Hidden East Anglia:
The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed
The Track in Context: the fading myth of the long-distance trackway
1. The Track or the Way?:
Of the Puddingstone Track, Dr. Rudge said that "It is interesting to note the relationship between the track and the two well-known prehistoric routes of East Anglia - the Icknield and Peddar Ways...the puddingstone track lies between these two and at no point in its entire length crosses or touches either of them...Neither Icknield nor Peddar Way can be shown conclusively to lead to Grime's Graves, and it seems clear that whatever their function it was not that of a flint route".1
(Mention of Peddar - usually Peddar's - Way is a red herring, and should be ignored. There is not and never has been any archaeological evidence that Peddar's Way is a 'prehistoric route'. It is a purely Roman road whose course runs for about 47 miles from Holme-next-the-Sea in north-west Norfolk to near Stanton in Suffolk.)
Rudge highlighted the connection between the trackways by saying that "The line of boulders [on his Track] links two prehistoric sites: the flint-mining area of Grime's Graves with the monument of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, not by the shortest route - the Icknield Way covers much the same objective but is shorter".2 Given his acknowledgement of the parallel, it's surprising that he never gave any convincing explanation as to why his Track was needed at all. It sweeps eastward through Essex, then northward through Suffolk for reasons that remain unclear. He made the statement that "the track swings in a great arc through the eastern counties for the sole purpose of keeping throughout its length to the gravel ridges and sandy plateaux. It avoids alike the chalk hills to the west and the clay-lands to the east".3 But why avoid the chalk hills at all? Why would 'prehistoric man' not simply follow the higher chalk ridge further west along which the Icknield Way is said to run?
A continuation of the Berkshire Ridgeway, the Icknield Way has long been proclaimed to be a Neolithic trackway from Wessex into Norfolk, that was still in use into Anglo-Saxon times. Contrary to Dr. Rudge, the eminent archaeologist O.G.S. Crawford once suggested that "In the north-east it passes the flint-mines of Grime's Graves, and it may have been used by itinerant pedlars trading stone axes with the people of Wessex".4 He in fact believed that the 'upper' branch of Icknield crossed the Thames at Pangbourne, just as the Puddingstone Track allegedly does, while the 'lower' crossed at Goring, the point where Rudge once thought that his Track forded the river, until he abandoned that route. (Map, left, by Crawford, 1953.)
This, of course, is purely academic, considering that the Icknield Way may not have existed in prehistoric times at all. Indeed, the case is increasingly being made that there is no firm evidence for the existence of any continuous, constructed, long-distance prehistoric trackway in England.
To begin with, it has been recognised among historians for several decades that there was no actual need for such long-range trading routes. Rather, the opinion has formed that objects such as flint tools and weapons are found far from their source by means of 'down the line' exchange, passing from person to person over long periods. And in fact, it has been posited that coastal and river travel would have been far more efficient for journeying and trade than overland.5
It used to be believed that middle England was densely forested in the Neolithic, with settlement and movement mostly confined to the higher ground. Thus, the traveller in prehistory would keep to the chalk and limestone hills, moving along the natural ridges. But in more recent times pollen, soil and mollusc analysis has shown that forests were being cleared early on in the Neolithic, and settlement was just as abundant on lower ground, including on the heavier clay soils.
In a similar vein, the ridgeway tracks commonly accepted as ancient were deemed to be so because of the prehistoric sites - burial mounds, settlement activity, finds etc - that seemed to be clustered on either side of them. Now, that apparent clustering is rapidly disappearing. Aerial photography, satellite imagery, geophysics and other modern archaeological methods are revealing a much denser pattern of Neolithic occupation than previously suspected. Often, the sites closer to the trackways were simply more noticeable because they survived due to the lack of later ploughing on the higher ground.
To place the Puddingstone Track into context, it's necessary to examine the 'credentials' of some of the most well-known and oft-cited 'prehistoric trackways' in England.
1. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'The Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 1 (March 1952), p.27.
2. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper'): 'The Lost Trackway' (Cooper, 1994), p.22.
3. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'A Stone Age Trade Route in East Anglia' in 'Discovery' Vol.13, No.7 (Jarrold & Sons, July 1952), p.210.
