ancient man forged what they thought was the easiest route across the landscape, and then the Romans came along and rather than go to the trouble of digging out a whole new road, used what was already there to create a more formal and recognisable road. Then in the mediaeval period, moor dwellers patched it up a bit, and added their own features, and as such, sparked a debate which has divided historians ever since. Of course, I know absolutely nothing about it really, so am hopeful that some expert reading this will put me straight.

On the subject of ancient highways, I am fascinated by stories of the old drove roads that criss-cross North Yorkshire, particularly with the idea that men would move great herds of livestock all the way from Scotland to London to sell at the markets there. Drovers were renowned for being extremely hardy, and I found a cutting from 1985 in my Dad’s files about a Yorkshire Dalesman named Jammy O’Sarah’s who drove a flock of sheep up hill and down dale through days of freezing blizzards to get to their new owner in Skirethorns.

When he finally emerged at his destination, the sheep’s fleeces ‘were so burdened by rain, sleet and snow and frozen by the wind that they could scarcely trudge through the gathering drifts.’ And all Jammy said was: “It’s been what you might call a comfortless journey,” before collapsing where he stood with cold and exhaustion.

Thankfully, he was saved from death after being fed with ‘enough rum to kill a weaker man’.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 3rd and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 1st March 2023