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Watling Street

Watling Street 1907 [Z1130/60/16]
Watling Street 1907 [Z1130/60/16]

Watling Street (the modern A5 trunk road) was one of the most important roads made by the Romans in Britain, running from London, north-west to Anglesey [HER 5508]. Even today stretches of the road are straight enough to betray its Roman origins. The road was intended to allow the Roman army quickly to march to any danger point and what is today North Wales was one such potential danger area. Interestingly, when Queen Boudica of the Iceni rose in revolt in AD 60 she was, after destroying Colchester, London and Saint Albans, eventually brought to battle somewhere along Watling Street (anywhere from Hertfordshire to Shropshire) and defeated by the Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus who had hastened back south-east along the road from a campaign against Anglesey. The name Watling Street was first used by the Anglo-Saxons

 White Hart 1931 [Z55/5/434]
White Hart 1931 [Z55/5/434]

The original village of Hockliffe was established in the area around the church and Watling Street formed the boundary between Hockliffe to the south-west of the road and the parishes of Battlesden and Chalgrave to the north-east. The Hospital of Saint John Baptist which cared for the destitute poor was built beside the road by the beginning of the thirteenth century, and it is tempting to suggest that its location was chosen to cater for vagrant paupers travelling along Watling Street. There are other early references to property at the side of Watling Street, but the expansion of the roadside settlement at the expense of the nuclear village did not occur until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the later medieval period Watling Street became busier as goods were taken to and from London, and it became a major drove road for taking animals from Wales and the north to the London markets Unsurprisingly a number of inns were built along the road to service the traffic now passing along it. References have been found to the Falcon and the Swan or White Swan dating from the sixteenth century, and to the King's Arms and the Red Lion from the seventeenth. By the seventeenth century the original settlement had become known as Church End; the settlement along Watling Street, where there was a dip in the land, was known as Hockley-in-the-Hole.

 Watling Street 1934 [Z1130/60/7]
Watling Street 1934 [Z1130/60/7]

Upkeep of the road was the responsibility of the parishes through which it passed, this being Hockliffe to the south of the road and Battlesden and Chalgrave to the north. Maintenance was often neglected and contemporary descriptions make it clear that the road at Hockliffe, where the low-lying ground easily turned into a mire, was in a poor state during the seventeenth centuries:

"Hockley in the Hole, so named of the miry way in Winter time, very troublesome to travellers." (William Camden, 1607).

"We came over a sad road called Hockley in the hole as full of deep slows, in winter it must be impassable, there is a very good pitch'd Causey for foote people and horse that is raised up high from the Road." (Celia Fiennes, Journeys, 1697)

In the early 18th century turnpike trusts were established which were given the right to collect tolls in return for maintaining stretches of road. The section of Watling Street from Hockliffe to Stony Stratford became a turnpike road in 1706 and the stretch from Dunstable to Hockliffe followed suit in 1710. In 1724 Daniel Defoe remarked on the improvement, as did Lyson a century later when the road was further improved by increased expenditure:

"We now see the most dismal Piece of Ground for Travelling, that ever was in England, handsomely repaired; namely from the Top of the chalky hill beyond Dunstable down into Hockley lane, and through Hockley, justly called Hockley in the Hole … such a road for Coaches and worse was hardly ever seen. (Daniel Defoe, Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724)

"Hockliffe's situation is low, it was noted for its miry road, which of late years has been much improved." (Lysons, Magna Britannia, 1806)

Watling Street in Winter [Z1130/60/3]
Watling Street in Winter [Z1130/60/3]

The first toll house in Hockliffe appears to have been built on a strip of waste ground between Watling Street and Bull Field and was described as the Old Toll House as early as 1752. By the late 18th century there was a turnpike near the junction of Watling Street and Church Lane, which may or may now have been where a tollgate mentioned in 1773 and 1802 was located. By 1825 a new tollhouse and tollgate had been built further to the north-west at the top of the hill. The turnpike to Stony Stratford was ended in 1867 and the southern turnpike to Dunstable in 1873; the tollhouse was demolished in 1926. The road running from Watling Street to Leighton Buzzard was also turnpike in 1810, with a tollhouse, tollbar and weighing machine standing on the parish boundary with Egginton. This turnpike ceased in 1868.

In the early 1930s Watling Street was widened and a number of buildings were demolished to accommodate this improvement to the road. These included the original White Hart Inn, which was replaced by the new White Hart which now stands on the corner of Watling Street and Leighton Road, and the old Primitive Methodist Chapel and cottages standing in the "old meeting yard" at the corner of Watling Street and Woburn Road.