The Road to Great Wyrley: Watling Street and the M6 Toll

This article, which will be in three parts, had its origins in a section I helped put together for the Great Wyrley ‘Reflections’ book that was published a few years back; however, as that section was written in haste, coupled with the fact that I was unable to add much needed illustrations, I thought I would rework it and use it for the Blog.

At this point it is also best to mention that the article (especially this first part) feeds into, or draws from, two other Wyrleyblog articles: that on the origins of Great Wyrley (see ) and a second on the Wyrley area in 1086 (see

The purpose of this series of articles is to examine, if only in brief, the relationship between the settlement of Great Wyrley (alternatively, the settlement of people within Great Wyrley) and some of the roads that have defined it or, indeed, may have created it.

A period of neglect: the pot-holes of Wyrley, uncovered just months after their last ‘filling’. 2018.

Great Wyrley and the nebulous Landywood have grown massively from 1900 onward and so most of the local roads were constructed or extensively developed to accommodate this expansion – especially the inter and post-war housing estates. Saying that, some roads are of course a lot older (not surprising when you consider Wyrley and Landywood’s names are of Saxon origin) than those of the late 19th and 20th century development – and it is these I want to look at.

And so what I want to do in the first part, after this general introduction, and a little mention of the Toll road that perhaps sits a little awkwardly in the structure of the articles if taken as a whole, is to trace the general history of Watling Street – historically the the most important road to grace the area.

In the second part of the article I want to look at the possible development of the Walsall Road. It is here that I will need to digress into the medieval and later growth of Great Wyrley to try to understand the road’s importance to that growth.

Then, in the last part, I want to take a look at the early 19th century road network of Wyrley: to do this I shall walk up the A34 and, through the use of current photographs and older mapping for illustration, look at a few examples of where the roads and paths in Wyrley today that have fossilised – maybe just through a ‘wiggle’ or a bend – an earlier landscape.

The Major Roads: The M6 Toll Road
Any account of the major roads in Great Wyrley has to include the M6 Toll Road. It is a little problematic for this article: first, it is a recent development and I am really looking to the medieval period onward; second, where to place a little assessment of it within the structure of this article – and I have decided to do it first, simply to get it out of the way.

It is the largest road in Great Wyrley today, although I would argue that taking historical context into view that Watling Street was bigger and more important route. The Toll road touches our ‘village’ at Churchbridge (where there is an access point southbound and an exit point northbound). Formerly known as the Birmingham Northern Relief Road this route was conceived to relieve serious traffic pressure in and around the Birmingham area, its planning had begun back in the 1980s as a government scheme, but in 1991 the then Conservative ministry under John Major announced that the motorway would be a private initiative.

Technically it was designed, built, owned and operated until 2017, when it was sold to IFM, by Midland Express Ltd: Midland Express were a subsidiary of a predominantly Australian company, however, in 2000 they did in fact appoint a consortium consisting of Carillion, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and Amec to design and construct the road. It opened in December 2003 and was the first toll motorway in the UK, running for 13 miles from north of junction 11 on the M6 to junction 9 on the M42.

The relationship between the road and Great Wyrley is an interesting one as effectively it is a by-pass, and so to the road planners Great Wyrley mattered only in the fact that the road had to avoid it, soundproof around it (through the construction of embankments and fences) and create a junction that tied in with the local road network. Cheslyn Hay, in my opinion, was more affected due to the changes to their Wolverhampton Road egress than Great Wyrley was with the actual Toll road.

The noise reduction and aesthetic landscaping of the Toll road at Wyrley. 2018.

Saying that, consideration had to be given to the potential restoration of the canal at Churchbridge by the Lichfield Canal Trust (after all, construction of the road destroyed the remains of the lower section of the flight of locks at Churchbridge). Further, the company elected to build one of its toll plazas in the Great Wyrley/Norton Canes area.

The toll plaza at Great Wyrley/Norton Canes. There is access from the A5, but only for staff. 2018.

The effect of the road on Great Wyrley is difficult to answer as I have no facts and I suspect the road will be only a factor in continued housing and retail development over the years. From my point of view, the traffic system is chaotic and we now have more pointless retail around it that is helping to choke the life out of Cannock town centre. I would be interested in any comments on this.

The Major Roads: Watling Street
Prior to the M6 Toll Road the main route through Great Wyrley was the famous Watling Street (now the A5 trunk road). The road is thought of as being of Roman origin, but it is possible the route-way is far older: it has been mooted that it may have been a collection of drove-ways connecting farms and hamlets, or alternatively a part of a wider trade route between Ireland and the continent for centuries prior to the Roman arrival.

Pennocrucium, Wall (Letocetum) and Watling Street in Roman England (Burke)

Whatever its nature, during the Roman occupation the ‘track’ would have been levelled, metalled and cambered in their fashion. It was a part of the first state-funded road building programme and was initially a vital link for the movement of troops, supplies and communications from the channel (Richborough), later through London, to Wales and the legionary fortresses at Wroxeter and Chester. Then, as the military posts flanking Wyrley at Wall (Letocetum) and south of Penkridge (Pennocrucium) became civil settlements, the road became as much for local commerce than for military purposes.

It is possible that there was some occupation in Great Wyrley during the Roman period, or even before, as the area was abundant in water and wood, however, without stronger evidence to the contrary, as in structural remains (some portable finds have been discovered), the road seems to have existed before anything in the locality.

A wood structure is of course transient and a small wooden farmstead could have been abandoned, as many places were, when the Romans withdrew around AD 410 and the population dropped significantly. It is perhaps a stronger argument to suggest that if there was settlement then it may have centred more on Little Wyrley originally – as I think this was the settlement described in the Domesday Book in 1086 and was possibly a part of a larger, former Roman estate centred on Lichfield and Wall (Letocetum).