4. O.G.S. Crawford: 'Archaeology in the Field' (Phoenix House Ltd, 1953), p.80.
5. Grahame Clarke: 'Prehistoric England' (Batsford, 1940), p.74.
2. The Icknield Way:
With regard to the Icknield Way, no single course and no defined start and end points have ever been established. When it enters Norfolk, apparently at Thetford, many (such as O.G.S. Crawford, W.G. Clarke and Dr. Rudge himself) have believed it to continue northwards past Grime's Graves, to end at Hunstanton on the shores of the Wash. Others have thought that it (or a branch) headed eastwards towards Norwich, while still others theorised that it went westwards across the Fens. Very little excavation has taken place along its supposed route, and where it has, no clear evidence of its existence has ever been found.
Indeed results have actually thrown doubt on any imagined Neolithic origins or continuity of usage.1 At Aston Clinton near Aylesbury in 2001-2, excavations took place in advance of constructing the A41 by-pass, at a site on the line of the 'Lower Icknield Way'. A Bronze Age settlement enclosure was uncovered built across the Way, along with a track at right-angles to the line which was in use through the Iron Age and up to Anglo-Saxon times, showing that Icknield could not have been open for travel there for at least 1500 years. A 2014 excavation in the same village found a Roman settlement, plus a stretch of Roman road seemingly on the Icknield alignment, but this could only be dated to the 2nd century AD.2 Further west near Princes Risborough, Bronze Age dykes run perpendicular to the Chiltern scarp, again blocking any possible course of the Icknield Way. Similarly, eastward between Royston and Newmarket, four dykes dated to the 5th and 6th centuries AD stand athwart three supposed branches of Icknield, with no contemporary gaps to allow for passage.3
Excavations at Baldock and Letchworth Garden City unearthed roadside ditches along the route belonging to the late 1st century BC, and postholes running across the Way that showed it wasn't there before c.100 BC. The supposed line of Icknield and the Roman Ermine Street meet in the centre of Royston, where a Roman settlement would be expected at the crossroads, but there is nothing to be found. Instead, the 'real' Icknield Way may be represented by a probable Iron Age track discovered in 2009-2012 - now being called 'Avenell Way' - which leaves the line at Odsey south-west of Royston, and heads for Cambridge 15 miles away.4 Between Grime's Graves and Thetford, Rudge believed that the Puddingstone Track passed over Gallows Hill, which is also right on the theoretical line of the Icknield Way. Excavations there in 1981-2 revealed a late Iron Age ritual enclosure - but no trace of either track.
The notion that Icknield was in fact a broad 'corridor of movement', with multiple paths roughly heading in the same direction rather than a single, well-defined track - a notion now common to all such 'ridgeways' - actually raises another problem. It is now known that the chalk escarpment was much more intensively farmed in the Neolithic than previously thought, with co-axial field systems, routes and (probably territorial) boundaries all along it. This would have posed a serious impediment to regular travel. It also makes any archaeological evidence even harder to find. And as Christopher Taylor noted "In places there appear to be multiple trackways running generally north-east to south-west, all known as the Icknield Way. Most of these are 18th or 19th century in form and often have the familiar change of direction at parish boundaries indicating their relatively modern origins and local purpose".5
The Icknield Way is looking increasingly like a myth, born in the Middle Ages, 'interpreted' and added to by archaeologists and antiquarians, and crystallised in the landscape in the 20th century by both the Ordnance Survey, and by its establishment as a series of long-distance paths for leisure walkers. Similar arguments can be made against Icknield's continuation to the west, usually known as 'The Ridgeway'.
1. Sarah Harrison: 'The Icknield Way: Some Queries' in 'The Archaeological Journal' 160 (2003), p.10-14.
2. ULASNEWS.com: University of Leicester Archaeological Services, September 15th, 2014.
3. Harrison: op cit, p.13.
4. Rob Atkins & Valory Hurst: 'Avenell Way: an ancient track across south Cambridgeshire?' in 'Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society' Vol.103 (2014.)
