The Roman Road from Kirkby Thore to Whitley Castle, The Maiden Way, Margary 84

Possibly the highest Roman road in England rising to 2200 feet (670m) - well the second highest if High Street really is Roman. Despite the difficult terrain involved in crossing the Cross Fell ridge of the Pennines, the Romans were able to engineer a remarkably direct route. It is not without some steep gradients however, especially on the climb up from Kirkby Thore.

The name Maiden Way properly refers to the Roman road from Kirkby Thore to Carvoran via Whitley Castle. It was so called by Camden and the name can be traced back to the twelfth century (Maydengathe, Maidingate, Maidengate, occurring c. 1179 and 1294). Suggestions that it extended to Bewcastle are somewhat speculative as can be seen from the map the two roads do not link directly. According to Collingwood the name probably derives from Maiden Castle on the Stainmore road - see map and link to Collingwood below.

The understanding of this road has changed since 2014 when Hugh Toller proved that the road from Low Borrowbridge actually linked to Kirkby Thore. The Maiden Way can now be seen as not as a branch off the Stainmore road but part of a strategic through route from Low Borrowbridge to Carvoran via Kirkby Thore and Whitley Castle. However, the justification for a road 2200 feet up is generally assigned to lead mining in the Alston area. The recent confirmation of a road from Whitley Castle to Corbridge (Gethin/Toller/Haken) would seem to confirm the need for good communications to and from the Alston area.


For a full discussion of the derivation of the name Maiden Way and the reasons for the road see Collingwood.



Lidar Image and Map - Kirkby Thore

The first kilometre is lost - it is surprising but Lidar shows nothing convincing in the vicinity of the fort. The line is then marked by the modern lane called, Maiden Way! Well that's a clue. Just before Milburn the modern road turns off and the Roman road is visible in the Lidar data heading north to Lounthwaite Bridge.

Click for larger view
Kirkby Thore

Modern Road - Hale Grange

The modern road is called Maiden Way and this stretch north of Hale Grange almost certainly marks the course. However, the south end of the road still carries that name and clearly is not our "Maiden Way".

Click for larger view

Lidar Image and Map - Kirkland

The road now heads for Kirkland but the route passing Kirkland is incorrect on Ordnance Survey maps. Hugh Toller found the correct line was further east and examination of the Lidar data shows he was correct.

Click for larger view

3D Lidar Image - ascent to Bank Rigg

Bank Rigg is only the start of the climb to cross the Pennines - the road gets even steeper beyond the Lidar coverage.

Click for larger view
3D Lidar

Melmerby Fell

Here the Maiden Way is terraced and built up on it low side. So much stone around that there is no need for quarry pits here.

Image courtesy of Mark Richards, author of Hadrian's Highway. Book 2 covers this road and is highly recommended as are Mark's other books.

Click for larger view

Melmerby Fell looking towards the summit

Towards the top of the Pennine crossing the road reveals itself in all its glory. You wouldn't believe this is 2000 feet up!

Image courtesy of Mark Richards, author of Hadrian's Highway.

Click for larger view

Lidar Image and Map - Alston Road

The descent down to the Alston Road is less steep than that on the western side. It can be seen from the Alston Road heading up to the summit of the Pennine ridge.

Click for larger view
Alston Road

3D Lidar Image - Alston Road

Having descended down the east side there is another stiff climb to negotiate up to the Alston Road and across Park Fell at a height of 475 metres.

Click for larger view
3D Alston Rd

Alston Road A686 - looking back to the summit on Melmerby Fell

Maiden Way is visible heading across the moor in the far distance. The road this side of the fell appears to be still in use by 4x4 vehicles for grouse shooting.


Click for larger view

Lidar Image and Map - Whitley Castle

The road is reasonably clear apart from the crossing of Gilderdale Brook. No doubt river action has destroyed the Roman route here. The brook marks the boundary with Northumberland.

Click for larger view
Lidar WC

3D Lidar Image - Whitley Castle looking back to Kirkby Thore

What an unusual fort. Presumably no better site was deemed suitable and to adapt to the contours a rhomboid shape for the fort was adopted.

Click for larger view
3D Whitley Cas

Lidar Image - Whitley Castle detail

Although Alston is in Cumbria, the Whitley Castle site is actually over the border and in Northumberland.

This is an orthogonal (plan) view with north at the top. That diamond shape does fit the contours.

Judging by all those defensive ditches you would have thought it was gold they were defending here not lead! The Roman road, Maiden Way, passes on the east side of the fort. The road to Corbridge leads off to the right.

For more details on Whitley Castle visit the Epiacum web site.

Click for larger view
Whitley Cas Lidar

Return to Cumbria Roman Roads homepage

Last update January 2018

© David Ratledge