Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Walking back through time: a landscape history of pathways

For a while now I have been contemplating researching a comprehensive landscape history of paths, or at least the pathways of Britain. Paths, such an intrinsic topographical element, both a symbolic and practical medium for accessing and moving through much of the landscape, really should have their own history told. Somewhat surprisingly, no-one seems to have done this yet in a holistic way (though there is, of course, a vast array of books, pamphlets and web pages devoted to walking and related experiences, to describing routes through the landscape, and to recording often locally specific paths, tracks and byways). What lies below our feet - the actual path - often seems to be curiously incidental to these narratives, perhaps taken for granted (even, dare I say it, by academic specialists, psycho-geographers and new nature writers).

These musings have been honed into a research proposal so that I can hawk this around for funding (so far unsuccessfully!) or undertake the project independently. I'm beginning to think that the latter pathway is more likely and has many advantages, less constraints, and allows a wider ranging, should I be able to find the time to carry it out (and walk the miles). Anyway, here is what I have in mind. If anyone has any comments or suggestions then please do get in touch. It is written as an academic research proposal so please bear that in mind if you slightly loose the will to live before reaching the end.

Footpaths are not simply conduits for moving through the landscape: from prehistory to the present day, they have played a fundamental role in shaping both the land and the people who have walked them. Each pathway has a topography and social history of its own which tells the story of its original purpose and subsequent use. And yet, paths and their infrastructure – and the meanings which have become associated with them – have seldom featured in the historiography of the British landscape. This research will fill that gap.

Defining a path as a route used for non-vehicular passage away from the main arteries of commerce and travel, this project will examine a variety of different types of British pathway. These include routes used for everyday local movement and connection alongside long-distance routes such as pilgrim ways, drovers’ roads, and recreational trails. Pathways with special functions, for instance industrial tracks, will be studied together with both formal and informal circuits of protest and celebration. In terms of geographical and chronological scale, investigation will concentrate on a British context from the early medieval to the present day, drawing on comparisons and evidence from further afield and prehistory where necessary. While recognising that every path is the unique product of its own history, this research will explore a number of themes relevant to all. Temporal and spatial consideration will be given to the permanence or ephemerality of paths, and their stability or instability as landscape features. 

The research will also address such issues as the extent to which pathway origins can be traced, and how their courses, material fabric, names, and purposes might have changed over time. It will examine pathways as networks of movement and connection, and how patterns of footpaths have formed in different regions and landscape settings, and at different times. It will look to explain why pathways take different physical forms. It will examine how people have understood paths whether as public spaces or common rights of way, or as symbols of social memory and community custom, markers of boundaries, and channels for dissent. 

Complementing these historical perspectives, the project will also address the part paths play in the contemporary landscape: how are they now managed, to what extent are they at risk or under-appreciated as a public good, and what role might they play in a more sustainable society?

The history, physical form, and utility of routeways has been addressed to some extent in scholarly discourse (Allen and Evans, 2016; Hindle, 1991; Morriss, 2005; Taylor, 1979). The substantial corpus of research accumulated for other elements of the historic landscape, such as fortifications, religious and ritual sites, settlements and field systems, is, however, lacking for the pathways that connect these spaces. What has been published has tended to focus less on paths and walking, more on roads and highways as networks for elite movement, trade, and communication: for instance, the outputs of the recently concluded Travel and Communication in Anglo-Saxon England project (Brookes et al, 2019). Moreover, though W.G. Hoskins’ ‘mud on your boots’ ethos has permeated the empirical landscape archaeology and history tradition in Britain, the paths used to explore and record the historic environment (and walking as a fieldwork technique, beyond the structured practice of ‘field walking’ to identify artefact scatters) are generally overlooked, for instance, in the fieldwork guides of Brown, 1987 and Muir, 2000.

Prehistorians, anthropologists and cultural geographers have been more interested in paths and walking than those examining trackways and footpaths in the historic period (Bell, 2020; Leary, 2014; Wylie, 2005). Mobility through the landscape has appeared as a key theme, though phenomenological approaches based on inhabiting the landscape, and considerations of flows of people and objects have left surprisingly little space for examining the materiality of paths and tracks (Gibson et al, 2019; Ingold, 2011; Sen and Johung, 2016; Tilley and Cameron-Daum, 2017).

A slew of popular yet highly literate narratives around path-making and -taking (Macfarlane, 2012; Solnit, 2002), together with psycho-geographical tracts constructed around novel walking practice, often in urban, contested or prohibited settings (Papadimitriou, 2003; Sinclair, 2002), provide further contemporary context. Wider public and policy interest in landscape responses to environmental and climate change such as future farming practices, rewilding, and flood control are also of relevance here, not least because walking footpaths remains one of Britain’s most popular outdoor pursuits, valued for cementing a sense of place as well as its health and well-being benefits (de Moor, 2013; Ramblers, 2010).

This research will draw judiciously from the various methodological and theoretical approaches taken in these previous studies of pathways, extending them further and applying them in new contexts.

Six case studies will anchor the research, chosen to represent a diversity of topography, geography, and history: a deep survey of specific localised footpath networks at the scale of the historic parish or group of parishes (as long-established territorial units). Close study of medieval tracks associated with monasteries in south-east Wales has already tested the feasibility of this approach (Procter, 2019). A matrix of criteria will be used to identify the case study parishes, taking account of the existing path network, and richness of historic mapping and primary sources. Representation from across England, Scotland and Wales and a range of landscape settings, such as heavily wooded, upland, low-lying, industrial and urban will also be ensured. Case study selection will precede the main research study. The Cotswold scarp of Gloucestershire has been provisionally identified as the location for an example of ‘ancient’ countryside and a parish characterised by planned enclosure will be selected in the Feldon area of south Warwickshire. In addition, a study of Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail will focus on contemporary trail-making and recreational utility.

