02 June 2013
Among the oldest thoroughfares in Britain, drove roads were, for all practical purposes, the primary route network of their time. At their height between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, the roads linked the wild corners of Britain – particularly Scotland, Wales and the Westcountry – with the growing demands of towns and cities where livestock could be brought to market.
Extraordinary numbers of cattle and livestock were involved; in 1794, 10,000 cattle were exported from Anglesey alone, while 30,000 passed through Hereford each year. The routes from the north were just as busy; Scotland’s own extensive network of drove roads fed huge herds to fairs like the Falkirk Tryst, from where the cattle would begin an even longer journey south at the hands of their new owners. In 1663, 18,574 cattle were recorded on their way through Carlisle, while in Yorkshire during the early 19th century, up to 100,000 were herded each year towards Southern England on Hambleton Street, one of Britain’s most ancient trackways .
Cattle drovers steered clear of the settled population; for most of their length, routes ran over isolated ridgeways and kept away from villages, a strategy which had the added benefit of avoiding hefty turnpike fees and delays.
Many of the old tracks are known by their original names – Old Shaston and Ox Droves in Wiltshire, for example – while others take a little investigative work to discover. There are over a hundred hamlets and village streets called Little London in Britain – where Welsh drovers set up temporary communities on common land a short distance from an established village – and a nearby road or track called Welsh or Welshman’s Road, Cow, Bullock or Ox Lane, is likely to be the drover’s route itself.
Drove roads are broad for country lanes – anything between 40 and 50 feet across (12-15 m) is common, while a few are up to 90 feet (27 m) wide – with generous verges for grazing and dog-leg turns that provide shelter from the worse of the weather. The line of road is often marked by regularly spaced evergreens towering incongruously above the hedge-line, usually scots pine, laurel or holly, but sometimes yew, particularly in Hampshire. A clump of three or five evergreens together would mark a crossroads, a water-hole or an inn and where drovers stopped for the night, the cattle would graze – two-for-a-penny – in Halfpenny greens by the inns.
The railways brought centuries of droving to a rapid end and now, though the roads still run over the ridgeways of Britain, they are peaceful byways where the sweat and thunder of passing cattle is now supplanted by the whispering rustle of ramblers’ cagoules.