St Mary and St Margaret Church

In the Footsteps of the Romans

Until modern times the Birmingham area was a borderland between the rich farmlands of south Warwickshire and less fertile, wilder lands to the north. Until the later Middle Ages our area was part of the Forest of Arden, mainly oak and ash with dense underbrush of holly, briar and bramble, and supporting few human inhabitants. Wide stretches of marshland ran for miles along the rivers making travel difficult in the valleys except during the summer. Birmingham’s rivers, the Cole, Rea and Tame and even lesser streams could only be forded where their riverbeds lay on sands and gravels brought down by melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age.

Ford Across the Tame
A traveller could cross the River Tame by such a ford at Castle Bromwich. The site now lies beneath the M6 motorway viaduct where the Chester Road bridges both the river and the railway to Derby. Even in prehistoric times the Castle Bromwich ford was part of a long-distance route from the north-west to the south-east of England. Stone axes found in Birmingham are evidence of long-distance trade by the time of the New Stone Age. The Digbeth axe found near the Old Crown Inn is of polished Langdale stone from the Lake District; while an axe found in Bond Street, Bournville originates from the Craig Llwyd axe factory in North Wales. Both could well have been carried along this route 3000 years ago. Travellers passed through this ford for thousands of years. Even in later times only ladies or the infirm would ride through. Able-bodied men would pass on foot. If travelling south, having replaced their footwear, they would ease their horse’s load by walking up the steep hill between the Castle and the Chapel. 

The First North Birmingham Toll Road
By the 18th century the system of road maintenance by local parishes was failing to cater for changing needs. The Industrial Revolution brought increasing trade and the national network of unmetalled tracks could not cope. Pressured by the industrial lobby, Parliament authorised the creation of toll roads, the money raised to be spent on road improvement. These turnpikes were the first new roads to be built in this country since the Romans left Britain in 410 AD. So the ancient route across the River Tame, up Mill Hill and through Castle Bromwich became part of the toll road from London to the north-west of England. It derives its name from the Broughton-Chester-Stonebridge Turnpike Trust set up in 1759. The Chester Road was now part of an important route running past (not through) Birmingham linking London via Coventry and Stonebridge to the major seaport of Chester. The road ran via the present A452 before joining Watling Street (the present A5) at Brownhills on its way north. It must have been less well-used after 1727 when the Coventry Road and Soho Road/ Holyhead Road via Birmingham became part of the London-Holyhead Mail Road to Ireland. The first evidence in the Midlands of a stage-coach route is the London-Chester line which commenced running via Castle Bromwich in 1659. This operated until the 1830s with only a single year’s gap, and that during the Great Plague of 1665. However, with the opening of the railway lines to Liverpool and London in 1837 and 1838 respectively its fate was sealed.

Archaeologists to the Rescue
In 1970 work began on the construction of the Chelmsley Collector Road. Even as the bulldozers moved in, archaeologists were undertaking a hasty rescue dig around the site of the castle of Bromwich.

Their excavations around the Castle Hill unearthed fragments of pottery and evidence of a building. While they might have expected to find medieval or even Norman remains, the archaeologists were able to identify some pottery sherds dating back to the New Stone Age and possibly 5000 years old. As many gardeners know, parts of Castle Bromwich are rich in red clay. Local neolithic people would have made these simple pots here from the local earth.

Other pottery was recognised as Bronze Age, 3000 years old. Here too was evidence of post-holes. This indicated that a wooden building, probably a thatched dwelling, had stood on this spot at some time during the Bronze Age. It may reasonably be conjectured that the local chieftain guarded this important ford at that time, and that tolls would be paid by travellers, perhaps in return for protection from thieves. It might also be conjectured that where there was one dwelling, there were probably others. Unfortunately, wooden posts leave only faint traces which are easily overlooked or destroyed. If there was a village with farmland close by, its location can only be guessed. Certainly by the Middle Ages cattle grazed the rich water meadows along the River Tame, while arable fields lay in the Hall estate area around Southfield Avenue where the soil is easier to work. Were these same sites worked by the Bronze Age farmers?

Cast-Iron Proof
Evidence of the Iron Age in Birmingham is rare: one piece of a broken pot found in Selly Park, some suspected earthworks near Sarehole Mill, and a solitary yellow and white glass bead which was found on the land to the rear of Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens in 1960. The bead, now in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, is over 2000 years old. But that single bead must have belonged to a necklace, and that necklace worn by someone who lived and worked near here, a necklace traded for something grown or made by the wearer. From one bead it is possible to conjecture a whole community.

Walking with Romans
And then we follow in Roman footsteps. Evidence was uncovered near the Castle Hill of a Romano-British dwelling. A building constructed almost 2000 years ago. There could well have been others nearby.

In 1909 a coin hoard of 200 silver denarii in a rough earthenware pot was unearthed in a field belonging to Mr Wood at Shard End Farm. The coins ranged from Nero (54-68) to Commodus (180-192) and included some forgeries. Close by must have stood a Romano-British villa, the predecessor of Shard End Farm. Who can tell what disturbance caused the owner to bury his treasure, never to recover it.

A coin of Emperor Hadrian
Some gardeners have long known that the Romans left traces of their presence here in Castle Bromwich, for Roman coins have been unearthed in the course of digging their plots. Last century a gardener unearthed a gold coin of the Brigantes. This coin had been struck in the Roman style by the Celtic people whose capital was at York. And in 1963 a dupondius of the Empress Faustina II was found on land in front of Castle Bromwich Hall.

So as you come to Castle Bromwich church along the Chester Road, you walk in the footsteps of the Romans, and in the footsteps of others for thousands of years before them.

While Roman evidence has certainly been found throughout the Birmingham area, it is fairly scant in comparison with areas to the south. It may be assumed that, while Roman civilisation made its impact hereabouts, our area was a backwater to be travelled through on the way to somewhere else.

A Roman Temple
In 1978 an interesting discovery came to light at Coleshill. Between Chattle Hill and Grimstock Hill evidence of Roman buildings was found during building work. At the south end of the site an archaeological excavation unearthed a substantial Roman villa with a hypocaust (underfloor heating system) and a bath-house. Other finds included pottery, brooches and a small bronze bull’s head. At the north end the remains were found of a small 1st-century wooden temple used for pagan worship. This wooden structure had later been replaced by a stone building with a tiled roof, much of the stone of which had subsequently been taken away for re-use.

Excavations at the Coleshill temple site
The significance for Castle Bromwich is that the site of these buildings stands in a direct line with the Chester Road which runs through Castle Bromwich village via Green Lane. Certainly a Roman route, if not a Roman road.

It is possible that the site of our church was also a Roman religious site, although no archaeological evidence supports this. Many early Christian churches were deliberately built on pagan sites, which often stood in prominent high places such as the site of our church, and often near water. Temples were sometimes located in borderland areas between tribal territories; here between the Celtic Corieltauvi people centred on Leicester to the east and the Cornovii centred on the Wrekin to the west. Rivers have long served as boundaries, here the Tame and at Coleshill the Cole.

If ever a temple stood on our church site, what better spot for travellers to thank their gods for getting them safely through the river and up the hill without being robbed or murdered as they passed through Castle Bromwich.