Arlington’s Roman past slowly comes to light

Maps of Roman roads in Sussex show a road crossing the county from west to east linking the roads running northwards towards London. These maps always show this road stopping in the area of Lewes. Although there was no evidence of the road continuing to the Roman fort at Pevensey, there were clues to Roman occupation in the area. In 1915, an Arlington farmer found large amounts of Roman pottery and in 1960 a Roman kiln and evidence of buildings were discovered when the reservoir was built.

Greg Chuter has led the Mid Sussex Field Archaeological Unit on a number of excavations and investigations into the area east of the reservoir at Wilbees Farm and his team have worked meticulously to uncover not only evidence of Romano-British occupation but also the missing Roman road. This road would have linked Lewes to Pevensey.

Excavations revealed the actual roadway which was about 10 meters wide with a “V” shaped ditch on either side and there was plenty of evidence of not just buildings but a substantial settlement here.

Fragments of pottery were not only made locally (East Sussex ware) but came from Pulborough and the New Forest with some finer pottery imported from France and Germany; indeed over one and a half tons of pottery was recovered from a relatively small excavation.

Evidence of a settlement came from the floor and roof tiles which were recovered as well as personal items such as a silver ring, iron brooch and a delightful glass medicine stirrer. There were also signs of industry in the shape of an iron smelting works which actually is the most southerly one found in the UK. Roman coins found dated the site to 200 – 310AD.

But why was there a settlement here, why did it die out and why has the road not been found before?

The area excavated was in an important place, where a bridge carrying the Roman road would have crossed the Cuckmere River at a point just to the north of the Downs. The good transport links by road and river made it an ideal place for a settlement and as tolls would have been charged for passing the wooden bridge, there would have been a ready customer-base for shops, food-outlets and inns; indeed this was possibly even a market town.

Roman officials would have been here to collect tolls and taxes and there would have been a number of residential buildings too. A Roman cemetery was found about ¼ mile from the site.

From 300AD the fort at Anderida (Pevensey) was constructed and a substantial community built up against the castle walls. It is probable that this new development attracted the merchants and tradesmen from the Arlington settlement and the village gradually declined. As mentioned, the last Roman coin found at Arlington is dated 310AD.

The settlement at Arlington (the name of which has not been established) may have declined and fallen into disuse but the road survived for hundreds of years and later became a coach road. On one old map it is shown as a track and labelled the “Old King’s Road”. The road of course would have been rarely maintained and the flints would have regularly been stolen for nearby building repairs. It eventually became overgrown and lost, hidden for hundreds of years until discovered again just a few years ago.

Although the Roman village can no longer be seen the area is still well worth a visit and is only six miles from Seaford. Between 1968 and 1971 the reservoir was constructed by damming up the Cuckmere River. The reservoir is 49 hectares big – the size of 121 football pitches and when full contains 3,500 million litres of water.

The excavation to build the huge lake revealed evidence of life in Sussex even earlier than the Romans. Animal remains included a mammoth’s tusk, a bison horn and the skull of a woolly rhinoceros dating from a quarter of a million years ago.

I visited the reservoir recently and walked around the 2.8 km shoreline which took about 45 minutes with Molly my dog.

It is an easy, flat walk with fantastic views towards Arlington Church and across to the Downs where the Long Man stands watch.

I chatted to several bird-watchers looking out for the elusive osprey that can occasionally be seen. After the walk I visited the small café in the car-park for a coffee and a toastie. The friendly owner even provided a small chew for Molly. Why not pay a visit to Arlington Reservoir and walk in the footsteps of our Roman ancestors?