England is famous worldwide for its beautiful green, rolling, wooded countryside. Historic houses, monuments and pretty villages, with a pub on the green beside a pond full of ducks, are picturesque themes for countless paintings and poems. The English countryside holds a special place in the nation’s life and culture.
Yet there is one ancient element of this archetypal landscape that goes largely unnoticed. Between towns and villages all over the country, there are miles of mysterious sunken roads; paths trodden into the earth that have been created by the tramping of human and animal feet over thousands of years. These routes have been largely forgotten. The UK government is now trying to fill this gap in the country’s collective memory.
Steps in Time
England has hundreds of sunken roads, also known as holloways. ‘Holloway’ literally means a ‘hollow way’, literally means a ‘hollow way’, a path or lane hollowed out in the soft earth. They are created through a combination of soft rock, rain and pressure from human and animal feet. Many sunken roads are old drovers routes or trade paths, connecting pastures in the hills with marketplaces in towns and villages. The roads link settlements dating back to Saxon and Roman periods and perhaps even to the Iron Age. Sunken roads can be up to six metres below the surrounding countryside!
Famous Sunken Roads
The most famous sunken roads can be found in South West England, especially in the county of Dorset. Shute’s Lane and Hell Lane are notable examples. Hell Lane was an infamous smugglers pathway. Other examples are Newton Hollows in Cheshire (an old Roman road), and the South Downs in Hampshire (especially the road linking the villages of Selbourne and Alton).
The unique topography of the sunken lanes creates unusual ecosystems allowing the growth of rare ferns and mosses, as well as providing homes for animals, insects and fungi. Tall trees meeting overhead in the sky create a canopy, often inspiring a magical Tolkienesque ‘Middle-earth’ feel.
Mapping the Roads
Natural England, a governmental organisation responsible for protecting the natural environment, is currently engaged in a 3D mapping project to try to unearth the deep history of this ancient network of tracks. Natural England is concentrating on Dorset, but then hopes to expand to cover the rest of the country. In the meantime, the best way to maintain this window into the past is by continuing to make use of these age-old roads. Every time a path is removed or covered over by landowners or local councils, hundreds of years of history is lost. If they are to survive, England’s sunken roads must continue to echo, as they have done for millennia, the routes of humans and animals.