Britain is criss-crossed with ancient tracks and pathways, whether they be smugglers’ trails, packhorse routes, Roman Roads or park promenades. We have an obsession for tramping in the footsteps of our ancestors, perhaps in scenery unchanged for centuries. Why not indulge in this obsession this weekend and find an ancient pathway near you?:
Walk or cycle along a former mineral tramway, a trail that links Cornwall’s north and south coasts
The Portreath Tramroad forged a route from the north Cornish coast deep into copper and tin mining territory. Work began in Portreath in 1809 and the six-mile track to Crofthandy was in use by 1819, connecting Portreath harbour with the mines at North Downs and Poldice. Until then, most minerals had been transported over unmade roads by trains of horses with panniers. This tramroad was designed purely to transport materials to and from the mines, via horsedrawn trams or wagons. Click here for walking route.
Chalton to Ladyholt, Hampshire/East Sussex
Explore the site of grisly murders on an 18th-century smugglers’ trail
Throughout the 18th century smuggling was rife, as taxes were racked up to pay for ruinously expensive wars with France. Far from being the lovable rogues of fiction, smugglers had few qualms about using violence if their lives and freedom were at stake.
In 1748, members of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang kidnapped a witness, Daniel Chater, and the minor customs official taking him to court, William Galley. The victims were tied to ponies, carried across the countryside and beaten until nearly dead. After a terrifying night at The Red Lion Inn at Rake, Galley was buried alive and Chater was taken to a Harris’s Well in Ladyholt Park.
Here the gang tried to hang him but the rope was too short, so they threw him into the well and tossed stones down until his cries were silenced. Seven members of the gang were convicted of the crime at Chichester Assizes. Six were hanged, while the gang leader died in gaol before the sentence could be carried out. Click here for walking route.
St Winifride’s Well, Flintshire
Follow a pilgrim route to a holy well where believers bathe in curative waters
Halkyn Mountain steps down from the hills of the Clwydian range to the reedy foreshore of the immense Dee Estuary, where steep wooded valleys now shelter this edge of North Wales. At the seaward end of the Greenfield Valley are Greenfield Dock and medieval Basingwerk Abbey, whose ruins are now in the care of Cadw (Welsh Heritage).
Higher up, the valley is scattered with the remains of brass, textile and copper mills – all reminders of the rich industrial history of this part of Wales. The 70-acre Greenfield Valley Heritage Park links these sites.
Further up the valley, as it narrows at Holywell, stands St Winefride’s Well which has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly 1,400 years. Click here for day trip guide.
Walk with packponies in the Lake District
Explore a packhorse trail in the Lake District, with a fell pony to carry your bags
Walkers can follow ancient trails through the fells, accompanied by animals who are as much a part of the landscape’s history as its famed hills, valleys and waters.
Short, sturdy and thick-coated, fell ponies are known for their gentleness and intelligence, making them ideal companions and luggage-bearers for the Lake District’s tangle of green lanes and stony bridleways. Click here to find out more.
Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire
Roman troops, medieval drovers and Georgian stagecoaches all stopped off at this market town
Set on the banks of the gentle River Stour, which rises just 10 miles away, Shipston-on-Stour is a beautiful small market town. Cattle once passed through here, following a network of ancient trackways that brought them from as far as Carmarthen in Wales, heading to London markets.
Indeed, Shipston owes its existence as a town to its location near a number of long distance routes. Nearby is the Fosse Way, an old Roman road that linked Exeter to Lincoln. It passes within a mile of the town and is now a fast thoroughfare. Click here to find out more.
Knettishall Country Park, Suffolk
A host of mysterious paths converge in this ancient heathland landscape
Sheep have had a great influence on Suffolk’s landscape and Knettishall Heath Country Park is no exception.
Now a 350-acre park, the area took shape around 4,000 years ago after forest that was dominated by birch, lime and oak was cleared for grazing. Now this extensive heath is a unique habitat with riverside meadows and woodland.
Knettishall is a confluence of several old trails. The park’s Heathland Trail is the southern end of the 95-mile Peddars Way, a Roman road to North Norfolk. The park is also the start of the Icknield Way, claimed to be the oldest route in Britain, and is also a jumping off point for the Angles Way, which winds 77 miles to the Broads. Click here to find out more.