Building on my own doctoral research practice, an interdisciplinary methodology will integrate topographical, archaeological, cartographic, etymological and historical evidence. Applied experience and knowledge of working as a Public Rights of Way Officer and leading volunteer parties maintaining National Park footpaths will supplement academic research skills. The archaeology and physical characteristics of the paths in each case study area will be examined in the field to establish geographical patterns and networks, their fabric and form, function and evolution, and classify related landscape features, such as boundaries, stiles, and bridges. Public rights of way, permissive routes, and unofficial and disused tracks will be extensively walked, photographed and recorded, harnessing the assistance of local history and walking groups. Key exemplars will be subjected to more intensive investigation through measured survey. This field evidence will be combined with an analysis of references to case study footpaths in existing data sets (HERs, archaeological reports, etc.), and primary and secondary sources held within local and national archives (including estate, enclosure and tithe maps, legal cases relating to rights of way, highway commissioners reports, and manor court records and surveys). Corroboration will also be provided from aerial photography, satellite imagery, LiDAR, and other geo-spatial resources. These data will be combined, analysed and where appropriate modelled in GIS; and the research outcomes illuminated by a set of GIS-based maps of the case study path networks, written and photographic commentaries of selected walks, and detailed plans of example path types. 

Archival sources, such as early medieval charters and later medieval court rolls, references to perambulations and ‘Beating the Bounds’ of parish boundaries, will be interrogated alongside local legend and folk tales, early modern chorographies, and literary and artistic representations to chronicle how the case study pathways have been experienced and perceived through time. An indication of contemporary attitudes to the footpath network will be highlighted through small-scale qualitative on-line, social media, and in-person survey of users and other stakeholders within the case study areas, complemented by analysis of quantitative data-sets available from bodies such as National Parks, The Ramblers and National Trust.

The primary output from the project will be a monograph or book. Detailed, place-specific spatial and temporal descriptions of the origins, and material and cultural evolution of the case study pathways will inform an overarching landscape history of British footpaths. There are currently no titles that cover this territory. Additionally, two articles on elements of the project (for example, the walking fieldwork practice and a case study) will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals such as Landscapes, Landscape Research, and others across related fields including archaeology, cultural geography, history, and literary studies. The emerging research will also be disseminated through conference papers (particularly targeted at conferences with an inter-disciplinary landscape focus).

Wider public engagement will be threefold. First, a dedicated blog and social media profile, highlighting interactive maps of the case study path networks, walk commentaries and suggested routes, and enabling interaction with local interest groups within the case study areas. Secondly, such groups as well as cultural festivals and events with a landscape, walking, nature, or travel writing component will be approached as platforms for talks (where possible combined with themed guided walks). Finally, several short-form articles will be submitted to relevant magazines, websites, and blogs with both niche and wider audiences outside of academia, ranging from ‘new nature writing’ and psycho-geography to walking and outdoor titles.


Allen, V and Evans, R (eds.) (2016) Roadworks: Medieval Britain, Medieval Roads (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Bell, M (2020) Making One's Way in the World: The Footprints and Trackways of Prehistoric People (Oxford: Oxbow).

Brookes, S, Rye, E and Oksanen, E (2019) Bridges of Medieval England to c.1250, Archaeological Data Service database <https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/medbridges_lt_2019/>, accessed 12/02/20.

Brown, A (1987) Fieldwork for Archaeologists and Local Historians (London: Batsford).

De Moor, D (2013) Walking Works, Walking for Health review report (The Ramblers).

Edwards, J and Hindle, P (1991) ‘The Transportation System of Medieval England and Wales’, Journal of Historical Geography, 17(2), 123-134.

Gibson, C, Cleary, L and Frieman, C (eds.) (2019) Making Journeys: Archaeologies of Mobility (Oxford: Oxbow). 

Ingold, T (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description (Abingdon: Routledge).

Leary, J (ed.) (2014) Archaeological Perspectives to Movement and Mobility (Farnham: Ashgate).

Macfarlane, R (2012) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (London: Hamish Hamilton).

Morriss, R (2005) Roads: Archaeology and Architecture (Stroud: Tempus).

Muir, R (2000) The New Reading the Landscape (Exeter: University of Exeter Press).

Papadimitriou, N (2013) Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits (London: Sceptre).

Procter, E (2019) ‘The Path to the Monastery: Monastic Communication Networks in the Southern Welsh Marches’, Landscape History, 40(1), 59-70.

Ramblers, The (2010) Walking Facts and Figures 2: Participation in Walking <https://www.ramblers.org.uk/advice/facts-and-stats-about-walking/participation-in-walking.aspx>, accessed 14/02/20.

Sen, A and Johung, J (eds.) (2016) Landscapes of Mobility. Culture, Politics, and Placemaking (Abingdon: Routledge).

Sinclair, I (2002) London Orbital (London: Granta).

Solnit, R (2002) Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London: Granta).

Taylor, C (1979) Roads and Tracks of Britain (London: Dent).

Tilley, C and Cameron-Daum, K (2017) An Anthropology of Landscape: The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (London: UCL Press).

Wylie, J (2005) 'A Single Days Walking: Narrating Self and Landscape on the South West Coast Path', Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, 30, 234-47

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Gardens where we feel secure

Glass half-full, the Covid-19 restrictions on movement coinciding with the first burst of spring present an opportunity to inhabit the topography of your own garden more profoundly than in normal times, if you are lucky enough to have outdoor space. This is always the favoured season to tidy up, prepare, potter and observe my own modest though ample plot. The fact that the family cats now have a wider right to roam than us human residents means that the garden's function as the micro-landscape of daily life is amplified as never before, its role as play area and nature haven in an urban setting intensified by the prohibition of regular wandering beyond its borders; not quite perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge's elegiac incarceration (This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison) but a welcome and welcoming open prison of greenery. As Coleridge had it, 
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to love and beauty!