5. Christopher Taylor: 'Roads and Tracks of Britain' (Dent and Sons, 1979), p.184.
3. The Ridgeway:
After Goring, the Icknield Way becomes The Ridgeway, snaking across the northern edge of the Berkshire Downs, then curving down by Hackpen Hill to West Overton, not far from Avebury in Wiltshire. On Overton and Fyfield Downs the track runs roughly north-south, and it has been noted that the landscape there "is comprehensively parcelled up into at least two axially arranged organised field systems, prehistoric and Roman. The Ridgeway as currently defined is unequivocally later than both... The Ridgeway was simply not there in the 2nd or 1st millennium BC, nor in the early centuries AD. Its claim to be 'the oldest road', in the sense of having been continuously in use to the present, cannot therefore be upheld".1
And again, "Throughout, the Ridgeway cuts across a complex, older landscape which had fallen out of use by the middle of the 1st millennium AD. During the next centuries, an estate boundary line developed along its line. In the 10th century, land charters referred to [it as] the 'Herepath' ('army road' or 'highway'), the earliest firm evidence for the existence of any sort of 'way'".2 It seems likely to have developed between the 5th/6th centuries AD and the early 10th century.3 Further to the north-east, The Ridgeway grazes the edge of the hill-fort known as Uffington Castle. Here, excavations on its line found a filled-in Bronze Age ditch with a layer of compacted chalk on top of it that could only date the track at its earliest to the Iron Age.4
1. Peter Fowler: 'Moving through the landscape' in 'The Archaeology of Landscape' (ed. Everson & Williamson, Man. Univ. Press, 1998), p.30-1.
2. P. Fowler, I. Blackwell & L. Watts: 'The Ridgeway between Avebury and Overton Downs' (Fyfield & Overton Project, 1995), p.4.
3. Peter Fowler: 'Landscape Plotted and Pieced' (The Society of Antiquaries of London, 2000), p.22.
4. S. Denison: 'Bronze Age metalled road near Oxford' in 'British Archaeology' No. 5 (July 1998), p.36.
4. The Jurassic Way:
Some versions of the so-called 'Jurassic Way' have it running from Yorkshire to Somerset, but the main traditional route is 88 miles long, between Banbury in Oxfordshire and Stamford in Lincolnshire, with an alternative track passing through Northampton (much of it along modern minor roads.) Cyril Fox first proposed a 'Jurassic Zone' of communication in 1927, several miles in width, of which he said - quite wrongly - "that this belt of comparatively open country was bounded on either side by considerable stretches of dense forest, practically uninhabited".1
The name 'Jurassic Way' only dates from the 1940s, when archaeologists theorised an actual routeway of Neolithic origin here, based partly on the fact that it follows the main ridge of Jurassic limestone across the country, and partly on the sites - chiefly of Iron Age - clustered beside it. According to Christopher Taylor: "It was thus seen as a prehistoric trackway mainly used in the Iron Age. With hindsight we can now see that the evidence for a real trackway was very slight, and that of Iron Age date slighter still".2 In addition, whichever branch it took to reach Stamford would have been "a difficult and dangerous route to follow" due to the multiple wet valleys and steep-sided hills along much of it. W.F. Grimes recognised this when trying to describe a sensible course in the face of trying geological and topographical problems.3 Overall, Taylor concluded that "the archaeological evidence was weak. But it is made weaker by recent research...Thus the real evidence for a prehistoric track along the Jurassic Way, at least in Northants even in 1940, seems difficult to find. It is made largely worthless by the additional evidence of prehistoric settlement which has been found in the area over the last few years".4
1. Cyril Fox: 'The Jurassic Zone: a Link between Yorkshire and S.W. Britain' in 'Archaeologia Cambrensis' Vol. LXXXII Part 1, 7th Series Vol.VII (June 1927), p.96.
2. Christopher Taylor: 'Roads and Tracks of Britain' (Dent and Sons, 1979), p.32.
3. W.F. Grimes: 'The Jurassic Way' in 'Aspects of Archaeology in Britain and Beyond' (ed. Grimes; H.W. Edwards, 1951), p.148, 155.
4. Taylor: op cit, p.34-5.
5. The North Downs Ridgeway and Pilgrims' Way:
The North Downs Way, in terms of being a supposedly continuous prehistoric ridgeway of Neolithic age, seems to have been invented in the 1950s by the authority on Roman roads, Ivan D. Margary.1 Before that, it was generally ignored in favour of the so-called Pilgrims' Way - not named as such until the 19th century - a 'terraceway' running mostly along the foot of the North Downs chalk escarpment. The two join and then diverge in various places, but are said to be summer and winter variants of the same route. The situation is somewhat confused, firstly by some writers picking and choosing which of multiple possible paths either follows, for example Lillie in 1966.2 And secondly by the establishment in the 1970s of the long-distance path for walkers also known as the 'North Downs Way', which used parts of both tracks (and neither) to create a National Trail.
