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Banburyshire’s Ancient Trackways:

Salt Way

‘Salt Way’ was a minor Roman route to take salt from Droitwich to the Roman towns of the South Midlands, and on down to the Chilterns. Its use as a regional road carried on into Medieval times.

Landscape image: ‘A frosty Salt Way at Swalcliffe’, 7th December 2010
‘A frosty Salt Way at Swalcliffe’, 7th December 2010

The brine of Droitwich (called Salinae, or ‘Salt Works’ by the Romans) may have been used from the Iron Age. The Romans industrialised the process, and Salt Way was created to take that salt to the Roman towns of the Midlands – to the Roman settlements of Warwickshire, North Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, and on down to the Chilterns.

Its use as a regional road carried on into Medieval times when, as priorities realigned toward London, its importance declined. Today it’s a really interesting route to follow, primarily by bicycle, and some off-road sections are stunning routes to follow on foot.

Summary for ‘Salt Way’:

Location: Roman road from Droitwich to Alcester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Ettington, Compton Wynyates, Broughton, Kings Sutton, Finmere, Buckingham, and Fenny Stratford.

Type: ‘Ancient Roads and Trackways’.

Condition: Mostly modern surfaced roads, a few sections are missing, but there are some excellent off-road sections.

Access: Public roads and bridleways.

Further information: Nothing specific.

Walks posts or videos: {none yet}

The route of Salt Way
The route of Salt Way (click for a larger image)

Salt-making at Droitwich probably dates back to the Iron Age. Natural salt springs, far saltier than seawater, rose around what is now the centre of the town. The Romans industrialised that process and then supplied that salt across the Midlands. This industry continued operating until the 19th Century.

The local salt road was still used to move salt until the coming of the canal in the 1850s, which fell to the railways a few decades later.

Droitwich lies on a minor Roman Road between modern-day Birmingham and Worcester (marked today by the A38). Salt Way begins as a road heading east, roughly following the B4090, to the convergence of the rivers Alne and Arrow at Alcester. There it met a more major north-south road, Ryknild or Icknield Street (not to be confused with the Icknield Way along the Chilterns).

From the crossing of the Arrow, Salt Way follows the route of the A422 into Stratford-upon-Avon. Today the modern road bypasses Alcester. The route of the Roman road is most likely marked not by the old main road, but by the footpath south of that which leaves to the town heading towards the main road.

From Alcester the route is a straight line, including the escarpment at Red Hill, to the Roman crossing point on the River Avon – at the site of the Medieval ‘Clopton Bridge’. Its 14 stone arches were originally built in 1484, and repaired and widened over the centuries since. The iron walkway attached to the side that pedestrians cross was added in the early 19th Century. It is essentially the same bridge that was in use when Ogilby made his maps here in 1675.

From Stratford it’s an almost straight line to Ettington – though the route might be marked more accurately by the footpath running through the fields from Crofts Farm to Goldicote House.

Beyond Upper Goldicote, Salt Way splits from the modern A422 (the route of the Georgian, Stratford & Edgehill turnpike) heading to the south of the road – perhaps crossing the hill there on the present-day trackway on an alignment with Black Marton Hill. On the far side of the Ettington the route meets the major Roman highway, the Fosse Way.

From Ettington where the route is lost, perhaps passing through Fulready, Salt Way heads towards Whatcote. At Whatcote the route reappears in the local field boundaries, and becomes a road again at Compton Wynyates – an ancient manor house – where it climbs the escarpment to cross The Jurassic Way near The White House crossroads.

The best section of the road to walk on foot is from Compton Wynyates or The White House into Banbury. From the local high point of Sibford Heath, the route traverses the long, wide valley past Madmarston Hill and Swalcliffe Lea.

The area between Madmaston Hill, Upper Lea Farm, Swalcliffe Lea, and Swalcliffe Mill, was one of the largest Romano-British settlements in the county (pictured below). Salt Way runs through this settlement. Just beyond, down from the small hill before Fulling Mill, is where Time Team recently unearthed an extensive Roman villa. The site showed evidence of metalworking, and so may have been linked to the operations at nearby Swalcliffe Lea.

Beyond this point, though, its course is not entirely clear. The route is mixed-up with other later routes which cross this hilly landscape.

The route of Salt Way
‘Sun breaks the cloud on Madmarston Hill’ (click for a larger image)
The route of Salt Way near Banbury
Salt Way around Banbury, showing the two ‘alternative’ routes from Fulling Mill to Weeping Cross (extract from main map).

As the Roman roads network was heavily used, and modified in Medieval times, it can be rather difficult pulling apart the Roman route from these later diversions or additions. That’s certainly an issue in and around the Banbury area. The local hills, and the need to cross the local boggy valleys at a relatively few natural fords, force different routes to occupy the same space. There is, therefore, a long-standing debate as to whether the ‘Salt Way’ route passing the edge of Banbury really is the Roman route, or the remains of the Medieval road from London to Birmingham.