We have been temporarily exiled from national parks, hills and mountains, landmark landscapes and the wider countryside, National Trust gardens are closed and even time spent in local parks and open spaces is heavily prescribed. But, whilst few of us have gardens on the scale of a Kelmscott, Sissinghurst or Great Dixster to wander whilst the day wanes, our own modest plots can provide much solace (my impression, also, is that people around here are engaging anew with the green spaces within walking distance of their homes, as the option of jumping in the car to drive out to more celebrated landscapes - or indeed to engage in more consumerist pastimes - is off limits).

I've been to a minor place
and I can say I like its face,
If I am gone and with no trace
I will be in a minor place

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - A Minor Place

Bounded ranging around this relatively small space, this minor place, allows close and regular looking with an intensity not normally available as busy lives carry us away to work and obligations and pleasure elsewhere. Rudyard Kipling was correct: 'the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.' In a previous post (The last field in England), I mused on the reward that can be gained from deep concentration on a small area of topography:
'There is something both inviting and slightly daunting in the thought of studying the micro-landscape of a single field. A small matter for a master such as Richard Jefferies who can devote a whole chapter to dwelling on the minutiae of the topography, flora and fauna of the 'homefield' in Wild Life in a Southern County, but more of a challenge to most of us, lacking the innate knowledge of the Victorian country-dwelling naturalist. Nevertheless, it is an approach that retains its appeal, witness Tim Dee's recent Four Fields, an expansive study of the geography, history, literature and ecology of varying, and admittedly atypical, areas of fields in the Fenland of Cambridgeshire, Zambia, Ukraine and Montana, USA; or The Plot by Madeleine Bunting, 'a biography of an English acre, rooting a story of family history in a very particular place' (not to be confused with Andrew Michael Hurley's novel Starve Acre, also Yorkshire-sited though a tale of obsession with a more unhallowed patch of ground). Such an approach can also be applied to a garden: a place to work, rest and observe, to tend and derive wonder.

In this garden, just beyond the confined technology and 'civilisation' of the house, everyday encounters with wildness can and do take place. The pond now teems with tiny tadpoles released from the frogspawn which appeared at the end of February (a little earlier than normal?) as it has for six or seven years now; dragon-flies to come as the water iris and marsh marigold grow. Blackbirds, blue tits, robins, great tits, goldfinches, wrens, sparrows, swifts, crows and magpies coexist in the air, on surrounding eaves and roofs, in trees and bushes; and compete with a squirrel for feeding station rations. A pair of plump pigeons nest on a meagre-looking pile of twigs in the boughs of a large pittosporum outside the landing window. Bugs, spiders and woodlice abound among the rocky and woody, damp and shady places. Ants excavate their underground citadels. Most indelibly fixed in my mind, three years ago I watched - from a social distance of two metres - a badger emerge from the wild, dark undergrowth behind the pond, lumber across the grass and cover under the silver birch and cherry tree and mosey on down the steps and across the road to an area thick with laurels edging the plot on which once stood a grand house, 'The Lawns', after which our street is named. The day before this encounter a dead hedgehog had been found on the lawn, a wound to its side: had it fallen prey to the badger, our garden a hunting haunt for 'that most ancient Briton of English beasts'? All the while a healthily-pelted fox roams at night: 'nature's own prince of the dance'. All this life in one small plot of ground in suburban Bristol.

In a recent article offering advice on growing your own in a time of enforced enclosure, with or without a garden to hand, author Richard King* affirms that 'people have always found solace in gardening and growing.' The coming weeks of protracted isolation at home are, of course, the perfect time of year to sow and nurture vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, without necessarily going full-on Cottage Economy. Time is the most important element in cultivating plants and vegetables, and time is something many of us have in abundance at the moment. Gardening is also compatible with another joy of home-steading, just sitting and watching or reading or day-dreaming.


As to those times when feelings of confinement and claustrophobia inevitably get the upper hand, a curve in a garden path, however minor the footway, can hint at physical getaway. With a squint of the eye and suspension of known reality, a new world or experience could always be just around the corner. Foot crunching on gravel, stone or stepping upon dew-wet grass can provoke muscle memory of wider open spaces, places and landscapes visited in times past or thoughts of future adventures; a trigger for mental escape beyond the house and garden walls. 

Such thoughts are also sparked by a small enclosure in the garden hosting pebbles and stone, water and sun-bleached pieces of wood picked up over many years on walks and trips and holidays. Tactile reminders transplanted from the uplands, coasts and rivers of Britain, from Iceland, Patagonia, the Alps and elsewhere. An inert hoard of place memories. (some may see this as a bad habit, such materials should not be pillaged from their natural settings; what once seemed innocent beach-combing is now rather more freighted with significance as environmentally unsound, but as bad habits go picking up the odd piece of rock or wood is, I think, still just about acceptable). Here, also, I can fancy to be amidst Derek Jarman's singular Prospect Cottage shingle-shore and driftwood garden at Dungerness, currently the subject of a fund-raising campaign to save it for the nation; that special place providing sanctuary and therapy during Jarman's own battle with a virus of his time.

As springtime progresses into summer, one piece of music that I return to is From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a beguiling piece of classical ambient English pastoral by Virginia Astley. An album containing music which, in Rob Young's words, has a 'timeless, hovering sensation'.*

In fact, the track-listing and sleeve notes alone, reproduced below, deftly prefigure the sounds and ambiance that the record harvests; bringing to mind the elegiac yet beatific Just Another Diamond Day by Vashti Bunyan or John Martyn's Small Hours, the perfect accompaniment to a dreamy spring or summer's day gloaming time in the garden before night falls.

