Stories from the Barn

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Drove Roads Part of British Heritage

Drove road

Heritage in the landscape.

Drove roads are ancient highways that carve through the British landscape. The heritage of Britain rests as much with the landscape as it does with the built environment and for me, learning about the shape of the land that I am walking through and learning about a past way of life is and imagining the way the countryside has been used in the past is as uplifting as the walk itself.

Walking a drove road.

Aside from being outside in amongst nature one of the best bits about a walk is the opportunity it gives to look for clues of lost or forgotten aspects of our landscape heritage. The ordnance survey map gives invaluable information of what to look out for but even so it can be tricky to spot a landmark on the ground.

Todays walk was along a drove road. From where we live in Hampshire we can walk out to a series of connecting drove roads. We take their presence for granted, not realizing what they once were. That these important parts of the infrastructure and heritage of the British landscape still exist is a fascinating one. However there are clues about the drove roads and their drovers if we just know where to look.

Drove road

With only a partial hedge left on one side, this drove road can still be walked for miles over open country.

Clues to look for on a drove road.

The ordnance survey map 1:25K is a good place to begin where you might see ‘Green Lanes’ marked sometimes running parallel to a main road. Names of adjacent land can also reveal their former purpose, long thin fields running alongside a trackway with names such as ‘stock field’. These fields or sometimes broad verges would have been used to allow the livestock to graze. Check for clues in the names of small lanes themselves such as ‘Broad Lane’ or ‘Cow Lane’. The lane we were walking was called ‘Westfield Drove’ so a bit of a giveaway. The Oxdrove Way in Hampshire is a marked walk on the OS Explorer OL32.

Look for lanes with hedgerows or remnants of hedgerows each side and landmark trees. These landmark trees had special significance, marking out the route and pointing to resting places for both animals and men. In some places pine trees were planted (especially by the Welsh drovers who carried the cones to plant), chosen because they were fast growing and stood out against a skyline. Groups of three or five pine trees planted would denote a good resting point, either an inn or a shelter.

Drove roads

Looking for clues to drove roads. Cow Lane

What is a drove road?

From Saxon times and the emergence of the development of the market, there was a need to move livestock from their pastures to that market in order to trade. These pastures could be anywhere in Britain but the markets were fixed and so the livestock had to be driven to them. In some instances this meant driving animals hundreds of miles to some of the biggest markets in Europe. Thousands of animals converging on one spot. As well as sheep and cattle, oxen, pigs, horses and geese were driven.

The herds were controlled by drovers and they used ancient trackways that had been in existence for thousands of years. These drove roads or drift ways as they are sometimes called were tracks established as good, solid and bog free routes. It was important to protect the feet of the animals and so as roads became stoned and then asphalted, which could have damaged the animals hooves, then drove roads would sometimes run parallel on grassed surfaces.

Moving hundreds sometimes thousands of animals meant these tracks were often very wide, up to 15m wide and hedged each side to prevent animals wandering off into neighbouring fields and mingling with local livestock.

Drove road

With only a partial hedge left on one side, this drove road can still be walked for miles over open country.

Hedges were planted with mixed spikey trees and shrubs along with evergreen trees to mark out the way in the Winter and to show where overnight pasture or watering places for the animals were so it is common to see holly, laurel and yew in the mix.

Cold Comfort – a modern term that harks back to droving days, a basic shelter for the poor fellow who had not reached an inn by nightfall.

Markets, markets everywhere.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine the distances travelled on foot in times past. Animals were brought from the West of England and Wales to fairs in the south, hundreds of miles distant. Along the way the animals needed pasture and water and so did the drovers so ‘hutts’, a resting place for drovers appeared along the route.

So many towns had a market but many of these cattle, sheep, pigs and geese were destined for the large livestock fairs and once sold they would then be taken to the slaughter markets such as Smithfield.

Local fairs and markets were in evidence in most C18th and C19th towns and it was a matter of great economic importance. Reports of livestock fairs are abundant in newspapers from the C18th and C19th. All manner of information was communicated with the drovers and reports of how the market went were then subsequently remarked upon.

On Sep 11th 1820 – “To graziers, cattle dealers etc, a fair or Shew of Cattle will be held on Saturday 7th October next on Petersfield Heath. The principal dealers from Devonshire and the different counties of Wales will attend with cattle”

Drove roads

This old drove road is narrower than it once would have been with no livestock to nibble the hedges back

The drovers

The drovers were men who assumed great responsibility. They were trustworthy individuals not just tasked with driving a fortune in stock but they carried out other duties such as relaying news around the country. They were responsible for carrying large sums of money, as well as orchestrating the drive. In the team there would be three or four sidesmen and dogs, to stop animals straying and to keep them moving. A rider would go ahead to ensure the drove road was clear and gates were shut.

Each drover was licensed and wore a license plate armband.

This was a complex business, in some instances, when the stock had to leave the grass droves and finish their journey on gravel roads, they would be cleated at a blacksmiths. A cleat was a small iron shoes that fastened over their hooves. Oxen may have had their feet tarred to protect them from the gravel surface.

All these affairs had to be managed by the drovers, no wonder they were held in such high esteem.

One of the stopping places for the drovers was Stockbridge and the old inn, now a house that has a Welsh message written on its walls.

GWAIR-TYM-HERUS-PORFA-FLASUS-CWRW-DA-A-GWAL-CYCURUS (Season’s Hay, Rich Grass, Good Ale and Sound Sleep.)

The Welsh drovers stopped here, before continuing their journey southwards to Portsmouth to supply the Royal Navy.

Drove Roads

An old drovers inn at Stockbridge Hampshire