‘It should be somewhere ‘ere, Sir’: The Emperor Claudius visits Magna Wyrley during a walking holiday along Watling Street. (BBC)

After the Roman state collapsed the road would fall into disrepair, although Roman roads would remain arterial routes. As the population recovered in the Saxon period new settlements were established and deserted ones re-colonised, and the proximity of Watling Street may have had some bearing on this as far as Great Wyrley is concerned.

Local place-names date to the Saxon period and suggest that most places were fringe settlements (possibly just a single dwelling) or simply open spaces that were founded, re-founded or just named around the 8th-9th century. Wyrley, Great and Little, have a Saxon name meaning ‘bog-myrtle glade’; Landywood has a Saxon name that means ‘open clearing in a wooded area’ and a third place-name appears on the 1838 Tithe map, which will be discussed in the next part, is Bradley, which means ‘broad glade in a wood’. None of our immediate places contain a personal element like Essington for example – which is believed to be the farmstead of Esne’s people (as put forward by Ekwall) – and actually indicate the presence of people.

It is said that under the peace treaty – that of Wedmore, 878 – between Alfred and Guthrum, Watling Street was be the boundary between Wessex and the Danelaw. It was a feature in the landscape and may well have been used as such, although no formal treaty survives. Place-name evidence is said to support this (generally, Saxon names to the south and Scandinavian to the north). One gets the feeling if you asked the locals if they were Alfred’s or Guthrum’s men, you may be met with a quizzical look and the translated response: ‘We’re Wolves, aye we’.

The Domesday evidence does support the very marginal settlement theory: Great Wyrley is not mentioned separately and Little Wyrley is combined with Norton Canes and together form one sub-manor (the smallest level of inclusion in the book).

The Norton and Wyrley entry under Lichfield
(Open Domesday)

This sub-manor was, as many small areas around it were, described as ‘waste’ in the book. Original thoughts saw ‘waste’ as being land that had been devastated by the Norman ‘harrying of the north’ as they sought to quell the land after Hastings. The fact the estate would have been on Watling Street (a route that would very likely have been used in the Norman advance north) may seem to add credence to this, however, I believe the definition should be widened to one of land that is, or appears to be, unproductive to some degree: this could be for a number of reasons and may include land exempt from taxation because it is not tenanted, land deliberately left fallow or land that has been turned into ‘forest’ under William’s new forest laws. William I turned huge swathes of land over to forest for royal hunting. Ultimately, we have no idea.

While the proximity of Watling Street would likely have been a factor with settlement in Great Wyrley, it is really the presence of water and wood for fuel and building that would have been vital. With population expansion in the early medieval period, we know by 1293 that there was a hamlet in Great Wyrley that has its own court and, what was effectively, a manor house. I will pick-up from here when we look at the Walsall Road.

Through the medieval and Tudor periods (indeed, even well into the 18th century) the Roman network was still the principal method of ‘national’ travel (although the concept of the paving and drainage of roads was now lost, which left them as dust-heaps in summer and quagmires in winter). What care there was for roads was either provided by the Lord of the Manor or, increasingly, by the parish. In 1555 legislation was passed forcing the parish to maintain roads within its boundaries and this responsibility would have fell to Cannock St. Luke’s for the Great Wyrley roads.

In the later 18th century there was a movement for change and experiments with canals (Duke of Bridgewater’s canal, for example) and Turnpike Trusts (Great North Road from London, for example) were extended. The trusts allowed private companies to take-over the more arterial routes and charge tolls for their use, however, in return they had to upkeep them. The system upset a lot of locals that had used ‘their’ roads for free previously. In 1760, Watling Street’s Wyrley section became a trust, with one tollhouse at Churchbridge and the other at the corner of Bridge Street, below where the Stumble Inn lies in present-day Bridgtown.

1838 tithe-map for Cannock showing the tollgate on Watling St, near where the Stumble Inn is today. (Lichfield RO)

Under people like Thomas Telford advances were made in both road construction and drainage in the 19th century. Watling Street became an important route to Ireland after 1800, however, Telford decided to divert the route through Birmingham and Wolverhampton rather than use the existing route passing Wyrley and so it was starved of some traffic – and importance.

In 1835 the General Highways Act re-affirmed the parish responsibility for the non-trust roads in their area. By the latter half of the century this was considered unfair and many were unable to afford it. In 1862 new Highway Districts were established that comprised of groups of parishes. As the turnpike trusts began to fail due to competition from the railways, the main-road system was effectively taken into public ownership under the Local Government Act with the creation of, in our case, the Staffordshire County Council in 1888.

Those local routes under the care of the Highways Districts were also taken into public ownership with the formation of the rural district councils in 1894. The Cannock Rural District Council administered the Wyrley area. Under the 1929 Local Government Act, the responsibility for all roads passed from them to the County Councils. Apart from the Toll Road, the Council has maintained the road network within the village ever since, with one exception.

Watling Street at Churchbridge. 2018.

Under the 1936 Trunk Roads Act the government, operating through the Highways Agency, have control over motorways and significant major roads or sections of them: parts of the A5 in Staffordshire fall under this, including the Churchbridge section.

The old Watling St, now isolated as a no through road at what was once a cross roads with Leacroft Lane and Washbrook Lane (now completely gone). 2018.

The significant growth in road traffic, just over the past few decades, has seen the A5 in Wryley expand from a single-carriageway to a dual-carriageway. The road also had to be diverted to accommodate the changing transport network – a ghostly section of the old A5 still exists at the bottom of Leacroft Lane, where it one formed a crossroads with Washbrook Lane (now gone).

Coming soon, part 2 – the Walsall Road and the medieval and later growth of Great Wyrley.