While the North Downs Ridgeway (as I shall call it, to differentiate) runs from Farnham in Surrey to the Kent coast near Dover, the Pilgrims' Way branches off just north of Ashford and heads to Canterbury (which is many miles from the chalk ridge.) The latter route - imagined with little evidence to have been frequented by medieval pilgrims going to the shrine of Thomas Becket - seems to have been pieced together by Albert Way,3 and eagerly followed up, embellished and 'romantically' distorted by writers such as Hilaire Belloc.4
As with other such tracks, their antiquity has been called into question by close examination of limited areas along them. In the 1980s it was noted that between Maidstone and Ashford, there are multiple roughly parallel Saxon droveways running north-east to south-west across the escarpment, and that "they cut directly across the Pilgrims' Way and North Downs Way without deviation, dog-leg or termination, which might imply they were earlier".5 In 1997-9, excavations were carried out just south of Chatham, in advance of the building of the HS1 Channel Tunnel rail link. Near Blue Bell Hill, "a section cut across the Pilgrims' Way trackway unfortunately provided little clear evidence for the date at which it was established. However, it overlies the buried soil and the colluvial layers cut by a Roman trackway and was probably established in the Saxon period or later in the medieval period".6
At White Horse Stone, hollow-ways on the line of the Way were found to "overlie the buried soil which itself seems to have been worked into, but not after the Roman period. The earliest hollow-way must, therefore, be post-Roman, and the earliest hollow-way on the alignment of the Pilgrimís Way must be later still, and is thus likely to be Saxon, or date from later in the medieval period".7 In addition, "No colluvium [loose sediment accumulated at the base of a hill or steep slope] dating to the medieval period was identified at this location, as would be expected if the trackway was in continuous use from the medieval period onwards".8 As Martin Bell summarizes, "The position of the HS1 excavation is particularly fortuitous since, for reasons of topography near the Medway crossing, the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims' Way share the same route at the point where they have been shown to be post-Roman. There being no obvious alternative route here, this casts significant doubt on the prehistoric origins of the escarpment route".9
In the late 1950s, Anthony Clark pointed out the existence of a Dark Age dyke just west of Westerham, which followed the ancient line of the Kent-Surrey border. Probably dating to between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, it was clearly designed to control travel between the rival Saxon kingdoms along the valley route south of the North Downs escarpment. The A25 road now follows that route, about 1Ĺ miles south of the terraceway, but the dyke which straddles it fails to reach the track. As Clark said, "if no other routes across the county border are found to be similarly blocked [which they were not], we may assume that this was the important route between Surrey and Kent in the Dark Ages; at least more important than the North Downs ridgeway, for no earthwork dignifies the boundary line there".10
At Harbledown just west of Canterbury are the remains of an Iron Age hillfort known as Bigbury Camp. The line of the Pilgrims' Way runs through the earthworks, which led to the conclusion that the trackway must be older than the camp, because it entered and left via the apparently-defended eastern and western entrances. A later road wouldn't have resulted in defences being necessary, while a contemporary one wouldn't have passed through a hillfort.11 However, more recent research has shown that the western entrance can't be easily interpreted, as it has been disrupted by both gravel quarrying and the building of the modern Bigbury Road. Opinions also remain divided as to exactly where the eastern entrance was, or if it existed at all.12
Finally, D.J. Turner pointed out a distinct lack of culturally-consistent metalwork finds along both the ridgeway and the terraceway, specifically at river crossings, where they would be expected to occur if either were a significant route from the Bronze Age onwards. After consideration of this and much other negative evidence, he concluded that: "Prehistoric man must have moved about the country fairly freely and the precise position of an ancient track is usually a matter of controversy in the absence of phenomena such as traffic ruts or preserved timber causeways. A regularly used prehistoric route, however, should be demonstrable by means other than tracing the identifiable remains of its constituent trackways, and a prehistoric route that cannot be demonstrated should not be thought to have existed just because we would like it to have existed".13
1. Ivan D. Margary: 'The North Downs Main Trackways' in 'Surrey Archaeological Collections' Vol.52 (Surrey Archaeological Society, 1952.)
