Ancient trackway

Ancient trackway can refer to any track or trail whose origin is lost in antiquity. Such paths existed from the earliest times and in every part of the globe. The term is commonly used in the British Isles to describe the ancient trackways that already existed when the Romans arrived in Britain. Such trackways were often built on by the Romans and form the foundations of some of the current system of roads.

The beginnings

The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of "trackway" as "a path formed by the repeated treading of people or animals". The very earliest creatures to arrive in Britain after the Ice Age, crossing land which would later be the English Channel, were grazing animals following the spreading vegetation. Their predators, including the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) hunter-gatherers, followed. The earlier Mesolithic people were nomadic but in the later part of the Mesolithic permanent settlements started to appear.

The trackways

These settlements were connected with each other by the ancient trackways. These green ways often followed natural contours in the landscape, and evolved over time as animals were driven from place to place and pedestrians walked to and from neighbouring settlements. Much of the land was forested; the lower valleys provided fertile land and were ideal places for fishing, agriculture and the rearing of cattle.

The trackways provided links between farmsteads and fields, other farmsteads, and neighbouring long barrow tombs. Long distance trackways joined the separate localities to the camp meeting places and cross-country flint roads. Others were more likely to have been processional ways, such as the one leading to the gigantic temple at Avebury. Others, the long-distance ways mentioned above, are now known as the Icknield Way, the Ridgeway National Trail, the Harrow Way and the Pilgrims' Way.

Some trackways followed the tops of higher land, whilst others progressed along the lower slopes. The lowland areas were thickly forested and poorly drained and for long distance travel there was an advantage in following the top of a line of hills. Skills to develop tracks across bog lands, such as in Somerset, were learnt by early people. Known as corduroy roads, they were formed when huge quantities of alder poles and brushwood were used to link the fen islands across the marshes. The Sweet track in the Glastonbury fens, Somerset is the oldest purpose built road in the world and has been dated to the 3800s BC.


On occasion, where rivers caused an obstacle to progress, bridges were built across them, and several roads met to use the bridge. Major settlements grew around the bridges, providing sustenance to travellers and their animals using the trackways. There are many good examples of this: three follow.


The original settlement at Wallingford in Oxfordshire dates back to the dawn of British history, when its founders showed remarkable discrimination in choosing its site. Nestling in a fertile valley on the banks of the River Thames, it was an ideal place for fishing, agriculture and the rearing of cattle. The ancient trackways, in particular the Icknield Way, provided lines of communication converging on its ford. The remains of the ramparts still surround the town and are the successors of the rudimentary fortifications of the old British settlement, which were adapted in turn by Roman, Saxon and Norman conquerors.


A similar site is Brownhills in West Midlands. Brownhills has been a meeting point for ancient roads and trackways since prehistoric times. It is thought that the Watling Street was in use before the Romans came; what were later called the Chester Road and Coventry Road are also thought to have been ancient trackways.

Cadbury Castle and South Cadbury Village

Cadbury Castle in Somerset is a tremendous Iron Age camp covering some 18 acres (73,000 m²) and is considered to be one of the most impressive Iron Age sites in Britain. It is the focal point of many ancient trackways and is guarded by four huge banks with a height in places of over 40 feet (12 m) from the bottom of the ditch.

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