The roads much travelled
British history has been shaped by our ancient drove roads, says Barnaby Rogerson
Our old roads are gifts leading straight into history: a drove road that once witnessed the movement of vast herds of black cattle and white sheep; a straight pathway first surveyed, cut and banked up by one of the four roman legions sent to conquer Britain; or, with a bit of imagination, those oak-planked walkways that threaded their way through the Somerset levels and Thames-side tidal marshes 6,000 years ago.
As a boy, I discovered these old ways among the Hampshire downs, following the Meon Valley Beagles or walking our hounds with my parents. One old neighbour told me to keep ‘a sharp eye’ on the white-chalk footpath above our cottage. It had served as a coach road connecting Admiralty House in London to the fleet in Portsmouth: a ninehour journey, with time for a quick meal during the change of horses at the red Lion at Petersfield in Hampshire.
The old postman told me of a secret hill route used by sailors walking home, which passed through Betty Munday’s Bottom. A ‘bottom’ is a dry valley, but Munday made good use of hers, first bedding, then fleecing her naval guests before selling them back to the press gang.
In the same period, French prisoners of war were trusted to live on parole in the nearby market town of Alresford. It lay at the epicentre of old drove roads (wide enough to provide grazing for the passing herds), which brought livestock to one of the great sheep markets of England.
Many of our best-loved paths owe their existence to more recent history, when trade dried up our 18th-century canals and 19thcentury railways. The towpath of the Itchen canal, built to transport wool to Southampton, was, in my childhood, a forgotten and moody place, in which kingfishers darted over somnolent pike. An abandoned railway line ran down the spine of the Meon valley.
One summer, I helped excavate a Saxon burial ground, which had originally been discovered when this track had been cut through the chalk hills by teams of Irish navvies. We unearthed a warrior of the Meonware tribe whose skull had been crushed by a giant flint. If you walked the line north, it disappeared into a tunnel dug through the Downs, which had been used as a bomb shelter for Gen Eisenhower during the run-up to D-day.
I tackled my first long-distance path, the South Downs Way, when I was 12. It was a family expedition, which involved my naval father in advance staff work: dropping trailers packed with kit so that we could walk light, camp in tents, feed our four basset hounds in the evening and have fodder for my younger brother’s pony.
‘The old postman told me of a secret hill route used by sailors walking home
As a young historian, I turned against the network of national pathways—the Pennines, the South Downs, the West Highland, the Southern upland and the ulster Way. These were creations of post-second World War urban planners, most of them unveiled in the 1960s, so not even as old as myself. I strove for something indigenous and resonant, such as the Four Highways of Medieval England kept open by the King’s Peace.
Fosse Street strode from Exeter to Lincoln and marked the 1st-century line of roman conquest. Ermine Street began at one of the seven gatehouses of the City of London and marched to York. under the name of Dere Street, it continued north to intersect Hadrian’s Wall and then the Antonine Wall. Watling Street supplied the roman forts of Wroxeter and Chester, but was previously a track used by Celtic pilgrims travelling from the white cliffs of Dover to the Isle of Angelesy, sacred to the Druids.
Similarly, the ridgeway marched west to Avebury ring and the Icknield Way linked the Dorset and Norfolk coast with Stonehenge.
However, by pounding hard tarmac and inhaling exhaust fumes, I discovered that the Four Highways have lost their charm➢
for walkers. They have never been abandoned by trade and so matured from toll roads to A roads and motorways. I also learned that even such an undeniably ancient route as the Ridgeway has never existed as a definitive path. It was composed of dozens of different trackways, some suitable for winter, some for summer, some for cattle, some for wheeled vehicles and some for lone, stout walkers.
When I was 27, I fell into the company of a group of friends who showed me the joy of a signposted footpath. Lindy Guinness, artist, dairy farmer and the party-going Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, started things off. She had allowed the coast-hugging Ulster Way to lay a branch through her Clandeboye estate so that walkers could reach Helen’s Tower, the inspiration for the Irish war memorial at Thiepval, in the Somme.
It was a brave gesture at the time, as the Troubles had shattered the trail into dozens of different pieces. (It had been conceived in 1946 by visionary forestry worker Wilfrid Capper, who charmed farmers into permitting a 665-mile path studded by 15 youth hostels to cross their land.) Led by such determinedly free spirits as Patrick TrevorRoper and Sean Rafferty, we walked and stripped off to swim in lakes and in the sea.
Lindy had been taught by Duncan Grant and her husband had championed David Hockney—between them, they connected Bloomsbury with the 1960s. I drew up a plan for a sacred wood based on the tree calendar suggested by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.
A year later, George Clive (the squire of a handsome brick manor house hidden in Herefordshire woods) organised the same group to walk Offa’s Dyke. George had practised the route before our arrival. We needed no maps, but were led by this wellread but taciturn man along the ancient frontier between the Britonic Welsh and the Saxons.
He arranged for his local taxi firm to take us all back to his house from the end of each day’s walking—which always ended at a pub —and then put us back on the footpath after breakfast the next day, with diversions to take in such vital churches as Kilpeck, which were not on any route. He had made his own swimming pool, where you swam towards a Romano-british head that chuckled out spring water.
The Ridgeway walk was organised by Mary North-clow, a Hellenophile film producer. It began at the worn doorstep of her family’s old Buckinghamshire farmhouse, from which a trail climbed through a carpet of bluebells shaded by beech trees to join this ancient path.
Our three-day walk took us to picnics at Wayland’s Smithy and the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, before culminating in Avebury Stone Circle, which was illuminated by the tragic burning of a medieval tithe barn on the evening that we arrived. It was an awesome night, but, soon afterwards, death winnowed away at this group of hospitable aristocratic walkers.
I admired their style, which was not about speed and self-sufficiency and distance covered, but about local pubs and beautiful picnics. A celebration of friendship in landscape.
I try to continue this tradition, but now salute the work of those earnest postwar planners patiently piecing together new pathways from a tattered tapestry of parish footpaths, old Roman roads, drove tracks, pilgrim ways and disused railways.
Every spring, I meet up with an old friend from university to make our own pilgrimage. So far, we’ve passed through the doors of Wells, Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals on our slow progress to Canterbury. In May, I walk in the Lake District with a pair of highly successful publishers.
Like my father, I plan these routes in advance, but I’ve also inherited his manner and like to affect ‘an amateur air of shabby gentility’ when on the ground. Last month, I explained to a group of well-equipped and fit hikers coming down from the Fells that, after we’d finished our lunch, we intended to head ‘up the waterfall and then cross the tops for 10 miles, heading west into the sunset’. I heard one of them mutter: ‘Like lambs to the slaughter.’
A timeless journey: a shepherd and his dog drive sheep along an old drove road
Walking side by side with history: Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Craggs in Northumberland