Travel: Some roads still do lead to Rome

Stone Street ran 16 miles from Canterbury to the coast - which has since disappeared. Richard Abbott pedals through Kent to find it
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So what did the Romans ever do for us? Well, for a start, they left us some rather decent roads. It is not their fault that, today, masterpieces of civil engineering such as Watling Street and the Great North Road are buried beneath those great galumphing trunk routes the A5 and A1(M). Yet not all Roman roads have become victims of the weight of modern traffic. Take Stone Street, for instance.

Stone Street runs south from Canterbury, spanning the 16 miles to the Roman harbour of Portus Limanis (today the land-locked Lympne). And it is no major route. At its extremities it shows on the map as a spindly yellow lane; in its middle section it earns the brown of a B road. What makes it stand out is that, in a county where a knotted tangle of lanes winds endlessly between villages, Stone Street is the sole bold stroke, running straight as a die right across the landscape.

Ever since I spotted it I have wanted to travel on it. To suit its scale I cycled, though a route march with a legion would have been even more appropriate. I knew Stone Street rose out of the Stour valley in the western suburbs of Canterbury, but pinning it down was not easy in the mess the ring road makes of the city. In the end I found it, an unmarked lane opposite a Homebase store.

I passed Victorian terraces, ducked beneath the A2 in a concrete tunnel and was in the country, passing rather grand farmhouses with walled kitchen gardens, climbing the back of the North Downs at an easy pace. After a couple of miles the route is joined by the B2068 and then you are really motoring or, in my case, cycling, loping south over the hills like a High Plains Pedaller. The road spins out dead ahead, with just the occasional wiggle to left or right.

It was a day that could not decide whether it wanted to be autumn or winter. A blast of brilliant sunshine would be followed by a hard downpour, and then the clouds would part and the sun would dazzle again, so that I was alternately soaked and roasted. Pounding along in the sun with the steam pouring off me, I looked as if I was about to spontaneously combust.

The road, being Roman, is true to itself. It makes no detours and no concessions to the villages and hamlets that are just a mile or so from its route. Those few dwellings that are on the road itself have an allegiance to it, and take its name. You pass Stoneleigh House, Stoneway Park and Stone Hall - a grand place that combines the security of a high brick wall with a neat little elevated octagonal summerhouse, from which you can look up and down Stone Street without being observed.

There are precious few signposts to identify the villages you occasionally glimpse over the fields. At one point, intrigued, I did a looping detour and found myself in deepest, darkest Kent, a land where the roads have grass growing down the middle. In contrast to the zipping pace of Stone Street, the villages I passed through were positively dozing. Stelling Minnis was full of sheep, and in Bossingham the most active inhabitant was a black cat fast asleep on a roof.

I enjoyed Stone Street more. On a Roman road you really feel you are going somewhere. And then you reach the lip of the downs and suddenly a whole new landscape, a low-lying misty vale, opens up before you. And the road does something uncharacteristic: it bends, following the high ground through a semi-circle before dropping down.

It did so to avoid a steep drop, during which it would have been overlooked, making the Roman legions a sitting target for any hairy-backed Men of Kent who might be hiding in the bushes. When it drops, it still does so fast enough to send the wind whipping through your hair.

At Stanford - a village bisected by the M20 - the B road veers left to rendezvous with the motorway, but the Roman route can still be followed through the village, thanks to a footbridge.

From there it makes straight for the coast - or what was the coast - at West Hythe, but I took a slight detour to the village of Lympne. A lane that winds between pale stone walls took me through a place so silent that a cough echoes like a gunshot. In the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Paul I could stand on what, in Roman times, was the cliff edge, looking down across the half-mile of puddled fields to the present coastline, with Dymchurch hunkered down behind its sea wall.

A long-distance footpath called the Saxon Shore Way runs through Lympne. It follows the outline of Kent as it was 1,600 years ago, when the Romans were struggling to defend their island from marauding Saxons.

I followed the path a little way west and found a point where I could look down on the remains of Lemanis's Roman fort. A few stunted stretches of rock growing out of the grass, like rotted black teeth in green gums, with sheep ambling over them, were all that was left on the 12-acre site guarding what was once an important harbour, thought to have been at West Hythe.

Back on my bike, and on Stone Street, I swooped down to the harbour. Or rather, to the site of it. Today, West Hythe is dominated by a second- hand car showroom, and where in Roman times the waves would have lapped on the shore there is now the Royal Military Canal.

This canal, from Hythe to Rye around the back of Romney Marsh, was dug with the aim of making this wild, remote area less attractive as an invasion point for Napoleon.

I pressed on to the modern seashore, across the Toytown tracks of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway. It was thirsty work cycling, and all morning I had been passing inviting-looking pubs. The Hop Pocket in Bossington and the Rose and Crown in Stelling Minnis very nearly tempted me to stop. In Dymchurch, at the end of the road, The London Town had a sign on the wall saying it was Biker Friendly. The other bikes were of an altogether higher horsepower than mine, but the barman was friendly to me, too.

I got my drink and sat out on the sea wall. And looked towards Rome.