We tend to think of Roman roads as straight, but the road which crossed the Fens in ancient times was anything but. The Roman road, later to be known as the Fen Causeway, zigzagged its way from the Fen Edge close to the town of Durobrivae near modern day Peterborough, to Denver in Norfolk.
With the whole of their new province of Britain to choose from, it is natural to wonder why the Roman conquerors would choose the marshy, almost impenetrable wilderness of the Fens over which to construct a road. But they did so for a simple reason; salt.
The Fens had already been used for hundreds of years for the production of salt, but the Romans spotted a far greater potential and created a highly efficient salt production region, supplied with roads and canals to collect the precious salt and transport it to their towns.
Unlike most Roman roads, the Fen Causeway was not straight because its purpose was to connect the Fen islands, those principle areas of settlement on higher ground in the marshy Fen. The road therefore ‘island hopped’ from the Fen Edge, via Whittlesey and Eldernell, then Grandford and Flaggrass on the island of March, passing through Stonea and Upwell, before finally arriving at Denver in Norfolk.
Many local people would have been set to work in the numerous salterns, the salt production facilities, across the Fens. Salterns were unpleasant places in which to work. The steam from the evaporating salt water in the huge pans and the smoke from the fires that heated the brine created a stifling, horrible environment. The demand for salt for the preservation of meat and to supply the Roman legions was relentless, though, and for many Fen people the salterns were all they ever knew of the great Roman province their country had become.
The Fens of Roman times have long disappeared from our sight, but in some areas of Peterborough traces of the Fen Causeway have been found. As fascinating as it is to walk a few paces along such an ancient road, it leaves us but a tiny glimpse of Roman Fenland, its vital salt production and the long and winding road that served it.