2. H.W.R. Lillie: 'Some Problems of the North Downs Trackway in Kent' in 'Archaeologia Cantiana' Vol.81 (Kent Archaeological Society, 1966), p.203-212.
3. Albert Way: 'The Pilgrims' Way or Path towards the Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury' in Arthur P. Stanley: 'Historical Memorials of Canterbury' (Cambridge University Press, 1855), p.216-223.
4. Hilaire Belloc: 'The Old Road' (Constable & Co, 1904.)
5. Martin Bell: 'Making One's Way in the World' (Oxbow Books, 2020), p.234.
6. Chris Hayden & Elizabeth Stafford: 'The Prehistoric Landscape at White Horse Stone, Aylesford, Kent' (CTRL Integrated Site Report Series, 2006), p.11.
7. Hayden & Stafford: op cit, p.184.
8. Elizabeth Stafford: 'The geoarchaeology of White Horse Stone and Pilgrimís Way, Aylesford, Kent' (CTRL Integrated Site Report Series, 2006), p.12.
9. Bell: op cit, p.234.
10. Anthony Clark: 'A Cross-valley Dyke on the Surrey-Kent Border' in 'Surrey Archaeological Collections' Vol.57 (Surrey Archaeological Society, 1960), p.74.
11. F.C. Elliston-Erwood: 'The 'Pilgrims' Way', its Antiquity and its Alleged Medieval Use' in 'Archaeologia Cantiana' Vol.37 (Kent Archaeological Society, 1925), p.7.
12. Andrew Bates: 'Making the invisible visible: New Survey and investigation of the Iron Age Hillforts of Bigbury and Oldbury in Kent' (University of Kent, 2017), p.179-80.
13. D.J. Turner: 'The North Downs Trackway' in 'Surrey Archaeological Collections' Vol.72, Surrey Archaeological Society, 1980), p.1-12.
6. The Harroway:
Unlike all the supposed trackways previously mentioned, the Harroway (or Harrow Way) only appears in small fragments on large-scale Ordnance Survey maps. Only occasionally is it labelled with the 'Gothic' script indicating antiquity. And on its own, it has not become a long-distance public walking path. Although often held to be the 'ancient' name of the whole Pilgrims' Way (vide Belloc, 1904), it's usually now seen as a westward continuation from Farnham, via Andover, to the area of Stonehenge. Belloc saw this stretch as the 'Old Road', which had been abandoned in favour of a new branch from Winchester to Farnham. Albert Way thought it went via Winchester to Southampton.1 Crawford considered it continuing on into Devon and Cornwall,2 while the tedious meanderings of Timperley and Brill had it meeting up with another ridgeway in Dorset.3
According to Derek Bright, "The Harroway is certainly considered as a serious contender as one of the principal pre-Roman prehistoric trackways across southern England".4 But on what evidence? The majority of its route west of the Hog's Back between Guildford and Farnham is so ill-defined that no detailed archaeological investigation has been forthcoming. It seems that almost everyone who attempts to research it arrives at their own tangled course, piecing it together from stretches of old track, modern road and field boundary. The only well-delineated lengths of track and minor road now labelled as 'Harroway' run east to west just north of Whitchurch in Hampshire. As Taylor remarks, "None of it has any real appearance of antiquity but the most pleasant section runs between Whitchurch and Oakley".5 This at least may have some historical vintage, although there is nothing to imply a prehistoric origin.
The name 'Harroway' is usually thought to be Old English, but no one knows exactly what it means. Possible interpretations have included har weg 'hoary, old way', here-weg 'army way', haere weg 'boundary way' and hearg weg 'way to a holy place' (which Crawford suggested might have been Stonehenge.) Timperley and Brill strangely translated it as the 'Hard Way'. While here-weg seems perhaps the most etymologically likely, only two 11th century instances of that compound are known. On the other hand, the term herepath is used on 292 occasions in Anglo-Saxon charters, including for a section of The Ridgeway, as noted earlier. Although herepath is taken to mean 'army road' i.e. a route used for rapid military movement, its frequent usage also suggests a wider meaning of simply 'highway' - though not necessarily for long-distance travel. Alexander Langlands comments that "Were the Harroway designated here- status we might also expect it to be described so in contemporary boundary clauses, yet it is not".6
In this, however, he is incorrect. In the 1920s G.B. Grundy examined all the Anglo-Saxon charters for Hampshire, and where these were accompanied by land surveys, he identified the boundaries in question and, for the most part, the locations on them. A charter of 1033 deals with a manor a little east of Whitchurch, where a boundary southwards from Kingsclere proceeds on thone herepath 'to the highway'. As Grundy observes, "This is the Harroway at the point where it impinges on the parish boundary about three furlongs west of Ashe Warren House".7 Here, it is a tree-lined path between stretches of minor road, "the most pleasant section" as described above by Taylor.
