Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Ancient Tracks and Paths in Wessex

Despite one or two days of fine weather, December proved mainly mild and wet, making a long walk pretty impossible. So, to end 2013 and start 2014 I thought I would post a talk I gave last month on Ancient Trackways. There are quite a few slides and maps to illustrate the points of why these tracks are so important to local wildlife. It does naturally follow on from the previous posting of West Ilsley.

The Great Ridgeway will feature prominently, so here is a good place to start, with a whitethroat adding the wildlife element.


Why should we find ancient track-ways at all interesting? The answer is that there is so little countryside untouched by human activity. It is the ancient tracks that often have margins of undisturbed land and so rich ecosystems. I am concentrating on pre-Roman features so that means tracks over 2,000 years old. This particular strip of chalk meadow alongside an ancient track goes on for miles.

ridgeway,chalk meadow

And another picture of the chalk grassland which makes the area so interesting for botanists and butterfly enthusiasts.

chalk meadow,small tortoiseshell

It's often old tracks that define ancient boundaries. They offer wildlife corridors through the landscape. To understand where and why the ancient paths are located you need to look at the geology and topography.


This Google map shows high ground in lighter colour and the highest in blue. You can see how the valleys have cut deep into the chalk and left many linear ridges. There is a fairly uniform maximum height from an old erosion level. The rivers to identify are the Thames; Kennet; Lambourn; Pang; Test; Avon. In the lowland are clay and gravels. If you want to explore local topography of anywhere in UK you can use this topography map.


So what makes the chalk downs so important? Well, roots are unable to penetrate the chalk very far. There is a thin soil easy for farmers to clear. So the prehistoric activity is up on the chalk where you only had picks made from antlers to clear it.

chalk soil

The other feature of chalk is of course it is porous. There is a limited supply of water up on the chalk downs; this controls where people lived and farmed. The chalk gives up its water at Springs at the base of the chalk downs.

chalk spring

The springs feed the chalk streams as here on the Lambourn at East Garston. It is a village with a reliable water supply fed from the Springs. These old villages have interesting patches of old, undisturbed land around them.

chalk stream,East Garston

Another example of a village on the spring line is Aldbourne. It has a large old church which often gives the clue to ancient place of settlement near a reliable source of water.


Now we come to the most famous of ancient Trackways the Ridgeway - which I will call the Great Ridgeway to distinguish it from other ridgeways. All the books tell you this is the oldest British road, a prehistoric motorway. But why? Why would anyone use a route from Norfolk to Dorset? People were not travelling very far, up until Victorian times some villagers never stepped out of their village. People might go to market a few times a year. They are not going on annual trip to the seaside! It may be possible as a sporadic trade route for instance carrying flint from the mines in Norfolk or Beaker people bringing bronze. Some people say ‘military’ use, but at this time everyone belonged to a local tribe, there was no concept of a ‘nation’. So the best answer for its purpose is as a Drover's road hence these sheep - driving them to market or to other pastures.


So what else might you find on a drover's road - cattle. Unlike sheep, cattle need regular access to water. So you can't stay on a chalk Ridgeway all day, you need to come down to find water for them.


This is what parts of the Great Ridgeway looks like. Here you can see the chalk, dry in even wettest weather - so it makes a good path. It is a good choice for a walk even one day after heavy rain.

Great Ridgeway,ridgeway

This is another section of the Great Ridgeway near Wantage ideal for droving: a gentle slope; able to maintain eye contact with stock; easy to follow; very wide - not just a yard or two; with ditch and bank on either side. As there is no water there is no mud, but also no drinking water.

Great Ridgeway,ridgeway

Now here is an ancient trackway through farmland rather than the high downs. It has wide margins, with hints of banks and ditches. The history of such tracks is difficult to trace as there is no documentary evidence. It is based on looking out for banks and ditches; parish boundaries or looking for the ghost of the route on aerial photos. So where would we expect to find these trackways? Surely patterns of prehistoric activity must give an idea.


This map shows the location of ancient barrows from the Bronze and Iron Ages. You can see they are mainly on chalk with perhaps unsurprisingly concentrations around Avebury and Stonehenge. People were living on the Chalk downs where land was well drained and easy to clear. The data points come from the Modern Antiquarian web site

barrows,iron age,bronze age

One of the best known barrows is at Wayland Smithy. It is 5.5 thousand years old and just off the Great Ridgeway.

Wayland Smithy,bronze age barrow

And for a hill-fort there is Knapp hill which is also 5.5 thousand years old. This photo taken from appropriately ancient sounding Adam's Grave. Problem is the lack of water - so hill forts could only be a temporary refuge. A bit like building large medieval churches they advertise local tribal status rather than being particularly practical.

Knapp Hill,bronze age,hill fort

So what is the problem with the lowland where there is plenty of water? Surely trackways could be made just along rivers like the Thames Path? But actually the prehistoric scene was nothing like this.


