What did the Romans ever do for us? The streets most obvious. Many modern highways are on Roman alignments, including some highways and many A-roads.
However, most of the Roman roads used to be covered with gravel. And we rode gravel bikes for an 85 mile trip to Scotland along Roman Dere Street with my son Josh.
These are drop bar racing bikes with fat tires that are ideal for going fast on asphalt and dirt. I was on a Specialized Diverge, Josh was on a huge gravel bike that he rode back from the factory in China last year (click here to read more about it).
Carlton and his son Josh cycled 85 miles through Northumberland to Scotland along Roman Dere Street overlaid with a modern OS map
Carlton’s Specialized Diverge gravel bike leans against a Roman tomb located off Dere Street and near the Roman Fort Bremenium, now High Rochester. Dere Street continues north on the right
Dere Street – today’s A68 – runs north of York through rural Northumberland to Scotland. Our start on Dere Street would be from Corbridge in the Tyne Valley, but we were departing from Newcastle, 18 miles east. We wanted to follow the original Dere Street – this meant detours into muddy fields, including from the pier opposite the Corbridge Roman Museum, which was closed for Covid.
We drove to Trimontium (“three mountains”), a Roman garrison town under the three Eildon Hills near modern Melrose in Scotland. More than half of the route was paved, including the climb up Corbridge’s muddy field to the location of Portgate on Hadrian’s Wall. Any step from here 1900 years ago, even for battle-hardened soldiers, would have been dangerous. It’s still pretty dangerous for cyclists: Portgate is now a nondescript roundabout on a fast east-west road, and rural drivers are no slouch.
In Great Swinburne we emerged over a wall and continued the original Roman route. The Agger, or the Roman road embankment, was seen climbing over the forehead of a grassy hill. Technically we have trespassed, but we have taken into account the legal presumption “once a motorway, always a motorway”. We had previously asked permission to cross at this point, but the registered landowner – a law firm that acts for unknown interests – hadn’t responded.
Bike Great Trip: Josh rides the Dere Street Route near High Rochester in Northumberland National Park
Josh drives on a paved section of Dere Street, part of the Department of Defense’s Otterburn training area. The ranges are used by heavy artillery including tanks
A weathered wooden signpost in the Roman camps at Chew Green
This picture was taken on Dere Street / A68 looking back towards Corbridge. Carlton and Josh lifted their bikes over the wall to continue the actual course on Dere Street. The landowner – a law firm likely serving clients – was asked for permission for this access, but no response was received
The most scenic part of the route left the tarmac near Rochester and crossed the Pennine Hills. Sometimes we could only tell that we were on a Roman road by checking our location with an iPhone.
In front of the fortress in Bremenium there is an impressive Roman grave, which was probably built for a Roman soldier. This is appropriate as much of the area has long been owned by the Department of Defense.
A military zone today – the Otterburn Training Area often crawls with tanks – the area was even more so in Roman times: Dere Street was built on an earlier path that linked indigenous hills. The outlines of the Roman forts and marching camps at Chew Green are still proud.
From this high moor you can see the striking Eildon Hills near Melrose. Dere Street zigzags down steep slopes that the Romans traversed in the same way as we did. (Although obviously not on gravel bikes.)
There are no ruins to be seen in Trimontium above the Tweed, but we drove a few miles further from Melrose to stay at the luxurious 485 year old Aikwood Tower near Selkirk.
Carlton gets stuck on the original Dere Street route near Rochester
Josh on a damp section of Dere Street near the Roman camp at Pennymuir. The ruts and pools were created by 4×4 use of Dere Street
Josh with the Chew Green Roman Camps in the middle – Dere Street continues to the right of the camps
Josh approaches the border between England and Scotland on Dere Street near the Roman camp at Chew Green
There are Roman marching camps across from the tower, but it owes its defensive origins to another people of war, the Border Reivers. These were cattle-rustling, feudal-loving ruffians in the lawless “disputed lands” between England and Scotland, from which we get the words “bereaved” and “blackmail”. The Reiver – or riders of stocky horses – pillaged and ambushed each other 300 years before Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603.
“I curse her head and all the hair on her head,” stormed the Archbishop of Glasgow in a long ex-message that was passed on to all Reivers in 1525. He ended his admonition in 1,068 words by adding, “After all, I keep condemning them.” the deep pit of hell to stay with Lucifer and all his companions.
After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, which united England and Scotland, the leaders of these Lucifer-loving rivers transformed into noble country aristocrats. These families still own the land that their ancestors sacked centuries ago.
Luxury Accommodation: The Aikwood Tower in the Scottish Borders is an upscale, self-catering hole built in 1535
Carlton and Josh (pictured) warmed their feet in front of the log fire (pictured) in the tower’s ‘Great Hall’ after their epic bike ride
One of the cozy bedrooms in the Aikwood Tower, which can be booked through Oliver’s Travels
A chic bathroom in the Aikwood Tower which can be rented from £ 2,258 per week
The Aikwood Tower was built in the 1500s as a defensive pelet tower (pronounced “peel”) – it still has many original defensive features, such as this gap for firing arrows
A drone photo of ‘Scott’s View’ near St. Boswells – this is a lookout point in the Scottish Borders overlooking the valley of the River Tweed, considered one of the favorite views of historical writers Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, who Introduced Aikwood Tower in his first epic poem (he had family ties to the castle)
Under the triangular part of this field is a small part of the Roman fortress Trimontium, near modern Melrose. Trimontium – or “three hills” – was at the base of three prominent hills visible many miles from Dere Street
Carlton rides the Dere Street route on Ancrum Moor near St. Boswells. He wears gravel bike clothing from the French clothing brand Cafe du Cycliste from Nice
The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland’s largest landowner, descended from infamous border areas. Prior to the sale in 1989, the Duke’s real estate portfolio included Aikwood Tower, just above the hill of his Bowhill estate.
Today, Aikwood Tower is an upscale self-catering hole. Built in 1535, ten years after the famous curse, the five-story fortified home features four-foot-thick walls, tiny windows, and uneven spiral stone steps to trip attackers (and modern visitors alike). It is on a steep gravel road and is easy to climb during the day when it is fresh. However, after a busy day in the footsteps of Roman soldiers, arriving at night is more of a challenge.
We warmed our wet feet in front of a fireplace in the (actually quite tiny) Great Hall of the Tower and were happy to be in from the darkness.
Carlton was hosted by Oliver’s Travels at Aikwood Tower, where prices start from £ 2,258 per week. Prices are based on 10 people sharing for self-catering and include a welcome basket upon arrival. Oliver’s Travel can arrange extras such as a private chef, housekeeping and babysitting service through the free concierge service. Visit www.oliverstravels.com/britain-ireland/scotland/scottish-borders/aikwood-tower for more information.
Find out about Covid’s travel advice before booking.
Carlton’s trip took place earlier in the year before the lockdown.
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