Midway between Berkhamsted and Tring, the settlement of Cow Roast straddles the A4251 for a couple of hundred speed-limited metres. A pub/restaurant, a filling station, two car sales outlets and a few houses face the road; tucked away on either side are sports fields and a marina. There is nothing to indicate that this is a significant historic site.No brown road-sign, no explanatory plaque, no trinket-sellers nor commemorative tea towels. The Cow Roast Experience Theme Park with interactive exhibits remains unimagined and unbuilt. There is absolutely nothing to indicate a distant distinguished past.
Hiding in plain sight
And yet Dacorum Borough Council (DBC) calls it “one of the most important Late Iron Age and Roman industrial landscapes in England”. Either this is hyperbole from the Council, or it chooses to protect important historic landscapes by not telling anyone about them.
An archaeological assessment of the filling station area in 2003 found ‘considerable modern disturbance’ and noted that “previous archaeological recording had revealed no significant archaeology”. It concluded that there was none to find.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Cow Roast may have been the Consett of its day, and its day dawned more than 2,000 years ago. No trace remains, but Bronze Age pioneers were followed by Roman industrialists and Cow Roast continued to develop into the 5th century AD. Wells, furnaces and slagheaps have been found there.
Perhaps Cow Roast has defied tourist exploitation because no-one is quite sure what to make of it. DBC seems clear enough with its emphasis on industry. But the specialist website castra.org calls it a fort (although its credibility suffers when it places Cow Roast in Bucks). The Chiltern Open Air Museum describes it as one of five oppida (town-like settlements) in the Chilterns area in the pre-Roman era. Keith Branigan and Rosalind Niblett in The Roman Chilterns call it call it a ‘small market town’.
Tom Williamson, in The Origins of Hertfordshire, implies a substantial place. “The main area of settlement extended along both sides of Akeman Street for several hundred metres,” he says, “with side lanes dividing the built-up area in a number of blocks”. DBC’s map shows the Roman site occupying a rectangle, stretching roughly from the marina to the filling station and almost as far as Bottom House Lane on the other side of the A4251, skirting the Berkhamsted Hockey Club’s pavilion. (This map identifies Bottom House Lane rather than the A4251 as Akeman Street.)
A second, smaller rectangle of Roman occupation sits halfway up the hill between the canal and Norcott Court Farm, to the left of where the footpath crosses the railway. The whole area is formally protected as an ancient monument.
When the Duke of Bridgewater’s navigators were digging the canal, in 1813, they uncovered a bronze helmet. Known as the Tring Helmet, this is in the British Museum.
Officially, coins have been found dating from the time of the pre-Roman leader Tasciovanus (just before the Christian era) and Roman emperors from Claudius (41-54 AD) to Honorius (395-423 AD). Unofficially, wielders of metal-detectors claim to have found a much greater spread of Roman coins: denarii from Roman Republican times (before 27 BC), said the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club after a ‘dig’ in 2005. The coins were spread across a large field and were not part of a hoard, it added. There were Iron Age coins too: three staters and three more ¼ staters. A further exploration there turned up more denarii and a ¼ stater coin tentatively identified as being from the Atrebates, a Celtic tribe usually found some way southwest of this area.
Coins mean commerce, especially if they weren’t part of a hoard. The chief trade appears to have been in metal goods. The authors of The Roman Chilterns identify Cow Roast as one of two southerly outposts of iron-working – the other was at Foxholes, near Hertford. “Many bowl furnaces have been found at Cow Roast,” they say, “and it is likely that the iron-workers here were exploiting ‘bog ore’.”
Bog ore was the impure deposit that accumulated in some favoured swamps (or ill-favoured, as demonstrated by Tony Robinson in his quest for bog ore in The Worst Jobs in History). The Bulbourne provided the right conditions in this area – the minerals accumulated between layers of peat and alluvium. Apparently much of the Vikings’ iron was smelted from bog ores.
People were busy here before the Romans. Construction work on the A41, which virtually skirts the site, turned up signs of a building, pottery, a ‘crouched’ burial and two shaft furnaces. Further up the hill to the south, Grim’s Dyke is an Iron Age structure running across the landscape little more than a kilometre away. A hill-fort of the same era distinguishes Cholesbury, not much further on. “Large and complex Catuvellauni [ie the dominant Celtic tribe in southern England at the time] settlements existed to the north and north-east of Gerrards Cross, the nearest being Cow Roast, near Tring,” says the Gerrards Cross Parish Council website.
In the Museum Store of Dacorum Heritage Trust, reports and field notes from archaeological digs at Cow Roast bring the settlement into sharper focus. Three principle areas were explored: an orchard on the pub side of the road and the garage and marina on the other side.They found evidence of a form of urban Roman infrastructure. There were different kinds of building: rectangular timber buildings on the orchard site, a large circular timber building on the marina site and a masonry structure on the hillside below Norcott Court. Also on the marina site, where intact pottery jars were found, a road six metres wide ran northeast to southwest to link with Akeman Street. A second road ran parallel to Akeman Street beneath where the filling station now stands.
According to researchers in the mid-1980s, the evidence points to production at Cow Roast reaching a peak in the second to third centuries AD. At least 10 more furnaces were in operation by then. The large number of brooches and copper-alloy products found there may have been made on site.
The Museum Store’s records itemise the finds in great detail. From a single well shaft, for example, were recovered a bone gaming counter, a bronze brooch, a coin from the era of the notorious Nero, a glass ring, an iron lamp and many other bronze and iron items. A tableau for a future Cow Roast Experience suggests itself: shaggy gamblers pursuing their furtive addiction by lamplight in the privacy of a well.
Why the lamplight? Well, the Dark Ages were approaching. When the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 AD, it seems Cow Roast was abandoned. It’s a pity that the Borough Council seems happy to leave it that way.
Archaeology is often a literally dry and dusty activity, but some of the Cow Roast records present its human face. The author of one of the field notebooks forgot to post his (or her) pools coupon and it remained, forgotten for 20 years, between the pages. The oversight may not have cost anyone a fortune. One of the games marked with an X for a score-draw, Fulham against Oldham, ended 3-0.
The gap in the Chiltern Hills occupied by the Bulbourne has been irresistible to logistics planners down the ages. The Romans built Akeman Street through it and centuries later the Canal Duke added the Grand Union.In between times, as Cow Roast retreated into history, the pass through the Chilterns became a drovers’ route. Cattle were driven to London from the northwest to provide the capital with fresh meat. The settlement owes its name to those Wild West days, and most authorities regard it as a corruption of ‘Cow Rest’ with pens and grazing for the cattle. That the site was continuously occupied is indicated by the WWDC’s finds of coins from the eras of Edward I, Elizabeth I and Charles I, plus an intriguing gold coin of Ferdinand VII, King of Spain, from 1817.In 1762 the road was improved as part of the Sparrow’s Herne Turnpike, which ran from Bushey Heath to Aylesbury, and a toll-gate was established at the nearby New Ground. Dury & Andrew’s map of 1766 provides the first evidence of building there since the Roman age, and the first mention of the Cow Roast pub was in 1806.