What did the Romans ever do for us?

All canals were built during the Industrial Revolution right? Not so. Author Dixe Wills takes a journey along Lincolnshire’s historic Foss Dyke

Illustration: Clifford Harper


Charting the history of British canals can be tricky business at times. There are locks built and abandoned; long sections of waterway opening and being re-routed and closing only to open again; and canals all but disappearing off the map while others are heroically resurrected. However, there’s one thing we do know for sure: all the working canals in these fair isles were built from the 1700s onwards.

Err, except that’s not true either. Take, for example, one particular man made watercourse in Lincolnshire that was already ineffably old at the dawn of the 18th century. Indeed, in a game of “What did the Romans ever do for us?” it’s quite possible that we would be able to say, “They built the nation’s first canal.” Take a bow, Foss Dyke – an 11-mile waterway connecting the River Trent at Torksey to the River Witham in Lincoln.

Setting off from the western end, the landscape gives no clues as to the Fossdyke Navigation’s great antiquity. The canal slips off the side of a mighty double-U-bend of the Trent, the six gates of Torksey Lock keeping a sharp eye on proceedings, the river being tidal here. The waterway runs largely southeast before taking a big left turn to reach the substantial village of Saxilby. Satisfyingly, Roman pottery has been discovered here and the remains of a Roman camp have been uncovered close by.

Which brings us to the theory propounded by some historians that the canal was built in AD120 by our Roman conquerors. It rests on a presumed need to join Lincoln – or ‘Lindum Colonia’ as it was known then – to the River Trent. Renowned as great canal builders back in their homeland, what could be more natural for the colonists than to dig a waterway across the conveniently flat Lincolnshire fens? The fact that the lock at Torksey is the only one on the canal shows just how straightforward an undertaking it would have been – the only real difficulty being that some of the Foss Dyke runs through sand.

Now, because this was all possible does not, of course, mean that it happened. However, the theory is supported by the fact that a statuette of the Roman god Mars was dragged up from the canal at Torksey and a wall that could potentially have been a Roman quay was excavated in Lincoln in the 1950s. The canal is also reputed to have been used by invading Danes – who presumably wouldn’t have bothered to build one themselves, invading being enough of a time-consuming business as it is.

Norsemen certainly got around to establishing Saxilby though, its original name being Saksulfrby (‘farmstead of a man called Saksulfr’). As we head through the village, those not fortunate enough to sail or cruise along the canal can join it on foot or by pedal. A footpath and cycleway is planned for the whole length of the Foss Dyke and the section from Saxilby to Lincoln is already open. Railway passengers also get to enjoy the waterway, for the line follows the south bank from here into Lincoln.

Not far beyond Saxilby, the River Till gets in on the act, joining the canal as if it were just an everyday tributary feeding a river. The flatness of the landscape is broken here and there by statuesque trees, taking full advantage of the huge stage provided for them by the fens. The horizontal vista is soon also broken by the development of houses around the canal’s swish new 15-acre Burton Waters Marina.

From here the waterway forges towards Lincoln with what one might call a Roman-esque devotion to directness, though today’s navigators may find themselves diverted instead through the doors of the waterside Pyewipe Inn pyewipe.co.uk Here we can sit with a foaming jar in hand to consider the controversy surrounding the first record of the Foss Dyke. It comes to us courtesy of one Symeon of Durham. Writing in his Historia Regum (c.1129) he observes, “In the same year [1121], King Henry cut a large canal from Torksey to Lincoln, and by causing the River Trent to flow into it, he made it navigable for vessels.”

The Henry here is Henry I and the issue about which historians are at (generally polite) loggerheads is whether the author meant that the King was the first to create a canal here or whether he merely re-opened one long since abandoned and dry.

What we can be assured of is that the canal did fall into decay by the 17th century, because in 1671-2 much work had to be done to make it usable again, including the installation of a lock (or possibly a navigable sluice) at Torksey. For many years afterwards, the Foss Dyke proved a cash cow to those who leased it and charged a toll for the coal, wool and other commodities that were borne along its length.

It was, inevitably, the arrival in the 1840s of the aforementioned railway line that was to bring about the canal’s downfall as a commercial venture. It was a very long and lingering death, however. At the turn of the 20th century there were 75,000-odd tonnes of goods being transported along the cut. Astonishingly, grain was still being carried on the canal in 1972. In recent years the venerable waterway has been spruced up and now plays host to a whole new flotilla, that of pleasure boats.

With Symeon of Durham’s inconclusive sentence dancing before our eyes we are soon at Brayford Pool, where many of those pleasure boats moor up, and where the canal still fulfils its ancient calling by joining with the River Witham. Here the water is overlooked by Lincoln’s majestic triple-towered cathedral. Should you embark on this journey yourself, do take time to gaze up at that immense construction on the hill above you. It’s enthralling to reflect that every stone you see may have been transported by busy Norman bargees along the Foss Dyke, a canal whose waters may first have thrummed with the cadences of the Latin tongue nearly two millennia ago.

Explore a map of the Fossdyke Navigation and plan your trip: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/fossdyke-navigation