Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

The Holloway Lanes

Walking a holloway abandoned to motorcycles can be a tricky thing.

What are the holloways?

Scattered across the countryside of Britain are old track ways, the holloway lanes, ancient routes across the countryside. Some of these ancient paths were stabilized with asphalt but many were left as un-metaled tracks.  In certain parts of southern England, these track-ways have deepened, hollowed out by centuries of traffic to become sunken lanes. When you discover yourself in one, it is a hauntingly beautiful place to journey through.

The Holloways

Holloway East Meon South Downs

How were the holloways formed?

Southern uplands in Britain are made up of soft rocks such as chalk, limestone or sandstone. Several of these ridges stand to heights  in excess of two hundred meters. The upland ridges, the North and South Downs, the Greensand Surrey Hills, the Oolitic limestones of Somerset and the Jurrasics of Dorset. All lend themselves to the formation of holloways. On the Downlands and the Greensand ridges the steep north facing scarp slopes are difficult to navigate. For eons of time our ancestors, limited to foot and horse, found the best paths up onto the ridges and out onto the dip slopes. People made their way through the landscape following the path that least resisted their passage, skirting around say an outcrop of malmstone or a layer of uncompromising flint.

These tracks were used by generations of people to move themselves and goods around the countryside and each left their mark for the thin soil of the hillside is forever on its journey downwards. The constant passage of feet and hooves and iron clad cart wheels eroded the surface soil and created the first gully. The soft underlying rocks were then subject to erosion and the process of deepening the trackway progressed. The depth of some of these holloway lanes suggest they have been in use for a very long time and they are a fascinating insight into a little considered part of social history.


A well worn path, the beginning of a sunken path.

Holloways fall into disuse.

Worn down by the passage of feet, water and time, these trackways make their mark on the landscape. As time went on some became surfaced lanes and the erosion stopped. The process of deepening, halted, suspended at some earlier point in time. However as road technology advanced, many of these old trackways were abandoned. The shorter route in terms of distance became the longer route in terms of time and as horse drawn carriages and then motor vehicles sped along the newly created highways, the holloways were left for nature to reabsorb.

However even without the passage of men and animals, the affect of water rushing down the holloways kept the tracks clear and the surface fresh and the wound continues to deepen. In some instances the once broad floor of the holloway, once kept clear and open by cattle feet and cartwheels, has became V shaped and difficult to navigate, made worse by bicycle and motor cycle use.  Just one more twist in the changing architecture changing the architecture of the holloway.

Walking the paths. The social history.

These were the paths of the common people. They were used to connect communities in the lower valleys with the higher drier pastures and woods. It also gave them the ability to connect with communities on the other side of the hill. The tracks were used for moving livestock from one place to another, taking the short route over the hill creating drovers roads of cattle or moving pigs into the autumn woods on the higher slopes to feast on acorns. This activity is known as pannage and in the High Weald of Sussex, you can walk miles of sunken lanes linking settlements to the High Weald pig foraging grounds known as dens.

There is something of the mysterious and knowing when you walk the ancient pathways of our ancestors. Mapped routes such as the Ridgeway follow the tops of the ridges. The views sweep around you and there is comfort in being able to see who approaches you. Keeping to the ridges was fine when on the long trail but local movements up and down the hills were necessary and it is these paths, these holloways  that you find yourself drawn into a world from another age. A place where, over time the flora has evolved to exploit the new ecological niches created by the sunken track.

Walking a holloway abandoned to motorcycles can be a tricky thing.

Where to find the holloways.

There are holloways in Hampshire, Dorset, Surrey, Sussex and Somerset and most certainly in other counties also. Once you start looking you will notice that many of the lanes you follow are set deep in the landscape and once recognized it is fascinating to place them in their historical context as well as enjoying the diverse ecosystems they offer.

The Holloways

An old photo of a holloway which is becoming less used and more grown over.

Some you will drive through, turning off the ridgeway and diving deeply down the lanes. Their steep banks squeeze you into a tunnel of trees. The holloway of Standfast Lane in Empshott Hampshire, deeply cuts the greensand and has been used for hundreds of years. The banks are topped with coppiced hazel at a perfect height for the coppicing billhook to lay the crop down.

Others you walk into and here the magic begins. Walking a holloway can be a disconcerting experience especially in the winter when little waterfalls cascade down the banks.  The light has to fight its way in as trees close over the cleft. In the summer the track is thrown into deep shade. Look out for ferns rooted in the moist, shady and cool sides of the holloway.  Sometimes the rock on either side of the track is exposed leaving the tree roots to curl and grip back into the fissures. They cling onto the banks like veined knarled hands. Patches of shade loving flowers mark the paths in Spring. Sound becomes funneled in the holloway but the shape of the track blankets the walker from sound from outside. It can be eerie but always very beautiful. Look at the maps for lanes and footpaths cutting through the contours, holloway lanes.

Ferns cling to the side of the holloway