Grundy also found another possible meaning of the 'harro' element of the name, in other charters relating to Whitchurch, and to the Hundred of Micheldever nearby. Although the two charters, dated 900AD and 909AD, are now believed to be forgeries of the early 11th century, they probably incorporate earlier material. They both contain references to a road called variously Horoweg, Horweg, Horgan Weg and Horig Weg, which simply translates as 'the Mud Way'.8,9 If this were to be the root of 'Harroway', it would be somewhat of a downgrade from 'old way', 'army way', 'boundary way' or 'way to a holy place'. But the road being spoken of here actually refers to a north-south road that still exists, at its closest nearly 3Ĺ miles south of the accepted east-west Harroway. Grundy confirms this, saying "Though the Harroway is not of course the same road", then adding "yet it may have had the same name in Anglo-Saxon times".
This raises the likelihood that 'Harroway' was simply a generic pre-Conquest term - as some believe 'Icknield' to have been in medieval times - for a rural track or roadway. There are certainly references in the 18th century to a 'Great Harroway' and 'Little Harroway', and a deed of 1691-210 for the parish of Appleshaw mentioning "the Harroway to Ludgershall", which is not a location on any stated route of the supposed trackway. So the 'Mud Road' could have been one of several Harroways.
As far as I have been able to determine, the name 'Harroway' as applied to an 'ancient' road occurs historically only in Hampshire, and specifically to the 18 miles between Basingstoke and Weyhill. In the absence of any archaeological evidence for or against, my conclusion is that this was a route of limited length, possibly originating as a Saxon herepath. Later antiquarians, travel writers and archaeologists have lengthened it by 'tacking it' onto the end of the Pilgrims' Way, and extending it westwards by any track, road or field path they chose.
1. Albert Way: 'The Pilgrims' Way or Path towards the Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury' in Arthur P. Stanley: 'Historical Memorials of Canterbury' (Cambridge University Press, 1855), p.216-223.
2. O.G.S. Crawford: 'Archaeology in the Field' (Phoenix House Ltd, 1953), p.78.
3. H.W. Timperley & Edith Brill: 'Ancient Trackways of Wessex' (Phoenix House, 1965), p.70.
4. Derek Bright: 'The Pilgrims' Way' (The History Press, 2011), p.33.
5. Christopher Taylor: 'Roads and Tracks of Britain' (Dent and Sons, 1979), p.183.
6. Alexander Langlands: 'The Ancient Ways of Wessex' (Windgather Press, 2019), p.77.
7. G.B. Grundy: 'The Saxon Land Charters of Hampshire with Notes on Place and Field Names 4th Series', in 'The Archaeological Journal' Vol.84 (2nd Series, Vol.34, 1927), p.181.
8. G.B. Grundy: 'The Ancient Highways and Tracks of Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Hampshire, and the Saxon Battlefields of Wiltshire' in 'The Archaeological Journal' Vol.75 (2nd Series, Vol.25, 1918), p.170.
9. G.B. Grundy: 'The Saxon Land Charters of Hampshire with Notes on Place and Field Names 3rd Series', in 'The Archaeological Journal' Vol.83 (2nd Series, Vol.33, 1926), p.148, 234. (See also Grundy 1927, op cit, pp.298, 307.)
10. Ref. 46M84/C2/16, Hants Record Office.
7. The South Downs Way:
The South Downs Way is said to run from near Beachy Head at Eastbourne to Winchester, again following a chalk escarpment. Virtually all of it can be traced along still-existing tracks and short stretches of road, which is why it became, in 1963, the first National Trail for leisure walking. Crawford felt that in Neolithic times it continued on past Winchester, to meet up with the Harroway near Stonehenge.1 But even the undiscerning Harold Timperley and his wife Edith admitted that "the direct line today must be eked out in many places with conjecture and imagination".2 Like many other ridgeways, there is in places said to be an alternative and roughly parallel 'greensand' route on the lower northern side of the scarp. This is sometimes known as the 'underhill road', after a section along it so named.
