The London Road
The London Road
One of the topographical puzzles of the district is the course of the London Road from Nonsuch to Ewell village. From North Cheam the road follows the line of the Roman Stane Street to the foot of the hill at Briarwood Road, where it leaves it sharply, not to return – a distance of about half a mile.
Ewell, by virtue of its springs, must be one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots in the country. In Roman times there was a considerable settlement here: Stane Street, the road from London to Chichester, entering it from the east, and leaving on a slightly different bearing. At some later date, Stane Street between Briarwood Road and Ewell village was abandoned and lost, leaving the question of when and why.
The road now turns sharp left, straight to the park gates and the avenue. At the gates it takes a 90 degree turn to the right. Until the road was widened about twenty years ago there was a sharp right-angled bend. It jinks a bit where it joins the Stane Street line at Ewell Park 300 yards further on, and resumes its former line at the top of the rise when Ewell comes into view at the foot of the slope 400 yards away, entering the village about 150 yards to the right of the Stane Street line.
The Roman road still exists as a metalled road a foot or so below the present surface. It has been discovered at a number of places along this line. At North Cheam when the old Queen Victoria pub was demolished about 1937 they had to use pneumatic drills to cut through it. The line runs down the hill to Briarwood Road to the left of the modern road, a few yards inside Nonsuch Park. At the foot of the hill the ground is marshy; a stream rises here, which ran along what is now Briarwood Road, and is now the storm sewer under the road, still visible where it goes under the railway just south of Stoneleigh Station. Here the Stane Street was carried on a causeway. The present road leaves the line here, and is highly embanked, several feet above ground level.
From here the Roman road still exists as a metalled road a foot or so below the surface, a foot and more thick and some 25 feet wide. It has been unearthed just inside Ewell Park grounds, at the corner of Ewell Park Way; in front of the petrol station on the bypass; in front and behind the shops opposite; and in three places in the churchyard beyond. Nobody has looked for it in the short stretch between Briarwood Road and Ewell Park.
The London Road line has been in continual use. It is mentioned in several early thirteenth-century Cuddington deeds as ‘the public road to London’. It is not clear, however, whether it followed the line from Briarwood Road. I do not know if recent research has thrown any light on this. At some time the road diverged, but when and why? Admittedly the ground here was wet and marshy; the original Stane Street was carried on a causeway. But the bend is only just beyond the mud patch; if it were intended to avoid this, a detour would surely have been made from higher up the hill.
Round the bend, the road leads straight to the site of Nonsuch Palace, which stands on the ground formerly occupied by the medieval church and manor house of Cuddington. It is possible that this road existed in medieval times; it has been suggested that it was the road from Cuddington to Malden. But why should they of Cuddington, going to Malden, leave home and head straight for the muddiest slough in the district, not even in the right direction, when by going slightly right-handed they could go dry shod on high ground straight to Malden? The making of the parks obliterated most of the roads, making it difficult to determine where they were.
Many Roman roads were lost, either wholly or in part, after the Roman era, simply because they no longer led where they were needed. In this area, the line of the Stane Street is well away from that of the Saxon settlements: Leatherhead, Ashtead, Epsom, Banstead, Cuddington, Cheam, Sutton. But there is one exception: Ewell, which was, throughout the whole medieval period, a more important place than any of these. There was no apparent reason, therefore, for this part of the road to fall into disuse. We shall probably never know.
The present road from the park gates joins the Stane Street just about on the parish boundary, and just where the medieval Codyngton Street of the Register of 1408 runs towards Kingston. This road later disappeared into Nonsuch Park. It seems likely that Stane Street was long visible here at the top of the rise, raising the possibility that the stretch from Briarwood Road remained in use, with the inference that the new road came about as a result of the position of the park gate. Now, why is this gate where it is? Leaving aside speculation as to when the approach road was made, one might expect the gate to be close up to the London Road. But here was the mud patch. I suggest, therefore, that the gate was placed further back on drier ground, and a new road developed from here to the junction down the road. But it still leaves the question unanswered: why, even if the locals chose to go floundering through the mud, the king’s men didn’t bend the road slightly to the right to join the London Road on the higher ground. As most of the traffic would have been connected with the Palace, the old road would probably soon have fallen into decay.
Outside the park, however, there can be no doubt that the old road was lost much earlier. Why? There is no mention of a road in that area in 1408, except for ‘a little lane called Schyrefeldes Lane’, which might possibly refer to it, and the whole area, as far south as Vicarage Lane and across about as far down the slope as the lane behind the shops on the bypass, was woodland, its edge approximately on the present line of the London Road. This may have determined its line, although the reverse is more likely, as the growth of the woodland probably post dated the disappearance of Stane Street. So here we have the abrupt end of the public road from London, 400 yards away from Ewell, in full view. You had to turn left, along Codyngton Street to Vicarage Lane, then right, along the track to Church Street. Odd.
The new road was definitely there in 1577. Taylor refers to it as ‘the grene way to London’. This seems to imply that the Stane Street line was a drove road, which would account for its being alongside the Roman road. If you were driving animals you would not go along a metalled road, but along the grass verge alongside. It is not clear, however, whether the old road from here to Briarwood Road was still in use. The road continued in use as the dividing line between the two parks of Nonsuch, so appearing on a map of c.1550. Taylor also mentions the park gate there, the Sleygate, which was a few yards on the Nonsuch side of Woodgate, where the later turnpike gate was set up.
Then comes another puzzle. Having reached the village 100 yards or so to the right of the Stane Street line, the road did not enter it, but turned sharp left down what is now Church Street, crossed Stane Street, to the churchyard corner. This road was, in fact, a medieval road that led from the churchyard and Vicarage Lane corner, across London Road, along Pedlar’s Lane (the Parson’s Lane) to the Kingston Road opposite the Lower Mill.
Why the new road did all this we shall probably never know. When the London Road was turnpiked in 1737 it followed this line, the connection through to the spring not being made until 1834.
‘The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’.