After Swalcliffe Lea, Salt Way runs to Broughton Park, most likely through Fulling Mill. The point which Broughton Castle now occupies was a historic crossroads, with tracks coming in from many directions – most notably The Cotswold Ridgeway. This makes it difficult to map Salt Way after there.

Modern maps show Salt Way going over Sandfine Hill to North Newington Mill, to Giant’s Caves, and then past Crouch Hill.

Personally though I’m doubtful. The incredibly steep climb up from Fulling Mill, and the wet and muddy climb up from Giant’s Caves, that runs an inch deep in water during heavy rain, seems an unconvincing route for a Roman cart track. The route past Crouch Hill is more likely to be the Medieval road to London, as that’s where other local tracks from the north trend, via The Wroxton Fingerpost.

The more dry and solid Wykham Lane, running in a straight line from Broughton to Bodicote, ‘feels’ like a more convincing contender for the Roman route. This also passes the site of a Roman farmstead at Wykham Farm. Other local researchers have made similar observations.

At Bodicote the route becomes more certain at ‘Weeping Cross’. Both the Wykham Lane and Crouch Hill route would have converged here, making it the most certain point on the route since Swalcliffe Lea.

An early 19th Century sketch of Weeping Cross.
An early 19th Century sketch of ‘Weeping Cross’.

This was the site of a Medieval wayside cross, taken down in 1803. This is where Salt Way once crossed the Medieval ridge-route to Warwick and Coventry from Oxford and London – at that time, in open countryside. Later it became part of Ogilby’s route from London to Bridgnorth via Buckingham. The monument on that site today is a rather less romantic re-creation erected by the local parish council.

From Weeping Cross the route goes in a roughly straight line to Twyford Mill, today marked by a very scenic footpath (shown here on the left). At Twyford Mill the route crossed the River Cherwell, though the precise crossing point has been lost (it was slightly north of the route of the modern road crossing today).

Although Ogilby’s maps show the route going via Nell Bridge, a couple of miles downstream, documents related to the creation of the Buckingham turnpike talk of Twyford Mill as being the crossing point, on a double ford – and proposed the Nell Bridge route as an alternative. When the turnpike opened, this, presumably more difficult route seems to have quickly waned in significance; today only marked with a footpath (later truncated by the building of the M40).

On the Kings Sutton side there are historic records for another Roman settlement, probably near Cobbler’s Pits. There is little evidence of this today as the land-surface along the Astrop ridge was quarried for ironstone at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Banburyshire Rambles Journal: ‘Salt Way crossing the Cherwell valley’, 28th March 2016
Salt Way crossing the Cherwell valley (click for larger image): from the row of dark trees on the left just below to the horizon, down to the river behind the church, then into the village and out following the line of the houses to the right – viewed from above Walton Grounds where the minor Roman road and Ogilby’s route may have ran towards Aynhoe.

Around Kings Sutton the route has been erased not only by quarrying, but also by the creation of the landscaped park for Astrop House. The route went from the Twyford Mill, probably at an elevation because the land below floods regularly, into the top end of Kings Sutton. Here it crossed a minor Roman road that went from Banbury and Warkworth south towards Walton Grounds. This is also tied-up with the Medieval road to Buckingham (pictured above) – making it difficult to separate potential routes for how the minor Roman road made its way to Souldern.

Salt Way leaves Kings Sutton eastward, past Newbottle woods. Here it crosses the line of The Portway; and from Newbottle onwards the route of Salt Way merges with the Welsh Lane drove road – complicating the determination of what was the Roman route and what were Medieval highways.

Beyond Charlton, on what is the regional watershed, it takes on an alignment which is the beginning of the ridgeline along the south side of the River Great Ouse; through Evenley and Mixbury, to join the Roman route from Alchester (modern Bicester) at Finmere (note the section between Mixbury and Finmere is currently being ripped-up by HS2). That road runs north from Finmere, through the historic Stowe Park and past the Silverstone Racetrack, to Towcester on Watling Street.

From Finmere the road is lost within old and new road developments, and the growing urban area of Buckingham. Beyond that it crosses Thornborough Bridge, and then goes roughly straight until it gets to Watling Street in Fenny Stratford, probably near the historic crossing of the River Ouzel. This route is further complicated by the evidence for Roman roads spurring north (to Old Stratford, where Watling Street crosses the Great Ouse) and south (following the ridgeline towards Aylesbury and Akeman Street).

Salt Way is a good cycle ride, and is used as part of National Cycleway Route 5. For most of its route from Droitwich to Ettington, and from Finmere to Fenny Stratford, it’s rather dangerous to attempt to walk it. Around Banburyshire though, the off-road sections of Salt Way are a safe linear walking route.

It’s difficult to give public transport information as in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, and North Oxfordshire, buses are currently in a state of crisis, with many services recently cut. For the moment you could try:

Salt Way is special in that it is an easy to follow, linear route, which passes through very few places on its course from Compton Wynyates to Kings Sutton. This makes it a wonderful route to step outside of the busy modern world, and roam(an) at a much slower pace… Carpe Diem!

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