"The main reason for its alleged antiquity" said Taylor, "is that it passes through areas rich in upstanding prehistoric sites".3 Indeed it does, but any connection between the two seems to be one of inference rather than evidence. There are numerous barrows all along the ridge - but the crests and 'false crests' of hills and ridges are exactly where many barrows were raised, irrespective of the presence of a trackway. And the majority of the barrows along the scarp are known or believed to be of the Bronze Age, not Neolithic. There are five hillforts beside the South Downs Way: Ditchling Beacon, Devils Dyke at Poynings, Old Winchester Hill, Harting Beacon and Chanctonbury Ring. The first three have been dated to the Iron Age, the fourth to the late Bronze Age, and the last could be either. Where the ridgeway passes between Windover Hill and the enigmatic Long Man of Wilmington, Historic England records Neolithic flint mines and tracks of at least Romano-British date that now form part of the South Downs Way. However, a re-examination of the site in 1995 revealed the 'mines' to be pits for the extraction of chalk or marl, and both they and the tracks are, at the earliest, medieval.4 The Long Man hill-figure itself was once thought to be Neolithic or Iron Age, but the most recent dating suggests an origin in the 16th or 17th century.
Like the Harroway, virtually no serious archaeological investigation has been carried out on the South Downs Way itself. Nor for that matter has it been the subject of much academic discussion. But as with some other supposed ridgeway routes, the examination of other features in the landscape has brought to light doubts about the age and 'continuous' nature of the trackway. In multiple locations along the route there exist the remains of what have been termed 'cross dykes' or 'cross-ridge dykes'. These are linear earthworks of varying width consisting of one or more ditches with banks up to two-thirds of a mile in length that cut across a ridge or spur of high land. At the moment their purpose is unknown, but their use as barriers or boundaries is currently thought likely, and they are believed to be of late Bronze or early Iron Age date.
In the early 20th century, the father and son team of Eliot and Cecil Curwen painstakingly recorded these dykes, which they termed 'covered ways'. They noted that many of the dykes were 'breached' by the ridgeway, or as they called it, the 'hard greenway'. Indeed their drawings of the Heyshott Down and Harting Downs areas show clearly that in many instances, the dykes do not just abut the 'greenway', but are cut through and overridden by the track, making it at least later than the Bronze Age.5
The currently-active 'South Downs Cross Ridge Dyke Project' stated in 2019 that the dykes "appear to hamper east-west movement along the scarp ridge, suggesting a route along the greensand at the base of the scarp slope would be preferable".6 In a similar vein but much earlier, Richard Bradley commented that some of the dykes he had scrutinised "have no entrances even though they lie across ridges which have often been treated as 'through roads'. If this is correct the ridgeways of earlier writers cannot have functioned and we might envisage routes closer to the coast...or, like the Lower Icknield Way, below the main chalk escarpment altogether".7
These latter observations have a bearing on another problem that, I think, scotches almost completely the notion of the South Downs Way being a continuous, long-distance Neolithic routeway. Martin Bell has made the very cogent point that "Although a footpath with magnificent views, it does not form such an obviously natural historic route as some other ridgeways which connect regions because the ridge is interrupted by four river valleys, the Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere which, in prehistory and until after Domesday Book, were estuaries." The alternative 'greensand' route below the escarpment would have encountered the same impediment to travel.8 Indeed, the estuaries were considerable tidal marshes until embankment and natural silting allowed reclamation of land in the 13th and 14th centuries, for both pasture and settlement.
Of the four rivers named, only the Ouse is known to have had a ford where it is currently crossed by the Way. Even now the flood plain is 750m wide, but it was apparently shallow enough at low tide to permit a crossing at Southease, across the river from which is Itford Farm. But it's unlikely to have been an easy crossing, as Itford may well derive from Old English gyte 'flood' + ford. The name of the Cuckmere river is likely to come from O.E. cwic, meaning 'fast-flowing'. Today it is crossed by the Way at Alfriston, where the valley is 300m wide, and the village was still a small sea port into the 20th century. No early ford is known there, nor at Houghton, where the South Downs Way now crosses the Arun and its 400m flood plain. On the Adur, where the Way passes just south of Bramber, the traveller would have had to go three miles further north to find a crossing point, probably where a Roman road crossed near Stretham Manor.
