Akeman Street avoids most pre-Roman sites as it was laid-out to travel the dividing line between the local Brittonic tribes (the Catuvellauni, the Dobunni, and the Corieltauvi – which are the Romanised names for the tribes).
Between Tackley and Stonesfield the raised route of the road (the ‘agger’, shown in the picture on the left) can be seen at points as it crosses open fields. Though large sections of this Roman road are today lost, or are buried under busy modern roads, the sections across North Oxfordshire are the best preserved and walkable along the entire route. It’s perhaps a sign of how times change that what was once a principal route across Roman Britain, is today a route which allows you to get away from ‘civilisation’ into the open countryside.
© 2021-2023 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 18th April 2021;
Updated: 15th March 2023.
Length: ~1,000 words.
Location: Roman road, St. Albans, Berkhampstead, Tring, Bicester, Kirtlington, Stonesfield, Asthall, Coln St. Aldwyns, Cirencester.
Condition: Some of the best preserved sections, not surfaced as modern roads, are in North Oxfordshire; can be very muddy in places when wet.
Access: Mostly surfaced highways; many off-road sections are public rights-of-way.
A Roman road that once traced the border between local Iron Age tribes, with a Roman town at its centre – Alchester – strategically located between the three tribes which covered the South Midlands, Akeman Street is an interesting route into our past; if, that is, you can negotiate the heavy traffic that speeds along its eastern and western ends!
From Verulamium (modern-day St. Albans – and the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe) the route goes north on ‘Watling Street’ (now the A5183) before turning west across the open landscape of the Chilterns. At Berkhamstead, quite likely near the castle, the route turned north-west along the Bulbourne valley towards Tring – where it changes direction as it met the more ancient Icknield Way.
Crossing the flat, once boggy land of the Vale of Aylesbury and then Otmoor, eventually it reached not modern-day Bicester, but, a little to the south-west, the Roman town of Alchester. Here Roman roads went north towards Fenny Stratford on Watling Street, and south to the crossing-point on the Thames at Dorchester. Another went north-west towards Banbury, then off into Warwickshire to connect with the Fosse Way.
Akeman Street leaves westward across the flat plain heading towards the Cherwell valley, crossing the river near Kirtington – where it crosses the north-south likely Roman route which would later become the Medieval Portway.
Now travelling ‘off-road’ beyond Kirtlington, this section of Akeman Street is one of the best preserved; and is also a beautiful linear walk through the landscape north of Oxford:
This section of the route is fairly accessible via public transport, which runs radially from Oxford, via Witney and Woodstock (but check first as the Cotswold Line is being upgraded at present, and bus services have been regularly ‘reorganised’ lately).
The main access points are:
Beyond the A40 at Asthall the route is completely lost, and can’t be picked-up again until it crosses the A361.
West of the A361 the route goes almost straight on mostly minor roads, through the hamlet of Coln St. Aldwyns, until it reaches the rather unpleasant B4425 – which is almost walkable (with a struggle along the grassy verge) into Cirencester. Though passable on foot, the section between Burford and Cirencester is far better by bike.
At Cirencester – the capital of the Dobunni tribe – other Roman routes fan out: The Fosse Way ran north-east to south-west from Lincoln to Exeter; and the Ermin Way ran north-west to south-east from Gloucester to Silchester.
If Akeman Street is representative of anything, it is that, like sheep, humans are creatures of habit. After almost 2,000 years the route of the road persists, yet all around it the world has changed immeasurably. Though much of it is today busy roads, or lost, the section past North Oxfordshire is probably one of the best preserved and interesting to explore.