Hollow Ways: where the wild things were

I learned something new today. “Holloways”. From the Anglo-Saxon “hola weg”, meaning a “harrowed path,” a “sunken road”, they date from at least 300 years ago, many going back as far as the Iron Age

They started life as either drove trails used to move cattle and other animals from farms to markets, routes from inland to the sea ports, pilgrimage routes, or simply boundary ditches.

Most would have initially been at ground level but centuries of use eroded the surface creating a ditch which was deepened by more traffic & by water running off the land as ditch became at times a river & became as deep as 30 feet creating in effect gorges rather than paths.

Strangely,I grew up with these but never knew what they were.I called them “green tunnels” & I still dream about them sometimes. Sunken lanes are a characteristic feature of the landscape of southern England, esp in chalky areas.

Hell Lane, Symondsbury

Hell Lane is one of the most impressive & interesting. To walk from the ridge down to North Chideock is a bit like walking a shallow river bed! You can imagine how the heavy carts running between quarry & village would have considerably deepened that track

The Winneford Valley

Now part of the Monarch’s Way, that climbs from North Chideock, through the Winneford Valley up over Coppet Hill

In places they are 18ft beneath the level of the fields and exhibit grotesque and wild appearances ‘These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above.’ (Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, 1788).

To enter these holloways, White said, was to access a world of deep history, an unexpectedly wild world, buried amid the familiar and close-at-hand

Being too narrow for modern needs, and too deep to be filled in, they are a rare surviving feature of our ancient landscape

The poet John Clare lamented the loss of paths and sunken lanes in his poems, for example in this opening passage from ‘Enclosure’:

They can also be found in France. A hollow way (chemin creux) at La Meauffe, Manche; Ille-et-Vilaine, Bretagne; and Nantes

The word lives on, as a surname, district of London, and street name.

They also inspired a book which my friend says is excellent, Holloway by Robert MacFarlane. Guardian review

Thanks to sources:






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