A Brief History of London Road, Bath
By Alex Schlesinger, previous Chairman of the London Road and Snow Hill partnership.
As the name implies, the London Road is, and always has been, the road from Bath to London. However, it was also known as the Fosse Way, and as such, it was the Roman Road from Exeter to Lincoln.
Most Bathonians regard the London Road as the Gateway to Bath, and certainly, most visitors do arrive via the London Road, and the grand Georgian terraces of Beaufort, Grosvenor and Kensington are the first sights of Bath that many visitors see.
The origins of the London Road or the Fosse Way are lost in the mists of antiquity. Almost certainly there must have been a track along the north bank of the adjacent River Avon, perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. What we do know for certain is that the Romans created the 300-kilometre road from Lincoln to Exeter between the years 43 and 51 AD. The word fosse means a ditch, and it has been suggested that for part of its length the Fosse Way was an actual ditch, possible marking the extent of the first stage of the Roman invasion of Britain. However as Roman Bath, or Aquae Sulis (The Waters Of Sulis Minerva) developed as a spa town with its famous baths, the Fosse Way became one of the principal roads of the Roman Province of Britannia. The town of Aquae Sulis was at the centre of the most settled part of the province, with wealth villas and productive farmland all around it. The road must have been busy with both civilian and military traffic, and it is probable that even the Emperors who visited Britannia, including Hadrian, Septimus Severus and Constantine the Great would have visited Bath, coming along the Fosse Way.
At that time, the London Road, as we know it would probably have had urban development as far out as the present ESSO petrol station, beyond that the road would have passed into countryside with tombs set between the road and the river bank.
With the departure of the Romans in 410AD, Aquae Sulis went into decline. Part of the Roman Baths had collapsed, and were probably disused. The same fate had befallen the temple of Sulis Minerva that stood in what is now Abbey Churchyard. Yet the Fosse Way remained in use. Bath declined into a border town between the Saxon Kingdoms of Wessex to the South, and Mercia to the north. The descendants of the Romano-British inhabitants, perhaps to some extend displaced by Saxon settlers moved out of the town centre to a settlement the Saxons now referred to as the village of strangers: or: Waela cote. In those days the London Road or Fosse Way passed through pastures, which the Saxons called Hayes.
We know little of the events along the Fosse Way during those early Saxon years, but almost certainly, at the end of May in 709 AD, the body of St Aldhelm, England`s first native-born Saxon Saint was carried along the Fosse Way to his final resting place at Malmsbury Abbey.
Bath`s fortunes revived with the victories of King Alfred (871 to 899), and the narrow paved passages in the town centre probably follow the lines of the new streets that were laid out by royal decree. Undoubtedly, the Fosse Way continued to be the main road into the town from the east.
At Whitsun, in 973, Edgar, the great-grandson of King Alfred, was crowned as the first king of all the English, by St Dunstan, at Bath Abbey. Edgar had already been proclaimed king years before, in 960, at Kingston-upon-Thames, but he regarded his coronation at Bath as the culmination of his long reign. Whether Edgar entered Bath along the London Road, we do not know, but many of those who attended this splendid event must have done so.
Perhaps the London Road`s most significant moment in history came in the autumn of 1013 AD.
During 1012 and into 1013, the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard had ravaged his way across England. The Saxon King Ethelred the Unrede (It means un-councilled) had fled London. Only Wessex remained un-conquered by Sweyn. In the autumn of 1013 he reached the Fosse Way. He stopped at a place now called Swainswick, and there he waited until all of the nobles of Wessex had assembled at Bath. Having decided to offer Sweyn the crown of England, they rode out along the Fosse Way; meeting Sweyn halfway. Could it have been at the Lam Brook? What is certain is that on that fateful day in the autumn of 1013, England was surrendered to the Danes………..somewhere on the London Road; thus setting a course of events that would eventually lead to the Norman invasion by William Duke of Normandy, who was descended from Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred .
Most medieval monarchs moved round England, visiting cities and dispensing justice (of sorts) No doubt most of those would have come along the Fosse Way on their way to Bath and to England`s second port: Bristol.
Whether King Charles I ever came along the London Road is not known. What is known is that the London Road makes one brief appearance in the history of the English Civil War which raged during the hapless king`s reign. In July 1643, Bristol and Bath were in the hands of the Parliamentarians. A royalist force under General Hopton was marching from Devizes to Bath. The Parliamentarians had placed a gun battery of Camden, and as Hopton`s troop came into range on the London Road, the Parliamentarians opened fire. Hopton beat a hasty retreat, doubling back to continue the fight first at Tog Hill and then at Lansdown. Although the outcome of the battle was indecisive, the skirmishes around Bath mark the beginning of the end of Royalist control in the west of England.
After these events, the London Road became a more peaceful place. Old maps show farms, some with charming names like World`s End Farm. But greater times lay ahead.
The popularity of Bath as a health spa really begins at the very beginning of the 1700s. Although consisting mostly of farms, cottages and inns set in fields, the London Road was now busy with well-heeled visitors seeking mineral water cures to real and imagined illnesses, whilst pursuing other pleasures.
By the 1770s the farms and cottages of the old Fosse Way were giving way to the grand terraces of the London Road. Walcot Parade and Walcot Terrace appear in the 1770s. Royal patronage of a type notable in Bath, came with the building of York Villa, where the Grand Old Duke of York kept a bevvy of mistresses. Albemarle Buildings appears in 1789. It was renamed Walcot Buildings in 1803. Kensington appears within the year as does Bath`s last grand development at Grosvenor. Plans for a vast pleasure garden on what is now Kensington Meadow were only thwarted by the sudden bankruptcy of the Bank of Bath in 1793: a banking crash which took much of the city`s wealth with it.
Through all of this, the London road remained the principal route into Bath from the East, it must have been used by locals and visitors alike, and no doubt Jane Austen walked along it on the way to Marshfield, one sunny morning.
The coming of Mr. Brunel`s London to Bristol railway in June 1841 took much of the traffic from the London Road and a very slow period of decline began, which was perhaps echoed throughout Bath. Some of the houses on London Road became shops, and there were three breweries within a few hundred yards of one another, as the street changed to serve more local needs.
The Second World War and bomb damage hastened the decline ,as did changes of lifestyle in urban living; but since the late 1990s the local community has set itself the task of reviving the fortunes of this historic thoroughfare.
Even if the Fosse Way is no longer the preferred route for emperors, kings and saints; those who have known the London Road in more recent times will notice the changes that are starting to happen.