One of the questions which came up at a recent local public meeting in Queen Edith’s was: “Why is Hills Road falling to pieces?” It’s a question which can be asked about many roads, but in this case the reason may be history as much as any lack of care by the County Council.
Roman Cambridge was centred around the area we now know as Castle Hill. The route south apparently skirted what was then waterlogged fen, heading toward Red Cross – the route we now call Hills Road.
The Roman army built roads by quarrying along either side and compacting the upcast into the centre. The surface was metalled and cambered to allow rain to run off into the roadside ditches. An army on the move has no time to spare, so the roads were made just wide enough for two carts to pass: generally 6-7m, about the width of two of today’s buses.
After Roman rule broke down around 400AD, the compacted foundations of the road remained attractive as a route for many generations. However, the ditches would have naturally filled with debris, no doubt aided by medieval flytipping.
In 1888, the first detailed Ordnance Survey map shows Hills Road with a metalled surface which is – guess what – 6.5m wide, flanked by generous verges and pavements, 20m overall. With the development of cycling and motoring, by 1925 the road surface had been extended by some 3m, but only on the eastern side, over one of the old ditches. The number of vehicles on the road, their weight and speed was much lower at that time than it is now, so the foundations are not likely to have been substantial. Crucially this extension did not benefit from the hundreds of years of compaction of the centre section.
Perhaps the break-up at the edge indicates the boundary between the foundations of the Roman road and the drainage ditch alongside. It would be interesting to know if any of the foundations do indeed date back two thousand years.
Budget cuts have meant more repairs are carried out reactively rather than proactively (cyclically). When the whole road needs rebuilding, patches don’t endure: water will find its way in again. Any bets on how long before the next stretch has to be excavated and the foundations compacted to Roman standards?
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 9 May 2018.