Paths have been used for many hundreds of years
THE Cotswold Way opened this week in 1970. Much of its 102mile stretch bestrides Gloucestershire, although it is part of a route way from North East to South West England in use since stone age times.
Our county has more than 2,500 miles of public footpaths and 220 miles of bridleways.
When next you are out for a stroll exploring the network in Gloucestershire’s glorious countryside, spare a thought that you may be following a path that has been trodden for a thousand years or more.
Take Greenway Lane. This unmetalled track leads from the Shurdington Road about two miles out of Cheltenham, adjacent to the Greenway Hotel.
If you’ve walked this way, you will know it climbs up the hill to Ullenwood, past the Second World War American Army hospital to emerge at a junction with the Leckhampton to Birdlip road.
This is a drovers’ way dating from the eighth century AD when Saxon shepherds employed by Benedictine monks in Gloucester used to drive sheep along its length.
They were taking the animals from the monastery’s grazing grounds at Pinswell, near Upper Coberley in the Cotswolds, down to the farm in Badgeworth where they spent the winter.
When May came the following year, their route was reversed.
Parts of the lane are sunken with high field banks on either side.
This feature was caused by hundreds of thousands of hooves scouring the surface for more than a millennium.
As the lowest bridge point on the Severn, Gloucester was on the main drovers’ route from Wales to London.
For centuries Welsh beef cattle were driven through the city en route for the capital.
Little London in the Forest of Dean
was a stopping-off point along the route, the place taking its name from the destination of the animals passing through.
From 1825 when Mythe Bridge was built over the Severn, Tewkesbury found itself on a drovers’ trail of cattle herded from the agricultural counties in the south of England to the denselypopulated markets of the Midlands.
When toll roads were built in the late 18th and 19th centuries, drovers had to pay to use the routes.
On the former toll house in Rodborough, Stroud, the rate of charges can still be read on a board outside: “Stage coaches, post chaises or sociable Berlins - 3d, droves of oxen or cows 3d per score and calves or hogs a halfpenny less”.
The monks of Tewkesbury Abbey must have been just a tiny bit jealous they did not have any high-profile relics that would have given them a cut of the lucrative pilgrim trade. Their monastic near neighbours all did.
St Peter’s in Gloucester (now the Cathedral) had the tomb of King Edward II, which from about 1330 attracted pilgrims in such vast numbers the monks were able to build a new transept, choir and presbytery on the proceeds, as well as generally upgrading the building.
They also built the New Inn in Northgate Street to accommodate the influx.
Gloucester had the body of St Oswald in the priory of the same name, which was also a big draw.
To say Gloucester had the body isn’t entirely accurate.
Following his martyrdom, bits of the dismembered saint were sent to various holy centres.
Gloucester did get the lion’s share, though not St O’s head. That’s in Durham.
Winchcombe monastery had the relics of St Kenelm, a Saxon price murdered as a child and consequently a popular choice for pilgrims who had themselves lost children.
Not far away, the monastery at Hailes had a premier league relic – a phial of Christ’s blood – which resulted in long queues at the door of the abbey.
Wherever there were pilgrims in days gone by there are pilgrims’ ways today.
A path called Pilgrims Way that runs between Winchcombe and Hailes may be familiar to local people, but there are many more.
Hailes Abbey near Winchcombe
Chipping Campden, starting point of the Cotswold Way
The tomb of Edward II at Gloucester Cathedral. Right, St Oswald’s Priory
Toll House, Rodborough