In the first part of our look at the Greater Ridgeway, we examine the northern section of the route, known as Peddars Way, which runs from Holme-next-the-Sea on the coast, down to Knettishall Heath near Thetford.
The trail starts at Holme-next-the-Sea, but of course this small village has not always been situated on the coast, and may not have been the start or end of the trail as we know it today.
Holme-next-the-Sea is of course now famous as the home of ‘Seahenge‘ (Holme I) – an enigmatic timber structure exposed at low tide and controversially excavated/rescued by the Time Team in 1998. The preserved timbers can now be seen in a reconstruction of the monument in the museum at Kings Lynn, a few miles away. The timbers at Holme I came from a circle 21ft in diameter, comprising 55 closely-fitted oak posts, each originally up to 10ft in length. A second timber circle (Holme II) some 42ft in diameter was also identified 100 yards or so from the first. Timbers from both circles have been dated using dendrochronology, and were found to have been felled in 2049BC. Were these circles the focal point of the trail, or did it once extend even further in to what is now the North Sea?
From Holme, the trackway heads just east of south for approximately 20 miles. The modern track follows the course of a Roman Road, (does the Roman road follow the course of the original trackway?) though there is some debate as intermittent clues suggest a slightly different course for the earlier trackway to the west of the modern road. The village of Sedgeford is close to the line of the road, and is the site of a long running and on-going archaeological investigation which shows the area has been occupied since at least the Iron Age, if not longer. This is of course, Iceni country, and the village of Snettisham – where a fabulous gold torc (amongst other treasures) was discovered by metal detectorists – is also only a short distance further to the west.
Continuing southeast, we come to the barrow cemeteries at Bircham and Harpley Common, (where a strung-out line of barrows seems to suggest a slightly different route) and a couple of miles further to the east, Weasenham Lyngs – one of the largest barrow cemeteries in Norfolk, before arriving at Castle Acre. Castle Acre was the site of an important Norman Castle and Priory, both established after the Norman Conquest, which indicates the strategic importance of the route at that time.
The track continues south from here, passing to the east of Swaffham, roughly the half-way point of the Peddars Way. Until recently, there was a reconstructed Iceni Village tourist attraction at Cockley Cley to the west, but this has now been demolished, so ignore the signs if you see them! But the Bronze Age barrow cemeteries continue to pepper the line of the road at Little Cressingham, – where some gold torques were unearthed in a quarry in 1856 – Merton, and then Hockham Heath, passing a few miles to the east of the Grimes Graves flint mines before finally arriving at Knettishall Heath, where four modern long-distance footpaths meet: Angles Way, Icknield Way Path, Iceni Way and Peddars Way.
At this point, we’ll head west to pick up the Icknield Way, the subject of our next article. The Peddars Way shown on modern O.S. maps very much follows the modern long-distance path, but for a bit more authenticity, it’s possible to follow the ‘old’ path on the O.S. maps from the 1880s at the National Library of Scotland web site.