A major network of trackways, in use since Neolithic times runs from the Norfolk Coast near Kings Lynn, all the way across country to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast, a total of some 363 miles.
Much of this trackway, known today as the Greater Ridgeway is still in evidence, and is incorporated into a series of modern long distance trails known by several names for its different sections:
- The Peddars Way – runs from Holme-next-the-Sea down to Knettishall Heath near Thetford in Norfolk.
- The Icknield Way – runs from Knettishall Heath, SE of Thetford across country to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.
- The Ridgeway – runs from Ivinghoe Beacon to West Overton, west of Marlborough in Wiltshire.
- The Wessex Ridgeway – runs from West Overton, via Stonehenge, to Lyme Regis in Dorset.
It’s no coincidence that this set of trackways follows a geological band of chalk which runs diagonally across Southern England. Some of these trails overlap, as explained by the Friends of the Ridgeway website:
The Ridgeway, like other pre-historic routes, was never a single, designated road, but rather a complex of braided tracks, with subsidiary ways diverging and coming together. Successive ages made use of the route for their own purposes, and left the marks of their passage. Pre-historic barrows and burial mounds line the route and excavations have found implements and ornaments from many sources.
As the land lower down the slopes was cleared, a lower route became feasible in summer, closer to the spring line where water was accessible to travellers and their mounts. While The Ridgeway followed the top of the downs the Lower, or Icknield Way, runs parallel to it just above the foot of the slope, as far south as Wanborough near Swindon. To the north of the Chilterns, where the chalk is flatter, the routes come together. The Icknield Way was used and upgraded by the Romans for much of its length for both trade and military purposes.
In a series of forthcoming articles, we’ll be looking at each of these modern sections, noting some of the archaeological sites that sit on or near the trackways as we go.
(And no, I haven’t walked the whole route. Yet…)