On the Streets Where They Lived
Those immersed in history are never alone, even when the company they keep is invisible.
During the spring lockdown I discovered a Roman road. Well, not exactly: its antiquity has been known for many years and it never really needed to be discovered, since it was never lost. It has been in continuous use for many centuries, but I’m new to the area, so it was a discovery to me.
It is an unobtrusive part of a much longer road, that ran between the Roman towns of Silchester and Dorchester-on-Thames, from the northern border of Hampshire into Berkshire and south Oxfordshire. You can’t walk ‘my’ section of it very far, though it is easy to follow on a map. It begins where you join the line of the road as it leaves private land and from there you can follow it as a straight path through a quiet village. Then it goes up a hill, between fields with a far view of the Berkshire Downs, and down the hill, where it meets the Thames. There, the walker can follow it no further, though once it would have gone straight across the river to Dorchester. It is much more direct than the modern road, which takes a winding course around the hills.
This path was already known to be ancient by the tenth century, when an Anglo-Saxon charter, marking the boundaries of the village through which it runs, called it ‘the old street’. ‘Street’ was a word which the Anglo-Saxons particularly associated with Roman roads and so it appears in many Old English place names (this one gave its name to Streatley, further down the Thames), just as the common element in the names ‘Silchester’ and ‘Dorchester’ shows a recognition that these had been Roman towns.
This is a landscape much older than the Romans, though. It is crossed by prehistoric earthworks, tracks and ditches; close to the road, as it runs up the hill, you can see a Bronze Age barrow and an Iron Age fort. The numinous antiquity of monuments like these is also encoded in their Anglo-Saxon place names, which often link them with otherworldly beings who were thought to have built or inhabited them: monsters, elves, dragons, the smith Weland, or the god Grim (probably a name for Woden).
In Old English poetry, ancient places are sometimes called eald enta geweorc, ‘the old work of giants’, a phrase usually interpreted as describing Roman ruins which the Anglo-Saxons could see in the English landscape at sites such as Silchester. Historians in early medieval England knew a fair bit about Roman history, but poets like to revel instead in unknowing and a hazier view of the distant past. They imagine such remains as the work of giants in order to meditate upon history, in its broadest sense: what we can know about those who have gone before us and what we can never know. To them, these ruins were evidence of peoples past and gone, great in their day and yet vanished from the face of the earth – and so a reminder of our own mortality and the truth that one day we, too, will be gone.
Such poems evoke the eerie feeling of seeing a landscape that has once been inhabited and is now empty: a bit like those strange images we saw during lockdown, of deserted streets in the heart of London and cities usually full of workers and tourists. But places like this road are never empty: not really. When you know them to be ancient, they become powerfully imbued with a sense of their past inhabitants and those unknown people feel so close as to be almost within reach.
Today we may not think of such places as inhabited by elves and dragons, but it is still hard to feel alone there. Reading history populates your imagination with metaphorical ghosts, if not literal ones; I have never seen a real Roman walk that road, but in my mind their shadows inhabit it as much as if I had seen them. In the solitary lockdown months this invisible company was very comforting.
The more you learn of the history of the world around you, the more company you can find. Ancient paths like this have survived through centuries for the simplest of reasons: because people keep walking them. Sometimes studying history is about finding new directions, striking off on new paths; but sometimes it is about walking ways that other people have walked before you and seeing what is still on the road, waiting to be discovered.
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.