The first roads of which we have any clear knowledge were constructed by the Roman armies in the years after the invasion of northern England in AD7879. The Romans were intent on conquering the whole of Britain, but eventually had to settle for defending a north¬ern border which ran from the Solway to the mouth of the Tyne (along the Stanegate, and subsequently Hadrian's Wall). The frontier was continued down the coast to Moresby (near Whitehaven) as a line of forts linked and backed up by roads. The Romans were evidently little interested in the Lake District itself, as only three or four roads went through the fells.
Their main road south led from Carlisle to Brougham, and then on through the Lune Gorge. This route runs along the very eastern edge of the Lakeland fells and its principal fascination is that so many later routes have followed in its footsteps though none has followed it precisely. From Brougham its course cannot now be seen for the first three miles (5 km), but it can then be followed as 'The Street' for over five miles (8 km) towards Crosby Ravensworth. It turns to pass through the British settlement at Ewe Close, and climbs over Coalpit Hill before making a steady descent towards Tebay and the fort at Low Borrow Bridge in the Lune Gorge. From here there was a branch to Watercrook (Kendal), whilst the main road continued southwards on the east bank of the River Lune.
Of the Roman roads through the Lake District the most important was probably the route from Watercrook to Ravenglass, for it appears in the Antonine Itinerary, a list of the main post roads of the Empire compiled in Rome in the second or third century. The central section of this route over Wrynose and Hardknott Passes is well known, and easy to follow, but the precise course of most of the rest of the route has yet to be fixed. Starting from Watercrook it is not even certain where the road crossed the River Kent; it probably went via Staveley, and beyond here the best line yet found is parallel to the minor road running from Hill Farm, through Broadgate to Allen Knott.
The central section over the passes was described by Ian Richmond in 1949 and anyone wish¬ing to follow it should consult his classic paper. But at the western end of Hardknott Pass the road once again disappears into farmland, still over 8 miles (12.9km) from the port of Ravenglass. There are no Roman roads in Cumbria south of this route, which indicates how un¬important, strategically or economically, southern Lakeland was to the Romans.
The most famous Roman road in the Lakes is undoubtedly High Street, but its course is little known in precise detail, even in the central section where it is supposed to run at over 2000ft (610m) for 8 miles (12.9km). In truth there are only two or three obvious sections (for example between High Street summit and the Straits of Riggindale) and the whole route requires a new survey. In particular, its routes both south of the summit and north of Elder Beck are not known. It would certainly not have been an easy route, much of it above the tree line, and the Romans probably used it, but whether they actually built a road along the whole of this line is, at best, unproven. The recent detailed description of a parallel Roman road over Kirkstone Pass, only a short distance to the west, is a much more likely route for them to have chosen, involving only half the ascent, and having frequent water supplies for their animals (something which High Street lacks).