This map shows how Roman Britain kept the show on the road... by imagining it as a tube network

Roman roads fanning out from London across the south of the Roman province of Britain. Image: Sasha Trubetskoy

What’s the best way to get from Londinium to Isca Dumnoniorum, via a refreshing and restorative pit stop in Aquae Sulis? If such questions have never occurred to you, perhaps your previous incarnation was not as a wellness-aware man-about-town in Roman Britain.

But if, like me, this question is one of many of its kind that keep you up at night, there is finally a map to cater to all your needs.

Sasha Trubetskoy is perhaps the internet’s most surprising viral map guru. At just 20 years old, the student at the University of Chicago defies preconceptions of historical cartographers as reclusive, older men.

And this, his latest project, is truly a joy.

Click to expand. Image: Sasha Trubetskoy.

Trubetskoy painstakingly researched all the Roman roads of Britain to produce this map, showing connectivity across Roman Britain, with major Roman settlements from Londinium (London) to Dubris (Dover), Isca Dumononiorum (Exeter) to Verulamium (St Albans), and Eboracum (York) to Lindum (Lincoln).

And then he turned them into a geographically laid out tube map, with lines and interchange stations. Glorious.

Much of his data came from the Pleagios digital map, but a lot of the historical research came from Roman-Britain.co.uk, a resource that is simultaneously fascinating and revealing about how little we know about Roman Britain, relatively speaking. We don’t actually know the Latin names of many of the Roman roads, for example: that's why “Watling Street”, perhaps the most famous of the Roman roads, running from Dubris to Viroconium (now just a village in Shropshire) doesn’t exactly sound that Latinate.

More observant map readers may notice that some Roman cities have modern English names, too:

A zoom view of the North. Image: Sasha Trubetskoy

This too is a sign of how little we know: Roman remains have been found during archaeological explorations of those places, but we don’t have records or evidence as to the Latin names of those settlements.

Very noticeable, also, is the fact that Londonium is still at the heart of the network. Even at the time of the Romans’ occupation of Britain, it was the national hub. It became Britain’s largest city in roughly 75AD, and was made the capital of the imperial province not long afterwards. Hence, just as many of today’s motorways mostly snake out from London, so many of the key arterial Roman roads come out of Londinium.


Watling Street ran through it, and forms today’s A5, that runs in an almost-perfect straight line from Marble Arch to Stanmore before it navigates a kink and continues up towards St Albans; Gread Road runs out towards Camulodunum (Colchester); Devil’s Highway runs to Calleva (Silchester); and Ermine Street ploughs up towards Eboracum (York).

The map is of course most enjoyable when pored over in a private, feverish, personal way, so I’ll just add one thing. I’d never heard of Watling Street II (Watling Street the Second? The Lesser Spotted Watling Street?) which runs a very long course from Venta Silurum (Caerwent), near Caldicot at the Welsh end of both Severn bridges, up to Veluniate (Borrowstounness) via Deva (Chester), Mamucium (Manchester) and Luguvalium (Carlisle).

Someone tell George Osborne: maybe we can get a quirky alternative to HS3 to produce some kind of double-Celtic link for the Northern Powerhouse.

You can see the full map here, and a version with town names in English here.

Happy map reading. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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How the big freeze of 1962-3 killed off Britain’s canals

Little Venice, London. This was actually 2010, but you get the idea. Image: Getty.

The English are internationally renowned for banging on about the weather. When British drizzle is compared to the hurricanes of the Caribbean or the cold faced by more landlocked countries, our complaining seems wholly unjustified.

Still, our weather can have ruinous effects on whole industries. The particularly cold winter of 1962-63 was the final nail in the coffin of a centuries old water-borne trade.

At one time canals played an essential role in the UK’s economy. In the early days of the industrial revolution, canals snaked across the map, connecting the coal mines of the countryside to the factories of cities. They fuelled the furnaces and kept the hearth fires burning, allowing for cities to rapidly grow in the closing years of the 18th century.

A map of British and Irish waterways. The canal network is in orange. Image: Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

Economics is rarely sentimental, though, and when more effective modes of travel came along the canals began their slow demise. Whereas European canals widened to accommodate for ever larger boats, the thin British canals –bar the mighty Manchester ship canal – slowly gave in to the supremacy of those new-fangled trains.

The rise of railway also saw the odd canal being bought and shut down by railway companies. In most cases this was simply about eliminating the competition, but in some the straight canals proved a perfect place for new railway tracks – the fate of South London’s Croydon Canal.

Still, the bargepeoples tightened their belts, and the canal system limped on as a viable option for freight until the early ‘60s, when nature came in with the knockout blow. The Big Freeze of 1962-3 was, as the name suggests, uniquely cold for the UK. Records going back as far as 1659 only recorded two winters colder, and the canal system froze solid.

Somerset, January 1963. The snow stayed for so long it stretched phone wires out of shape. Image: Howard Dublin/Wikimedia Commons.

Facing months of no service by barges, industries that had been reliant on the canals switched to alternatives on the rail and road networks. When the ice finally thawed, and with grim memories of that winter on mind, few returned to using the canals for freight. Besides having dire consequences for that years football calendar, the winter mostly finished canals as a component of British industry.

Luckily many of the canals themselves survived to be repurposed, first for leisure and more recently for living. London’s canal system currently holds around 5000 boats, 60 per cent of them permanent homes. These liveaboards, driven there by the desire for the slow life or the rest of the city’s crippling property prices, are changing the face of London’s waterways.
The water dwellers, along with those drawn to these lateral parks for leisure, have brought business back to the city’s canals. Now books shops, grocers, coffee shops and even bakeries can be found floating on the waters.

So next time the trope of the weather obsessed Brit comes up, you can scoff at other countries hailstones the size of Chihuahuas, or sun you can cook an egg in. Tell them that the weather has shaped British history, too – and with huge climatic shifts on the horizon, it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

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