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

With My Eyes Wide Open In Dreaming
A Summer Long Since Past
From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Hiding in the Ha-Ha

Out On The Lawn I Lie In Bed
Too Bright For Peacocks
Summer Of Their Dreams
When The Fields Were On Fire
Its Too Hot To Sleep

Richard Mabey's Nature Cure remains a seminal rumination on our physical and mental relationship with the natural world and his words towards the end of the book seem to strike a chord with our current (albeit temporary) need to seek solace in our immediate surroundings rather than grander and 'wilder' landscapes:

'I began to wonder ... if wilderness was really what I wanted ...what I missed was some common ground between the wilderness and the thoroughly domesticated, some accessible country - real and metaphysical ... I realised that what touched me most was not wilderness as a special, defined place, but the quality of wildness.' 

Hopefully we can all find a little wildness in our own gardens and home surroundings, enough to sustain us through this most strange of springs. Stay safe everyone.  

* If you are looking for some appropriate and stimulating reading whilst sitting in your garden or outdoor space (or anywhere in fact), then Richard King's The Lark Ascending and Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young will take you away to a good place, and have you searching out new sounds.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Brief thoughts on a PhD journey completed

Well its done. I've been awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy in Archaeology.

My research has ranged over landscape archaeology, landscape history, monasticism, cultural geography, psychogeography, landscape in art and literature, folklore and further afield. I've probably meandered a bit too widely. 'Deep topography' is what I call it (nicked from Papadimitriou), but that doesn't yet have much currency in academia.

Three full years of landscape contemplation in the field, on walks, at my desk. Sometimes a slog but mostly stimulating and rewarding roaming, a privilege. Followed by a strange few months when its hard to get your bearings, to know when to sit back and think 'phew, I've done it': thesis submitted, but now I need to get a job as PhD funding stops at this point; viva successful with corrections to do, but bloody hell that was a hard experience and now I've got to work on those corrections (in my spare time); corrections submitted and now another wait; examiners approve corrections, subject to formal approval; official award notification - I think this is it: the last hoop, job done. Except the graduation to come with the daft cap and gown number, but that's the 'fun' bit.   

Anyway, the thesis is available through the University of Exeter's ORE open access portal 
and the data-set appendices along with links to related articles and other stuff can also be found here. The core strands of the thesis now need to be synthesized into a long-form journal article and the data-sets lodged with the relevant Historic Environment Records.

I hope that all of this is of some use to others researching or with an interest in the historic landscape, sense of place and our complex reactions to it.  

Now my attention turns to scaling the heights of postdoc funding for a future project on paths in the landscape, to future writing projects and to my day job looking after the public footpaths of Bristol town. I might even get round to writing some more long-winded Landscapism blog posts. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The path to the monastery: monastic communication networks in the southern Welsh Marches

The Version of Record of this Author's Manuscript has been published and is available in Landscape History 2019 (40.1, pp 59-70) http://www.tandfonline.com DOI: 10.1080/01433768.2019.1600944 

This paper presents evidence, often still observable in the field, of a coherent and managed network of roads and tracks within the orbit of medieval monasteries and their estates; a component of a wider PhD research project assessing the impact of the medieval monastery on the historic landscape. A hypothesis that the topographical legacy of the monastery has remained a central element (though often hidden or unseen) of the genius loci of a study area in the southern Welsh Marches has been explored, examining how this has influenced the development, experience and remembrance of these landscapes up to the present day. 

Fig. 1: Distribution of monastic houses in the southern Welsh Marches study area (Source: map drawn by the author in ArcGIS® using Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Scale Colour Raster, 2016 and 1:5000 Historic Counties data layers, downloaded from Digimap® under licence, http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/, and Historic Counties Trust http://county-borders.co.uk/).

The area under examination here encompasses Herefordshire south of the River Wye, the Forest of Dean district of Gloucestershire and most of the historic county of Monmouthshire. This region, spanning the Anglo-Welsh border, contains a mixture of pays, of both upland and lowland, and champion and bocage landscape character and was also heavily colonized by several religious orders during the Middle Ages, as can be seen in the distribution map at Fig. 1. Within this regional geography, the Cistercian abbeys of Llantarnam and Tintern and Augustinian Llanthony Priory provide the case study landscapes for the project.

Three routeways in particular – one from each house – are described. Each has been walked by the author as part of a wider traversing of the case study terrains, deploying, in synthesis, field methods from both landscape archaeology and cultural geography - still an underutilised modus operandi in the context of historic landscape study. Such exploration on foot is partly inspired by Andrew Fleming’s (2009, 2010) walking and horse-back journeying on the Monks’ Trod long-distance road linking Strata Florida Abbey with its granges across the uplands of mid-Wales.

The problem with medieval roads
The popular view of medieval roads is that they were much like medieval life: nasty, brutish and short. Such route-ways were poorly maintained, difficult to progress along and largely restricted to relatively parochial journeying. This narrative suggests long centuries of struggling through the muddy, rutted remains of the Roman road system, waterways the preferred option for long-distance travel or bulk transport (Oram 2016, p. 303). Medieval ways, in this view, were generally not carefully planned or engineered; rather, they were more spontaneous developments, as popular routes from A to B ‘made and maintained themselves’ through use (Wright 1985, p.42). As Paul Hindle (2002, p. 6) has pointed out, ‘essentially the road was not a physical entity, a thin strip of land with definite boundaries; rather it was a right of way, an ‘easement’, with both legal and customary status’. Though constant use would often lead to a physical track developing, in many places its actual course, unconstrained by fence, hedge or wall, may not have been stable over time (Morriss 2005, p. 13). Outside of the shrinking open commons, in country where the landscape was being plotted and pieced into an increasingly enclosed tapestry of field, arable strip and coppice, many of these roadways would become narrow and sunken, surviving into modern times as the holloway ‘ghosts’ of medieval travel and transport (Muir 2004, p. 170); ‘landmarks that speak of habit rather than of suddenness … the result of repeated human actions’ (Macfarlane et al 2012, p. 3).  