While the rivers themselves were natural routes from the Weald to the coast, it seems likely that the South Downs Way has been 'cobbled together' by modern writers from intermittent tracks - of which there are many all over the Downs - into a coherent, continuous route that never existed in prehistory.
1. O.G.S. Crawford: 'Archaeology in the Field' (Phoenix House Ltd, 1953), p.77-8.
2. H.W. Timperley & Edith Brill: 'Ancient Trackways of Wessex' (Phoenix House, 1965), p.93.
3. Christopher Taylor: 'Roads and Tracks of Britain' (Dent and Sons, 1979), p.184.
4. East Sussex Historic Environment Record, Ref. MES2757.
5. E. & C.E. Curwen: 'Covered Ways on the Sussex Downs' in 'Sussex Archaeological Collections' Vol.59 (Sussex Archaeological Society, 1918), p.35-75.
6. D. Lea, J. English & R. Tapper: 'South Downs Cross Ridge Dyke Project Part 5: River Arun to the A286/Lavant Valley' (2019), p.45.
7. Richard Bradley: 'Stock Raising and the Origins of the Hill Fort on the South Downs' in 'The Antiquaries Journal' Vol.51, Issue 1 (Society of Antiquaries, March 1971), p.14.
8. Martin Bell: 'Making One's Way in the World' (Oxbow Books, 2020), p.221.
8. Back to the Track:
Even though the ridgeways are lacking in 'credentials' as being Neolithic, constructed, or continuous long-distance tracks, there's no doubt that the ridges themselves could be seen as offering relatively dry and safe 'corridors' for movement. As has been aptly observed, "Only a very small percentage of travellers using a motorway travel its entire course. More frequently, sections of it facilitate movement on a much more local level".1 They need to be examined and understood in the context that "although some upland trackways were used in prehistory, they clearly formed part of a more complex network of local routes".2 Just as Dr. Rudge 'connected the dots' of puddingstone to imagine an unbroken path across southern England, so others have taken fragments of road and lane, linking and stretching them into meaningful routeways. "What seems to have happened" said Hugh Davies, "is that the ridgeways are the outcome of an idea of what ancient Britain was like, promoted by Victorian and earlier antiquarians, keen to reconstruct a communication system worthy of those who built such dramatic monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury".3
The proponents of such long-distance routes now see them as 'bundles' of tracks spread out over a mile or more. While they all basically headed in the same directions, they came into and went out of use dependent on local seasonal conditions, changes in usage and state of repair. Although the tracks are undated - and usually undatable - some authorities (and many travel writers) still cling to a putative Neolithic origin for them. Others accept them to be of Iron Age, Saxon or medieval date, or more likely, a combination of these.
Whether they existed as continuous routes or not, all the ridgeways examined here are fundamentally different to Rudge's Puddingstone Track. For one thing, Rudge could find no evidence of an actual trackway, just the imagined 'markers' left behind. And none of those other long-distance tracks show any sign of having been marked in such a way. If his Track had been real, and actually used to transport quantities of flint up and down the country for centuries, some trace of a foot-worn path should have been evident. If it took the optimal route that he claimed, some parts might have survived into historical times, and there might have been some record or folk-memory of it. But there is nothing.
Apart from the occasional 'moated mound' and 'camp' that he professed to be prehistoric without evidence, there are no ancient sites along the Track - excluding, of course, Stonehenge, which in any case he was unable to prove was the Track's destination. More significantly, the Puddingstone Track was always envisaged by him as a single, point-to-point trackway, navigated by sighting from one boulder to another, allowing of no deviation. For Rudge there was no concept of a 'bundle' of alternative tracks, no 'corridor of movement' across the landscape, no seasonal choice of route. Rudge's Track is utterly unique, and stands counter to everything known about trackways, and about prehistory.
1. Alexander Langlands: 'The Ancient Ways of Wessex' (Windgather Press, 2019), p.5.
2. Historic England: 'Pre-industrial Roads, Trackways and Canals' (English Heritage, 2011), p.2.
3. Hugh Davies: 'From Trackways to Motorways: 5000 Years of Highway History' (Tempus Publishing, 2006), p.32.