Hidden East Anglia:
The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed
The Birth and Growth of a Theory
In October 1949, Dr. Ernest Rudge read a paper to fellow members of the Essex Field Club on his 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex'. By itself, it would be a notable discovery, as although short local trackways of Roman, Iron Age and even Bronze Age date were known in the county, no such route was then known which existed in the Neolithic period.
But Dr. Rudge's proposed track was to be even more remarkable.
To begin with, rather than running for a few hundred metres, or even a few miles, he believed that it ran across the entire county of Essex, in a roughly east-west direction. Not only that, but in a single summer of research and fieldwork, he and his wife Lilian had tentatively concluded that it continued north to the Norfolk coast near Heacham, and west to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. All of this despite the fact that, while some paths and lanes coincided with the general direction of the route he had plotted, there was no visible or archaeological evidence of an actual foot-worn trackway.
Most remarkable of all - and unprecedented for any known prehistoric track - it was only discernible by following a trail of boulders composed of one specific type of stone: puddingstone.
Those who heard him were, naturally, intrigued. The text of Rudge's paper wasn't published until March 1950, in the Field Club's journal the 'Essex Naturalist'. But his theory began to reach a wider audience almost immediately, as a report of his talk appeared in a local newspaper the very next day.
Within a week Dr. Rudge began to receive letters from people eager to help him in the search for confirmation of his trackway. A small network of enthusiasts began to form across the home counties and East Anglia. Rudge contributed letters and articles to various newspapers and magazines promoting his discovery, and requesting that readers send him notice of any puddingstones in their area. By the summer of 1952, his discovery - named variously as the Conglomerate Track, Puddingstone Trail, Flint Trade Way, Lost Highway, or the one that I've chosen to use, the Puddingstone Track - had reached sufficient notability to be featured in both 'Time' magazine and the 'New York Times'.
Rudge gave slide-show talks on his trackway to a multitude of local groups and societies, as well as conducting parties of Essex Field Club members on trips to see some of the stones. In addition a further four updates on his research were published in the 'Essex Naturalist' up to 1957.
Not that his theory was without its critics, even in its early days. Between 1950 and 1952, there was a robust (but extremely polite) exchange of opinions in the press between Rudge and the eminent geologist A. Morley Davies. And in 1954 the geologist and prehistorian S. Hazzledine Warren - a fellow Field Club member and former president - refuted the basic premise of Rudge's track in no uncertain terms.
The Rudges nevertheless continued their research throughout the 1960s - when they both passed 70 years of age - and into the 1970s, although the fieldwork had understandably lessened. The last published work on the trackway by either of them that I have been able to find is an article by Mrs. Rudge in the 'Essex Countryside' magazine in September 1962. As late as 1982, at least one of the Rudges' early followers was still writing about the track in the 'Chiltern News', the journal of the Chiltern Society.
Dr. Rudge had always intended to write a book about his trackway, and even by 1951 had drafted at least a few chapters - but he was unable to find an interested publisher. He died in 1984 at the age of 90, with his discovery all but forgotten. Then in 1994, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum named John Cooper, who had a particular interest in puddingstone, was able to edit Rudge's manuscript and produce it as a slim volume entitled 'The Lost Trackway: from Grime's Graves to Stonehenge'. This was evidently a later rendition of his theory that represented his conclusions towards the end of his life. Many of the puddingstone boulders included in his earlier articles were omitted from his 'final version' of the track, including the section from Heacham to the flint mines. 'The Lost Trackway' had a limited print run, so most people would still only know the Puddingstone Track as Rudge had presented it in the 1950s and 60s.
In the early 1970s, which is when I first heard of it, the Puddingstone Track found itself drawn into the 'earth mysteries' field, where it sat alongside such concepts as ley lines and terrestrial zodiacs, and enjoyed a minor revival. Geologists and archaeologists only mention it as an outmoded theory that never gained much support due to its inconsistencies and illogic. But it still crops up in guide books and local histories, which often seem to accept it uncritically. The Track also has a presence online, as a quick Google search will show, and it has cropped up again in the 21st century by featuring in a thesis about a supposed 'arcane landscape' pattern in Suffolk.
Below are the main claimed features of the Track, as detailed in 'The Lost Trackway':
· The Track ran for 193 miles from the Grime's Graves flint mines in Norfolk to Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
· Its course was marked out by boulders composed solely of puddingstone or other conglomerates.
· It was laid out in late Mesolithic/early Neolithic times (c.4000BC.)
· The purpose of the Track was for trade, to bring high-quality flint from Grime's Graves to the south-west.
· The route was designed to keep to gravelly and sandy soils, unfriendly to trees and vegetation.
· Travellers followed the Track by sighting from stone to stone, with smaller rocks more closely-spaced.
· Some boulders were placed on strategic points such as hilltops, raised mounds and beside fords.
· Sometimes the stones became a focus for markets and meetings, and settlements formed around them.
· Puddingstone itself was revered, and some of the boulders incorporated into church fabric, on ancient pagan sites.
· Chesham in Bucks. was a cultural centre of the Track-builders, with its church built on a circle of puddingstones.
These features (and many others) are examined in depth throughout this study. The final section will summarise my analysis of these specific points, as well as provide counterpoints to many of Dr. Rudge's other claims and assertions about the Puddingstone Track.
NOTE: Throughout the following pages, my use of the word 'Track' with an initial capital letter is in order to denote Rudge's proposed prehistoric route, and distinguish it from any other trackways that might be discussed.