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Walking Back Through Time

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

A view along a peaceful green lane, lined with old trees.
Peering into the holloway

This week, we visited a beautiful and intriguing place. I stumbled upon it a couple of years ago and fell in love, then came back to it earlier this year. It’s a place which is full of new life, yet old, once busy, now quiet, and hidden away in plain sight. Let me take you on a journey ...

Droveways and Driftways

The land may be crisscrossed with “modern” roads but often, especially on the main routes between towns and villages, those roads follow the same lines as the tracks which came before them. Even the Romans, famed for their road-building capabilities, weren’t averse to upgrading the pre-existing routes of the land they had taken over. They literally marched in the footsteps of those who walked before them.

Bright yellow dendelion flowers in full bloom against the background of their green leaves

Along with military uses, tracks were used by pilgrims to travel to holy places and, of course, for more mundane purposes. Salesmen needed to carry their wares, drovers needed to move their livestock. It’s tempting to think villages and villagers were cut off and isolated in times past but, whilst many people may have been more static than we’re used to being today, there were still plenty who frequently travelled long distances.

A drover was someone who drove livestock from one area of the country to another, usually using established main routes. In the days before vehicles, the animals were moved on foot and covered surprising distances. Cattle and sheep were commonly driven from the lush green fields of Wales to the busy markets in London. Even flocks of geese were driven from the eastern counties down to the city.

An earthy bank at the side of a holloway lane. Trees are growing at the top and their roots are entwined along the sides.
Trees forming part of the bank towards to top of the holloway

To call the routes they used droveways gives a slightly misleading impression. There is another name which is often used on old maps which feels a more comfortable fit: Driftway. Despite the long distances involved, any farmer wanted his livestock to reach market in a good, strong condition to fetch the best price. The animals were herded, drifted, along the routes at an easy pace and with plenty of food and rest along the way. Cows were shod, often several times on a journey, to help protect their feet and they often covered around twenty miles a day.

Fresh green hazel leaves with a reddish-brown marking in the centre of each leaf.
Hazel leaves with an unusual copper-looking centre

Many of these routes are, at first glance, unrecognisable today though clues exist if you know what to look for and we’ll cover more of that another day. Whether they are ancient driftways used by the drovers, or the smaller prehistoric pathways slipping in between, they are still there for those who look. Anyone with a natural affinity with maps and old tracks will find traces of them. Forgotten parts where the modern road layout has left a snipping of trackway bypassed and untarmacked. They are often marked as bridleways and byways and the notable paths may still be named on maps. These are the green roads hidden in plain sight and walked for millennia.

For those with such a calling, Wessex is irresistible. The area still has many rural pockets between villages, and open downland covered with a latticework of rights of way. Some of the paths will give clues to their past in the type of plants which cover the verges and the number of varieties. These ancient indicators may be slow growing and slow spreading, often with the seeds falling close to the parent plant rather than being windblown. The list of plants varies between areas and is only a clue, but generally speaking, the more varieties of ancient indicator plants found, the more likely the place is to be ancient and undisturbed.

Fresh green redcurrant leaves, lit up like stained glass by the spring sunshine.
Redcurrant leaves


The downland of Wessex is a special one for trackways. The soft ground, underfoot and under hoof, has been gradually shaped over time. Where a path goes uphill, where all those feet have trodden into earth, and sought traction in wet mud, the surface has been slowly eroded. New rains have washed the loose layer away and the pattern has been repeated over and over. Footstep by footstep, year by year, the track has lowered itself below the level of the surrounding fields. Sometimes, the path may only show a sign of this on a corner, or hint at it in a small way, but sometimes a whole stretch may become hidden from the rest of the world. These are the holloways.

Chalky trackway with greenery along the sides and trees arching overhead
Ancient holloway lane

A holloway, like any other path, may be marked on a map as a linear route but that is simply the beginning. There is something magickal and unique about these places, places where the line between perception and reality gets increasingly blurred. If ever we could walk through time, it is here, surrounded by birdsong and the gentle leaf-whisper of trees. The outside world disappears and it's as if you can reach through time, or you've inadvertently crossed into another dimension. A movement glimpsed from the corner of your eye could be truly there, or possibly belong to another realm. You think you’re visiting just for a while, though perhaps if you stay, you may become a part of forever. Time stands still and you can do nothing but take in the moment.

The trees and plants of a world within

In this Wessex holloway, standing on the dry earth track, we see the trees entwining along the outer edges at the top of the banks on either side. Holly, hazel and field maple, ash, oak and yew. It’s impossible to tell whether the roots have grown down to within, or if the trees are slowly climbing, reaching up and out to the world above. They stand as watchmen up there, a boundary line touching both without and within, present and past. Protecting against the encroachment of the outside world with their roots holding back both the physical sides and the advancement of time.

An oak tree and a yew tree with their trunks and roots growing closely together, as if they are a single tree.
Oak and yew trees joined as one

One of the trees looks intriguing, with a lighter and darker side to its trunk. Peering more closely at it, it becomes clear that it’s not one, but actually two trees closely together – an oak and a yew. The roots twist around each other and the trunks are pressed tightly together like lovers embracing. The branches entwine. Everything about these trees is joined and with the energies of one. A beautiful and unusual sight.

There are patches of fresh, green hedge garlic with its clusters of white flowers, and bushy redcurrants, their leaves lit up like stained glass by the Spring sun. The branches of the trees above grow across the gap to greet each other, arms outstretched, touching together to create this green tunnel into time. Lower down, fluffy striped bumble bees buzz industriously amongst the bright dandelions and the yellow stars of celandine. The distinctive upright flowers of Lords and Ladies stand proudly at the edges looking on, and speedwell creeps through to fill in the gaps, its delicate blue flowers just beginning to emerge.

