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Cutting a straight line northwestwards through the Milton Keynes area, though somewhat obscured by the pattern of modern grid roads, is the former Roman Road of Watling Street. From the heights of Great Brickhill, dropping down into the plain, it passes by the Roman settlement of Magiovinium, and then through the town of Fenny Stratford, passing Loughton, before reaching the coaching town of Stony Stratford, and crossing the River Ouse before reaching Old Stratford in the north.
But there is much more to the story of Watling Street. From the earliest times it is thought that it was a track for the passage of man and beasts, providing an easier route from the gap in the Greensand escarpment at Brickhill to the fordable crossing of the Ouse at Stratford. With the coming of the Romans, the invasion force had a need for improved communications, and so a hardened road surface was required together with camps at about 12 mile intervals (representing a days march for an army with all its ancillary equipment). Magiovinium was established near to the site of the present Dropshort Farm, and probably originated as a tented encampment and later replaced by more substantial buildings. To the north and south were other stopping off places at Lactodorum (Towcester) and Durocobrovae (Dunstable). The road itself was typically about 24 feet wide to allow chariots to pass safely, and consisted of rammed gravel in the countryside, or stone paved surfaces in the larger towns, which were subject to greater wear and tear. The surface was cambered to allow water to drain, and was often raised on low embankments where it crossed marshy or low lying ground.
When the Romans departed these shores, roads generally fell into disrepair, and Watling Street was no different. It was not until the passing of the Hockliffe to Two Mile Ash Turnpike Act of Parliament in 1706 that the situation improved. However this Act did not cover Watling Street where it passed through Stony Stratford, which was in a terrible state, and although there was a local Bridge and Street Charity, they were not able to address the problems. By 1801 an Act created new Bridge and Street Commissioners, but the problems persisted and there were many complaints from the local tradesmen.
There had been a bridge over the Ouse between Stony and Old Stratford since the medieval period and possibly earlier, but by the early 1800's this was in a dangerous state, and was in need of major repairs. It finally collapsed in the 1830's under the weight of a loaded wagon train. Another Act of Parliament promoted a new bridge, though not without great consternation at the plans to enforce a toll for crossing the bridge. Bridgework was completed by 1835, and despite the protest of local inhabitants included toll houses.
Gradually through the Victorian period road conditions improved, particularly with the advent of engineers such as John Loudon Macadam, who understood the principles of good road construction. When motorised transport began to replace horsepower the importance of Watling Street grew, and traffic became heavier. Transport cafes sprung up along what became the A5 Trunk Road. With the advent of Milton Keynes, there became a greater need for an improved route through the New City, and so in the early 1970's Watling Street was bypassed by the A5 MK Diversion route between Old Stratford roundabout in the north and the Galley Hill roundabout in the south. Although now superseded as the main road, the old Roman Road remains largely on its old alignment, and is now designated City Road V4.
To read more about the road and the history which goes with it, see our feature on Stony Stratford