A road with many names

THE WESTERN END of Oxford Street is at Marble Arch. Beyond the latter, its continuation becomes Hyde Park Place and then, after 620 yards it becomes Bayswater Road, before reaching Notting Hill Gate, and then Holland Park Avenue. Oxford Street and its continuation westward follow the probable course of a road or track named by the Romans as Via Trinobantia. It ran from Colchester via London to Silchester (in Hampshire), which was a capital of the Atrebates tribe.  According to Ralph Merrifield in his “Roman London” (published 1969), the Roman thoroughfare ran due west from Oxford Street, along what is now Bayswater Road to Notting Hill Gate. After that, it changed direction so that it headed directly to what is now Staines. Merrifield wrote that its course:

“… is closely followed by Holland Park Avenue and Goldhawk Road, until the latter turns sharply towards Chiswick. The Roman road is then followed by two lesser modern roads, Stamford Brook Road and Bath Road, and crossed Acton Green where it has been obliterated by the railways. Half a mile further west it is represented by Chiswick Road, which leads to Chiswick High Road…”

 On a map drawn by Ralph Agas (c1540-1621) in the 16th century, the part of the Roman highway known now as Oxford Street was marked “The Waye to Uxbridge”. At that distant time (1561), the western edge of London was as far east as Farringdon, which follows part of the now lost Fleet River. This was the case except for riverside strip of buildings along the north bank of the Thames to Westminster.    Oxford Street, so named in the 18th century, has had other names such as the ‘Tyburn Road’, ‘Uxbridge Road’, and ‘Oxford Road’.

A sign on a lamppost on Bayswater Road near to Lancaster Gate Underground station reads “A402 was A40”.  The road running along the northern edge of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was designated in 1923 as ‘The London to Fishguard Trunk Road (A40)’.  After the A40 was re-routed, part of it running along the elevated Westway (completed in 1970), the section of the original A40 (and much earlier the Roman road), which ran between Marble Arch and the westernmost end of Goldhawk Road was re-designated the A 402.

Until the early 19th century, what is now Bayswater Road and its western continuation ran through open country, passing Hyde Park, a royal hunting ground established by King Henry VIII in 1536 (and opened to the public in 1637). Before the park was established, the journey west of what is now marble Arch would have been through a rustic landscape and travellers would have been at risk from attacks by robbers, Today, the greatest risk faced by users of Bayswater Road is delay caused by traffic congestion.

A glimpse of Mersea

SOMETIMES SUBMERGED DURING high tide, a causeway connects mainland Essex with the island of Mersea in the Colne and Blackwater estuaries. Markers with measurements are posted along the causeway so that people wishing to cross it when water covers it can tell how deep the water is. Road signs on both sides of the causeway advise drivers to test their brakes, especially if the road to and from the island is wet.

I first heard of Mersea Island in the mid-1970s when a friend of mine, with whom I have lost contact, married someone who farmed sheep on Mersea Island. However, it was only in 2021 that I first set foot on the island. The largest settlement on Mersea is the small town of West Mersea. We visited on the 12th of April, which was the first day (since the latest ‘lockdown began in December last year) that people were allowed to have drinks at pubs and eat meals at restaurants, but only in the open air. Fortunately, the sun was out and the waterfront mostly south facing.

In 895 AD, the island was known as ‘Meresig’; by 995 as ‘Myresig’; and in the Domesday Book as ‘Meresai’. The Old English word ‘mere’ usually refers to a lake (e.g., Windermere) but in the case of Mersea (and Margate) it refers to the sea. Thus, Mersea comes from words meaning ‘the island in the sea’. During the Celtic era (before the Roman conquest), the island was populated mainly with folk who fished and farmed. After the Romans established their capital at nearby Colchester, they built a causeway to Mersea Island and improved an already existing Celtic track (see: “The Shell Book of the Islands of Britain”, by D Booth and D Perrott). The Romans called the island ‘Maris Insula’ and archaeological remains of their presence there have been discovered and are now in Colchester Museum. There is a museum in West Mersea (www.merseamuseum.org.uk/) but this was closed on account of covid19 regulations. It plans to re-open in June.

The Normans also visited the island. The Domesday book recorded that in about 1086 there about 100 persons living on the island along with 300 sheep. The construction of the Church of St Peter and St Paul, which occupies the highest spot in West Mersea, began in 1046. Some of the original structure forms part of the fabric of the present church, which, sadly, was closed when we visited.

West Mersea is a holiday resort. Many fine homes, mostly modern, line the road that runs parallel to the waterfront, but which is separated from it by mudflats and salt marshes. Twenty or so large houseboats are moored at the water’s edge. Each of them has its own, often rickety-looking, boardwalk leading to it from the road. There are several pubs and eateries from which views of the boats moored by the town may be viewed. The town is famous for its oysters. We watched workmen hosing down crates filled with oysters, which look like large knobbly stones. Apparently, the Mersea oysters are highly prized internationally. Interspersed between boatyards for pleasure craft, there are yards where fishing vessels are maintained. At low tide, which is when we visited, the muddy shore is dotted with small boats of all types, some of them gently rotting away.

As it was late afternoon and we had to drive back to London and we had recently been well-fed, we spent no more than an hour in West Mersea. We hope to return when the weather warms up and then we will sample some of the local refreshment outlets. Although Mersea Island is only about 60 miles (and a lot of heavy traffic) from London’s Hyde Park Corner, it feels as if it is much further away: far away from anywhere.