Tracing the origin and line of the roads and trackways of the Middle Ages is often a difficult task. Whilst documentary evidence for medieval ways is fragmentary and incidental, the physical trace can be more substantial. Old tracks are, however, an elusive artefact, now often hard to recognise on the ground: sometimes manifest archaeologically as little-altered holloways, narrow terraces or other earthwork remains, otherwise more ‘transient drift ways’ linking farm and field only visible from aerial photography or satellite imagery, or even obliterated or much altered by subsequent generations of wayfarers and later changes in transport infrastructure, agricultural practice, enclosure and encroaching vegetation (Colyer 1984, p. 12; Hindle 2002, p6; Taylor 1979, pp.117, 119). As it is often difficult to date old trackways based on field evidence alone, documentary confirmation of medieval use (often sparse), name evidence or dated associated archaeology is needed to provide certainty, constraining the study of this important component of the medieval landscape. As a consequence, relatively little has been written about ‘where the roads were’ or identifying examples of integrated networks (Hindle 2002, p. 5). To some extent, the literature that has appeared on this subject has tended to buttress the ‘nasty and brutish’ interpretation.

Christopher Taylor’s (1979, p. 150) view, conveying almost Pythonesque medievalism, seems still to predominate: ‘any movement along medieval roads was uncomfortable at best and unbelievably difficult at worst’; but were things always this bad? An assumption of unmade and arduous ways as the medieval norm may partly be due to the aforementioned lack of study and fieldwork, limited documentary evidence and the overlay of modern roads in more recent times (Morriss 2005, p. 114). Yet communities and organisations such as the monastic orders had a motivation to maintain roads out of economic self-interest and to bolster their symbolic function as boundary features, keeping tracks in reasonable order and clear of obstruction for their day-to-day use, as will now be explored (Morriss 2005, pp. 37-8; Oram 2016, p. 306).

Following monastic routes
This paper presents examples from monastic estates to suggest that medieval abbeys and priories, powerful corporations of their time, were forging and improving communication networks across their landed possessions in a sustained and systematic way. Monastic houses would have required a network of paths and lanes for the regular movement of stock, produce, people and goods to and from geographically spread estates, farms and satellites, provincial markets, neighbouring monastic and secular nodes and so forth. They were also a focus for the regular movement of monks, ecclesiastical officials and high-status dignitaries, traders and other visitors and travellers who would need to follow such routes. Pilgrims, the poor seeking charity and other more workaday movement would have added to the ebb and flow. All the while, monasteries were engaged in expansive agricultural and industrial production to meet the needs of the conventual community, as well as trading surplus produce with the wider world (notably the export of wool). A serviceable communications network to facilitate both parochial and longer distance business and trade was essential. Social, economic, ecclesiastical and political activities were therefore a key driver in the development and usage of route-ways by monasteries throughout the countryside (Rackham 1986, p. 270). As Richard Muir (2001, p. 58) has pointed out in relation to Cistercian establishments in the north of England:
‘The members of the great Cistercian houses, and particularly the lay brethren who served them, needed to be on the move. Their granges spanned areas very much larger than most farms, whilst their far-flung estates involved them in considerable travel.’

The monastery was at the heart of a web of highways and byways. ‘Way-leave’, the right of passage, was an essential aspect of the monastic economy (Williams 2001, p. 249). For instance, many of Tintern Abbey’s charters guaranteed explicit rights of ‘a free road’, access and passage ‘free from toll’ or any other hindrance throughout the donor’s lands (Heath 1806, unpaginated; PRO 1908, p. 105). This not only made a geographically dispersed network of granges and manors feasible, but also enabled the abbey, its estates and the wider world to be physically linked by a system of travel-ways radiating out from the convent. Communication was also a factor in the strategic acquisition and consolidation of monastic estates, with holdings strung along routes to markets, coastal ports and quays (Bezant 2013, p. 137; Hindle 1998, p. 44). For example, Tintern’s Modesgate grange became a staging post on the way to and from the abbey’s Gloucestershire lands. Reached from the Abbey Passage ferry across the Wye, Modesgate was a nodal point for land routes fanning out to the abbey’s granges and further east into England. From the slipway, a well-preserved rise of pitched stone and banked path testifies to both the heavy traffic using this route and the sophistication of its construction (Fig. 2). This track then splits, the left-hand branch a broad, cobbled pathway to Brockweir grange known as the Monks’ Path; the right-hand way, Abbey Road, climbing to Modesgate via the Abbey Gate through an early-medieval earthwork associated with Offa’s Dyke (Baggs & Jurica 1996, p. 151; Morgan & Smith 1972a, p. 58; 1972b, p. 106; Thomas 1839, p. 41).1

Fig. 2: Stone-pitched track climbing from the Abbey Passage ferry at Tintern (Source: author).

Much of the monastic-era road network would have continued in use after the Dissolution, whether by the local populace or for longer-distance travel, for instance as part of drovers’ ways. Shorn of the monastic rationale for movement, however, other old tracks fell out of favour or, whilst still used for parochial traffic, declined in use and repair (Fleming 2009, pp. 83-5). There is some evidence of a significant deterioration in the general state of the road system by the end of the sixteenth century, perhaps partly explained by the fall of the monasteries which had been responsible for much of the road maintenance that had taken place; also, no doubt, due to a rapid general growth in trade and economic prosperity putting additional pressure on the network (Hindle 2002, p. 17; Morriss 2005, p. 40). During a parliamentary enquiry prior to the counties’ Turnpike Act in the mid-eighteenth century, Colonel Valentine Morris, owner of Piercefield Park south of Tintern, replied to the questions ‘what roads are there in Monmouthshire?’ with ‘None’, and ‘How then do you travel?’ with ‘In ditches’ (Taylor 1861, p. 32). The nineteenth century saw a shift, accelerated during road modernisation in the mid-twentieth century, in which previously important routes, their usage often stretching back to the Middle Ages, became marginal and eventually fell out of regular use and repair. Such ‘roads’ have in some cases been revived as walking paths or bridleways or have quietly sunk back into the landscape.