The upright greenish flower of a Lords and Ladies plant against a background of ivy.
Lords and Ladies

The surface of this holloway contains broken up chalk bedrock mixed with flint of all sizes from trip-you-up nodules down to flakes, blended with fine, dusty soil. Often, the flint has that look of manmade shapes to it, enticing you to reach down and pick it up to look, before dismissing it and lobbing it back into the verges. It’s a regular ritual whilst walking here – take a few steps, pause to pick up flint, study it, throw it back, walk a few more steps, pause to study a plant, take a few more steps … Stop, go, stop. As regular as breathing or a heartbeat.

Ancient finds

Two pieces of flint are noteworthy from this trip, both connected to that timeless element of fire: One which has the look of a worked fabricator to it, and the other, a potboiler. A fabricator is a piece of flint which has a distinct edge created to be struck against marcasite or pyrite to create a spark. It’s undoubtedly prehistoric – possibly Neolithic (meaning New Stone Age, from around 2000 BC back to 4000 BC) through to Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age, from 4000 BC back to just after the last Ice Age, 9600 BC).

A greyish flint nodule, rounded with an uneven surface. It's against a background of similarly-coloured nodules in the surface of the track. The picture shows how the flint blends into the background.
Flint potboiler

In prehistory, a tinder pouch or something akin would have been an everyday item. It would no doubt contain a fabricator and the marcasite or pyrite mentioned above, along with tinder fungus and most likely, the grasses used to create a tinder bundle.

A piece of ready-prepared or worked tinder fungus, such as Horse’s Hoof fungus or a ganoderma, would have been used to catch the spark. The sparks from pyrite or marcasite are cooler, and redder-looking, than the white-hot sparks from modern day high carbon steel. This makes it more challenging to create an ember from them. The surface of the fungus is roughed up to a soft suede texture with a blade (whether metal or flint), ready to catch and take the spark.

Loosely-coiled bundle of Molinia grass used as a tinder bundle for firelighting
Molinia grass bundle

With the ember glowing, a ready-prepared tinder bundle would be reached for. This would likely be a loosely-coiled nest of grass such as Molinia grass (also known as moor grass). This is still commonly found throughout this area today and even the well-known Neolithic Iceman Otzi carried it in a birch bark container found next to his body in the Alps. The ember is placed into the nest and gently cradled, never suffocated, by the grasses. Everything can be gentle - no frenetic hurry, just slow and controlled. Fire is something to be coaxed and carefully brought to life. Long slow breaths blown onto the ember raise the heat and breathe glowing life into it. Gradually, the grasses will begin to smoke, barely at first, but then more and more. There will be a point, almost imperceptible, when the smoke will change colour slightly and then, bam, flames! The fire is born. The burning bundle is ready to be placed onto a prepared fireplace.

The view looking down the track, with ivy-covered banks and trees growing on the banks. The sun is creating lighter patches.
Looking down the track

With the fire burning, we can move on to talk about the potboiler. This is a stone used to heat liquid. The type of stone varies depending on the local geology but here, flint litters the landscape everywhere so that was commonly used. Potboilers were heated in a fire, dunked very briefly into water to wash the ash off, and then transferred to a vessel of liquid, such as water or a stew. The vessel may be made of wood, or low quality pottery which wasn’t able to withstand the direct heat of being placed onto fire. Once they had lost heat, the pieces could then be placed back into the fire to heat up again. A flexible hazel withy makes excellent tongs for picking up hot potboilers. This repeated cycle of intense heating and rapid cooling creates a distinctive and easily recognisable crazed effect on the surface.

The view looking along an ancient droveway which has formed into a holloway with trees and the ivy-covered banks creating a green tunnel.
Ancient droveway

Someone stopped here to make fire and cook food – who knows, possibly a hunting camp? It feels like a hand reaching through that veil from so long ago and it becomes easy to visualise prehistoric people hunting and watching mammoth or other species, known in this area. Before the Vikings were here, before the written word, before even the Romans invaded, someone stopped to eat. There is something so simple, so uncomplicated, about that. It’s a need unchanged through all that time. When you pick up a piece of worked flint, it’s a direct link to the person from prehistory who made it. With a little knowledge you can understand what these stone tools were for and how we’re not so different now.

Back in the modern day

Continuing on down the holloway, with our stop-go-stop pattern to study plants, bees, trees and flint, we reach the bottom and a natural valley. The sides of the track suddenly open back out to the world again. A tiny hamlet sits in the valley made up of picturesque thatched cottages full of sought-after, expensive quaintness. The modern road has two odd dog-legs in it and one of the corners brings the road back to being perfectly aligned as a continuation of the holloway. The lane is hedge-lined rather than earth-sided and it heads up the opposite side of the valley and out into the world beyond. Blinking in the bright light of the Spring sunshine I stand at the corner, the valley’s low point, and turn to my right. There, in the perfectly tended garden of the nearest cottage, is a pond. Large and perfectly placed for a drover’s pond for watering livestock - as if proof of the lane’s drover days were needed. Drovers’ ponds were often placed at the crossroads of driftways … which makes me look again at those two odd dog legs in the road. Could it be a clue to the route of another ancient track? Let me reach for that map to study it a bit more …

View across green fields to a small pretty hamlet. Trees and hedges are shown in the distance.
View of the hamlet, with the treeline of the holloway heading down towards it on the right hand side. The treeline looks like any other, making the holloway invisible to the outside world ...

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