A Brief Introduction to Ancient Paths and Highways

From main roads connecting towns and cities to meandering green lanes and mysterious paths to nowhere, our highways and byways are steeped in history.

Freight lorries bound for the Continent still use prehistoric tracks, long-distance coaches hurtle along Roman roads and farmers depend on medieval lanes to reach their fields.

A number of these routes have been protected through scheduling: is there an ancient road near you?

Early Footsteps: Tracks on the Somerset Levels

A reconstruction of the prehistoric Sweet Track, Somerset (now a public footpath). Heavy planks were used as transverse bearers and for walking on © after Coles B & Coles J, Sweet Track to Glastonbury (1986)
The prehistoric Sweet Track, Somerset (now a public footpath). Heavy planks carried goods and pedestrians © illustration after Coles & Coles, ‘Sweet Track to Glastonbury’ (1986)

Human footprints have been found preserved on English shores before the end of the last Ice Age (roughly 11,500 years ago). Then, over time, well-trodden paths developed.

Prehistoric ridgeways following chalk and limestone hills, such as the South Downs Way, were part of a wider network of early routes. These included causeways made of twigs, split logs and planks across low-lying, water-logged places. Historic England protects many of these, including sections of the scheduled Sweet Track on the Somerset Levels, which is over 5,800 years old. A reconstruction can be found in the British Museum.

Roads to Conquer: Blackstone Edge Roman Road

The scheduled Roman road that runs across the Pennine’s Blackstone Edge Moor, Yorkshire © Mark Moxon
The scheduled Roman road that runs across the Pennine’s Blackstone Edge Moor, Yorkshire © Mark Moxon

The Romans famously made our first ‘proper’ roads. These hard-surfaced highways (laid on embankments called ‘aggers’) were built by their army for invasion purposes. From AD 43 – when the army of Emperor Claudius began their conquest – troops could move rapidly and transport supplies using wheeled freight wagons, a novelty in Britain.

Cursus publicus (imperial mail service) messengers used roads to travel up to 150 miles a day, changing horses at wayside mutationes (posting stations). Roman engineers connected key points by the most direct route, skilfully keeping to a straight course despite natural obstacles. The roads’ straightness today helps us identify them as Roman, even when obscured by modern tarmac.

Some of the finest Roman roads can be seen on open moors, such as the Blackstone Edge paved road that still crosses the Pennines, and the road crossing Tideswell Moor to Whiston in Yorkshire (shown in our banner image).

Ancient Hollow-ways: Twyford Down, Hampshire

Multiple hollowed trackways traverse the hill slope at Twyford Down, Hampshire. Crawford Collection © Crown copyright NMR
Multiple hollowed trackways traverse the hill slope at Twyford Down, Hampshire. Crawford Collection © Crown copyright NMR

Roads often gained special status as legal and customary rights of way. As a result, many routes that have declined in importance still survive as public footpaths. The aerial photograph above, taken in 1929, shows the multiple ‘hollow-ways’ (or sunken lanes) criss-crossing the ancient landscape of Twyford Down in Hampshire. These lanes – which can still be walked today – confirm the area’s importance as a communications conduit for Winchester, from the Romano-British period onwards.

Medieval Tracks and Drift-Ways: Kirby Bank Trod, Yorkshire

Kirby Bank Trod, North Yorkshire: Scheduled, dating from late 12th–13th century, with later reuse and repair. Part of an extensive network of long-distance tracks (known as trods) across the North York Moors © Historic England
Kirby Bank Trod, North Yorkshire: Scheduled, dating from late 12th–13th century, with later reuse and repair. Part of an extensive network of long-distance tracks (or ‘trods’) across the North York Moors © Historic England

After the Romans left Britain (by the 5th century AD), little attention was paid to making or repairing roads. The bumpy dirt tracks that remained were frequented by robbers.

Despite this, roads with specialist functions emerged. Narrow pack-horse tracks, like North Yorkshire’s flagstone ‘trods’ at Kirby Bank in the image above, wended their way through hills. Royal processions toured the country enjoying various subjects’ hospitality, pilgrims travelled great distances to visit shrines, ‘church paths’, and ‘corpse roads’ connected parish churches with outlying settlements and trade routes attracted names like ‘portway’, ‘maltway’ and ‘saltway’.

Travellers shared roads with herds of cattle being driven to market from distant pastures. The wide verges of these drove- or drift-ways reveals their past, along with inns and ‘stances’ or ‘halts’ (resting places) on their route.

High-Speed Coaches: the London to Brighton route

A 19th century image of the Pyecombe coach road in West Sussex, which originated as a Roman road between London and Brighton © Historic England Archives
19th century photographs of the Pyecombe coach road in West Sussex, which originated as a Roman road running from London to Brighton © Historic England Archives

By the 18th century, there was more traffic than ever before. The work of road engineers heralded the beginning of a new age, when some of our ancient routes were transformed into modern highways.

From 1706, when the first stage coach route was established between York and London, the popularity of coaches improved the condition of England’s ancient roads. The 18th century coaching road in West Sussex was developed from a Roman road that stretched between London and Brighton. The section surviving near Pyecombe runs for over 500 metres and was scheduled in 1968 to protect both its Roman remains and Georgian additions.

 

Further Reading

12 responses to A Brief Introduction to Ancient Paths and Highways

  1. Lauren says:

    very interesting! Its also the 50th anniversary of the British Road sign as we know it this year! One of the most effective design projects ever

    Liked by 1 person

  2. trisha0098 says:

    Can you tell me where the main photo was taken? It looks familiar to me. Thanks.

    Like

  3. Stephen Trahair says:

    The main road north from Plymouth to Yelverton (A386) runs along the course of the Bronze Age ridge road from Bilbury in Sutton Harbour up to the ancient villages on Dartmoor where they drove their animals in the summer. Has this been scheduled?

    Like

  4. Charani says:

    Absolutely fascinating, must investigate further as I’m an OPC for four Somerset parishes, one of which is Shapwick

    Like

  5. Mary Tapping says:

    Can anyone tell me if Middle Lane in Hilperton, Wiltshire, has any legal statusxasxan Ancient Road!

    Like

      • Mary Tapping says:

        Many thanks. I will follow this up.
        I am looking for as much info as possible since Wiltshire Council tends to ride roughshod over the county’s heritage. They have already built the infamous Hilperton Relief Road, cutting directly across Middle Lane which is a designated bridle path and, we believe, is also an Ancient Road which was used traditionally as a drove when bringing animals to market in nearby Trowbridge.
        As a matter of interest, should horse-driven vehicles have a right of way along this lane? I am unsure of the legal position.

        Like

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