This is the best I can do to give an impression of how it might have looked. Lots of marshes, standing water, woods and let us not forget wolves and wild boar. Impossible for prehistoric people to clear; drain and then build trackways. So that is why high ridgeways were so important.


Here is the Great Ridgeway at its clearest in the section from Goring to close to Avebury. It follows the highest ridge of chalk as it is easy to follow. The track is all on a gentle slope away from mud, woods and wolves. The purple line is the official O.S. route, but even this route is not quite right as it crosses some ancient ditches. The blue line is a chalk ridgeway diversion via Ogbourne St George which may be the winter route when the lowland short cut was too muddy. Much of this is clearly a Drover's Road.

Great Ridgeway,Ridgeway

Here is a view from this section of the Great Ridgeway down to Didcot power station.

Great Ridgeway,Ridgeway,Didcot

Normally good tracks like this would have become a road in the recent past. But on this section there are no villages that require a road so the ridgeway has been ‘fossilized’ as a track.

Great Ridgeway,Ridgeway

So what happens when the Ridgeway crosses the Thames at the Goring Gap? It turns out to be still a bit of a mystery.

Goring Gap,Goring,Streatley,Ridgeway

The official Ordnance Survey Ridgeway in purple comes down to Goring and then on the dark red route along the river Thames and back up at Wallingford. But it would not follow the Thames to Wallingford! There is a river crossing at Goring but also where the Fair Mile comes down to the river. Over the river the likely route in purple takes it back up via Woodcote onto a ridgeway, it is not the official ridgeway as the old route is now taken by modern roads. There are other alternative ancient tracks in the area, along the road from Compton and Aldworth for example.

Goring Gap,Great Ridgeway,Ridgeway

On the northern section of the Great Ridgeway are also some splendid views to the Wittenham Clumps (a settlement in both Bronze and Iron Ages) from chalk ridge near Checkendon.


Another view from near Woodcote. Note the Didcot power station which is/was so prominent in this area. It is now shut down and due for demolition in 2014.


There is not just the Great Ridgeway to consider there is also the Icknield Way too. Now I was told that it was the Anglo-Saxon successor to Prehistoric Ridgeway. There are several Icknields - it is a general name with a very sparse history.

Icknield Way

This is a map of the section from Goring to Ivinghoe Beacon. The official O.S. Ridgeway in red/purple but it is not at all convincing. There are only for a few sections which can be described as following ridgeways. So I feel rather cheated after assiduously walking the whole 'official' Ridgeway path. The Icknield Way is in green - it runs just a bit higher than the spring line so is dry but still above the lowland marshes. It works fine as a drover's road particularly in summer.

So I believe the Icknield Way is just an alternative route of the Ridgeway and more sensible for the northern half - the chalk downs are not continuous - they are broken by steep valleys. The probable course of the high Ridgeway is shown in lilac; straightforward to Watlington as it is now a tarmac-ed road and it goes between villages. Note how M40 follows a ridgeway, motorways share the same criteria as a drover's road - good line of sight and gentle slope.

Icknield Way, Great Ridgeway

The real message of this talk is to explore the old trackways. These are the ancient tracks as given in the classic book: Ancient Trackways of Wessex. They mainly follow the chalk ridges.

On this map I have traced many of the tracks mentioned in the book. There are quite a number: Great Ridgeway (dark purple); Icknield Way (green); Inkpen Ridgeway (brown); Harrow Way (or Hard way in light olive); Sugar Way (purple); Old Street/Reading Way (considered older than the Great Ridgeway by John Betjeman in dark green); Wansdyke / Tan Hill Way (in black). The light blue tracks are all ancient tracks usually following chalk ridges, note how they radiate from Salisbury.

Where the Great Ridgeway crosses the Vale of Pewsey is not clear. In any case just as in the northern section there is no continuous Ridgeway. It may well be just a modern fiction to try to aggrandize the Ridgeway as a long distance route rather than just a collection of routes. Also note how the M4 follows a Ridgeway just like the M40 for the same reason. In this case it also follows the general path of the Roman Road from Mildenhall to Speen. So this ridgeway is a very popular ancient route.

Icknield Way,Great Ridgeway,Harrow Way,Inkpen Ridgeway,Reading Way

Finally a few views from other ridgeways/ This is the Inkpen Ridgeway at the highest point in South east England - Walbury Hill. Just as impressive a ridgeway as the ‘Great’ one.

Inkpen Ridgeway,Walbury Hill

And from Martinsell on the Tan Hill Way a magnificent view from the ancient hillfort looking south.

Martinsell,Tan Hill Way

I hope this posting has inspired you to explore ancient trackways. They add an extra dimension to walking and may help uncover little treasure troves of wildlife.