Traversing the hills to Llanthony Priory
So, to the first case study example. From historic and modern cartography, a thick spread of trackways can be traced radiating out from Llanthony Priory, deep in the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, and connecting it with its manorial hinterland of Hothneyslade and the wider communication network. The landscape inherited by the priory would have included pre-existing – often prehistoric – tracks up to and along the mountain watersheds, either from transhumance practice or long-standing trade routes, often remaining in medieval use: the path traversing the western heights of the valley was still known as the ‘great ridge road’ in the late-sixteenth century (Colyer 1984, p. 10).2 As the priory’s manorial estate evolved throughout Hothneyslade, lower-level lanes developed binding farmsteads, churches and hamlets more permanently.

In the nineteenth century, the Reverend Roberts (1846, p. 218) noted that medieval sources regularly mentioned the high route over the Hatterall ridge as ‘the ordinary way to Llanthony.’ Before alternative low-level valley routes to the south were instigated, this was the main way for most visitors and traffic from the lordship stronghold at Longtown and the priory’s many estates in Herefordshire and England more widely. The track now most used to reach the priory ruins from the ridgeway (part of the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail) is commonly called ‘the Beer Path’. Received wisdom, as oft repeated in guide books and other literary references, is that this name derives from the Welsh Rhiw Arw, originally cwrw meaning ‘ale’, a memory of the use of the path by the canons of Llanthony to transport ale (Hurley 2010, p. 91; Sinclair 2001, p. 313; Watkins 2005, p. 51). This, though, is a cautionary tale of the risk of misinterpreting names in the landscape. Rhiw Cwrw (‘ale pass’) is, in fact, an ancient naming of the saddle over which the way from Longtown, bastion of the de Lacy Marcher Lords and benefactors of the priory, climbs from the other side of the Hatterall ridge. Rhiw Cwrw was first recorded in the eighth century, in the Book of Llandaff, and so the name pre-dates the priory by at least several centuries (Coplestone-Crow 1989, p. 56; Wedell 2008, unpaginated). The Beer Path descending to the priory seems latterly to have taken on an Anglicised version of this old name, so giving rise to the story of monks carrying ale along this trail (Hando 1944, p. 91). That its line reaches the priory enclosure via a nondescript field path crossing its northern boundary rather than arriving at the gatehouse to the south is also problematic if it is to be considered monastic. A more likely origin is as a rhiw or drift road used by farmers to move stock up and down from the common upland grazing.

Fig. 3: Route of the Old Roadway to Llanthony Priory annotated by the author on a vertical aerial photograph (Source: © Crown copywrite, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales, 1975, DI2007_1170 75.039-014).

Fieldwork for this project has identified a now-disused track (prominent in the aerial photograph at Fig. 3) charting a gentler course down slope of and parallel with the Beer Path as the likely main medieval approach to the priory from the Hatterall ridgeways. Its lower portion, Old Roadway on the tithe map, is now in part a deeply-incised and overgrown sunken way: one of ‘the deep holloways that seam the landscape’ in Robert Macfarlane’s (Macfarlane et al 2012, p. 4) words, arcing into the approach lane to the priory, elsewhere a broad drove-way now cut by watered gulleys.3 As it climbs the hillside, the track crosses a stream at which the remains of a rudimentary stone bridge, medieval in form, can be observed (Andrew Fleming pers. comment). It then rises to run with and cross the post-medieval ‘parish road’ travelling along the eastern flank of the valley before ascending the upper heights of the hillside to switchback and meet the way to Longtown at a crossroads with the ridgeway on the Rhiw Cwrw col. 

Here the track also runs close to the ruined farmstead of Footway before climbing more steeply to the ridge, the name a memory of the passing routeway, literally the ‘foot of the way’ or perhaps derived from ffordd meaning ‘road’. A 1679 manorial court entry records that ‘we find that the way leading from Lanthony to Footway … find it only a bridleway’: an indication of the diminished status and poor state of this previously important monastic circuit, perhaps now only used as a farmer’s rhiw to the high pasture.4 The centre of gravity had by then long shifted from movement between the priory and the old Longtown seat of the de Lacys to Llanvihangel Crucorney to the south, home of the Arnold family, secular lords of Llanthony’s local estates after the priory’s demise.
William of Wycombe’s5 12th century Mirror of the Life of prior Robert de Béthune provides a visceral recounting of the prior’s journey by night over the Hatterall ridge from Longtown, via this track:
‘When he arrived at the foot of the mountain they call Hattarell night had already shut in the day … He ascends slowly, sounding the road with his staff … And now at last he attains the summit of the mountain, where the upright shaft of a cross offers a place of rest … Rising from his resting place, he attempts the descent of the mountain, which he finds to be even more severe than the ascent … The benighted guest knocks at the door of the porter’s lodge, is recognised, and admitted’ (Roberts 1846, pp. 214-5).

Further fieldwork has identified the earth-banks and stonework of an engineered terrace-way descending to Llanthony from Bal-bach on the opposite side of the valley down the steep gully of Cwm-bwchel. This track, lined with significant segments of the relict stone slabs and revetment walling of its construction, connected with both the ‘Great ridge road’ along the western elevation of the valley and a route, Rhiw Pyscod (‘fish track’), over the Black Mountains to Llangorse Lake in Brecknockshire on which the canons had fishing rights; the track used to deliver live fish wrapped in wet rushes to the priory fishponds (Procter 2012, p. 103; Roberts 1846, p. 233).

