Durham Road, the main road through Bowburn, follows the line of a Roman road. It has generally been assumed that this was “Cade’s Road” – the road originally proposed in 1785 by the antiquarian, John Cade.
(Before this, the only widely recognised Roman road through the region was Dere Street, which connected York, Binchester and Corbridge.)
Cade’s Road is believed to have been built between 138 and 161 AD. (This was a decade or more after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which began in 122 AD, and before the Romans withdrew from the Antonine Wall, further north, in 163 AD.) It connected Newcastle and Brough-on-Humber, via Chester-le-Street, Kepier, Old Durham and Shincliffe (coming from the north towards Bowburn) and Great Stainton, Sadberge and Middleton-St-George (going south from here, towards the Humber).
Parts of the exact route have always been uncertain but the general assumption has been that, between Shincliffe and Great Stainton, the road passed through Bowburn, Coxhoe and Sedgefield – in other words being the predecessor of the old Durham to Stockton turnpike road, the A177 (more recently re-named the B6291 as it passes through Coxhoe).
Today’s road departs noticeably from an otherwise straight line, as it passes through Bowburn. It is to be supposed that this was an original feature of the Roman road, presumably to avoid having to cross the wandering Bowburn Beck three times within a few hundred yards. The departure takes the road west of the burn’s bow that doubtless gave the village its name. This was once behind the Pit Laddie Inn and is now beneath the motorway junction. The single crossing is at Bowburn Bridge, near the Methodist chapel.
Historians after John Cade identified a different route between Shincliffe and Great Stainton, since known as “Cade’s Road West”. From the top of Shincliffe bank, this went south along what came to be called “Strawberry Lane”; then past the sites of Tursdale House and Hett Mill, and, beyond that, through those of today’s settlements of Ferryhill, Bradbury and Morden.
It was not suggested that this was the correct route, and the earlier one “wrong”. Both may have been the main route at different times. “Don’t forget [the Romans] were here for 400 years”, local historian Robin Walton pointed out to Bowburn Interchange in 2003. “It would be astonishing if they didn’t have many more roads than their most famous major highways.”
But Mr. Walton did not think that was the end of the story. He spent many years exploring sites at various sites along another possible route. These included a minor excavation in an allotment near the chapel in Bowburn. There he found clear evidence of where a road had crossed the beck, some way west of the main road. (See Bowburn Interchange no. 23.)
Then, in 2008, he proposed a third route for Cade’s Road. Writing in Bowburn Interchange no. 48 (page 5), he explained that he had gone back to Cade’s own writing, to check the places through which he said his road passed. He noted that Cade had made no mention of Coxhoe – perhaps surprisingly, given that the traditional route passed within full view of Coxhoe Hall, which had been recently (and impressively) built when Cade was writing.
“After excavations at Bowburn Beck”, wrote Mr. Walton, “I have uncovered evidence for the second road and I have also found archaeological evidence at other places I believe were on the line of the real Cade’s Road. North of Mainsforth, the next place is the site of the deserted mediaeval village of Thrislington (close by Steetley Quarry). Here the road formed a crossroad with a Roman road from Hartlepool to Binchester (which I found in 1984), arriving at Brandon House Farm, passing east of Ramsay Street, Tursdale, going on to Peat Edge Farm and then arriving at Bowburn Beck.”
The three routes are shown below, with that posited by Robin Walton, in green, passing through the middle. It heads roughly south, from Bowburn, instead of south-east (towards Sedgefield) or by-passing Bowburn (via Strawberry Lane) to the west.