Some old ‘ways’ to Tintern Abbey
Now turning southwards down the lower Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey, at the apex of a web of land and water communication (Fig. 4). Several land routes radiated out south-westwards from the Great Gatehouse to the abbey’s Monmouthshire estates, connecting with other recorded medieval ways. What is now a minor lane runs from the gate before dividing into the Long Way path via Ruding grange and the Stony Way over the high Porthcasseg plateau: these were alternative routes to the key demesne grange at Rogerstone, the lordship hub of Chepstow and the abbey’s Severn-shore holdings.

Fig. 4: Medieval routeways around Tintern Abbey and its Wye Valley estates (Source: map drawn by the author in ArcGIS® using Ordnance Survey 1:10560 County Series 1st edition, Monmouthshire, 1887 and Gloucestershire, 1889 data layer, downloaded from Digimap® under licence, http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/).

‘The way leading from the abbey … which is called Stony Way’, first recorded in 1451, was a major cobbled lane, its surface still substantially in place in parts, climbing a narrow valley southward towards Porthcasseg and presumed by Welsh Cistercian historian David Williams (1976, p. 134) to be a ‘monastic enterprise’ (Bond 2010, p. 294; Bradney 1993, p. 256) (Fig. 5). Before cutting through a limestone cleft, the way commences as a track divided from a parallel stream by a stone revetment, morphing into a deep-banked holloway running on to the metalled lane passing Porthcasseg Farm and down to the medieval vill of St. Arvans. On a visit to Tintern in 1795, the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge experienced a floundering night-time return from a long day out, down the steep and rocky Stony Way (Matheson undated, unpaginated). A decade later Charles Heath (1806, unpaginated) walked the way, described as the ‘foot road from Tintern to Chepstow’, now reduced to a narrow and rough byway through encroaching woods.

Fig. 5: The Stony Way, climbing away from Tintern Abbey (Source: author).

A level and more circuitous passage to St. Arvans was followed by the Long Way, recorded in the mid-fifteenth century, which tracked a course along a narrow shelf between the Wye and looming limestone cliffs avoiding the steep climb up and over the shoulder of Gaer Hill and a sharp descent to the abbey.6 This was a better prospect for heavier loads or during inclement weather. Footways charted on a 1763 estate map form a shadowy trace of the way.7 Its previously unrecorded course, following Public Rights of Way and disused embanked terrace-ways through the woods of the Wye Valley, has been retraced on the ground during this project. The early-nineteenth century turnpike road through the valley which became the modern A466 was cut through the precipitous Black Cliff and Wyndcliff, parallel with, and in places overlying, the old monastic track. Prior to the coming of this ‘new terrace’ road, the narrow and meandering Long Way had seemingly long ceased to be used as a through way to Tintern.

From St. Arvans southwards past Rogerstone grange, these two tracks joined to become the Lodeway running south-west to link with highways to Tintern’s estates in the Caldicot Levels (Williams 1999, p. 27). There are some hints of road maintenance: in 1440 Porthcasseg tenants were admonished and fined for not repairing stretches of the Lodeway between St. Arvans, Rogerstone and Itton which may have been paved (Williams 1990, p. 27; 1999, p. 27). Lodeway intrigues as a toponym with various possible origins. Lode is a place-name element denoting several Severn ferry crossings and may indicate the way taken to a landing-point on the navigable estuary. Other possible derivations are from the Old English lad denoting a watercourse or drainage channel, perhaps signifying the route to the abbey’s reclaimed and ditched holdings on the Levels, or lodes, a south-west English term for veins or strata of minerals (Gelling & Cole 2003, p. 82; Mills 1995, p. 214; Raistrick 1972, p. 21). W.H. Thomas (1839, p. 14) mentions local ‘lodes’ of limestone in the nineteenth century and the naming could be for the transport of lime or iron ore, for which there is some evidence of medieval mining on the abbey’s estates.

Walking with pilgrims from Llantarnam Abbey
Finally, a walk with pilgrims from Llantarnam Abbey on the north-west frontier of the Anglo-Norman Marcher lands in south-east Wales: a track given the modern appellation of ‘Pilgrims’ Way’ was part of an important medieval pilgrimage route to the shrine of the Virgin Mary and healing well at the abbey’s Penrhys grange, 30 miles west above the Rhondda. Penrhys was popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, becoming one of the most revered wells in Wales and attracting pilgrims from ‘over sea and land’ (Hurlock 2013, pp. 122-3; Ward 1914, p. 357).

The journey from Llantarnam was an arduous one across high country via St Derfel's chapel, high on the shoulder of Mynydd Maen, to reach the shrine atop a ridge known as Craig Rhiw Mynach (‘rock of the monks’ road’). Madeleine Gray (1997, pp. 10-11, 26) has retraced its likely line – in part probably prefigured by well-established old ways contouring the hillsides to avoid the more difficult terrain of the valley floor or exposed ridge-tops – based on contemporary descriptions, local tradition, the position of wayside chapels and paths and roads in the modern historic landscape. Llantarnam was a gathering point, providing a guesthouse, advice and provisions for those setting out for Penrhys (Gray 1997, p. 11). From the gatehouse, the route passed along the old abbey approach from Llanfihangel Llantarnam village, its meandering line then traceable on the ground through the modern Cwmbrân townscape and up to Llanderfel.

Fig. 6: Quartz conglomerate blocks lining Hollow Lane up to Llanderfel, part of the pilgrims’ way from Llantarnam Abbey (Source: author).

Passing the long-gone Scybor Cwrt grange along what is now the modern Llantarnam Road, pilgrims climbed a low rise to the purported wayside chapel at St. Dial’s along a still-extant lane (Gray 1997, p. 25). A disused holloway with signs of cobbling below its surface, declining to a series of footpaths and relict features through 1970s housing, now carries the walker along the manor and parish boundary (Logan 2009, pp. 6-7). A further section of deeply sunken way, Hollow Lane, then ascends the steepening slopes of Mynydd Maen before sharply dog-legging south to follow another depressed lane to the old grange of Llanderfel and the ruins of St. Derfel’s chapel. The pilgrims’ way ascends a further deep hollow above the chapel site, known as the Slippery Way, and then follows a hillside shelf to progress to the Ebbw valley and onward trails to Penrhys and the abbey’s more far-flung estates and granges (Dovey and Waters 1956, p. 76; Gray 1997, p. 21). Hollow Lane is lined with large quartz conglomerate boulders won from a band of outcropping geology, known locally as ‘pudding stones’, which, it has been suggested, may have been waymarkers for pilgrims (Burchell 2011, pp. 4, 33; Middleton 2011, p. 3) (Fig. 6). It is notable that such stones have been used for walling and revetments alongside many other local tracks, as boundary stones, in buildings and field walls, perhaps cause for scepticism that they were specifically used to demarcate the pilgrim route.

Although the post-suppression owner of Llantarnam and its estates, William Morgan, a recusant Catholic, encouraged the continuation of pilgrimage to the shrine after the Dissolution, the volume of wayfarers soon sharply declined (Hurlock 2013, pp. 123, 127). With improving low-level valley roads, mountain circuits such as the Pilgrims’ Way over Mynydd Maen transitioned into byways for stock movement and other local flows. The physical footprint of the pilgrims’ route from the abbey towards the mountain was further diminished by the urban development of Cwmbrân new town, though it can still be tracked through the townscape by the keen-eyed; for instance, in a disused hollow section unconsciously retained in a corridor of open space between housing estates.

Discussion and conclusion
In Francis Pryor’s (2010, p. 280) words, ‘far from representing a retreat from the cares of daily life, the monasteries of the Middle Ages were important catalysts of change and regional development.’ It’s not hard to imagine that the effort, resources and planning that went into building the monastery and developing expansive agricultural holdings and trading networks would also be channeled into the important routeways bonding the house with these estates and the outside world to ensure safe and efficient ease of passage. The engineered ways discussed here and many other examples in the case study areas, banked or hollowed depending on the terrain and with much evidence of cobbled and stone surfaces, testify to this truism. As with Andrew Fleming’s (2009, 2010) findings on studying the Monks Trod and other Strata Florida routes, the evidence suggests an often-underestimated level of sophistication and investment in medieval road construction and maintenance. The monastery, at least in its more stable periods, providing institutional continuity, revenue, know-how and labour.  Sustained and heavy use of these roads and paths during the longue durée of the monastic community and economy, even where pre-existing ways were co-opted, would have seen significant construction, improvement, wear and repair across the network.     

Spotlighting and recreating these trackways resets conventional patterns of ‘fixed’ landscape features linked simply by lines on a map, foregrounding considerations of movement and methods of communication (Reynolds 2009, pp. 420-423). Recognition of the multiple meanings of these shared ways also dawns: to connect but also to mark and codify the landscape and people’s interaction within it: ‘the integration of key topographical points – such as boundaries, river crossings and crossroads – helped structure and give spiritual context to the ordinary aspects of everyday life’ as people moved about the landscape (Whyte 2009, p. 29). Travelling through, for instance, the Abbey Gate on the way to the Wye ferry to Tintern representing not just a waymark en route to the abbey but also a passing from the open forest of Tidenham Chase into prescribed monastic land. In the hills west of Llantarnam, the difficulty of the terrain on the pilgrim way to the Penrhys shrine was leavened by wayside chapels such as St. Derfels, but also an important component of the spiritual journey itself (Gray 2011, p. 245). As such ways spread out from the monastery, they also took on a geo-political role: linking economically and strategically important places, acting as both ‘instruments of elite control’ for the ecclesiastical and political class and safe space in sometimes bleak and hostile landscapes (Altenberg 2001, p. 109; Fleming 2009, p. 83).

The monastic trods and trackways introduced here help to challenge received wisdom that pre-modern roads were uniformly primitive, difficult and very much non-permanent. Trade, high-status visitors, pilgrims and local traffic became the multiple catalysts for a named and marked, maintained and managed system of transit and safe passage. A transition from general directions of travel into defined, maintained and named roads and footways can be heralded as a key topographical legacy of the monastic era (Colyer 1984, p. 61; Moorhouse 1989, p. 59). Though many of these trackways enter the documentary record in the post-medieval period, the network – like the roads of the Roman times – was by then declining into a new ‘Dark Age’ of neglect and forgetting, as after the Dissolution former monastic estates reverted to out-of-the-way backwaters once more; still lining the landscape but no longer hubs of travel and commerce, their busy, strategic, symbolic past falling out of memory. As the poet Edward Thomas (2004, p. 96) would have it, ‘roads go on, while we forget.’

1     1. Gloucestershire Archives, Tidenham (Wollaston and Lancaut) Inclosure Map and Apportionment, 1815, Q/R1/144.
2    2. Harley Archive, Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, Cwmyoy Manor Court Baron, 1567-1754, 17/28/5.
    3. National Library of Wales (NLW), Cwmyoy (Lower Divisions) Tithe Map and Apportionment Schedule: Map 2 of the Parish of Cwmyoy in the County of Monmouth, 1852.
4    4. NLW, Cwmyoy Manor Court Book, 1665-1775, National Library of Wales, 1184.
5    5. William of Wycombe was chaplain to Prior Robert in 1127, rising to become the fourth prior of Llanthony himself from 1137-47.
6    6. NLW, Porthcasseg Manor Court Book, 1262-1714 (incomplete), Badminton Papers Vol III Monmouthshire, p34-59, 1657.
7    7. NLW, A Plan of the Estates of His Grace the Duke of Beaufort in the Manor of Portcassegg, 1763, Badminton Vol. 2 143/1/1.

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